Redefining public space

Ushering in the age of portable new publics

Recently, I was invited to speak at a seminar about ‘Media in the Market Place versus Media in the Public Sphere’, which gave me a chance to interrogate the limitations and possibilities of both "public" and "market" in relation to the preposition "versus". While I was thinking through the two words, I received an email from a former student of mine working for a leading television production company. The mail read as follows:

"Dear Shohini,

I am going crazy working in a news channel… not that it’s not good work. But there is a lot of false glamour attached to a job on television. Apparently [Channel X] is the number one channel… I don’t believe the TRP game since the entire thing is lopsided. But anyway, having said that, all the creative, experimental ideas are now being shelved because they fail to generate numbers for the channel. And being [Channel X] there is focus first on profit and then if there is scope for creativity, they’ll give it a go! I did, early in the channel, get an opportunity to do a lot of exciting things but the days of glory are officially over and a lot of saleable things are being solicited. Unfortunately, I know that channels are not meant to be creative, they are mostly commercial. And my expecting something outstanding from a news channel is immature."

This email is typical of the emails that I receive almost every week from former students who have found employment with various television channels jostling to become number one in the TRP (television rating points) race. The email sums up perfectly the compulsions and aspirations of media in the marketplace. But I must clarify at the outset that my critique and reservations about the corporate media never makes me nostalgic for a pre-liberalisation era when the state had monopoly over the airwaves. Doordarshan’s political dishonesty combined with its spectacular lack of imagination is a chapter that needs firmly to be put in the past.

But both Doordarshan and the corporate media have used the term "public" to justify their politics and functioning. Doordarshan’s selective reporting and repressive culture was perpetuated in the name of "public interest" while corporate television claims to cater to "public demands" as testified by TRPs. Both state and corporate media liberally use terms like "public concern", "public issue", "public interest", "public service" and "public morality".

In the last decade, "public interest" has been cited as the guiding principle behind corporate media’s spectacular intrusion into private spaces through "sting operations" using hidden cameras and a range of entrapment strategies. The most high profile sting operation, Operation West End, was conducted by the web portal, Tehelka, where hidden cameras and ‘set-ups’ were used to ‘expose’ corruption in defence deals.

Two journalists posing as agents from a fictitious arms company called West End hawked a non-existent product to the defence ministry and paid money to the president of the (ruling) BJP, bureaucrats and army men in order to push the deal through. All transactions were recorded on spy cams and the footage was released at a press conference. Operation West End created a sensation and came to be reported widely in the print and electronic media.

Tarun Tejpal, editor of the web portal, Tehelka, and mastermind behind Operation West End, justified the use of spy cams by insisting that "extraordinary circumstances demanded extraordinary means" and argued that by exposing corruption in defence deals Tehelka had served "public" and "national interest". Unfortunately, the extraordinary means did not yield extraordinary results as the "entrapped" politicians went largely unpunished and were eventually reinstated in public life. Tehelka, on the contrary, had to provide lengthy explanations to the enquiry commission appointed to investigate the Tehelka exposé until finally the web portal had to be shut down.

The spate of sting operations that followed amply illustrated the lack of consensus in interpreting "public interest". In 2005, India TV conducted a "sting operation" to prove the existence of the ‘casting couch’ in the Bombay film industry. A 21-year-old reporter pretending to be an aspiring starlet solicited the mentorship of Shakti Kapoor (best known for playing the villain in Bombay films) to make a career in films. She pursued the actor, invited him to a room and offered him a drink. Predictably, Shakti Kapoor offered his mentorship in exchange for sexual favours at which point the ‘hidden’ camera crew barged in, claiming to have "exposed" the "casting couch" and the "sexual exploitation" of young women in the film industry.

Even a cursory telling of the story reveals how flawed the ‘rationale’ for such an exercise is. Coercion and violation of consent are central to the definition of harassment, none of which existed in this case. This was a case of two consenting adults agreeing to indulge in unethical business practices of which the exchange of sexual favours was a part. Moreover, corruption, unethical negotiations, the exchange of favours (both material and sexual), are not exclusive to the entertainment industry but rampant in all professions and institutions including supposedly ‘respectable’ professions like law, medicine, education and even journalism! Money, privilege and sexual favours have always been staple ingredients of bribery and corruption. Consequently, the sting operation achieved nothing apart from making invasion of privacy synonymous with the ‘right to know’.

During a recent debate on the ethics of using hidden cameras, Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal wrote, "Every responsible journalist believes that stings should not cross into private lives" and that "every sting should be tested on the anvil of public interest". Were we to take stock of the entire gamut of sting operations carried out after Operation West End, we would find them to be poised precariously between private lives and perceived public interest. Where does public interest end and private life begin? For instance, does the planting of spy cams in the homes of public officials constitute public interest or violation of privacy? The line between the two is as slippery as the one that divides pornography from erotica. As the old saying goes, "what I like is erotica and what you like is pornography."

We need to remember that the acceptability of such intrusive strategies in the name of investigative journalism comes from being embedded in a larger culture of surveillance that has become endemic to our urban existence. Security cameras in public and private spaces, wiretapping, citizen journalists brandishing phone cams, information supplied to banks and credit card companies, and legislations like TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) routinely violate our privacy. Research done by friends at Sarai: the Old and New Media Centre in Delhi reports that the Ministry of Home Affairs has a proposal for a multi-purpose national identity card system that will probably house the largest collection of biometric data the world has seen and will include information on health, medical services, education, lifestyle, economic status and transactions, fingerprints and retinal scans. It will not be long before we hand over to the state an enormous slice of our private lives imagining that we have "nothing to hide". The long shadow of surveillance will soon be cast over the many overlaps between our private lives and public selves.

Most importantly, private spaces are not just for the playing out of personal lives but are integral to the nurturing of political thought and the contemplation of social action. Take, for instance, the attempt to stifle the circulation of Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), Sanjay Kak’s new documentary on the Kashmir crisis. On July 27, 2007 the Mumbai police stopped a preview of the film for an invited audience at the Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan in Prabhadevi.

Notwithstanding irate protests from the audience, the police seized and confiscated copies of the DVD. Next, they issued a notice to Prithvi Theatre where a subsequent preview had been scheduled, warning them of consequences were they to show the film. The justification for this unwarranted intervention arrived in the form of a letter dated July 29 that senior inspector of the Dadar police station, MG Sankhe, wrote to Sanjay Kak. Quoting Section 7 of the Cinematograph Act in defence of the seizure, the letter directs Kak to apply for a censor certificate because "the film contains inflammatory and provocative scenes based on terrorism in Kashmir". It further states that "there are certain scenes that are objectionable and if the said film is shown to public (sic), it may create law and order problem".

Jashn-e-Azadi has had a number of previews across the country and has not caused any "law and order" problems. Made over two years, the 139-minute documentary is a meditation on the political crisis that has gripped the valley for over a decade and is an articulation of the disillusionment and alienation that the Kashmiri people feel at this historical juncture. One may reasonably ask why Sanjay Kak is being difficult and not applying for a censor certificate. The answer is obvious. He will never get one. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) will insist on cuts that would defeat the very purpose of the film. Besides, the granting of a censor certificate would not guarantee safety for either film or filmmaker.

The extra-legal censoring of Deepa Mehta’s Fire despite a censor certificate is one such instance. The "law and order" argument has always functioned as a veiled threat. Paraphrased, it means, "If some individual or group does not agree with your work and puts your life and work in danger, don’t count on us for protection. On the contrary, we may press criminal charges against you for causing such inconvenience." This argument is akin to the ‘tight-sweater excuse’ that sexual harassers resort to when they declare that the victim of harassment "had asked for it". Painter MF Husain and more recently, writer Taslima Nasreen, are victims of this twisted logic.

In the last decade, documentary filmmakers have persistently campaigned against censorship, and demanded an urgent review and amendment to the Cinematograph Act under which the CBFC was set up in 1952. The three amendments urgently proposed have a direct bearing on the Jashn-e-Azadi case. The first proposed amendment seeks to make the CBFC an autonomous body free from the stranglehold of the government. The second amendment demands that the CBFC have powers of certification (through ratings and classifications) and not the power to censor. The third and most urgent amendment proposes that non-commercial public screenings be decriminalised.

According to the existing law, screening a film without a censor certificate, even within educational institutions, classrooms, clubs or private gatherings, is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment (for up to three years) and a minimum fine of one lakh rupees. All three amendments are long overdue and essential for upholding the constitutional right of free expression. Demanding the decriminalisation of non-commercial public screenings will be an important step in creating a strong civil society that is not threatened by cultural experimentation, dissident expression or new and outrageous ideas.

The 21st century confronts us with both utopian and dystopian possibilities around the access and circulation of information. The dystopian impulse of allowing our lives to be subject to increasing censorship and surveillance needs to be resisted by the creation of "new publics" that lie outside state control and corporate interests. These new publics may not reside within concrete venues but may appear anywhere, albeit temporarily, as people and ideas converge.

Take the independent documentary film, for instance. In the absence of television broadcasts and theatrical releases, documentary films are screened in spaces where people and ideas converge and "new publics" are born. These new publics are created, dismantled and endlessly recreated in a multitude of spaces as the documentary film travels from one place to another.

The power and potential of this new public was not lost on those who stopped the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi. Which is all the more reason why we should fight for our right to occupy such spaces. This holds true for all writers, artists and media practitioners whose work may not find circulation through mainstream distribution channels. Every film, media product or artwork should be able to carry with it possibilities of its own exhibition and circulation.

The age of portable new publics has finally arrived.

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Media



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