Abhishek Singhvi. And lessons from the third eye

The Abhishek Manu Singhvi CD throws up a 21st century conundrum of the many ways we can use and abuse the hidden camera

April 28, 2012 in Columns
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Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

THE THIRD Eye has always been exalted in Hindu mythology as the domain of Shiva, the meditative one. A capacity for supranatural sight acquired after strenuous penance. A tool fit only for the initiated. In the 21st century, however, the Third Eye has been democratised. Technology has ensured everyone can now look beyond the surface truth. Ordinary citizens have been gifted the capacity for extraordinary sight — without the mental rigour that should go with it. This is both supremely empowering and supremely dangerous.

On the upside, the inherent potency is inarguable. As vehicles to enforce transparency and expose the corrupt, hidden cameras, mobile phones, MMSes and the lightning spread of the net — the 21st century equivalents of the Third Eye — are probably more effective than any other institution of democracy. This technology has no masters, no gatekeepers. If anything can be a curb on the exercise of unbridled power, this is it.

But the controversy over the Abhishek Manu Singhvi CD is also proof of the downside. Never, in the history of the world, has the ordinary, many-layered business of human life been more vulnerable to intrusive prying. Never has the idea of private lives been made more precarious. Even totalitarian regimes had to rely on imperfect networks of human spies. Today all anyone needs is a button-sized lens.

If reports are to be believed, the Singhvi CD shows the senior advocate and Congress leader allegedly having a relationship with a peer in his chamber. Singhvi, who has got a restraining order from the Delhi High Court prohibiting any media from broadcasting the content of the tape, has claimed in his petition that the CD was fabricated by his disaffected driver Mukesh Lal as a form of blackmail. Lal, in turn, has admitted he circulated the tape because he was miffed with Singhvi for being a niggardly paymaster and, more mystifyingly, because his wife was bitten by Singhvi’s dog.

TEHELKA, which, in a sense, pioneered the use of the sting camera in India, has always considered it an extremely moral tool, to be used very judiciously, only in extraordinary circumstances, and only in high public interest. Is this where the democratised Third Eye, unlatched from moral frameworks — unlatched from the questions of who should use it, when, and for what — will lead us?

No matter what voyeuristic glee it might provide, it is important to remember that what happened with Singhvi could easily happen to anyone. Over the last few years, several young actresses and experimenting school-girls have been deeply mortified — some of them rendered suicidal — as mobile phone cameras have caught them in private moments and viralled their lives out nude for prurient viewing. Can a hidden eye in the hands of a traitorous boyfriend, a blackmailing driver or a political opponent pass for legitimate public discourse?

Such pervasive and indiscriminate intrusion into private lives can end in only two places: both badly. Either we will become a brazen, hard-nosed society, completely inured to exposure of any kind. Or else we will morph into a narrow-minded, hyper moralistic people, continually shocked by the business of love and life.

OVER THE past few days, both the Singhvi CD and the court’s restraining order have triggered a heated debate. The question everyone is asking is, is this a muzzling of press freedom? Dozens of viewers have called television channels to say the media should not be stopped from exposing corruption. Unfortunately, this seems a rather misplaced and confused debate. The crucial questions to be asked is: what constitutes public interest in the first place? Are Singhvi’s — or any other politicians’ — alleged sexual affairs the same as exposing corruption? Have the courts ever really embargoed the media from exposing corruption?

The moot point is, while it is true that absolute press freedom should be non-negotiable in a democracy, there has to be some parameters that mark what journalism is.

TEHELKA has no means of authenticating the Singhvi CD, but the first question that arises is, if this is all there is to it, why should its alleged content be fair game for public viewing? The Indian media has always had a rich tradition of staying away from the private lives of public figures. Unless we want to ape the hypocritical and infantile norms of the US or the tabloid culture of the UK, sex between consenting adults cannot be a crime in any mature society. A sexual encounter — even in the case of a public official — should be deemed worthy of public interest only if there is coercion, a complaint from the woman, or a misuse of power and influence.

The significant question, in the case of Singhvi, should have been, was there any misuse of his public position? There are allegations doing the rounds that the CD not only contains personal and intimate moments, but also has some material which suggests misuse of power and authority. So the question that needs to be asked is, has there been any professional impropriety or attempt on Singhvi’s part to subvert due process? After all he is not just an ordinary advocate. Besides being one of the leading and most expensive lawyers in the country, he is also a powerful politician, Rajya Sabha member and Chairman of the Standing Committee on the Lokpal Bill.

If true, the offer of unconstitutional intervention in a professional situation ought to be the real ground for condemnation and disciplinary action against Singhvi – separate from the allegedly prurient circumstances in which he may have made them. It is on this that the media ought to pin him down, even while it agrees to eschew the titillation. If it had offered to do that, the court would have had less ground to order a stay.

AS TECHNOLOGY blurs the boundaries of traditional journalism and makes it easy for everyone to play detective, jury and judge, it is important to remind oneself of foundational clarities. The idea of “public interest” has crystal contours. It refers to the exposure of any misuse of public office, power or money. It pertains to any issue or figure that can cause damage to the common good or violate the plural and secular fabric of the nation. It is devoid of any vested interest. And it keeps itself stitched to two lodestars: the Constitution and the unassailable values of justice, freedom and equity.

Going by these parameters, the Singhvi CD serves up one more conundrum. One could argue that the court’s stay order does not infringe on journalistic freedom because the sting camera that caught Singhvi in flagrante was not part of a journalistic exercise in the first place, undertaken to expose some known or habitual wrong-doing. It was not a scooped official document. Nor was it the work of a high-minded whistle-blower wanting to expose some insider corruption or miscarriage of justice. Rather, masterminded by an angry employee, the intent of the sting was blackmail.

Can such a CD be a legitimate and reliable source for journalists?

The intent of the sting was not a journalistic exercise to expose corruption, but blackmail

Going by its own moral barometer, TEHELKA would probably have said no. But it would have taken other, perhaps equally, important lessons from the angry driver. For one thing, clearly, even if only out of self-preservation rather than out of noble ideas of fair play, it is time wealthy urban Indians started taking better care of their workers.

For Singhvi and for millions of others like him then, in the end, the most profound cautionary tale of the CD could be this: it does not pay to be a wealthy man with a niggardly heart.

If you are, in more ways than one, the Third Eye will open and burn you down.

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