Ranjona Banerji: Sushant Singh coverage: Gossip, Muck & Gutter Journalism

31 Jul,2020

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Tabloid, yellow, gutter journalism have a long, if dubious, role in the history of journalism. So have salacious gossip, satire, lampooning and anger. In India, we have not really had the depths of either – not the sort of “Two-headed woman gives birth to three-headed goat” National Enquirer type headline nor the phone-hacking and other transgressions of the News of the World. Except on the fringes of journalism. Muck and smut magazines sold furtively at AH Wheeler stands at railway stations might make the cut. Anyone remember them? The magazines and AH Wheeler stands I mean.

 

The sort of gossip which Indian film magazines write or wrote – and I mean really from long before the PR industry took control of all “glamour” journalism with the active collusion of media owners – has nothing on what celebrities across the world still have to put up with. The joy of reading through Neeta’s Natter – and my Mother did not allow me to read Stardust until I was about 14 – was because it was wicked and suggestive and often very funny. But not quite the current level of viciousness.

 

But catching, even on the edge of my attention, the sort of coverage which the very sad death by suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has got, I wonder where we are. It’s been over a month since he died and quite frankly, television channels and social media are milking his death for whatever they can. The Mumbai-based film industry has helped with its allegations of nepotism and its confrontational groupings. People have used Rajput’s death to fight other battles and some media outlets have taken full advantage of that.

This is a self-feeding self-perpetuating game and what I am going to say will be unpleasant to some: news-watchers and readers love this. It gives them vicarious and real pleasure. The enormous hold of the glamour world over popular culture and popular imagination is partly because of this sort of salacious gossip and muck.

The high moral ground of social media and the completely justifiable anger at this sort of bottom-feeding journalism is fully understandable though. Rajput’s death has been used to extremes, often one suspects because several TV channels want to deflect from the very serious problems facing Indian society right now. It is much easier to speculate on the role of black magic (I am not making this up) in Rajput’s death, come up with unsubstantiated and ignorance-laced mental health questions, pit girlfriends former and current against each other, and blame gossip items in newspapers than do any real journalism. Inevitably, in today’s India, the politics of right versus left versus centre has also entered this battle in ways that are too convoluted and entangled to fully understand or explain.

The narrative of nepotism being “responsible” has added nothing to the mourning of the actor’s death nor to the investigation. It has only allowed a number of players to accuse each other, to air out their own anger and issues with the film industry and take potshots at those whom they dislike or have a bone to pick with. This is excellent fodder for media outlets which have gone to town on this. The “nepotism” fight in Bollywood has beaten the virus, the economy and Chinese excursions into our land for some news channels.

Unfortunately, the police investigating this death by suicide appear to have fallen into this trap as well, getting carried away by infighting and gossip. And this has fed into the toxic murk around this case.

Sadly, the gossip storm and the interest will pass. The death will become a footnote in history, the TV channels will move on, the fierce mudslinging within the film industry will subside for now.

Neither Rajput’s “fans” nor his “friends” in Bollywood have done anything other than given TV channels some filth to play with and forever soil his memory.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal. She tweets at @ranjona

 

 

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