I don’t know if you’ve noticed but something different is happening to English news TV in India. The best way to recognize the change is to look at what the channels were doing ten years ago and to then look at today’s formats. Read more
Last week, I wrote about Mick Jagger’s experiences with The News of the World. This week, I’m going to recount another story – about how the British tabloids treated the most famous woman in the world.
I’m recalling these stories because – judging by the way people are reacting to the current British phone hacking scandal – it seems to me that we in India don’t fully understand the nature of the British tabloid press. At some level, we act as though the tabloids are like our own newspapers. In fact, British tabloids could not be further removed from Indian papers (or American papers, for that matter) or even, from Britain’s broadsheet press (The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, etc.)
Britain’s tabloids do not work on the same assumptions as most of the world’s press. On any given day, their news judgment will be dramatically different from that of any broadsheet paper anywhere in the world.
Let’s take one instance. Assume that an actor in India’s top-rated TV show came out as gay. If this news made the Indian papers, it would be in one of the city supplements. In Britain it would take over the entire front page of every tabloid, for several days.
When tabloids are so obsessed with the personal lives of celebrities, it is almost inevitable that they will try and invade their privacy to get more details of their personal lives. That’s when the methods that are now being discussed – the hiring of private detectives, the tapping of phones, the hacking of messages etc – are put to use.
The problem is that until this scandal broke, readers were often unaware of the extent to which tabloid editors took recourse to what are called the dark arts. They had no idea that phones were tapped or that private detectives were used so that papers could arms-length the law-breaking.
But, given what we know now, one of the most famous scandals surrounding Princess Diana can probably be explained. Some of you – older people, mainly – will remember the Squidgygate scandal.
What happened was this: Princess Diana spoke to a friend called James Gilbey who, in turn, referred to her as ‘Squidgy’ (hence the name of the scandal). During the conversation, she made several indiscreet observations about the royal family and the tone of the chat suggested that Gilbey knew her rather too well.
The conversation was picked up by a ham with a mobile scanner. In those days, you could buy a device that allowed you to scan the ether for mobile conversations. The device did not allow you to tap individual phones but it let you listen to whatever conversations were taking place in your area even if you had no way of knowing who was doing the talking.
The ham picked up the Gilbey-Diana conversation and taped it. Naturally, he recognised her voice. He then took it to the tabloid press. The newspapers were able to argue that this was a chance event. The ham seemed to be genuine. He had no ulterior motives. He had been listening for anything interesting without any specific agenda when he suddenly stumbled on to the Diana-Gilbey conversation. So, no phones had been tapped. No laws had been broken. Diana was just the unfortunate victim of bad luck.
There was a problem with this version of events, however. Another ham had also picked the same conversation and had also taped it. But here was the problem: she said she had recorded it on a different date from the first ham.
And there was yet another problem. Not only had both hams picked up the conversation on different dates but neither seemed to have heard it when it actually happened! Even the earliest recording took place days after the conversation had occurred, on December 31, 1989.
This left two possibilities. The first was that the hams were liars. They had never actually picked up the conversation at all. Somebody had supplied the tapes to the tabloids which had put the hams up to pretending that they had come across the chat by accident.
This angle was investigated but nobody came up with any proof that the hams were part of some conspiracy. They seemed to be what they said they were: harmless busybodies who got their jollies from listening to other people’s conversations.
The second possibility was that the hams had never actually heard the conversation as it happened. Somebody else had tapped the phone, had recorded the conversation and then, had re-broadcast it again and again in the hope that some ham would record it.
Given that the hams appeared to be on the level, most people went with the second explanation. Princess Diana’s phone had been tapped and the conversation had been rebroadcast.
But who would do such a thing?
Princess Diana was a deeply paranoid person so she believed that MI5 was tapping her phone at the behest of the royal family. The secret service had tapped her phone and had rebroadcast the conversation, she told friends.
This explanation never made any sense. For a start, the secret services do not report to the royal family. Nor is there any evidence that they cared enough about Diana’s love life to keep rebroadcasting conversations. Moreover, we know now that she was actually sleeping with James Hewitt even before these conversations were recorded. If somebody in MI5 wanted to discredit her, they would have leaked dirt about her affair with Hewitt, rather than this relatively innocuous conversation.
Moreover, a second tape soon made the rounds. This was a conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. That conversation made it clear they were having an affair. If MI5 was functioning at the behest of the royal family, why would it want to embarrass Prince Charles?
In hindsight, it is clear what happened. The tabloids (The Sun in this case) obtained the tapes from a private investigator. Because they could not legally explain how they came by the tapes, they made sure that the conversations were rebroadcast again and again. They were sure that the conversations would be picked up by hams – thereby shielding the papers from the charge of illegal tapping of phones.
So the sceptics were right: the conversations had been rebroadcast again and again. But they were wrong about who did it. The best way to solve any crime is: look for those who benefited.
And the only beneficiaries from this scandal were the tabloids. Sales soared and The Sun even set up a premium telephone line, charging anyone who wanted to listen to the tapes large sums of money.
In those days, the general public did not know that the tabloids had the means – and the inclination – to tap phones. If we did know then what we know now, we would have come to the obvious conclusion: it was a tabloid set up.
I recount this story to put the British tabloids in perspective. Of course, every nation should have a free press but we, as citizens, also have the rights to privacy and dignity.
The real problem with Britain’s tabloids is, that in their lust to sell more copies, they broke every rule and trampled over the rights of private citizens, all the way from Princess Diana to Milly Dowler.
In early 1967, the News of the World, the British tabloid that recently closed down because of the phone hacking scandal, reported that Mick Jagger had taken LSD. He had also consumed six Benzedrine tablets in front of reporters, the paper said, and shown off a lump of hashish. Read more
I have been trying to understand the media’s fascination with Maria Susairaj and frankly, I’m a little bemused. It is not that I dispute that the media have a role to play in demanding accountability or campaigning against miscarriages of justice caused by the twin influences of power and money. In fact, the Indian media have often performed a commendable service in these areas.
It makes you wonder about the times we live in — and the country we live in — when the news that the Prime Minister is going to talk to five journalists is such a big deal that it makes page one of major newspapers and is a headline on TV news. Read more