A spy for an eye

Should newspapers hire private detectives? Is it legitimate to tap telephones in search of a story?

I ask because these questions have featured in media debates in the UK over the last month. The peg for the discussions was the revelation by The Guardian that some of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have long paid private investigators to do their snooping for them.
These investigators have also run illegal wire taps on behalf of the papers and have regularly bugged homes, offices and hotel rooms to gain information.

Later revelations have shown that the Murdoch press is not alone in this. Various journalists have come forward to say that this practice has been common since the 1980s and that frequently British tabloids have paid off policemen to obtain information for stories.

Much of this activity has focused on celebrities. A traditional way of tapping a celebrity who is having an extra-marital affair or is a homosexual is to get private investigators to keep tabs on him or her.

The investigators take photos with spy-cam, they place bugs in key locations, they intercept personal e-mails and they tap mobile phones.

Once the paper has evidence that say, celebrity X is a homosexual, then they will approach X directly and confront him with the evidence.

X has two options, he will be told. Either he can come out in the pages of say, The News Of The World (“I am gay and have been forced to lie about it by society”) or The News Of The World will run a story outing X (“The sordid rent-boy lifestyle of TV Star X”), complete with photos and details.

Nine times out of ten, celebrities prefer to go the confessional route. The News Of The World can then claim a scoop and more significantly, the paper never needs to reveal how it obtained the photos and the transcripts that nailed X as a homosexual because he himself has come forward to confess.

Moreover, it now emerges, private investigators hired by British tabloids have also tapped the mobile phones of the royal family. So the famous Camillagate tape where Prince Charles told Camilla Parker Bowles that he wished he could be where her tampon was did not emerge accidentally because some ham picked up the conversation. The Squidgygate tape which had Princess Diana bitching out the royal family to a male admirer was not necessarily part of an operation by M15 (as Diana claimed at the time). It was probably the tabloids and their investigators at work.

Is any of this legit? Is it ethical?

I would say no. First of all, papers should not hire detective agencies. Secondly, they should not tap phones. And thirdly there are important privacy issues at stake here.

But I think it is important to debate the issue because it does have many dimensions. Celebrity journalism is tame in India because there’s no real money in it. If The News Of The World can prove that say, Madonna is having a lesbian affair, then it can make millions from the story. In India, if a film magazine established that say, Rekha was a lesbian, who would care? There would be very little money to be made from that story.

But move beyond the realms of celebrity journalism and it all gets very murky. Suppose a paper tapped Narendra Modi’s phone and recorded him admitting that he know of the Gujarat massacres? Suppose somebody bugged a minister’s office and heard him accepting a bribe.

How would we react? Would we still say that privacy issues were involved? Or would we take the line that we took in the Tehelka case: that if there is no other way then it is okay to violate privacy and to resort to secret cameras?

I don’t know. But it certainly is a slippery slope.

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  • Sailesh

    Very nice post , Vir. I agree that this discussion is on a slippery slope. Perhaps one justification of the Tehelka case and the hypothetical Modi example you have stated is that these would be expose’s of issues of public importance and/or national security etc whereas in the case of the British tabloids they were almost all issues relating to the private lives of people ,which should be sacrosanct.

    If a person is in a public office ( party headquarters , government office etc) then perhaps one could claim that tapping a phone or secretly videotaping dealings falls into a moral gray area as it deals with the public affairs of a person or organization rather than their private lives and it may lead to the unearthing of information that will eventually benefit the general public and the country. In the case of tapping the royal family’s or celebrities phones to listen in to conversations about their private lives , love affairs , sexual inclinations etc, this is surely not justifiable at all as it is purely done to serve the voyeuristic pleasure of a select few ( people who buy those sensational tabloids).


  • Karthik

    Call it my ignorance but I didn’t know that there are these private agencies involved into capturing such kind of news. Well apprised by your article I must say a very few words Virji.
    First let’s accept the fact that something which is very attractive sells. Any kind of business would follow this strategy. But when it is about media we can’t accept it why??. It is just because media influence people. As you say “Celebrity journalism is tame in India because there’s no real money in it.” Is it ethical to indulge into private lives of celebs for the sake of information which in-fact is nothing but entertainment? The ethics about say any media is really arguable. But there has to be some statuary authority to decide the ethics. The news channels are also doing their part to worsen the situation. These channels frequently show the clipping with a voice narrating the event n times. It is really hard on the person who is being humiliated like this.
    But aren’t many taking this as the power of media. Rakhi sawant to begin with became famous in a fortnight. Then we have the recent one, Splitsvilla contestant uncovered many fishy thing about the proprietors of the show. Is that true, whom to believe. Everything is like “fame ke liye kuch be karega ”. With the hunger for money ,fame ethics have been put on stake.


  • Aam Admi

    The problem with all is in the west all this is done to make money,while in in India as you have rightly pointed is not a bigger market. Once we have the market,i am sure our media will expose not only politicians,filme star but every tom,dick,harry to make money and news.

    And above all,if the personal lifestyle of a person is not affecting the national security(i am sure it does not in most of the cases). then there is no need to go for all this lowly thing


    Aam Admi


    Pankaj Reply:

    who is going to spy on you Vir?


  • http://lughole.net Saarthak

    Papparazzi! Our own television media is a reflection of the tabloid papers in the UK.. They pay people to burn effigies of Dhoni so they can make a news story out of it!

    Of course, hiring detectives etc is unethical and its an invasion of privacy. The UK has strict privacy laws too. So unless you uncover something about X which is contrary to what he;s been telling people (basically he;s been lying), then that invasion pf privacy can be forgiven if its in the public interest.

    The most famous example is the case of Naomi Campbell. She always denied ever taking drugs, but the Daily Mirror newspaper exposed that she had been an addict! She sued the paper for invasion of privacy but lost the case, But when the mirror group secretly took pictures of her at a drug rehabilitation centre and published it along with details and location of the centre, Naomi sued and this time won the case because the jury decided that publishing pictures of her at the rehab centre was an invasion of privacy and the newspaper did not act in public interest,

    Do we have strong privacy laws in India? I hope we do!



    Slippery,yes. I think the big names in Print media ,or Television can stoop to do Thelhka type sting, or hire detective(if their own reporters are incapable) to do stories to be on the One-Upmanship ,scale,beat competition,gain readership, or sheer ego so the newspaper can say”You heard/read the story first at so-and-so newspaper or TV. This may be an expose for the good of people,justice or punish the guilty who have gone scot-free. Like the recent NDTV sting in the BMW case ,showing the Supreme Court lawyer alleged to be bribing the key witness to win the case for his client.. Or it could be otherwise.couldnt it?
    On the other hand,another could have ulterior motives for this kind of journalism.There is a new TV channel which is doing nothing but focussing all its energies on harping against Anil Ambani and Sheila Dixit, under the guise of creating a crusade against Power situation in Delhi. This channel may be a real crusader.who is to judge and who is to find out..Whether employing detectives, or otherwise,I think, media needs to be monitored for the truth and the real objective of the story being dished out.There have been number of cases,in Indan cities, where a small publication is started to extort favours..
    Why doesnt the newspapers hire detectives to find out the clossol money raked in by our politicians,and bring them to book.instead of silly stories…But then our media and the media Barons, unlike the Britians newspaper Barons are not crusaders, but purring cats.There may be few exceptions,however.Has Mr. Sanghvi got the answer?


  • Ram

    ‘Freedom of Press’, ‘Freedom of Press’, the old lady cries
    ‘Shut the hell up’,
    ‘Are you gay and how much do you pay?, the old lady asks
    ‘Shut the hell up’, the old man blasts
    ‘Tell me about the wife, is she still in your life?’
    ‘Cleaning her teeth, busy is the wife’
    ‘Tell me about the dog, is it the one?’
    ‘My life’s my own, not for everyone’
    ‘So it is the dog, isn’t it the dog?’
    ‘I wouldn’t do a dog, would never do a dog’
    ‘You don’t say much, tell me something new’
    ‘Hmmm…is the evening convenient for you’
    ‘Evening is perfect, your place or mine’
    ‘Your place is better, I got something on my mind’
    ‘Would you like to see the freedom of press’
    ‘I am dying to see this freedom that you stress’

    The old man sleeps, the old lady writes
    The dog is in the yard, the wife never bites
    Nation awakes to a dawn of celebrity
    Those in the toga shout ‘death of morality’
    Audio, video and debates and interviews
    Oh Lord, who took away my news?
    Morality-shmorality nobody buys
    ‘Freedom of press’ the old lady cries


    Sahil Ansari Reply:

    Wow !!!!!!!! That was something! Great


  • karun sethi

    i guess the media should act more as a medium of change that tries to bring knowledge to the masses than being an obsessive harbinger of juicy stuff. i mean do you really care if madonna is a lesbian? just enjoy the music!


  • XYZ

    What’s your take on the media snooping on private e-mail? Come on, we know the world has changed. E-mail is here to stay. So, what do you think about powerful organisations spying on personal e-mail?


  • Mohd Asim Khan

    It’s a slippery slope but not that slippery. Why, you can judge where the larger public interest is involved and where it’s not. It does not matter for millions of common people if Rekha is found to be a lesbian. But it does matter if the chief minister of a state connived in the massacre of thousands of innocent people whom he had pledged to protect.
    Similarly, what an MP does in his bedroom matters little, but what he does inside the Parliament does. So, the larger public interest is the surest litmus test.


  • publics

    Public interest must be first always. Good essay Vir Sangavi sir!!


  • Arvind Chaudhary

    What about the tapping of ordinary citizens and politicals rivals by the goverment?

    I came to know that this done freely nowdays. Surprisingly, you were quite on this in the article.


  • Ajay Chopra

    Whilst agreeing it is a slipper slope, we still have to take a decision after due deliberation. Not all decisions are acceptable to the public at large but in view of larger public and national interest and as per guidelines from our Bhagvad Gita :
    “To discover a wrong deed which is detrimental
    to the nation or the public at large, all means
    whether right or wrong should be promoted.”

    How are we to decide whether the deed is right or wrong? This can only be decided after discovering it.


  • raj101

    When are you going to stop mentioning modi for everything.

    this is more appropriate,
    Suppose a paper tapped rajiv ghandi phone and recorded him admitting that he know of the
    delhi massacres?

    — how about your tapes, it confirmed peoples worst fears, press hand in glove with mediators and corrupt politician. its better to know that truth & your nature , if it intrudes your privacy.
    vir good try at comeback, when thelka exposed bjp you were jumping and justifying their action.
    when you were caught, you say its slippery slope. shame


  • Kanupriya Singh

    Gulzar. Any day!


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