“Please don’t let your children hear this,” announced the anchor on the newly launched Mangalam TV, right after they aired an audio clip allegedly of (now former) state Transport Minister Saseendran, in a very personal conversation.
The channel launched with this ‘news item’ on Sunday, and the around 5 minute long clip has mainly the voice of a man, supposedly Saseendhran. The other end of the conversation is edited out, and the content is entirely sexual. Not PG13, which the channel realised after just about 500 airings of the sound clip.
While Mangalam TV claimed to ‘expose’ Saseendhran, here’s what they didn’t reveal: Where did the clip come from, and more importantly, was the conversation consensual? Was there a power equation between the two people involved in the conversation, or was this just two people indulging in some sex talk over the phone that a television channel decided to exploit for the sake of ratings?
The very grey area of a sex tape ‘expose’
The ‘sex tape’ has been a staple of television media for a very long time. From the notorious Nithyananda case and the Abhishek Manu Singhvi clip, to the more recent video allegedly of Delhi Minister Sandeep Kumar, and now the audio clip purportedly of Saseendhran, media houses have ‘revealed’ the ‘exploits’ of men in power over the years.
This is not to pass judgment on all men in power - no one can decide whether or not every one of them, or any one of them, is a sexual predator.
But to air a video or audio to ‘expose’ the person is not a black and white decision. In fact, the only time it might be okay to broadcast such a tape is if there is a clear case of abuse of power by the person involved, AND, (and this is a big and), the survivor has given explicit consent for the broadcast of the tape.
If it is a case of abuse of power - what you’re pretty much doing is airing a video of rape or sexual harassment. And that, by any code of ethics, is plain wrong.
A case of rape or harassment can - and should - be covered without the need for ‘audio evidence’. The audience does not need to ‘watch’ the horror for the story to be conveyed, and to pretend otherwise is insulting to both the survivor and the viewers.
Sleaze and the city
While we don’t know anything about the context of the Mangalam TV ‘expose’ - in most cases, the ‘sex tape’ is a public broadcast of a private, consensual encounter, obtained either by ‘stinging’ or ‘trapping’ the person or persons involved.
In most cases, there is no actual crime being committed, no corruption done by a person in power, no real reason for the ‘public’ to know about or watch the ‘exploits’ of the person on their screen.
The only ‘crime’ is in the minds of people - a moral boundary crossed by a married person, a vow of celibacy broken by a religious leader, an act of passion indulged in by an elected leader whose personal life, we believe, we have a say in.
And the only reasons for a media house to air such a clipping are firstly, to take the high moral ground, and secondly, to gain viewership.
Because no matter how high a horse we sit on while we judge the personal lives of other people, we love watching and listening to the dirty details in a sexual encounter - whether consensual or otherwise.
Because no matter how many moral lectures we deliver, sleaze sells and we buy it wholesale, no questions asked.
Audience as judge, jury and executioner
After Mangalam TV aired the audio clip, Saseendhran resigned as the Kerala Transport Minister. While he claimed that he has done nothing wrong, he stepped down so that the probe can go on without any hindrance, as he says.
But it doesn’t matter whether the probe reveals that the encounter was consensual or not. In the minds of the people - the ones who are watching this broadcast on loop while shutting their children’s ears to the words on air - he will forever be the man who had phone sex.
Take the case of former MLA Jose Thettayil for instance. The legislator was ‘caught’ in a sex tape by a woman who claimed she was being abused by Jose and his son, and that the video was evidence of the abuse. She complained that Jose’s son had promised to marry her, and that the then MLA had abused her as well.
The video was aired by a prominent media channel in Kerala, and even today, the leaked clip is available on the Internet.
While the case of rape was quashed by the Supreme Court, ruling that the encounter was consensual, there are two disturbing facts to consider.
Firstly, if indeed the clip was released to malign Jose Thettayil, the SC ruling has done little to change the image of the then MLA. Secondly, if it was a case of rape, a rape video is doing the rounds of the internet four years after the crime - and it will continue to do so for eternity.
Neither is a desirable outcome, but for the media houses that air such clippings and the audience that consume them, what matters is the instant gratification of having aired and watched something they should not.