For long, Kannada television channels have made it their business to pry into the private lives of celebrities and non-celebrities alike. But one of these recent weeks has seen a new low, even by the channels’ undistinguished record. What was played out in at least two Kannada channels was outright voyeurism. Viewers were being enlightened with minute details of a playback singer-couple’s marital differences, completely disregarding their rights to privacy.

A few weeks back, it was Kannada film star ‘Duniya’ Vijay and his wife’s marital dispute that was milked dry to boost TRPs. This time, they zeroed in on a petition filed in a family court by Ramya Vasishta, a singer and television artist, seeking annulment of her marriage to popular playback singer Rajesh Krishnan. Every word from the petition was shown and read out, and experts ranging from a psychologist to a sex specialist to a lawyer were in the studios to analyse what may have gone wrong with the marriage. The focus was on how the marriage, according to the petition, was not consummated, and the fact that Rajesh Krishnan’s earlier two marriages had also ended in divorce.

In ‘Duniya’ Vijay’s case, if one channel took his side, a rival channel egged on his wife and children to bad-mouth him. Vijay has appealed to the News Broadcasters’ Association and other agencies seeking action against the channel concerned for allegedly tutoring and forcing his children to speak ill of him. It is another matter though that Vijay himself is guilty of doing the same with his children – they were made to speak to the media after he submitted his complaints to the NBA and others in New Delhi.

And while I happened to watch this unsavoury contest, presumably for ratings, on a couple of channels, I have a strong intuition that the tale may not be so different in the other local channels.

Clearly, neither self-regulation of the channels concerned (if at all they have anything like that) nor that of the NBA seems to be working when it comes to Kannada television. The self-regulation principles of the NBA on the issue of privacy states that “As a rule channels must not intrude on private lives, or personal affairs of individuals, unless there is a clearly established larger and identifiable public interest for such a broadcast. The underlying principle that news channels abide by is that the intrusion of private spaces, records, transcripts, telephone conversations and any other material will not be for salacious interest, but only when warranted in the public interest.”

By no stretch of imagination can it be assumed that that there was a “larger and identifiable public interest” in television channels laying bare the marital disputes of celebrities, and going into such intricate details over whether there was mental and physical compatibility in their marriage and even, hold your breath, the sperm count of a certain celebrity!

In fact, the NBA itself seems to be uncertain on how to deal with such transgressions. While the self-regulation principles bars channels from intruding into private lives of individuals “as a rule,” one of the NBA’s periodic advisories (Sept. 16, 2011) seems to make an exception when it comes to persons in public life. “It has come to the notice of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (an arm of the NBA) that some member news channels are carrying reports on family, matrimonial and other private matters of persons not in public life (emphasis mine) and passing off such reportage as ‘news.’ The Authority is of the view that such reportage is not of ‘public interest’ to require dissemination … moreover, such reportage also intrudes into the privacy of individuals. Member broadcasters are accordingly advised to refrain from broadcasting such reports.” By implication, wouldn’t this mean that is alright to intrude into the privacy of persons in public life?

It is not uncommon for journalists to lay their hands on documents or information that relate to people’s private lives. But just because they get access to a divorce petition involving an actor, they simply cannot broadcast its contents to the whole wide world. These channels and, in some cases newspapers (not Kannada alone) too, have been crossing the line very often.

Kannada television is willy nilly turning viewers into Peeping Toms. In their quest for eyeballs and TRPs, the local channels have been feeding viewers with a diet of gossip, crime, sleaze, stings and low-brow humour. Tune into them in the morning, you are treated to spiritual and astrology gurus holding forth on what should be done to ward off the effects of a bad planetary alignment. The shows on crime are downright repulsive in the way the stories are told. And of course, now and then they air panel discussions on when and how the world will come to an end, providing unintended humour.

The credibility of Kannada television is seriously at stake. Channel owners and journalists in leadership positions should bear the cross for the sorry state of affairs. At a broader level, the government deserves its share of blame as well. The Supreme Court’s directive of 1995 that an independent authority be set up to control and regulate “airwaves or frequencies” that are public property has not been acted upon till now. The self-regulation codes of the NBA, representing news and current affairs channels, and the Indian Broadcasting Federation, representing non-news channels, have remained paper tigers.