It wasn't the tapes' prurient nature that shocked India. On the contrary, the nation seemed more entertained than disturbed at the exposure of an industry long assumed to harbor sleazy elements. What did cause genuine uproar, however, was India TV itself. The private lives of politicians and celebrities have traditionally been off-limits for mainstream newspapers and television. In that climate of restraint, India TV's methods were deemed as outrageous as its subject matter. "It's awful journalism," glowers the Hindu newspaper's editor in chief, N. Ram. His Indian Express counterpart, Shekhar Gupta, agrees. "You just can't do this," says Ram. "In India, people's private lives are nobody else's business."
That was then. In fact, of late, hidden cameras have become quite the thing in Indian journalism. Tehelka, an Internet news site that later became a newspaper, pioneered subterfuge when it launched in May 2000, using secret cameras to expose corruption in cricket and the armed forces. Since then, grainy videos have become a staple tool of Indian investigative reporting. But until recently, editors have been careful to back the use of electronic trickery with a claim to be acting in the public interest. Founded 10 months ago, India TV dispensed with such piety, filming politicians, holy men and now celebrities in the bedroom. Chairman Rajat Sharma says Indian celebrities have had it easy for too long. "The Indian media have to become much more aggressive," he argues. "This is something that's been missing here. We have to hold these people to account, and India TV is about using any means to break a story." Sharma is candid about the commercial value of his methods. "People say I am looking for more viewers," he says. "Well, of course. We launched a TV channel. It's not meant for private viewing."
The TV market in India is changing fast. Since private broadcasters were first allowed in 1991, the number of channels available on TV screens has gone from 1 to 129. Some in the media see cutthroat competition leading the entire industry into bad habits. Says the Hindu's Ram: "Other people are bound to follow. And while we'll fight, it'll be hard. It's an odd situation where we don't report what people are talking about." Media commentator Dilip Cherian agrees: "We've crossed the Rubicon. This is the beginning of the tabloidization of the Indian media. It's not so much whether it's good or bad. The important thing to grasp is that it's happening."
Will there be a backlash against the new intrusiveness? Gupta argues that the public has supported a free press because journalists never abused that freedom. Now, he says, "I'm really worried one of my reporters is going to get thrashed." Bollywood producer Pritish Nandy fears conservative critics will use the scandal to attack both journalism and entertainment. "Did you know Lady Chatterley's Lover is still banned in India? This only gives a leg up to the crazy prudes who think that's a good idea." Tehelka boss Tarun Tejpal knows how aggressive journalism can boomerang. After publishing a report on alleged corruption in arms sales under the previous government, his main investor was jailed, advertisers were warned off, and staff so tied up in court cases that Tehelka which means "sensation" in Hindi collapsed. Back at the helm of a reborn Tehelka weekly, however, Tejpal thinks that even his experience won't stop India's brash new journalism. "Ethics are changing again," he says, "and where the new line will be drawn, nobody knows."