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Opinion | Why blind items must die in 2020

Gossip and slander have always had the potential to cause damage but their powers were weaker when it was on slow-release

A detail from ‘The Gossips’, a 1948 painting by Norman Rockwell.
A detail from ‘The Gossips’, a 1948 painting by Norman Rockwell. (Photo courtesy: Norman Rockwell Museum)

Around 10 years ago, a blind item about a writer friend circulated in Delhi’s incestuous writer-publisher-People Who Go To Khan Market circles, published on a blog exclusively set up to carry this blind item. It was, unfortunately, written by another writer friend. Everyone knew who the post was about, and soon enough, everyone knew who it was written by as well. While the piece didn’t make any serious allegations, it was downright nasty. But as there were no names, and no way to be certain, it was the subject, not the author, who stayed home embarrassed and shamefaced.

At the time, I remember being lectured on the high value that French culture places on satire (the Charlie Hebdo shooting had not happened yet) and how we should develop a thicker skin and not feel the discomfort we were feeling. Some believed the blindsided writer should write back. The writer didn’t, for to do that would be to acknowledge the post.

With the young actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide this week (Read our cover story here), I have been thinking back to that anonymous blind item. Suicide is a complex phenomenon and while it is incorrect to ascribe any single trigger for Rajput’s death, it would be incorrect also to ignore the series of blind items that surfaced in the fortnight leading up to his death, and indeed, the dangerous and pervasive culture of celebrity blind items that they indicate.

Actor Kriti Sanon, in angry social media posts mid-week, said: “Blind items should be illegal, should be banned! They should come under mental harassment!... you have no idea how badly that can affect someone’s mind, their family, their life. Little birdie is usually not right."

Following Sanon’s outburst, I looked up blind items on Rajput. On 29 May, there was; on 2 June, (OSOP); on 7 June, Bollywood Insider went so far as to say he has “gone off the rails"; on 12 June, OSOP again. What I am most perplexed by is that Bollywood Insider retweeted their blind item on the day of Rajput’s death on 14 June as a sort of boast. “We wrote this blind just 5 days ago…." (the idea that the account can’t do basic mathematics is as disturbing as its posts).

There is much wrong with the blind item apart from its now politically incorrect coinage. While some mainstream media give space to blind items, a website like OSOP exists solely for publishing blind items and collating and “solving" them. Blind items not only safeguard entities from potential lawsuits, the veneer also encourages exaggeration and vulgarity. Corrections are rare, and if any, one can rarely guarantee that they flow through the same channels that the slander did. The acid lingers, gathering harmful contagions along the way.

Blind items are not an India-specific phenomenon. British tabloids are infamous for their celebrity hounding both on ground—as we know from Lady Diana’s tragic death—and in newsprint. In the US, the New York Post has a history of publishing blinds on page 6. More recently, the anonymous self-confessed entertainment lawyer who runs a website named Crazy Days and Nights was crowned King of the Hollywood Blind Item. “It’s one thing to run a blind item…. It’s a whole other beast to reveal that blind," Vanity Fair said. “Crazy Days and Nights is all about the reveal. All it takes is one ‘tiny victory’ for an entire readership to assume all of Crazy Days and Nights is legitimate."

Gossip, tattle, slander have always been around. And who are we fooling, nothing we do now can compare to what the artists were up to in Paris in the 1920s. Lucian Freud, one of the artists profiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning art writer Sebastian Smee’s book The Art Of Rivalry, once had to decline a wedding invitation because he found himself in the unusual position of having been sexually involved with not just the bride but the groom…and the groom’s mother. When I read this out at a panel with Smee at the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had to wait for several minutes for the audience to stop laughing. Everybody loves a good scandal. Columnist Nisha Susan even made a case for gossip as an essential service during the lockdown in this paper last week. But we have to acknowledge why blind items are a specific problem in 2020.

When gossip travelled through salons and courts and letters and trunk calls, it got diluted along the way, its strength and flow distorted by time and memory and tongues. It didn’t come to us, or go back to the subjects themselves, like an acid attack on social media; hitting everyone at the same time, its menace gaining power through numbers, multiplying through forwards.

Gossip has always had the potential to cause damage but perhaps its powers were weaker when it was on slow-release. As we make other changes in old habits to compensate and adapt to the new world we now inhabit—from using less single-use plastic to increased sensitivity in the way we address the differently-abled—this too is a change called for. For in a world hurtling towards a mental health epidemic, gossip, and indeed a callous blind item, can be lethal.

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