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Tehelka is a warning

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: December 1, 2013
URL: http://www.asianage.com/columnists/tehelka-warning-985

In wide swathes of middle India, the media’s reputation is mud. It is easily linked to cronyism, corruption, megalomaniac editors, half-baked information, and now molestation and rape.

Following his eventual arrest in Goa on Saturday, November 30, the rape and sexual assault case against Tarun Tejpal, the founder and editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, has formally begun. The facts are well known: the hypocrisy and contradictory explanations offered by Tejpal and the Tehelka management; the meticulous documentation of the crime, its circumstances and the aftermath by the young woman at the heart of the matter; the fact that Tejpal and his confidantes realised only when it was too late that they were dealing with an aggrieved individual who was working to a strategy and to solid legal advice and would not be assuaged with purple prose.
Having said that, it would be pertinent to see the issue in its broader context. Yes, there is a case of severe and unpardonable sexual assault at the workplace — by an employer and family friend old enough to be his target’s father — that needs to be addressed. What Tejpal stands charged with is a legal crime; more than that, it leaves people ethically and morally outraged.
Even so, the Tehelka scandal is not just about an individual case of rape. It provides a mechanism to interrogate the practice and enterprise — and that second word is used advisedly — of journalism in contemporary India. Indeed, it exposes the media industry and fraternity to extremely harsh verities. Broadly, there are three implications of the Tehelka episode that are unconnected, or only laterally connected, with what happened in the Grand Hyatt elevator in Goa on the evenings of November 7 and 8.
First, the quality of editorial leadership at Tehelka has been found wanting, in terms of both the act and the response to the act. Depending on how they choose to see it, the two senior editors of the magazine were extraordinarily naive or supremely uninformed as to provisions of a new rape law they themselves had campaigned for. They were not clear as to what constituted rape under this law’s provisions, or whether the police was obliged to act on its own initiative, even without the assaulted party filing a complaint.
That apart, it took Tejpal and his deputy, Shoma Chaudhury, crucial days to figure out the letters and documents they had written to the young journalist and to others were not merely emotional conversations within a closed group, but were packed with legal meaning and would come back to haunt them. In the end, the thesaurus was no counter to the law. By the time Tejpal and Chaudhury realised this, it was too late. Real life had caught up with wordplay.
How does one describe this response? Is it representative of a self-serving bubble in which Delhi’s media, business and political elites live, confident that nobody will go to court, nothing will happen and everything will be taken care of? Does it speak for how casual even senior journalists can be with homework and due diligence in personal engagement and presumably in professional duties as well? Perhaps it is a bit of both. It is one thing to be in breach of the law, but to be in breach of the law and stupid?
Second, the unravelling of Tehelka has led to a series of news stories on the magazine’s business model and commercial associations. Articles have appeared on several companies that Tejpal and his friends and family set up, all leveraging the Tehelka brand name and media cachet but working in fields as far apart as hospitality, education and event management. There is so much to explain: windfall gains for promoters and original shareholders of Tehelka; deals that can only politely be described as attempts to win respectability and access for dodgy business operators; the scooping up of super-profits by chosen individuals even though salaries in the mother ship — the Tehelka magazine and newsroom — remained low.
There is also the inevitable question: how did these ancillary businesses influence the editorial choices of Tehelka, on what to publish and what not to publish? Not all of Tehelka’s alleged wrongdoings are illegal. Nevertheless many of them are decidedly sharp practice and have left old supporters feeling queasy and betrayed. It is all very well to argue journalism is an entrepreneurial calling, but where does journalism end and where does entrepreneurship begin?
This takes us to the third implication. Is Tehelka an outlier or is it the norm? While the twin scandals — the sexual assault and the commercial trail — may be limited to Tejpal and his friends at the moment, are they unique to Tehelka? It is no secret that India has more newspapers, news channels and news websites than its economy can support. How do these survive? Why is so much of the media so sequestered from the real economy, and from whether GDP growth rises or falls? An intricate matrix of ransom and patronage — where a media outlet may take a political position due to material considerations rather than principled belief — has led to the birth of numerous journalistic bucket shops.
The media community has been slow to accept this. Frankly it has a vested interest in refusing to distinguish between legitimate and not-so-legitimate pursuits of journalism. Larger society may already have made up its mind. In wide swathes of middle India, the media’s reputation is mud. It is easily linked to cronyism, corruption, megalomaniac editors, half-baked information, and now molestation and rape. This perception may be exaggerated but is not fundamentally untrue. Journalists are feared or held in contempt. They are rarely respected.
In turn, journalists and the media community increasingly talk to only each other. They scoff at middle-class folk as “socially conservative” and unable to understand the creative genius and licence of media, and envious of their (the journalists’) supposedly superior status. In actuality, the national media in India is the one public institution that is probably the most cut off from the urgings and undercurrents of common, everyday citizens. The Tejpal case personifies all of this. Tehelka was once held up as an example for the media; today it is a warning.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com
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