The case against Tarun Tejpal is the case for crowd-sourced technologies, and the first casualty in the process is the traditional structure of authority. The collective is the new conscience
Monobina Gupta @dna
New Delhi: Deafening silence would have reigned; the rot would have deepened; the accused and the guilty would have hidden behind their celebrity status. But for the power of the social media.
Today, we in the media should be especially thankful for the opening up of public spaces through information networks. We should be grateful for the ‘invasion’ of digital media. Boundaries are collapsing in the blink of an eye. Hierarchies are breaking down by the chattering, demanding aam admi. Most importantly, maintaining a position of silence has become impossible.
The latest testimony to the unshackled potency of social media comes from the newsroom — the hub of the Fourth Estate, the watchdog of all institutions. Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka magazine — who created ripples in the media world with his radical agenda of promoting journalism ‘with a difference’ — stands accused of one the gravest offences: sexual assault.
A young reporter in the magazine has alleged that Tejpal sexually assaulted her in a lift when she was on an assignment during the much-hyped up Tehelka-sponsored Think Fest. By now it has become clear that what transpired during the high-power event not only happened more than once, but was, in effect, “rape”. Apologies are not going to cut it; nor can Tejpal’s removal from the helm of affairs at the magazine be considered an adequate response.
The larger issue relates to how safe women employees are in their workplaces. Incidents like this expose how indifferent organisations, including the media, are to the Vishaka judgment which mandates the setting up of committees in every organisation to look into complaints of sexual harassment. Like in most sectors, in media organisations too, these committees, if instituted at all, are defunct, mostly to shield the powerful — in this case a male editor.
No wonder then that Tejpal trotted out a so-called ‘apology’ letter, recusing himself from editorship for six months. The accused has donned the black robe of a judge and delivered an absurd sentence to himself. Tejpal says he made ‘an error of judgment’; Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury describes the sexual assault as an “untoward incident”. “I have already unconditionally apologised for my misconduct to the concerned journalist, but I feel impelled to atone further,” writes Tejpal. Moreover, Chaudhury has also been quoted as saying that this is purely an “internal matter” for Tehelka.
Both Tejpal and Chaudhury seem to be oblivious of their responsibility to live up to the standards they have so long preached to others. In their religiously inspired desire to atone they overlook the idea of justice itself. The Supreme Court’s directions are very clear on sexual harassment.
The matter cannot be confined to a weepy elegy of repentance. It’s a legal matter. Tehelka is legally, if not morally bound, to set up a free and fair investigation committee. Tarun Tejpal has to submit himself to the scrutiny that he wants every other accused to submit himself to in such sordid cases of the abuse of power. One could well ask if, in cases of the abuse of power by the police, Tehelka would let the offenders get away by saying it is a matter “internal” to them. To refer to rape as an internal matter is tantamount to covering up for the crime.
The constant conversation in social media has acted as a catalyst in pitching uncomfortable questions at the centre of debates. All those who have spent considerable time in the newsroom have been silent witnesses to abuse of power by famous editors. Young reporters in established newspapers have shared their discomfort with colleagues and friends but there were no avenues for going public with these issues; no personal or public space to vent anger. For years women journalists have put up with sleazy conversations in newsrooms — heard sexist jokes swirling around them — and, if protesting, have been told not to be ‘bores’ and ‘prudes’.
Newsroom culture is often disturbingly and aggressively masculine. Male camaraderie however extends beyond the newsroom.
Men in positions of power, across the spectrum, talk and act disgustingly about women while others look on with approval. What could be more disconcerting than the poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar tweeting, “It is a shame that someone (Tejpal) with such impeccable values has committed such an act but unlike some he has the guts to accept and repent.”
The proliferation of social media is disturbing the status-quo and creating new spaces of resistance; unspeakable truths are becoming spoken. In this transforming culture, male editors — there are no women counterparts at the helm — must learn to behave themselves. If not they must face the appropriate legal consequences. Apologies won’t work.