Ranjona Banerji: Is there a trial by media on Tehelka?

29 Nov,2013

By Ranjona Banerji


Is there a trial by media in the Tehelka case? Has the media conducted a witch hunt against Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury after allegations of sexual assault bordering on rape were made public? As many in the media know and have pointed out, there are innumerable instances of sexual harassment within the media and in most cases justice has not been done to the victim. The Vishakha guidelines which everyone now quotes so freely are followed in only a few media offices.


Looking back, coverage of this case hinged on a few key points. The first was the verbose bombast of Tejpal’s various letters of apology. The second was the release of the victim’s email which detailed the very serious charges against Tejpal. The third was Chaudhury’s aggressive posturing in front of reporters, especially her comment, “Are you the aggrieved party”.


The gauntlet had now been thrown down to the rest of the media. And yes, as has been said before, the media is the aggrieved party. Everyone is the aggrieved party. For a journalist to ask this of another, shows how easily we forget our professional compulsions when matters become personal.


There is another less savoury aspect to the reaction of the media. For all the sterling work that Tehelka did, many journalists were uncomfortable with sting operation journalism as well as with Tehelka’s very self-righteous approach. If there is anyone who knows that being self-righteous in the media is a sham, it is a journalist. We have to live on cynical pragmatism while following an idealistic principle. Being judge and jury is not our calling. Being the mirror is. To be sure, it’s a tightrope walk. So it is possible that many of us found Tehelka’s sanctimonious front a bid galling and that made this case a bit more intriguing.


However, at the bottom of it all, lies some unacceptable behaviour and that has nothing to do with the feelings of the viewer. The change of stance by Tejpal, the stonewalling by Shoma Chaudhury, the tenacity of the victim who did not let go and did not capitulate all increased the interest in the event.


And then came Tejpal’s bail application. Even if it was drafted by his lawyers, it contained every bit of misogynistic patriarchy that Tehelka itself has been fighting against. It blamed the victim, it questioned her behaviour after the alleged assault and it claimed that Tejpal was forced to write letters of apology by Chaudhury.


Given all this, it is hardly surprising that the media has been following this case so closely. Add to that the political sideshow with Tejpal somehow blaming the BJP for his predicament and you have a story that no media outlet would miss.


One could also argue that the level of media interest in gender stories has also increased since the December 2012 gangrape in Delhi. Also, while many are questioning why senior journalists are going after Tejpal and not protecting their own it is worth remembering that the victim is also one of our own.




The Tehelka case forced me to watch prime time news TV slugfests after almost six months. Most channels and anchors managed a few stimulating discussions on the subject mainly because they avoided inviting politicians: Karan Thapar (CNN-IBN), Nidhi Razdan (NDTV), Sagorika Ghose (CNN-IBN), Arnab Goswami (Times Now), Rajdeep Sardesai (CNN-IBN), various anchors on Headlines Today and NewsX.


Once the politicians entered the scene, it all went downhill of course. And once politicians start behaving badly, all the other guests apparently believe that open season for lack of etiquette has begun. Interrupting, shouting over each other, refusing to answer the question asked – all the fine elements of a “debate” on English news channels in India. And Arnab Goswami I see has only grown in stature and now his whole show is unashamedly about his own opinions. My advice: dump the guests and have a nightly chat with the nation about what needs to be done.




Wags on social media have been pointing out that Tarun Tejpal has achieved what the might of the Congress party could not: knocked Narendra Modi off national television. Having said that, Tehelka will peter out sooner rather than later and the Gujarat surveillance case will be back.




And Cobrapost and Gulail have now informed the rest of us how politicians – and anyone else – use trickery and cheating to manipulate the social media. Expect some more on that.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own


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