Ranjona Banerji: Time for both Tejpal and Shoma to quit Tehelka

22 Nov,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Sexual harassment of young females by senior male editors is one of the Indian media’s worst-kept secrets. Everybody knows several stories of young women being propositioned, coerced and threatened by men in positions of power far above them in the pecking order. And everyone also knows that those that complain usually lose their jobs. And yet, for all its moral posturing about problems elsewhere, the Indian media has been satisfied with doing little but some private outraging.

 

Will the Tehelka story change all that? At first glance, it seems that Tehelka tried to follow the old path of cover up and forget about it, after a young female reporter accused the magazine’s editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal of sexually assaulting her. The responses from managing editor Shoma Chaudhury suggest that the top management decided to close ranks with their boss. Tejpal himself “recused” himself from the magazine in an extremely ill-judged letter in florid prose full of Biblical and religious overtones. He talked of atonement, penance and laceration all of which would be significantly poetic if it wasn’t so vomit-inducing.

 

The story broke through the social media after news emerged that Tejpal had stepped down for six months. But it was soon clear that this stepping down or atonement was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Tejpal’s letter talked of misreading a situation and taking responsibility for an unfortunate incident. Had he looked leeringly at a young girl and asked her to come up and look at his etchings, “misreading” might perhaps apply. But what Tejpal did – according the young woman’s complaints doing the rounds on the Internet – was sexual assault and could be construed as rape.

 

This makes Chaudhury’s responses to the media even more inexplicable if not inexcusable. What happened is not an “internal” matter and a questioning media cannot be dismissed as being more upset than the “aggrieved party”. Indeed, Chaudhury’s statement that the “aggrieved party” is satisfied was countered by the complainant telling news channels that she was far from satisfied and she was angry that her complaint had not been circulated internally the way Tejpal’s was.

 

There has been some discussion that Chaudhury being female should have stood by her staffer and understood her pain. However history demonstrates that the sisterhood has not really stood up for itself within media organisations. The Network of Women in Media has become stronger over the years but it is an outside organisation. Loyalties within are another matter. Having said all this, it is still astounding that Chaudhury was not moved by the young woman’s complaint which talks of a very grievous assault and then an appalling attempt at flirtation which turned into threats.

 

Instead, Chaudhury wrote an email to the staff, filled with the most sanctimonious hifalutin nonsense: “We have also believed that when there is a mistake or lapse of any kind, one can only respond with right thought and action. In keeping with this stated principle, and the collective values we live by, Tarun will be stepping down for the period mentioned”.

 

What is “right thought and action” and what are these “collective values” one may well ask.

 

However, without getting as sanctimonious and self-righteous and morally reprobate as Tehelka, the outraged media must turn now that spotlight on itself. NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan said on TV that her channel has followed the Vishaka guidelines of the Supreme Court on sexual harassment. Sachin Kalbag, editor of Mid-Day, also said that Mid-Day is Vishaka compliant in a tweet. What is the story with other media organisations? How do they handle complaints of sexual harassment? How have perpetrators been punished? What sort of a future can the complainant look forward to in the organisation? It must be mentioned that the victims need not only be women and that the perpetrators need not always be men. But even while being politically correct and upholding gender equality, the sad truth is that it is women who usually bear the brunt.

 

That the entire media has come out in support of the victim is heartening and might even suggest that a few small changes may happen… Poor Rahul Singh who tried to defend Tehelka’s track record as an investigative magazine got short shrift on Times Now. As several participants pointed out, it was Tehelka’s founder Tejpal who had damaged his own magazine’s reputation. In a side note, because politicians were not invited to primetime news debates on the subject, discussions on the Tehelka issue were conducted with some decorum and minus the high-decibel pyrotechnics viewers are normally subjected to.

 

The correct thing would be for both Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhury to quit Tehelka. Neither can inspire confidence, either as leaders of an organisation or from an editorial perspective. If Tehelka is to maintain its motto of being fearless, frank and so on then it needs new management.

 

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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3 responses to “Ranjona Banerji: Time for both Tejpal and Shoma to quit Tehelka”

  1. Derebail Umesh says:

    Tehelka needs to go, its founding member has fingered its reputation very badly. Nobody can help to lift off the viel of stigma attached to it. Let us bury the organisation for its indiscretion with both the top heads trying to cover up. The victim has been kind enough not to file a complaint, but the logical closure of the organisation will set things right. Many working for the instituion will loose their job but they will be accomodated outside.

  2. Guest says:

    Difficult to see how Tehelka can survive this black swan event. The full text of the complaint shows the man Tarun Tejpal was. Completely at odds with someone carrying on a moral crusade against wrong doing by people in power. To the perceptive, even the THiNK conference sat oddly with Tehelka’s profile. Not many guests who enjoyed the canapés will be seen within a mile of the organisation.

  3. Guest says:

    Difficult to see how Tehelka can survive this black swan event. The full text of the complaint shows the man Tarun Tejpal was. Completely at odds with someone carrying on a moral crusade against wrong doing by people in power. To the perceptive, even the THiNK conference sat oddly with Tehelka’s profile. Not many guests who enjoyed the canapés will be seen within a mile of the organisation.

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