Ranjona Banerji: How Times & Bachi Karkaria gave in to the God of 140 characters!

25 Nov,2014

By Ranjona Banerji


This column has to be dedicated to the power of Twitter. Or, as Bachi Karkaria, well-known journalist, columnist and noted punster would put it, “extraneous noise”.


The Times Literary Carnival invited Tarun Tejpal as a panellist on the subject of the “Tyranny of power” in the first week of December. Manu Joseph, journalist, was to be the moderator, with journalist, editor, writer and now scriptwriter Basharat Peer and politician Mani Shankar Aiyar as the other participants.


Is there anyone here who has forgotten the Tejpal story from last November? The apology letter from the founder-editor-owner of Tehelka, the “recusing” of himself from the job and the “penance of laceration”, the determination of the young colleague to expose his assault on her, the escalation of events from an admission of sexual harassment (hence the penance blah blah), the private mails made public, the police action on a rape case, the filing of charges?


It did not stop there either. Tejpal evaded arrest, was taken dramatically to Goa and put in jail. Once the lawyers entered the picture, the apology mails were retracted and his accuser was blamed for, well, the usual defence in such cases, asking for it. Collateral damage in all this was the reputation of Tehelka’s managing editor Shoma Chaudhury and Tehelka itself. Certainly one of Indian journalism’s most sordid scandals, except that we have such short memory spans.


Not that it ended there of course. Once Tejpal’s defence was settled on “the victim asked for it” or “why was she in a short dress” or “why did she get into a lift with me”, some attempt at rehabilitation was in order. It began with articles on video footage of the corridor outside the lift where the assault happened. Reams of high flown text on the corridor in defence of Tejpal from Manu Joseph, yes indeed, the man picked as the moderator.


It was apparently Swapan Dasgupta, columnist and good friend and defender of the BJP, who first set Twitter off by pulling out publicly from the “carnival”. The outrage and protests grew on social media. Some people felt that the principles of free speech and presumption of innocence could be applied to the decision to invite Tejpal. Others felt this was just a way to rehabilitate him as a public figure and public “thinker”. And the overwhelming feeling was one of anger that such an attempt was being made at all.


The problem with the presumption of innocence argument is that Tejpal himself apologised, publicly and privately before the matter became a police case. This was not a forced police confession to be retracted in front of a magistrate pleading torture or coercion or seen as inadmissible in law. Add to that the largely unaddressed issue of sexual harassment in media offices – for all our posturing and pointing fingers at other industries – and the problem is magnified.


One assumes therefore that the Times Literary Carnival knew what it was doing when it invited Tejpal as a panellist. And yet it found itself unable to come up with an adequate defence against the anger on Twitter. So Bachi Karkaria, organiser of the literary festival, announced on Twitter that Tejpal had been asked not to attend because the festival did not want “extraneous noise”.


I have discussed the notion of extraneous noise in a piece for the opinion website, DailyO, and will not repeat that here. Instead, let us salute extraneous noise and the power of public opinion on social media, which can make a behemoth notice a pesky ant and change direction. Not a retraction, not a “recusal”, not a “penance that lacerates” but at the very least, a shift in “adamantine resolve”.


The God of 140 characters, I salute you!


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