Honourable route would’ve been to apologise, right?

16 Oct,2018

 

By Ranjona Banerji

Phew!!

The #MeToo movement in the media is now heading into several different directions. We have had stories of repeated bad sexual behaviour between colleagues, we have seen allegations against editors, both dead and alive, we have seen some media houses taking instant action and some taking slow action. We have seen some media houses promising that they will take action, if the allegations are found to be true pending investigation.

Most of all, we have seen an enormous outpouring of pent-up anger and pain by generations of women in the workplace. Thanks to Tanushree Dutta’s complaint against Nana Patekar, the floodgates have opened across several industries. Big names, big transgressions of trust, as well some allegations which many, including women, find to be in the grey area between consent and anger. We have had a few fake allegations as well, unfortunately trying to use a very important movement to settle personal agendas. Human nature, after all. It was journalist Sandhya Menon who bravely broached the media citadel and several walls which protected male privilege have since fallen.

And now, the backlash. Although many men apologised, some with disingenuous hurt innocence, some with jobs and reputations lost. Others have fought back, most notably, the most infamous alleged sexual predator of all, one of India’s most famous journalists and currently minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar. At last count 14 women have come out with their stories about their experiences with Akbar, when he was their editor. The pattern is remarkably the same, a massive difference of age and power: a senior powerful and legendary male editor and a young impressionable female journalist. The first was Priya Ramani. The most damning was that of Ghazala Wahab. All the women who have spoken out are now senior and respectable journalists.

Akbar has sued only Priya Ramani for criminal defamation so far. He is fighting for his lost reputation. The Narendra Modi-led BJP government, full of cultivated sanctimony about the empowerment of women, stands with Akbar. There is not even a hint of him standing down until enquiries are complete. Both Ramani and Wahab remain steadfast and so do several women who know what has gone on in newsrooms for years.

Let us remember that although the Supreme Court laid out the Vishakha guidelines for sexual harassment in the workplace in 1997, almost no media house even bothered. It was only in the late 2000s that conversations about Vishakha began. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013. Under this, each organisation has to have an Internal Complaints Committee. One can only hope that those organisations who have even bothered to set these up will now take them seriously. And others will also follow.

There are some senior women journalists who find themselves caught up in the bind of patriarchy and have to defend the men accused. Some have tried to deflect attention from workplace harassment and slam a society which allows the rape of babies. The trouble is that by doing this, they are endorsing workplace harassment and sexual abuse. The law, when it is applicable, has different punishments for degrees of crime. Does not mean that a “lesser” crime must be ignored because larger crimes also take place.

In any case, it is unlikely that any of the journalists who have come forward are looking for criminal punishment, legal reparation or monetary compensation from these men. They want acknowledgement and they want workplaces are cleaned up. As we saw with the Tech Mahindra case, where a young man spoke about being harassed by a female senior boss – he only found the courage after Section 377 was decriminalised. Workplaces have to be sensitised to harassment and bullying and bosses and colleagues must know that violation of personal space is unacceptable.

The other major defence has been made by journalist and poet CP Surendran. Eleven women have come forward with stories of sexual harassment by Surendran, some when he was editor of DNA. His response is truly extraordinary and frankly unacceptable. Complaints were made at the time, other staff and the HR department were made aware. Surendran has this to say:

“I may have made what some people consider to be sexist comments. I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality. I choose not to think in given categories. This may be construed as arrogance…

“I have no gender or political loyalties. I have paid a price for this all my life. I often rub people of both genders the wrong way with my often ill-considered views…

“The Me Too movement needs victims to feed and fatten itself. I won’t be the last.”

What does all this even mean? The last line is straight from the Trump-Kavanaugh playbook, where the perpetrator conveniently plays the victim. The first two statements are remarkable logical flights of fancy. To say that sexism is “an intellectual and physical reality” is stating the obvious and conveniently ignoring the fact that sexism is no longer acceptable, and it is horrific that it ever was. I am not sure what high intellectual quality there is in supporting millennia of gender discrimination. The excuse of having no gender or political loyalties is convenient bunkum and means nothing.

Many media houses have come out strongly in favour of ending workplace harassment in their editorials. One can only hope that this is reflected in their own workplaces.

Allegations have been made about two senior editors at The Wire. Two are throwaway lines from dubious Twitter handles, neither of which have gone further than talking about Sidharth Bhatia’s lip quivering and some salacious comment about a woman colleague he is said to have made in my presence. I heard no such comment and no complaint was ever made to me about quivering lips. The handles did not reply to my questions about when they worked in DNA with me and have now moved on to targeting journalists within The Times of India.

The other accusation is from a film-maker, against Vinod Dua, when she was starting out in her career and contains details of place and conversation in a Facebook post. The Wire has taken note of for both allegations and stated that their Internal Complaints Committee is deliberating the matter.

Regardless of those accused of harassment fighting back – and no one denies them the right to do that – but when the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, a more honourable route would perhaps have been to apologise. So far, women and men who find inappropriate workplace behaviour and sexual harassment unacceptable show purpose to keep fighting the good fight. The intent is to clean up the work environment, not destroy reputations. If we work together on this, it can only get better.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal

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