Unacceptable: Laxness & Laziness of the past

23 Oct,2018

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The MeToo movement shows no sign of stopping although it is slowing down in terms of revelations and accusations as far as the media is concerned. That should give us a chance to take a breath and assess where we are. We have learnt of horrors we had not known of. We have seen exposed all the horrors which we did know of. The first of the last two statements sounds ridiculous and that is because it is. Sexual harassment exists everywhere: why would media organisations be different? Because we are full of self-righteous outrage when we report on how the rest of the world behaves?

It took the advent of social media for media organisations and journalists to be forced to assess the way they work, present news and hide or display their biases. All the ivory towers of the past, of untouchable editors standing high above, arrogant newsrooms barely noticing readers as they crept by full of awe – all those images have been smashed to dust. And so it should be.

Sexual harassment is one more unspoken pillar which has fallen, and it must remain fallen and trampled forever. No more excuses about talent or alcohol or families or need to be made for bad and illegal behaviour. The criminal defamation case filed by MJ Akbar against Priya Ramani is a prime example of the entitlement and arrogance which the powerful have been allowed to get away with. It should be a textbook example of how editors must not, cannot behave.

But now what? The past is erupting around us and we have to use to that to ensure that it does not corrupt the future. We need to educate ourselves all over again, we have to insist that the Vishakha guidelines as well as the Internal Complaints Committees under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act are followed conscientiously. The laxness and laziness of the past is unacceptable – look at the misery and suffering which has been uncovered so far.

The very fact that we have senior women journalists almost condoning the behaviour of editors like Akbar, pooh-poohing the complaints of women who have been mauled and worse, just shows how internalised harassment had become. Some women argue that life is tough and women must just suck it up. It sounds like it makes sense until you realise that it is unjust, and in a profession where we claim to fight for justice for others, is it not ironical that we do not fight for justice for ourselves? The world has changed. Racism is no longer a fun game for supremacists to play. Well, so also sexism.

Getting off the soapbox now, to practical issues. Together with the Mumbai Press Club, the Network of Women in India is holding a conversation with senior editors on “how to change the culture in our newsrooms”, on Wednesday, October 24. Such conversations, within the sorority (and let’s use that word the same way fraternity is used these days) across India are vital.

I might add here that, taking the Tech Mahindra case where a female boss harangued a gay employee, who was only emboldened to come forward after Section 377 was decriminalised, we need to expand our vision to all forms of harassment in the workplace.

As journalists, we also need to rid ourselves of old practices. Why should a headline read: “Seven people, including women and children, were killed”? Why the “including”? And so on. There are innumerable examples of such inherent sexism in the language we use.

I might share a story here of my own shortcomings. I was present at one of the meetings, at the Mumbai Press Club, when the Network of Women in Media was being created. The discussion was on the coverage of the Gujarat riots of 2002, since I worked with the Times of India in Ahmedabad then. Someone asked me how many special stories we had done on women and how they had suffered. So proud that I was of our fearless coverage until then, I was stumped. I had to shamefacedly admit we had not done such stories and then get the newsroom to start doing them once I went back to Ahmedabad.

It’s the mindset. And it is so encouraging that today’s young journalists are challenging it.

 

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

 

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