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Tehelka, Jhatka and now Tamasha:Satya Sagar

December 2, 2013

Guest post by Satya Sagar

Eight years ago I remember listening to Tarun Tejpal in Bangalore as he held forth on how the news media could change the world for the better. It was a gathering of journalism students from Catholic institutions around the country and Tejpal was impressive in his defense of media freedoms.

He was passionate, charismatic, extremely articulate and as Chief Editor of Tehelka- with some of the best stories of Indian journalism behind them- very credible too. After his speech Tejpal left in a hurry, like a star priest dashing off to his next flaming sermon and fawning audience.

I was the following speaker and was openly skeptical of Tejpal valorising the profession of journalism and the potential of the media in general to transform anything beyond superficialities. (At that time I had no idea Mr Tejpal would turn out to be the complete fake he has proved to be now.)

My simple point to the students and the media studies professors before me was -  there is no such thing as ‘journalism’ outside the framework of the media industry. The so-called fourth pillar of democracy was in fact the fifth column of capital- this role being somewhat hidden in the past but flaunted quite openly these days.

The business interests of the media owners were the single most important factor shaping the limits of journalism and the biggest threat to the ‘freedom of the press’ lay within the media organisation itself. Every journalist who ever roared like a lion at a press conference was sure to tuck tail between legs, while in his own office.

The security of a job and privileges of the trade were, for most journalists, far more important than the values of the profession they claimed to stand for. Nothing unique or surprising about this of course, as this is the norm in all industries- not just the media.  However, this abject surrender of most mediapersons to their paymasters is the real reason why they deliberately miss out on all the really important news stories that stare them in the face every day and instead pass off frivolous triviliaties as ‘scoops’.

Just as it is not possible these days to find religion in temples, mosques or churches; health in the hospitals; education in our schools; or revolution in the revolutionary parties – it is meaningless to expect any truth from the news industry. To rub it all I added, while there was a good chance of getting some insights into the society we live in by watching soap operas or cinema – for pure entertainment news channels are the medium to go to.

All this I recollect now as Tejpal – the much feted journalist, publisher, novelist, impresario turned alleged sex offender – faces arrest and is hounded by the rest of the Indian media. His story has hogged headline space for an incredible five days in a row already as if nothing more important is happening in a land of 1.2 billion people!

There is no doubt at all in my mind that what Tejpal is accused of – sexual assault on a defenceless young woman employee – is a shocking act of pure criminality.

Tarun Tejpal happened to operate in a circuit that was like the IPL of sexual abuse – where the high and mighty do whatever they please with anybody lower down the pecking order. He was part of a planet where power, wealth and fame not only acted as aphrodisiac but offered the bonus of endless impunity too. Preying upon (known in these circles as ‘scoring’) a young female, even one the age of your daughter, was just part of the daily ’20-20’ routine.

Further,  as the skeletons fall out of the Tehelka cupboard, it turns out Tejpal and those in the top echelons of the magazine (at least in recent years) had turned against every principle they themselves preached the loudest. Suppressing stories in order to ‘monetize’ them, plugging on behalf of corporate sponsors, using media privileges to amass property and forging business alliances with known crooks. All this while getting employees of Tehelka to constantly ‘tighten’ their belts and slave on for the cause of ‘great’ journalism.

For this Tejpal should be tried and punished as severely as the law permits. Uptil now it seems difficult for him to escape a long time in prison and rightly so too.

Having said all this, I am not very sure if the rest of the Indian media has the credibility to do endless talk shows or write pompous editorials about the Tehelka editor as if he were a freak accident in their midst. Nobody it seems wants to investigate the fact that Tarun Tejpal’s behaviour was perhaps the norm and not an aberration in the media industry.

First of all I don’t even think most of the news channels or newspapers are  covering the story because of the gravity of the crime Tejpal is supposed to have committed. Anyone, who has followed how the 24 by 7 media really operates, knows all this frenzy is because the idea of a ‘rape in a 5 star setting’, with celebrities (Robert de Niro in a cameo role) at the center of the story to boot can send the hearts of their audiences racing and TRPs of their channels zooming.

“CCTV cameras show woman journalist walking out of lift and adjusting her skirts” said a ‘Titillation’ Times of India headline recently. Many journalists routinely punch out obnoxious sentences like that on the front pages of their newspapers every day deliberately insensitive to the context involved.

Years ago, working for this idiotic media group, I was pulled up for doing a story on the growth of the poultry industry. In an official letter I was informed that it was the group’s policy ‘not to promote the meat industry’- presumably because the owners were vegetable-loving Jains. Today even a casual look at the stories and visuals on their website would reveal the ToI is foremost in projecting all women as ‘meat’. Rape in particular is a favourite subject for this newspaper (being an important pillar of India’s ‘erectoral democracy’) and it would be very nice if Mr Arnab ‘Outrage’ Goswami grills  his bosses about this some day (the Nation wants to know you @#$%&!)

Secondly, some of the glee evident among mainstream journalists at Tehelka’s downfall is because the outfit was always an upstart interloper in the world of Indian media and never really accepted it as ‘one of its own’. As a new entrant in the media market Tehelka was willing to break with convention, both in terms of content and methods, immediately earning the suspicion of the defenders of old-style and more conservative journalism.

The ToIs, the Hindu, Indian Express, Hindustan Times and the numerous noisy TV channels that have emerged in the last two decades are mostly run by well-entrenched, family-run business groups projecting a facade of civilised norms while protecting the colonial kleptocracy called ‘India’.  When it launched with a bang over a decade and half ago, Tehelka’s operation was based on little more than sheer audacity, something the rest of the media (emascualted by the vested interests of its owners) had lost a long time ago.

Interestingly, despite its reputation for ‘rocking the boat’ there was  little that Tehelka’s famous sting operations revealed that the rest of the media did not already know or the public already suspect. Many journalists for example knew that top Indian army officials were purchaseable for bottles of Scotch or that cricket matches were being fixed for money and leaders of ‘nationalist’ political parties were taking bribes to sell national security. However, no news outlet had the cojones to take them up for the simple reason that attacking the Indian army, cricket and Hindu nationalism – all holy cows of the great Indian middle-classes-  meant bringing down their idea of what ‘India’ was all about.

‘Sabko nanga karne wala ab khud nanga ho gaya’ goes the typical refrain one finds on social media platforms posted by anonymous characters who have an opinion on everything and a stake in nothing. Some of this middle-class anger is now being reflected in the way the Tejpal story has also been taken up by the media – as a way of showing him ‘his place’.

(This is not to say that those who admired Tehelka’s coverage of communalism, state atrocities or other important issues have not been angry too at Tejpal’s criminal behaviour or at subsequent revelations of his organisation’s corruption. There is a deep sense of betrayal among many who had sought to use Tehelka as a media platform to raise issues of significance to the Indian public.)

If maintream Indian media really had an iota of shame or honesty – along with following the Tejpal story- they should be ‘outing’ the numerous other Tejpals who continue to occupy exalted status within their own hierarchies. Those cameras chasing the former editor of Tehelka, should go back to their media offices and record how junior employees- particularly women- are being treated every day by their bosses.

Some of them should also examine the track record of their bosses both present and from the past. Does anyone in the Indian media have the guts to investigate long-standing charges of sexual predation against women employees by the late and ‘legendary’ founder of a newspaper that claims to do ‘journalism of courage’? Will every journalist who ever won an award in this ‘great media defender’s’ name return it if they found evidence of his atrocities? Is anyone within the media even interested in finding out by tracking down and talking to the survivors of his predations and gathering such evidence?

Why confine coverage to just the news media sector- is the media willing to touch the sexual  shenanigans that happen within the Indian corporate and business sector in general? The case a few years ago involving a senior executive in India’s top IT company – was just the tip of the iceberg as far as rampant sexual harassment within India Inc. goes.

And if one chooses to look beyond middle and upper middle class India then the cases of sexual assault and rape are equally numerous and horrific, particularly in the construction industry where women are routinely forced to give ‘sexual favours’ in order to get daily wage work. Or for that matter among agricultural labour where institutionalised forms of sexual exploitation of women by landlords are passed off as ‘tradition’.

Also, given that the Tehelka story has gone beyond just sexual abuse to one of molesting the core values of journalism, the coverage today should be of how every single media organisation is in the vice-like grip of one major corporation or the other. Is the Indian media willing to tell us what are the kinds of bribes it accepts to publish promotional stories or suppress uncomfortable ones on a daily basis? Or even tell us who really owns their bloody publications and channels? Or, how many senior journalists have acquired land, houses, free junkets abroad or other favours from either the state or corporates for acting as their PR agents?

The list goes on but I do not expect the Indian media to investigate itself or its wealthy patrons- that is something  for the rest of the country to take up. The least one can do in the meanwhile is to switch off the television at home, throw the newspaper back at the newspaper boy and look out of the window to see what is happening in the real world out there. We don’t need big media to brainwash us and set our agenda as if we were the walking dead.

And some words here for activists, however well-meaning, who like to appear on TV talk-shows. The fresh experience of jhatka given by Tehelka to liberal and leftist causes should caution them against blindly lending credibility to the tamasha of the Indian media by rushing to participate in their hypocritical debates.

It is time to understand that the media is not a mere neutral messenger but among the masters of the vast slave-camp this country has become. What we need today are ways to directly communicate with the people of India while putting the 24×7 ‘StinkFest’ called the Indian media where it really belongs- in the dustbin.

Satya Sagar is a former journalist and public health worker based in Santiniketan, West Bengal. He can be contacted at sagarnama@gmail.com

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Raj S permalink
    December 2, 2013 11:18 AM

    “The business interests of the media owners were the single most important factor shaping the limits of journalism”
    Well put. Now that news coverage is free on internet, the stories are clearly smaller, designed to drive as many page-views as possible, at the smallest possible cost. A large amount of media coverage looks biased enough to seem bought out. At present, Tehelka, NDTV, IBN, etc, appears too heavily in favor of ruling Congress to be really out of some ideology.

  2. LEONARDO permalink
    December 2, 2013 12:04 PM

    BRUTALLY HONEST

  3. Dinesh Sinha permalink
    December 2, 2013 1:14 PM

    Thank you — a lot to mull over !

  4. December 2, 2013 1:17 PM

    Stellar piece. Absolutely spot on.

  5. Bibek Bhattacharya permalink
    December 2, 2013 1:18 PM

    Stellar piece. Absolutely spot on!

  6. Debjit Chanda permalink
    December 2, 2013 2:14 PM

    Totally agreed….most of what the media does these days is baffling…one reason why i never trust the media and the people of that industry….they are immoral to the core….

  7. Richa Hushing permalink
    December 2, 2013 3:10 PM

    It appears that you have quit journalism. Is it indeed so ? What possibilities do independent freelance journalists have ? …just that they have to rely upon blogging n tweeting ? and do something else altogether to win bread at least if not butter ?

  8. Pothik permalink
    December 2, 2013 4:10 PM

    This is superb. The only point that needs to be added to this is the intensified levels of class segmentation, mostly gendered, of working journalists in big (as well as the so-called little) media corporations. Salary differentials and unequal distribution of work and work opportunities based on the capitalist-patriarchal ethic of professional flexibility and so-called social.skilfulness (a euphemism for coercive delegitimation of dissent) is as much an assault on a woman journalist’s body (by way of being overworked for poor pay as a way of punishing those who do not submit to the game of being so-called smart [read sexually available) and 'efficient' (productively malleable) journalists] as acts of sexual harassment and rape. The twinned processes of gendering of class and classi-fication of gender wrought by such organisation of the production process in media houses, we should realise, has produced a continuum of capitalist-patriarchal assaults on the bodies of women journalists. Unfortunately, the hullabaloo created by the Tejpal affair does not not only address this larger and more fundamental structural question but actually detracts from it by fanning a politics of spectacle.

  9. subhash gatade permalink
    December 2, 2013 4:51 PM

    I was just reminded of the slogan of the early 70′s which was raised by the anti-war movement in US. ‘Media – Do Not Swallow it’

  10. Prof.Mohan Rao permalink
    December 2, 2013 8:18 PM

    Am I allowed to mention names? No, I had better not. A senior journalist, whom I trust, told me yesterday that it was well-known in journalistic circles that the top three predators on young women journalists is a former editor of Asian Age who now writes also in TOI, an editor at HT, known for corruption in food columns and of course the Radia tapes, and Mr. Tarun Tejpal.
    Interestingly, financial sleaziness, extends, I was told far beyond sexual sleaziness. And that in Tehelka’s case, the latter was always there, and the former began around 2003.
    If this is so well known, why were journalists complicit in this? Why are they now pretending Mr.Tarun Tejpal is one bad apple? The moralising and lynch crowd mentality in the media is frightening and must be opposed. It has profound implications for the reportage of truth in the future.

  11. December 2, 2013 9:19 PM

    Indian democracy is nothing but a “Colonial Kleptocracy” – Excellent article on what we have become .

  12. Jay permalink
    December 2, 2013 9:59 PM

    But the raucous cockfight of competing political parties and businesses through their pet publications does bring out at least the half-truth.

  13. December 2, 2013 10:18 PM

    Thank you for an extremely well argued and timely piece of writing. However, after indicting the media and India Inc., correctly for invisible violations of the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ you move to beyond the Indian upper and middleclasses to construction sites and agricultural labour, where too, as you rightly point out, women face horrific gendered violence. But what about domestic servants? Women working as part-time or full time domestic servitude also face terrible sexual violence, and their case is so invisible that it appears almost as though there is a conspiracy of silence here too.

  14. Hina permalink
    December 2, 2013 11:33 PM

    “The first job of a newspaper is to make money.” This was the very first lesson to us when I had joined a course in journalism years ago. The ‘teacher’ was a senior editor from a leading newspaper. I was young and had joined the course ‘starry eyed’ to learn to write!. After hearing this first lesson, I stopped attending the class, even though it meant forgoing the fees I had paid.

  15. gita ramaswamy permalink
    December 3, 2013 9:33 AM

    Thank you for a well-argued piece. Activists, however, cannot ignore the press, and it is easier on hindsight, to spot mistakes. As I went through the lists of Who Are The Activists Who Attended Tejpal’s Thinkfests, I stand horrified. What do we do for the now? How do we present a case for the issues of people before the nation without using the venal press? What kind of guidelines can we frame for ourselves?

  16. Jaiwantika Dutta Dhupkar permalink
    December 3, 2013 10:38 AM

    It’s interesting how people think the case against Tejpal is going to alter what readers feel for Tehelka. I’d like to prophesise and say Tehelka will be just as popular as ever. All the journalists at Tehelka were credible professionals, and had their own fan followings. It may sound unfortunate, but it’s very true that the majority of Indian readers are totally capable of separating their disgust for ‘Tejpal, the assaulter’ from their respect for “Tejpal, the Journalist’ and their admiration for “Tehelka, The Brand’.
    I felt horrible for the young journalist,and a lot of people empathized with her probably because “rape” is frequently used as a synonym for psychological/ emotional/physical violation in our society. I’ve heard men sitting across boardroom tables, losing arguments and talking about feeling ‘raped’. While I hope the system gives her due justice, I also hope she, and many other people like her can free themselves of their shocking victim mentality.

    For professional reasons perhaps, several newspapers crowed gleefully as trouble erupted for Tehelka. Shoma Chaudhury received absolutely no support from the National Commision for Women {NCW} when her home was vandalized. She is mother to a very young child, and you can imagine how horrendous and callous that act was. The victim, on the other hand, was given full power of anonymity. Anonymity is wonderful, but since the law is supposed to be unbiased and the media should not pronounce any sort of verdict, the power to cast allegations in public without taking responsibility for them should not be encouraged by any of the parties. In short, a quote in a newspaper without a name and an identity to it is a meaningless quote.

    As far as the general public is concerned, it may take Tejpal’s future statements on feminism with a pinch of salt, but there is absolutely no doubt that he will still be a respected journalist and the founder of a respected brand.

  17. Pratibha Umashankar permalink
    December 3, 2013 1:22 PM

    It was after a long time that I read an incisive, acerbic and hard-hitting story. It was a reminder of the true function and purpose of journalism. I would hate to think the writer has quit the profession. Here’s wishing more power to your pen!
    Pratibha Umashankar

  18. Shourav permalink
    December 3, 2013 1:23 PM

    Spot on. The Indian media, in fact, the entire corporate media the world over, is essentially a propaganda tool used by the elites to brainwash and manufacture consent of the masses. The sooner people understand this and start boycotting the corporate media, and start looking towards independent news organization, the better it would be for humanity.

  19. Dr. Manasee Palshikar permalink
    December 3, 2013 3:38 PM

    Interesting reading. However, I do wish to point to what I hope is an inadvertent slip.
    “…Tehelka story has gone beyond just sexual abuse to one of molesting the core values of journalism”
    ‘just’ sexual abuse?
    There is nothing ‘only’, or ‘just’ about sexual assaults.
    And at this time, that there be justice is more important than the core values of journalism.
    Although it is very interesting and only right that we should look at the widespread corruption in the media, I hope it will not take the focus away from the young complainant, the distress caused to her.
    Just as the ‘is BJP going for Tejpal v/s will Congress protect him ‘ slugfest turned what should have been a Gender discourse into some kind of election canvassing ,
    this expanding of the discussion , having a broader view, however important it may be should not turn us way from the fact that a complaint has been made, a crime is being investigated.

  20. anaarkali permalink
    December 3, 2013 4:01 PM

    Satya an aside from your excellent debunking of the meida – do you still feel that revolutionary parties should have revolution in them given the dismal trajectory that all revolutions have followed?!!!

    • December 3, 2013 9:03 PM

      Good to hear from a fellow ‘Anarkalist’ (Anarchy + Anarkali). To answer your question I think it is important to learn from the failures of the past and keep the idea of revolution alive, as it represents hope and the human ability to imagine a radically better future. And if you have children (or even happen to have met some!) you realize there is no choice except to be an eternal optimist and can’t simply give up.

      Revolution currently flags everywhere precisely because it has become a mere flag to be waved on formal occasions. Just as news has to be rescued from ‘newspapers’, education from academia, politics from politicians and spirituality from religious institutions – the revolution has to be rescued from those who carry it around in well decorated coffins on a Long March to its graveyard. Exactly how that will be done? Well, (I need a cigarette and coffee now!) there is no substitute for the old slogan, ‘Go Back to the Masses’.

      • anaarkali permalink
        December 4, 2013 11:45 AM

        Its one thing to be optimistic about the establishment of a just and sustainable social, economic and environmental order and quite another to think that it can be done through the conduct of revolutions. as one quote on the internet says – every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy (it is attributed to Kafka but this is contested by Kafka scholars). this is because the conduct of a revolution to overthrow a centralised system requires a centralised system which despite all its radical professions must necessarily be bureaucratic and hierarchic. why for instance do you now have to freelance on your own instead of setting up a counter media organisation? even being part of a small organisation like I am continually requires facing up to the dangers of bureaucratisation. especially when the system that we are trying to overthrow is highly bureaucratic and powerful with all kinds of resources including the crucial one of intellect concentrated in the hands of a few.

        • December 4, 2013 1:39 PM

          The term ‘revolution’ technically speaking means starting from point A and returning to point A after a full circle. It is however the journey itself where great and beautiful things happen. Focusing just on the end points would make the world and our lives seem completely meaningless and lead to the kind of nihilism that characterises many of the religions in India. Unfortunately such nihilism also afflicts some of our ‘revolutionaries’ whose national anthem seems to be ‘jalado mitado, yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye tho kya hei!’

          You have to accept that part of the risk of being alive is that at some stage you are bound to end up dead. All institutions, even the best of them, are mortal and in that sense you are right that revolutions can end up as a dead bureaucratic mess.But then the search for immortality – whether by institutions or individuals – is essentially utopian and breeds either fanatical belief or deep cynicism. The challenge for all of us is to be able to preserve what is still living, give dead institutions a decent burial and figure out how to plant new seeds of hope. We have no choice except to keep the fire burning…

          • anaarkali permalink
            December 4, 2013 3:32 PM

            when you mentioned revolution having gone out of revolutionary parties in your original post the reader would normally understand that you are referring to broadly marxist revolutionary parties so you can’t now resort to semantic jugglery and switch to the another dictionary meaning of revolution than the one which seems obvious from the context in which you had used the word!! anyway my comment was not to engage in a very serious discussion on the possibilities or otherwise of changing institutions or systems or to whether we should or should not become fanatical or cynical but to point out that the radical project if it is conducted in a revolutionary manner in the marxist sense has proved to have not achieved its ends even if the process may have produced many other positives and it may be because both the means and the ends of such revolutionary practice may be questionable. I for one am not really worried that revolution has gone out of revolutionary parties or that revolutionary parties themselves have become marginal because I do not see the same promise in them that Marx once saw!!! Even after acknowledging that miniscule but hugely powerful global kleptocracy now rules the whole world from financial centres like New York, London and the like one can still continue to fight them with whatever capacity one has but completely free of utopian illusions.

  21. Ravi Ranjan permalink
    December 4, 2013 9:09 AM

    Activists lend credibility to Indian media StinkFest by particiating in TV debates…
    Like Left lends credibility to Indian Parliament PigSty by participating in elections…?
    Or like activists lend credibility to Indian Courts by appealing to them for justice…?
    After all, in elections, if they lose, rulers get to say we’re fair, Left could contest, they lost because people rejected them; if they win, rulers get to say, see how democratic we are, Left can even win…Same with courts, if activists lose, rulers are ratified and can say activists’ stance is not legal, if activists win, courts are ratified, they look noble.
    Would you agree the Maoists are right Satya Sagar?

    • December 4, 2013 11:35 AM

      In my view the Maoists are mostly right in their critique of the system as it stands today but not in their response to it. Boycotting mainstream institutions should be done hand in hand with the creation of alternative ones that serve the cause of radical change. Neither blind acceptance of existing institutions nor running away from the task of creating new ones are the right thing to do. Building alternatives- whether in the media, health, education, judicial system, politics etc. – is a painstaking task that requires a lot more energy, patience and long-term commitment than involved in the mere wielding of guns and bombs. The Maoists need to come out boldly to join hands with others and help create these new institutions – which is where the real blood, sweat and tears need to be invested. India is too large and diverse a country to be transformed from deep inside the forest.

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