Tehelka, Jhatka and now Tamasha


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 defence 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 trivialities 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 in 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 come dancing 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 insenstive 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’ or as ‘chicks’. 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 mainstream 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 – who constantly mixed up software with underwear- 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 [email protected]

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