How the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case has affected Tehelka

A single incident of molestation has blanked out all other news in India for three days, and that in the middle of an important election. This is an indication of our priorities, and it should tell the world a thing or two about the quality of journalism in India.

Much of this quality, the good bits anyway, came from the work of Tehelka, a journal and website which has done outstanding and brave work. Its editor Tarun Tejpal attacked one of his young female employees in a Goa hotel elevator. She filed a complaint and now Tejpal has been charged with rape by the Goa government. Here are a few observations on this story.

First, Tehelka has been damaged by this. It is fine to say that the magazine and the brilliant journalism it has done is the work of a team rather than an individual. But the fact is that Tehelka is too closely associated with its proprietor-editor to come out of this without a substantial and in my opinion a fatal loss of credibility. This is a shame. And it is too small and insignificant a media organ to be able to afford to rebuild its reputation, which its owner has just flushed away.

The second is that the media, or at least one organ, will finally realise how unfair and heavy-handed media in India generally is to other people. The manner in which we journalists climb into a story - all together and with emotions aflame - is frightening. Tehelka says the media shouldn't rush to judgment, but that is precisely what the media does all the time.

 How the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case has affected Tehelka


Thirdly, Tehelka's institutional response has been disappointing. It has been too self-congratulatory, for one. The emails they have sent out make one cringe. The management, meaning Tejpal and his deputies, also seem to have waited for the thing to blow away and that was unwise. They have made it difficult for people to see the actions of Tejpal independently of Tehelka.

A fourth observation is that this scandal may not have come to light without Twitter. Newspapers and television channels would have hesitated to report on something of this nature, meaning an incident where no police complaint was filed. It was Twitter's interest in it that ensured it was followed up without much hand-wringing in the newsroom. Some editors, I can think of one in particular, have got away with similar behaviour in the past because they were confident, rightly, that it wouldn't be reported.

Fifth, Tejpal has gone into self-preservation mode. He has been charged with rape under a new law that expands the definition of the crime. That means years of trouble for him, and his fear is justified. But what he is doing is the opposite of honourable and certainly he can be accused of hypocrisy, given how Manichean a view of the world his magazine has held.

One final thing. Tehelka made its reputation exposing corruption in cricket and then cemented it with a sensational report of corruption in defence deals during the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This was 12 years ago.

The BJP response was vicious, and it went after the businesses of Tehelka's financers, raiding them incessantly in an act of naked harassment. I was on the executive committee of the Editors Guild of India then and one day we invited LK Advani, who was home minister, over for a session.

One of the first things he was asked was why he and his party were making life difficult for that little website (it was only a website then). Advani was disturbingly frank: "If they go after us, we will go after them."

Goa is of course run by the BJP, which has sent a team to interrogate and perhaps arrest Tejpal. Their enthusiasm for turning the screws on him can be seen in this light.
But this time, it is entirely his doing and it is justified.

Updated Date: Nov 27, 2013 08:24:55 IST