This post is not going to be about the business or technology aspects that I normally tend to cover here and it quite a rant, so feel free to skip.
The past couple of days have been really hard watching the terrible events at Tehelka unfold. Even though I have worked for a very short period at Tehelka during the really early days, I can’t claim to personally know either Tarun or Shoma and I have no clue about the identity of the victim either. The industry, though, is one where I have worked for a good decade and more and my relationship with it has been a troubled one. I still have very good friends in the industry and I do consulting work on and off in it.
Sadly, the incident and how everyone is reacting to it sums up my major problem with Indian media. We behave like entitled holier-than-thou cretins in the best of times and in instances like these it gets worse. Even senior journalists shed any modicum of responsibility they have towards bringing out the facts and everyone essentially turns into armchair inquisitors. Combine this with the readily-available lynch mobs that form only too easily on social media and reasonableness is nowhere to be seen.
Before I continue, I’d like to make one thing clear. What seems to have happened (‘seems’ because we need a proper investigation to look into it and I fear what comes out will be worse than what we know right now) is terrible. While I do enjoy the odd Tehelka story forwarded by friends, I am not a regular reader of the magazine and even while I am aware of its thinly-disguised bias or agenda, I find it has a significant role to play in providing a counterbalance to the fringe at the other end of the spectrum.
That said, it is also sad to see an organization slowly being bled to death like this. I have no idea why Shoma is doing what she is doing, but whatever she is doing is destroying the organization one statement at a time. It may well be the case that she is trying to save a dear friend or the company from a potentially devastating legal scenario, but saving it like this won’t leave an ounce of credibility left on the table when it is all over and done with. For the subjects that the magazine tends to cover, credibility is everything.
When you ask for exceptional things from the people you cover (honesty, courage, moral standards, fairness), it is only natural that people would expect at least a similar standard when the story is you. The internal emails that addressed the incident were so Clintonian in nature that I almost expected a diatribe on the meaning of “is” somewhere along the way. Not only were the choice of words extremely poor, but it also displayed a sense of denial about the gravity of the accusation.
Even so, the victim has every right to choose the manner she sees feels is the right way ahead. Unless you have been in a similar situation, which (fortunately), I have not been in, you cannot imagine even the smallest thing about what she is going through. So, pretending to understand and know what is the right thing to do for her is nonsensical. Similarly, it is for the law to determine what course it should take and pursue matters to the logical conclusion; it does not matter whether Tarun has recused himself or not.
Which brings us back to my main problem with the industry — which is that we are a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. It is not uncommon for a senior journalist to be on a prime time show and criticize the hell out of a celebrity caught in a DUI/hit-and-run case and go straight to the Press Club for more than a drink or two, which is often followed by driving home drunk. Should a cop pull you over in such a state, the ‘press’ privilege is flashed and you go scot free.
I can bet that pretty much every single senior journalist raging at Tehelka has, at some stage of their career, known about some instance or the other of harassment or abuse in their organization that was hushed up. Media organizations, especially the news desks, are high stress, hostile environments to work in, especially for women. If we exercise the same degree of fairness and action that we are clamoring for from a Shoma, in organizations that we work in, a lot of these problems would not exist in the first place.
The fact is that most of us don’t and when it comes our own responsibility, all kinds of excuses start showing up.
It is hypocritical to be shocked by how Tehelka is handling this as this is how almost every media organization handles incidents of a similar nature. This is certainly not the first case of “drunken banter” the industry has seen. I am more shocked by how everyone is pretending this to be the case. It will be enlightening to do an assessment of the level of support for women on the issue of sexual harassment is in media organizations in India. I will not be surprised, if the results are shocking. Yet, every journalist out there is pretending that Tehelka is somehow a unique story.
It is not.
The sad reality is that this incident is yet another instance of everyone washing their hands off the problem. When the December 16 gang rape happened, the undertone was of a problem that is precipitated by poor, unwashed migrants who have nothing to do about their raging hormones. For the educated, cultured and privileged, such problems are always nicely compartmentalized away. It is something that happens to “those people”.
The sad reality is that in almost every family there is an uncle who is fond of pinching/fondling young kids a bit too much. The number of friends I know who have been sexually abused as kids is just way too high. These stories are all from so-called cultured, well-to-do, educated families where the solution is to hush things up. The unwashed gets the blame because there is nobody influential enough in their lives to ensure that there is no coverage, but they are, by no means, the only ones who are raping, molesting and harassing both the young and the old.
That said, lynch mobs or not, I consider it a good thing that these horrific stories are starting to come out. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge that we have a problem in the first place. On that front, at least the well-to-do are in so much denial that only the shocking truth in more such revelations will show us how rampant abuse of every kind is in our society. But it will get a whole lot worse first, when we face up to our true selves, before it gets any better.