A high profile editor with high powered connections (he got Sonia Gandhi to write to the home minister, seeking closure of investigations into the various shady activities of his magazine) sexually assaults his junior colleague. The victim of his lechery is the daughter of a journalist, as old as the offender’s daughter, her best friend.
A relationship of trust is dishonoured through a criminal deed. The victim is traumatised, reduced to tears. She confides in her colleagues. The next day, she again suffers the humiliation of being subjected to what legally amounts to rape. She carries her story to the magazine’s managing editor and demands an inquiry as well as a public apology.
Over the next week every effort is made to first bully the victim into withdrawing her charges; when that fails, maudlin text messages are sent to her by the editor. But she stands her ground. Finally, in a grand show of self-righteous sanctimony, the editor decides to go on six months paid leave to do “penance that lacerates me” for what he calls his “lapse of judgement”.
The managing editor circulates the editor’s mail among the staff and rues that an “untoward incident” has brought the situation to such a pass. To others she says that it’s an “internal issue” which has been “settled” with the editor’s “apology” and by his decision to step down for six months.
That, in brief, is the story of the scandal that has rocked Tehelka, the magazine which excels in sleaze and slander through stings and snoops. Its hubris lies in tatters, its editor named and shamed in a manner never seen before. Whether polite society will shun Tarun Tejpal for his deed remains to be seen. Nor do we know whether 24x7 news channels will now strike out the name of Shoma Chaudhury from the list of permanent invitees for panel discussions on issues ranging from Maobadi terror to women’s rights, and that perennial subject of studio chatter -- secularism.
In normal course the sins of the editor should not be visited upon the managing editor. But this is far from normal. Shoma Chaudhury has displayed amazing disregard for the victim’s anguish and continues to obfuscate the real issue -- that of sexual assault. It could be argued that the charges remain in the realm of allegations. True. But for the facts to be sieved from the anguished outpouring of the victim, an investigation is called for -- by an in-house committee, as decreed by the Supreme Court in the Vishaka judgement, and by the police. There is nothing ‘internal’ about crime and punishment cannot be self-declared. Yet an investigation is being stalled by the managing editor; the attempt is clearly to gloss over workplace sexual assault as “drunken banter”.
In a sense, this is what should worry us. Barring the odd case we read about, rare is the instance of workplace sexual harassment or worse that is punished. It would seem such abuse rarely occurs, which is far from the truth, more so in media of which I have intimate knowledge over three decades. Media houses are aware of editors who can’t keep their flies zipped and their hands tucked in their pockets, but they are not only hired but also feted and pampered. They are the toast of the town and fawned upon by socialites at glittering parties.
Politicians keep them in good humour. Journalists heap praises upon them in the hope of either a promotion or a job. Such editors have existed from time immemorial. Let’s not forget a scribe’s profession was born from the task of a court historian.
Those of us who work out of Delhi know more about editors and their flunkies than do readers of papers and viewers of channels. We know the serial offenders. We know the corrupt and the venal. Yet we keep quiet. Worse, we smile and exchange pleasantries, pat each other’s back, when we meet. The code of omerta is never broken. Old school journalists like me camouflage their failure to call out, to name and shame colleagues, by taking refuge in the lame dictum that dog doesn’t eat dog. Sadly, that is also an admission of how we see each other.
In sharp contrast, here’s a young journalist who has stood up to her tormentor. I have no hesitation in admitting that her courage is at once inspiring and shaming -- it has inspired young (and not so young) journalists to speak up, especially on social media; it has shamed those of us who opted to remain silent all these years. For, Tarun Tejpal should have been exposed years ago.
The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist