A file photo of Tarun Tejpal. Photo: HT
A file photo of Tarun Tejpal. Photo: HT

Tehelka’s moment of hubris

Tehelka has justified its investigative journalism as being solely in the interest of the victim. There cannot be a different rule when the magazine's founder is under scrutiny

The late British columnist Bernard Levin once wrote: Those who live in glass houses should undress in the dark. His target was British politicians and celebrities and their moral hypocrisy, but its resonance strikes far wider. Its underlying message—practise what you preach.

Since its inception, Tehelka has been at the forefront of demanding probity in public life. It has championed even unpopular causes, reminding the shining India of the dark side, where a declining, pining, and crying India survived. In covering those stories, its reporters deployed unorthodox methods—some of which stretched the limits of law, some of which were certainly not ethical—to publish facts that it claimed it would not have got otherwise.

Stretching rules and pushing hard has been the magazine’s philosophy; its justification being that it serves a larger purpose. When others have pointed out its editorial or ethical lapses, Tehelka has chosen to ride roughshod over it in a manner that seems almost cavalier—be it over the use of sex workers to tempt public officials and to record evidence for its investigations, or letting unprepared or under-prepared young journalists to go and report in a conflict zone (after which its photojournalist died, succumbing to his illness). True, the magazine has produced sensational scoops, and if there hasn’t been follow-up action, the fault lies with India’s creaky judicial administration. (Disclosure: I have sporadically written for Tehelka since its origin till 2011. I have disagreed with many of its methods, including concealment of identity by reporters, and its editors know that. That doesn’t detract from the importance of its journalism.)

There are serious governance issues at the magazine. When an organization bends rules in one direction, or makes its own rules, and considers itself to be the moral arbiter, that’s the moment to pause: it is the moment of hubris. And what happened at its intellectual gabfest in early November in Goa is Tehelka’s moment of hubris.

Tarun Tejpal’s statement recusing himself from the editorship for six months is eloquent on one hand, with words like “penance", “lacerate" and “atonement" appearing with ease, as if Tejpal is writing about a character in his novel—remember, he is a writer. But what an odd word to use, “recuse"; for only judges recuse themselves from cases before them because of conflict of interest, and one doesn’t expect Tejpal to judge what happened; “stepping aside" would have been a more appropriate phrase, if the intent was to make it palatable. And yet, on the other hand, the statement is tone-deaf, misreading the mood of a changed nation, unable to comprehend the gravity of the charge, as if ignorant of the consequences of what may have happened. Shoma Chaudhury, who has since taken over as editor, has responded in a way that she would ridicule, if she were reporting the story for Tehelka, and if the target of her inquiry offered such a defence. Calling what happened in Goa “an untoward incident", as she does, is the type of euphemism that she as an editor would strike out, yelling at the reporter, telling him to call a spade a spade instead. To challenge a journalist who asked her questions about transparency at the magazine, by questioning if the journalist is “an aggrieved party" shows the distance Tehelka has travelled from its ideals.

The Goan government is to be commended for taking the case seriously. An exemplary investigation by Goan police is necessary; if Tejpal is innocent, he should return with his honour intact to the editorship of Tehelka. If the allegations are true, however, he should face the legal consequences.

Much will depend on what the Tehelka reporter decides to do. If she does not cooperate with the official investigation, it would significantly weaken the case. She must not lose nerve; she has done no wrong; she is the victim here, she has nothing to feel embarrassed about. If there’s any stigma, it is in the minds of those who judge her.

The Tehelka reporter is of course right in demanding that Tehelka follow the Vishaka Guidelines. But Vishaka is about the process an organization has to put in place to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. It is an internal grievance mechanism; it cannot replace a court of law, and this case appears to go beyond what Vishaka requires, if one goes by what the letter purportedly written by the reporter reveals. If that letter is an accurate description of what happened in Goa, then it is prima facie a case requiring criminal investigation, and that cannot be avoided because an in-house committee has investigated the matter.

Each time Tehelka has published a piece of serious investigative journalism, it has said it is acting solely in the interest of the victim. There cannot be a different rule when the magazine’s founder is under scrutiny. At Tehelka, Tejpal’s presence looms large; he is the founder, editor, and the spirit behind the brand. There can be serious questions about the magazine’s survival if he were to be away for a long time. Chaudhury is also closely associated with the magazine since its inception; if she has any role on the internal committee (to be headed by independent publisher Urvashi Butalia) too, that will raise serious questions of conflict of interest. How she handled the complaint when first received is a matter to be investigated. Whether she can continue as editor and manage the process with integrity is a question for her to answer.

Shorn of the lurid details already made public, this is a rather simple story of abuse of power by someone in authority picking on someone vulnerable. This is less about prurience and more about probity; less about the principals involved and more about the principle itself, particularly after the remarkable awakening in India towards crimes against women since the Delhi gang rape case last year. It can no longer be business as usual.

Note: This blog has been modified from its original version in order to protect the privacy of the victim.

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