From inception, conventional notions of media ethics are not something the folks at Tehelka cared to adhere to. And despite complaints, it almost seems as if in Tejpal and Chaudhury’s value system sexual harassment just wasn’t such a major issue, says SEVANTI NINAN.

Journalists have always been a bit leery about Tarun Tejpal and his methods. An unlikely mix of conscience keeper and entrepreneur, his range of activities surpassed what most of us aspire to. He was more gifted by far than your average self important editor or hack. And more innovative in his financing. The November 28 revelations in The Indian Express about his forging a partnership with the controversial liquor baron the late Ponty Chadda to create a private club in Delhi which could offer ‘intimacy’ with eminent world shapers, is a good example.

His achievements have also been more spectacular that those of other high profile journalists. (Indeed, he may no longer see himself as one.) He published Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, created brands like Tehelka and THiNK, wrote fiction, and conceptualised art auctions in London. He is not constrained by the limited imagination, shall we say, of a mere media person.

In contrast to the wariness journalists felt about his activities, was the admiration he commanded in civil society. Their enthusiasm for Tehelka’s right-cause campaigns grew exponentially after the advent of THiNK. Increasingly Indian society’s creative, activist and intellectual cream flocked to it each year and raved about it. They admired the audacity of imagination which created a platform no other media event in India could quite match, albeit in initial partnership with the late lamented Newsweek.

Former US and Pakistani presidents may grace summits hosted by the other media houses, but only Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary had the sheer gall to aspire to a conversational pairing between an Afghan Taliban chief and the CIA’s former head of counter terrorism, and pull it off. Or bring a tribal activist to an event sponsored by mining corporations and make it possible for her to steal the show. Or commandeer performers from around the globe for their heady seaside celebrations of thought.

As for his media ventures, from inception, conventional notions of media ethics are not something the folks at Tehelka cared to adhere to. It was the Web Tehelka which seized upon sting entrapments to create sensational journalism, even if it meant recording private conversations of cricketers, or hiring sex workers to entrap officials, or thinking up an imaginary piece of defence equipment to supply. What other media house would have the financial sanctions for such adventures? The CBI slapped one of its reporters into jail for allegedly having leopards killed by poachers so that the act could be filmed. It was a charge that Tarun Tejpal and Aniruddh Bahal stoutly refuted. But the point is they broke conventional newsgathering norms quite spectacularly.

Then came THiNK and charges of blackmailing a state government into underwriting the costs of the event, of holding back stories about mining scandals and killing them, all of this covered in both the international and national press. A reporter resigned after stories she investigated in Gujarat were not used, and a firm featured in the story later became a sponsor of THiNK. Through all this fellow journalists grew steadily more wary of Tejpal and Tehelka, even as civil society remained starry-eyed till the news of the alleged sexual assault broke. Then, for the media, it was occasion to pounce.

Unsurprisingly, working at Tehelka had completely different pluses and minuses from other media establishments. If you were young you got space and opportunity to do investigations bigger than those that would come your way elsewhere. More importantly, you were encouraged to do stories there are few takers for in the media today. Yet the organisation did not give provident fund to its journalists, or organise insurance for those going out on dangerous assignments. A young photographer died last year of cerebral malaria contracted at Abujmarh in Chhattisgarh.

The kind of edgy, anti-establishment journalism Tehelka did also meant legal cases against its reporters, which they were often left to handle themselves after they had quit the organisation. It has not been easy for them to obtain adequate help from their former employer. Now with all legal resources focused on Tejpal, they will be even more on their own.

Even as the mandated committee on sexual harassment was never set up, for some of the women who worked in the Delhi office, sexual harassment was a real issue. Not necessarily because of Tejpal, though there are complaints voiced against him too. A former employee, who complained to him in writing about a colleague, said it took two weeks to get a response from Tejpal, and then it was to ask if she would like a transfer to a state bureau. Similar complaints from others were made to Shoma Chaudhury about people who continue on the staff. It almost seems as if in Tejpal and Chaudhury’s value system sexual harassment just wasn’t such a major issue.

But now it has ended up being the Achilles heel which could destroy the idealism, brilliance and soaring prose that the idea of Tehelka, and of THiNK, gave the country.

Reprinted from Mint, November 28, 2013

Relevant link: Tehelka business: Murky deals, profits for Tejpal family, Shoma

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