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Mitali Saran: The editor's guilt

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

Media organisations routinely howl about sexual assault and violence against women, so you can forgive them some shock when the mirror is turned upon themselves. Most women, and most men, already know how widespread sexual harassment and assault are in the workplace, including media. It's just that talking about it publicly and naming names make it a real thing, requiring a response more robust than nervous giggling or an eyeroll. It turns gossip into the need for public accountability and justice. Until now it has been more convenient just to let incidents of sexual assault "blow over" or die squalid little deaths, leaving squalid little skeletons in the office cupboards. Those times are gone.

The Tehelka scandal has blown the media's smugness to smithereens. An employee has accused editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal of sexually assaulting her, twice, in Goa. In response, Mr Tejpal has apologised to her and to managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, and stepped down for six months, saying that "I must do the penance that lacerates", a phrase much like herpes in that it is painfully hideous and keeps coming back to haunt you.

But after a firestorm of criticism, the Goa police have filed an FIR charging Tejpal with rape, and the latter has made a statement pledging to co-operate with their investigation, so we must let the case unfold like any other. You might ask, of course, why what he calls "alleged misconduct" in his statement would require him to do the penance. He will be investigated, and that's as it should be.

In another time, at another place, an incident like this might have sunk without a trace. It is heartening that a garden-variety case now has global attention. And yet, the gut-churning details leaked into the public domain are there without the victim's consent. Even though those leaks have garnered widespread attention, they also violate her privacy. Even if the woman weren't a close friend of Mr Tejpal and his family, even if, hypothetically, she had approved of the leak, I'd stick my neck out to say that she probably doesn't care for having the details show up on Google News.

Tehelka's underwhelming responses have been disheartening, given the magazine's reputation. It is disturbing that in an NDTV interview, Ms Chaudhury said that if the young woman's version is true, she would be willing to call it rape; and yet, Ms Chaudhury's letter circulated within Tehelka, in response to Mr Tejpal's offer to step down, mentions no more than "an untoward incident". She has rightly admitted to a poor choice of words in the midst of shock at the incident; but she has also argued that, as managing editor, she had to consider the fate of the institution. Mr Tejpal's professional standing is deeply tied to the magazine's economic health; Ms Chaudhury's job includes protecting that institution; and the two share a close relationship. That is exactly why impartial committees are mandated by the Supreme Court to look into cases of sexual misconduct. Why didn't Tehelka, as a flag-bearing advocate of women's rights, already have such a committee? Other incidents of sexual misconduct, involving other people, have occurred at Tehelka previously - as indeed they occur with disheartening regularity in many organisations across the world - and people have reportedly experienced the management as being either unapproachable or dismissive.

But there are two things to beware of in our reactions. The first is Schadenfreude. A news anchor inadvertently summed things up when, instead of calling the editor-in-chief Mr Tejpal, she absent-mindedly called him Mr Tehelka. As founder, owner and editor, Mr Tejpal is synonymous with the institution. As a journalist, he is admired and reviled in equal measure. Be careful, therefore, to watch for who's outraged and why. If it's really about the victim, you won't be forwarding painfully personal details that she has not consented to make public. You won't be politicising the incident to, say, deflect attention from Narendra Modi's awe-inspiring concern for a lady friend's security.

The second pitfall is agency. It's easy to forget that at the heart of the gloating jokes are real people, with families. The fallout of assault, for the protagonists and their families, friends and colleagues, is a complex cocktail of emotion that needs time to play out. Choosing to press charges or not is the victim's choice and right. Contesting her account or not is Mr Tejpal's choice and right. Social media does not cover itself in glory by heaping abuse on Mr Tejpal's family - nor, indeed, by playing judge and jury pre-emptively. There is a due process of law, and it is now in play. Let it play out.

Meanwhile, as the editor's guilt suggests, we should all turn the mirror upon ourselves, look hard, and clean up before someone else makes us. Set up that committee. Make sure it works.

First Published: Fri, November 22 2013. 22:47 IST