Burying The Lede

The Tejpal case must occasion closer scrutiny of the mundane reality of newsrooms inequality

Indian media organisations lack clear procedures for addressing complaints of sexual harassment. NARENDRA BISHT / OUTLOOK
01 January, 2014

THE RELENTLESS MEDIA COVERAGE of the former Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal’s alleged assault on his much younger colleague in a hotel elevator simultaneously exposes as well as eclipses the complex lived experiences of women in the media. The news reports, opinion pieces and tangential investigations that the editor’s “lapse of judgement” and subsequent rape charge unleashed have been utterly demoralising.

This is particularly true for those who have worked for Tehelka, believed in journalism as a public service and remember collecting money to bring out a “People’s Paper”, which is how Tejpal sold the enterprise to many of us. In the days that he and the very promising Tehelka were being targeted by the BJP-led NDA government for exposing corruption in defence deals in 2001, it was inconceivable that Tejpal would one day resemble some of the creeps that we encountered or heard about in the newsrooms.

The Tehelka I worked in was different. Some friends who joined at the beginning took salary cuts to support an idealistic journalistic venture. They worked tirelessly to cover stories that no one bothered about: I still remember their exhaustive focus on the hair-raising July 2004 protest—by women in Manipur who disrobed and dared the men of the Assam Rifles to “rape us too”—against the custodial rape and murder of a woman named Thangjam Manorama. The men and women at Tehelka even spent nights in the office, spreading newspapers on the floor for short naps between tight deadlines.

The reality of Tejpal’s personal ambitions is quite mundane, but somehow uglier because it was airbrushed with virtue. If Tehelka looks like the caricature of a boys-club newsroom now, perhaps it is because we expected too much. After all, stories about predatory editors who hounded young interns, and not-so-predatory ones who enticed younger colleagues, promising promotions or postings abroad, were common enough in our field. A lot of these lechers are still editing mainstream newspapers. The forever irreverent Vinod Mehta referred to some of them in his Outlook column, ‘Delhi Diary’, early last month: “The abuse of power in the media, especially in the higher echelons, is rampant. Editors sexually exploit and harass trainees and junior staff with a crudity which is unbelievably cynical. The threat is always the same: if the girl ‘cooperates’, she not only keeps her job but enjoys rapid promotion. If she doesn’t, she is shown the door. It is the worst kept secret in our profession but it dare not speak its name.”

The only exceptional part of the Tehelka saga is that the young woman allegedly molested by Tejpal actually complained to her superiors. As Vinod Mehta pointed out, editors assaulting young journalists is commonplace enough. But what may have escaped attention in the media frenzy that followed her complaint is that the young woman no longer has a job. Her courage is remarkable because, for many women journalists, speaking up against a superior means losing work and facing the prospect of being considered unemployable in the future in the ruthless world of media organisations. The usual silence surrounding sexual harassment is as much for the routine reasons of guilt, shame, preserving personal space and dignity, and the desire not to be objectified, as it is for the fear of being left out in the merciless workplace.

A former colleague underwent precisely this experience in the early 2000s, when she complained against her boss in what was then the biggest newspaper in Delhi. She lost her job and never worked in a newsroom again. In the cut-throat media world, complaining is synonymous with weakness, and none of us can ever afford to be seen as weak. So, from creepy managers and heads of editorial departments to wages that are routinely lower than those of our male colleagues; from a lack of standardised, enforced maternity benefits or childcare to job segregation into “hard” and “soft” beats; not to mention downright sexism; a woman journalist learns to live with the newsroom reality very early on. And women who do go on to senior positions find that they have to work harder to constantly prove themselves to both the staff they manage and to those who control the purse strings.

Much of the evidence of this remains anecdotal because there is a scarcity of in-depth research into gender and the media. In 2009, the Global Media Monitoring Project conducted a cursory one-day survey of stories produced by 36 Indian newsrooms. The study, coordinated by the Network of Women in Media India, found that women reported only 34 percent of news stories in the print media and 43 percent of stories on television. (Incidentally, only 22 percent of the stories were about women, and 82 percent of all expert commentators or sources were men.) A 2011 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation found that women made up 18.6 percent of 17 Indian newsrooms surveyed, and that their salaries were generally lower than men’s, particularly in senior positions. Women only made up 13.8 percent of upper management—the category that included publishers and chief executive officers.

The Press Institute of India conducted a near-national survey in 2004, the Status of Women Journalists in the Print Media. Here, too, the evidence is largely anecdotal—the survey noted that only 11.5 percent of the roughly 3,500 women approached even responded to the questionnaire—but it is nevertheless compelling. One respondent asserted: “Women journalists are often overworked, underpaid and have very little access to equal employment. In fact, a large number of organisations often deny women promotions on the flimsy excuse that they cannot do night duty. Childcare, flexi-hours, a more sensitive approach to the limitations she faces when she is in the child-rearing phase can do wonders for both the organisation and the women employees.”

The insecurities have only been magnified in recent years owing to regular job cuts and mass retrenchments. In December 2011, the editor of Mail Today, a newspaper launched by the India Today group in collaboration with the UK’s Daily Mail, resigned because he would not sack journalists he had cajoled into joining the newspaper when it was launched in late 2007. In the subsequent year, at least 13 senior journalists either resigned or were sacked from the political bureau in Mail Today. The situation was similar in the paper’s other departments. This was part of a “convergence” plan, which chiefly entailed the arbitrary sacking of journalists on a large scale. These events preceded the August 2013 bloodbath at the television channels CNN-IBN and IBN7, in which approximately 300 producers, cameramen and reporters were laid off. A few weeks earlier, in July, the Outlook Group had decided to stop production of the local editions of its international franchise magazines—a move that led to an estimated 120 people losing their jobs.

Given this larger reality of a squeezed industry, in which the bulk of decision-making power rests with men, the virtuous, round-the-clock commentary on one woman journalist’s traumatic experience has been distortive, if not downright misrepresentative. As is inevitable in the coverage of cases of sexual violence, some of the commentary has been what can only be called pathologically sexist. Many of the commentators (again, largely male experts) have given little serious thought to, much less acted on, creating an equitable work space by curbing excruciatingly long work hours, professionalising the newsroom, and addressing issues of job security, safety, maternity benefits, childcare, or everyday sexism. These are only some of the issues that concern the professional lives of women—as well as men—in the unorganised, highly informal workplace that is the news media.

When such insecurities plague journalists on a day-to-day basis, the new legal regime of harsh punishments and stricter sentences that followed the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in the wake of the 16 December Delhi rape will only serve to complicate issues further. How do we retain our jobs and progress in the profession while demanding redress against editors who might pounce on us in elevators? It is not yet clear whether the severity of the charges Tejpal is facing, and the related harshness of punishment, will eventually help empower other women to speak up about harassment and discrimination in the newsroom. The hypocrisy in the self-righteous rage of the commentators in Tejpal’s case is stunning because a majority of them have done nothing to encourage women to step forward against molesters in their own offices. I know that at least one of the more eloquent commentators refused to act against a news editor harassing a younger colleague until some of us gathered in his office and basically forced him to confront the offender.

The cultural norms that govern sexual behaviour still arrest our understanding of what precisely constitutes a crime. Between consent and sexual violence, the law alone cannot define what is injurious and reprehensible, and the best mode of redress for human behaviour does not always fall within existing legal frameworks. From the tired Bollywood trope of “na mein haan” (“no means yes”) to the master of all jurists, Glanville Williams, quoting Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ in the otherwise illuminating 1983 edition of his Textbook of Criminal Law (“A little still she strove, and much repented, and whispering ‘I will ne’er consent’—consented”), sexual behaviour and criminality is a slippery slope. As many lawyers and activists have noted in the ongoing discussion surrounding sexual violence, stringent laws mostly result in less reporting, fewer convictions and a majority of real culprits getting let off the hook.

This cannot be an acceptable scenario when sexual violence and harassment is more routine than most people imagine. The relevant question here is: in how many media houses that have celebrated Tejpal’s arrest and subsequent incarceration do internal mechanisms such as an anti-sexual harassment committee exist? “Not many,” media analyst Sevanti Ninan told me, although again, the evidence is mostly anecdotal. According to Ninan, the “unprofessional and informalised” nature of media organisations makes it difficult to create even legally mandated redressal structures. Moreover, there is no agency through which employees can collectively bargain for such provisions if the organisations refuse to create them. Activists like Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the politburo of the CPI(ML)(Liberation), believe that the new legal regime, especially the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, which mandates that any organisation with ten or more employees form a committee to address complaints of harassment, will create the necessary pressure for the creation of these structures.

Media organisations, including our own, are now scrambling to set up these committees. But for better or worse, the question of serving the public good often looms larger in the newsroom than issues surrounding the hiring, firing and working conditions of employees—an emphasis that often shuts out the very voices, already marginalised, that would enrich our reporting. By putting our faith in Tejpal, we allowed the promise of personal liability to trump institutional safeguards. This tendency to privilege personality over rule-bound equity isn’t likely to disappear soon in a media world that is driven as much by ego as it is by idealism, and which is vulnerable to the creeping in of sexist social mores in the absence of a professional work culture that actively empowers women. While Vinod Mehta may have announced the arrival on the scene of the “new woman” in his Outlook column last month, for most women journalists battling routine problems on account of their gender, celebrations are not in order yet.