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Journalist Becomes the News

Leading news organisations,including Tehelka,appear to be innocent of a basic understanding of the law.

What an extraordinary week,when Narendra Modi and the Gandhis were allowed only brief cameo appearances on TV,while a journalist who turned a hotel elevator into a perpetual motion machine took over. While Delhi’s media circus seems to have had no idea that Tarun Tejpal was going through a glandular phase,as the Tehelka drama unfolded,ignorance of another order emerged: leading news organisations,including Tehelka,appear to be innocent of a basic understanding of the law.

The TV channels spent Wednesday and Thursday clamouring that the victim should file an FIR immediately,or justice would not be done. The National Commission for Women,which perhaps feels passed over,complained that if she had written to them,they would have initiated action. And when asked by a reporter why Tehelka had not moved the authorities,managing editor Shoma Chaudhury asked if he was an aggrieved party. An individual plaintiff is not essential in a criminal matter,because society is an aggrieved party and the state can move on its behalf. Fortunately,Kiran Bedi mentioned the suo motu route.

On Friday,a more reasonable Chaudhury was constantly on TV for her own mea culpa and admitted that the leaked emails had lacked “tonality” and “maturity”. When Nidhi Razdan insisted on asking why she had not informed the police,Chaudhury said that her counsel had advised that it was not essential because opinion is divided on the Vishaka guidelines. She should instantly change her counsel,because the perceived divide must be between her lawyers and the rest of the world. And she should consider taking the huge emerald-like rock off her finger,while pleading the virtues of penance. It’s very distracting.

While NDTV,which appears to have run the story first,produced fairly reasoned,muted coverage,CNN-IBN and Times Now both hit the crusade button right away. In human terms,this is understandable. The story is icky and the attempt at damage control would be despicable if it were not foolish. With Twitter and Pastebin out there,is it possible to keep ticking-bomb emails under wraps? (Incidentally,the leaked mails are the top trending posts on Pastebin,above the usual hacker exploits.) Not only Tehelka,newspapers which tried to play down or ignore the story — including the commercial market leader — should have known that with social media around,it is no longer possible to edit the news to taste.

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The story kept running even on empty. CNN-IBN showed the nameplate at Tejpal’s house and reported that it had nothing to report,under a logo saying: ‘Stop this Shame’. By all means,do stop it. India has come to be identified with rape in the eyes of the world. But to stop this shame,media needs to do more than the easy stories — the ‘Nirbhaya’ case with its incomprehensible brutality and urban middle class resonance,Tejpal’s with its ridiculous emails and the whiff of celebritydom,beaches,straw hats and Robert de Niro. Such incidents happen all over the country every day,usually with lethal violence. But if they are dismissed with a line on the ticker,this “adamantine” shame will,to use two Tejpalisms,“lacerate” us forever.

The story is finally dying down with the filing of an FIR. The BJP has milked the incident to deflect attention from the illegal surveillance of a woman by Gujarat state agencies and now,the sting on the Aam Admi Party is taking the heat off Tehelka,which had brought sting journalism to India. Soon,the nation will want to know something else,leaving the police and the courts free to follow due process — which,ironically,was being demanded by activists and not journalists. Mostly,the latter preferred prime time justice.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

First published on: 23-11-2013 at 00:26 IST
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