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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tehelka shames us all

Tarun Tejpal was good at promoting himself,and has been for at least a decade the darling of Lutyens liberals.

Written by Tavleen Singh |
December 1, 2013 4:32:12 am

Tarun Tejpal was good at promoting himself,and has been for at least a decade the darling of Lutyens liberals.

Tehelka going down has evoked more schadenfreude than sorrow in media circles because many of us have long seen fraudulence in the high moral tone that the magazine has always taken. Personally I have no tears to shed at the squalid demise of Tehelka because for me even its first sting operation was entrapment and not investigative journalism. When the BJP government foolishly tried to punish Tehelka’s first investors,I stood with them,but noticed soon after that there was something mysterious about the magazine’s finances and something hypocritical about its politics.

There is no harm in a newspaper openly supporting a political party,but to do it under the guise of “investigative journalism” that targets only the other side is wrong. It is equally wrong,in my view,to build a business empire with money taken from dodgy businessmen under the cloak of righteous journalism. But Tarun Tejpal was good at promoting himself,and has been for at least a decade the darling of Lutyens liberals. His closeness to the Gandhi family helped him acquire a large collection of friends and followers. So,to his THiNK Fest,would duly trot some of the most powerful politicians in the land. Having attended the first of these events I can report that thinking was less on people’s minds than partying.

What the whole sordid story gives us though is a chance to talk about how badly the Indian media has been damaged by the collusion between journalists,politicians and rich businessmen. Tarun is far from being the only journalist to have become a powerbroker in Lutyens Delhi. There are many,many others. They are mostly men and women from small towns who are bedazzled by the access they get to political power once they become famous editors or columnists. Nearly all of them make a lot of money very quickly in unexplained ways. And because they have such access to political power,their newly acquired wealth is never investigated. So they go from strength to strength,from high national awards to the Rajya Sabha,and end up betraying the profession that gave them their fame and power.

This is mostly because,since the advent of private television channels,journalists have acquired immense powers to break political careers and defile the reputation of big industrialists. From this has been born hubris of the kind that led to Tarun’s disgrace and downfall. It has led to the lines between media power and political power blurring enough for journalists to forget what their real role is and start thinking of themselves as players in the political game. It is an easy delusion because the Indian media today is so powerful that it has often judged and punished people before they have been given a chance to prove their innocence in a court of law.

It is ironic that Tarun should today find himself in this awful position because Tehelka’s brand of investigative journalism has been brutally judgmental. And often wrong. I know people who have been judged and punished by Tehelka without being given a chance to tell their side of the story. The victims usually condemned without a trial have been from the corporate sector,so I have to say it warmed my heart to discover that what Tehelka was doing behind the veils of high-minded,righteous journalism was in fact building a business empire for the Tejpal family and Shoma Chaudhury. Her role since the young journalist made her charges has been so much in conflict with the militant feminism she usually espouses that it has infuriated her feminist friends.

So can anything good come of all this? Yes. It gives the Indian media a chance to do some introspection and find out how a way can be found for the Fourth Estate to redeem some of its lost honour. The Indian media is more powerful today than it has ever been,but such corruption has crept into its fabric that I find myself often thinking of the Seventies when I got my first job as a reporter in The Statesman and when the Indian media was just a handful of badly printed newspapers. Media owners were too poor to pay for reporters to travel out of Delhi to cover stories then so they relied on ‘moffusil’ stringers who earned a couple of hundred rupees a month.

If the story was too big for a stringer to handle,we would go into the ‘mofussil’ on buses and stay in filthy little rural hotels and file our stories from post offices that smelled of dusty files. The media had very little power in those times because most Indians were illiterate,and there were no powerbrokers or celebrity TV anchors. But,what there was in those times was integrity,and in recent days I have become nostalgic for it.

Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh

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