Monday, December 02, 2013

Tehelka Could Happen to Your Sisters and ...your Brothers as well.

The Need for Balance in the Media and in our Lives

By Gaurav Parab

I know it is difficult with the pony tail and all that, but lets imagine for a minute that Tarun Tejpal is not guilty. Indulge me in this made up story of no longer than two  lines.

On an otherwise normal Sunday, Tehelka publishes a stunning sting operation against members of a political party. On Monday evening allegations of rape against Tejpal surface.  

What do you think would have happened next ? 

The media would have called it a bizarre conspiracy to discredit our good man Tejpal. The victim partied after the first encounter! HER DEFENSE STANDS EXPOSED, our favorite newsreader would have screamed waving photos of the victim clenched in his fist. Tejpal's political patrons would have commented that their opponents can stoop to any level against champions of truth and free speech. Suhel Seth would have come on the camera and giggled. Tejpal not guilty. Open and shut case. 

Point being, it's the narrative stupid. The narrative which ends up defining the media coverage of every event.

I work in the field of influencing people, and most news story are like your everyday road accident. The guy who screams first is the victim. The other guy, irrespective of what happened is the reason for the accident. Once you are second, you are always catching up. In the trial by media, the onus of proving the truth is on the person who has already been pronounced guilty.

Now, before you start spitting out froth from the side of your lips, and accuse me of suggesting that the victim in this case is only the victim because she screamed fire first - you are missing the point which is around media over-reach.

Why is balance important ?

Because real life is not entertainment. Because even the most holier than thou news readers are flesh and bones. Men and women with pasts. More dangerously, men and women with agendas. Just like Tejpal in his editor hat was.

The narrative is not only a function of timing, but also multiple wheels within wheels.

Take the Tejpal case as an example. What he is accused of doing is heinous, but in a nation where tragedies that claim thousands of lives stay on the front page no longer than a day - for some reason - this story continues to hog all print and television space for the last 10 days or so. What is the reason? Surely, hard boiled news editors can't be so angry and so indignant about this for so long ? What is fueling this feeding frenzy? Professional rivalries ? Corporate pressure ? The need to push other stories in the background ? Or the need to show that we are as brutal with our own, as we are with politicians.

Why is balance important ?

The way things stand, the perception of a few influential editors, sometimes right - sometimes flawed - is positioned as the society's viewpoint. And trouble starts to brew when even independent institutions look to the public to determine their own direction and speed. While why the media takes sides can be questioned, what is beyond doubt is that once it happens, we are told that the media's side is the right side. Die, you sense of balance, die.

Imagine how our nation will react if by a twist of fate or on the basis of new facts - Tejpal goes to trial and is acquitted. We will cry miscarriage of justice, ignoring the fact that justice is a function of an investigation and the due process of law.

Why is balance important ?

Because investigative journalism is reduced to leaks,whispers in cocktail parties, favors, and well timed calls over anonymous cell phone numbers. Everything is fair game to keep the 24 hour ticker continue ticking over. Even Tehelka, the so called champion of independent reporting, now stands accused to have killed a story on a particular lobby so as to extract sponsorship for its events.

And again, let me reiterate before you start parceling poisonous cobras to me that I am not defending Tejpal. As a thumb rule, I don't trust men with long hair and shifty eyes. My larger point is if we don't get our institutions in order, then only one in a million crimes will see justice being delivered. The media can't be everywhere. The media, to be more accurate, does not want to be everywhere.

In this particular case, it will not be the right tribute to the girl if Tejpal is punished because of the media coverage. Justice will be done if a conviction happens based on her brave behavior of risking a promising career and being steadfast in her demand for respect.

Why is balance important ?

What if the media gets it wrong. Let's be kind and say all the angels from the sky came down and joined our news channels to get things right 99 times out of a 100. But that one single instance, when they are wrong cannot be ignored. Punishing a non-guilty person is as bad, if not worse, as letting the guilty get away. And punishment by media is as severe as punishment by the law.

Today, reputations built over decades are destroyed in a single one minute segment of breaking news. Take the Supreme Court sexual harassment case. The judge in question was known to take on the corrupt in some of the most landmark cases of recent times. You, me, the media, know nothing about the merits of the case. We have no business to know what happened. He is guilty, or he is not will be determined only after investigation. But the tone and tenor used on news channels, where in newsreaders screamed that they hope this Supreme Court judge is taken to task has already done irreparable damage to the person's reputation. What if he is not guilty ? Will people still look at him the same way ?

Fact. Most women face sexual harassment at work. 
Fact: It is a horrifying crime as it gives a person a sense of almost primordial power over another human being.
Fact: Many men are sexual predators.
Fact: Not all men accused of sexual harassment are guilty
Fact: Not all women are victims.

A woman professional recently told me during a light hearted banter ( Not the Tehelka types ) that women at her workplace are joking about slapping charges against their boss if the work pressure gets too much. She is joking of course. I hope.

Point is the law cannot be told which side to take. Just like sexual harassment can happen with your wives and sisters, false charges can be slapped against your husbands and brothers. Not all the time, but that one time in a 100.

And there is as much hell to pay as a man as it is for women.

Where is the balance ?

This opinion piece is about the need for balance. So it is only fair to look at the other side and see what the media has done right, irrespective of its motives. This is a landmark case in many ways. But for the media, the victim, if she was lucky, would have only been hounded out of the organization. Don't we all know at least someone who has been stalked out of jobs and places, don't we ? The media over did it, but still well done. Because of this unrelenting coverage, corporate India now has to:-

1. Build mechanisms against sexual harassment in terms of actual people, and not escalation flowcharts on paper.
2. Take complaints of all types seriously. A word out of place is as inappropriate as a physical pass.
3. No person, in whatever position, is above reproach. Remember Tejpal was the top dog, and the courageous victim not only resisted his advances, but had the guts to fight out the sham of an apology

The angle the media should take, and it may not necessarily be as entertaining as alleged email exchanges is how this case will be a great test for the new anti rape law and will come to define norms of acceptable behavior. It could well be that deterrent to men in shiny suits who call criminal misconduct consensual encounters. Who knows the way this case pans out will define the life of every working woman in this country.

Jessica Lal, CWG, 2 G, Rathore - are some of the cases where some semblance of justice was delivered because of public scrutiny brought on by relentless media coverage. Because when it comes to powerful men and women, the only way justice is seemingly delivered in our country is by media throwing the rule book out of the window.

Is this why everyone is going after Tejpal as he is too big to stand ? If it is, it is for the wrong reason.

How much is enough, and now that the due process of law is underway, shouldn't the media step back? Personally, I will be fine and functional if I am not told about what Tejpal wore during his day at court or what he ate. There are many worthy new stories that have been unceremoniously dumped thanks to this scandal.

For example, did you notice that the Indian Space Research Organization pulled off a perfect sling shot maneuver to set an engineering marvel on the way to another planet. Millions of man ( and woman) hours into design, development and launch have come together to give the entire human race another shot at understanding the universe in which we live in. This, along with similar initiatives around the world, will define the lives of our future generations hundreds of years from now. 

I think this is important enough for a headline story. Shouldn't we be talking about this, instead of whether Tejpal smiled in the aircraft or how the insides of the lift in that hotel look like.

While we try to balance our views, I think we should also get that missing sense of perspective on what might be important in our lives.

Note:- Ignore the typos, spellos and what not. This opinion piece may be slightly incoherent but its what comes to mind every time a Tejpal Tej update comes up on the screen.

Subscribe to this blog, and get this blog directly in your inbox. Join me on Facebook

No comments: