The public anger and the sense of betrayal over the unacceptable, condemnable behaviour of Tehelka’s editor-in-Chief, Tarun Tejpal, are not just about individual propriety and crime but also about an institutional framework for a good work environment. What is evident, as this newspaper’s editorial pointed out, is that the news media did not resort to “double standards” in reporting or analysing this sordid episode.
But this does not mean that all media outlets maintained high standards regarding two critical issues: the norms of reporting sexual violence and balancing the readers’ right to know with the individual right of the victim to privacy. The Hindu’s extensive coverage of the issue deserves to be studied in detail for its adherence to journalistic norms and values in covering l’affaire Tejpal.
Level of restraint
First on the question of privacy of the victim versus the readers’ right to know every detail, the paper showed a right level of restraint, never permitting its reports to border on voyeurism, but rigorous in their content to nail the culprit. The focus was not just on the law that does not permit naming the victim but also on the wider ethical and socially responsible behaviour of a mature media institution’s response to something that was dastardly, macabre and which has an immense impact on the future civil life of a victim.
The Editor-in-Chief spelled out the guiding rules for covering the Tehelka issue at Report Responsibly (http://report-responsibly-india.tumblr.com). He made a distinction between the bound set by the law and the role of editorial values that keeps the bar much above the strict requirements of the law. The core of his argument is worth sharing as it answers some of the questions raised by a few readers regarding this newspaper’s coverage.
He said: “There are two competing values here. The first relates to the right of the readers — and correspondingly, the duty of the journalist — to be informed as fully and in as much detail as the law permits. If this value is accorded primacy — and I do not think it should be — overriding other concerns including the privacy of the victim, a journalist could report in detail the allegations of sexual assault or rape made in the email. They could also argue that the privacy was lost to some degree when the victim volunteered the graphic details in an official complaint to the organisation she was working in, without apparent concern to her own privacy. I therefore understand how the media that published her complaint in detail could have approached the coverage of the issue. In The Hindu, the call that we took was that the privacy of the victim was a very important value to be respected in journalism. As for the competing value, namely, the interest of the readers, the reader has to be told of the nature and seriousness of the allegations in as much detail as possible not just without violating the law but also without intruding into the privacy of the victim. There was no public interest to be served in publishing the graphic details recounted by the victim in her email to enable her superior in the organisation to realise the nature and gravity of the allegations.”
One of the other knowledge producing centres within this organisation, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, has come out with an insightful article that helps to contextualise the brazenness of defence in this crime by infantilising it. Vasundhara Sirnate, who wrote the piece, argues convincingly that the rediscoursing of sexual assault, harassment, abuse and rape in our country as childish errors that men commit is something that needs to change. “This is a dangerous defence of sexual assault. It essentially treats men as children, who can be forgiven for an offence because they knew no better. It is this thinking that allowed the juvenile in the 2012 New Delhi gang rape to be tried in juvenile court even though he had inflicted the maximum injury on Nirbhaya. There was nothing childlike in his actions,” she asserts.
Commitment to gender justice
And the most significant development within this organisation that prompted me to write this column is its commitment to gender justice. The board of Kasturi & Sons, publishers of this newspaper, has decided to establish formal “Internal Complaints Committees” across its various offices. This is in compliance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.
This policy, which came into effect from December 1, 2013, aims at “creating a healthy work environment that enables all employees to work without fear of prejudice, gender bias and sexual harassment.” There is a conscious move to popularise this policy so that it can be simultaneously a sensitising tool and a deterrent.
This multi-pronged response of adhering to appropriate narrative in reporting and analysis and creating an institutional mechanism against sexual harassment gives gravitas to the journalism of this newspaper.