Sunday, 21 October 2018

#Me Too Maelstrom Mauls Many

Five years ago, when Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka magazine, was caught pants down for his testosterone fuelled antics with a young colleague and later faced the full glare of social media, I had thought that lucky were those editors and journalists who had carried out similar acts in the pre-internet and typewriter days.

Names of M.J. Akbar and some others (still not outed yet), who were part of press club folklore, came to my mind. During my student days in the late 80s and early 90s Akbar was a big name in journalism and his column ‘Byline' was something we all looked forward to in the now defunct Sunday magazine of Anand Bazar Patrika stable. I also happened to read his book Riot After Riot and a biography on Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru: The Making of India). All this gave me an impression of him being a man of great erudition.

But later in a baffling fashion he chose politics and my respect for him went down a few notches, as I thought it was a great loss for journalism. However during my rookie sub-editor days in Mumbai I got to know that the prodigal was returning to journalism and starting a new paper Asian Age.

When the recruitment happened, the grapevine had it that only 'fast' girls were getting recruited and all key position were occupied by women with very little experience. My respect for him dived many more notches. However, still the general perception was that although he was a 'ladies’ man' he was 'good at his job'.

That was also the time India embraced economic liberalisation and newsrooms also witnessed drastic changes. The editor's age profile became much younger and there were more women joining the profession. The look and feel of newspapers also changed, thanks to better printing technology and headlines became catchier than matter of fact.

The presence of higher number of women and younger workforce was a mixed bag. On one hand it brought about greater gender sensitization and the blooming of office romances. But some of the superiors, deeply entrenched in patriarchy, took advantage of the power they enjoyed to treat their junior women colleagues as a fair game. They used this by dangling carrots like dinner invites, junkets and out of turn promotions. Those days sexual harassment redress mechanisms were not even thought of.

Newspaper offices then were closed places and nothing spilled over to the public domain. A Tejpal type incident those days would have been swept under the carpet or settled with mere apology or a transfer.

Managements used to close ranks and observe an incestuous 'code of silence' so that the publications name is not sullied. Even rival newspapers too adhered to this code, keeping in mind the glass houses they all were in. In those pre-cellphone/internet days even gossips never used to travel beyond the confines of office canteens or press clubs.

Internet and social media changed the rules of the game as it now 'follows' us everywhere and now it has also proved that in addition to making contemporary events go 'viral', it can even exhume issues that happened two decades ago to haunt the perpetrators by 'calling out'.

In India #me too fire got noticed nearly an year after US. It has simmered for long and took its own sweet time to become vigorous enough to singe people's reputations. But once actor Tanushree Dutta lit the fire, it has been relentless like the French guillotine and many reputations fell by the wayside.

While some were quite obvious as they wore their playboy selves on their sleeves, but names like Vinod Dua, Jatin Das and others evoked shock and disbelief, as they were considered quite progressive and respectable.

It first started with the film industry and later spread to the English journalism, thanks to a journalist named Sandhya Menon. The first to get caught in its cross hairs was K.R. Sreenivas, the resident editor of a prominent daily, to be followed by some Kolkata and Delhi based journalists.

While their ex-colleagues were coming out with unsavoury details about their peccadilloes, I again wondered whether this #me too will address the elephant in the room or be rest content with having a tilt at bit players.

Finally, the much anticipated happened. Akbar got outed and as expected it opened a Pandora's box. And I must admit that despite being aware of his Casanova ways, the Tweets left me shell shocked. They were far more toxic than the above-mentioned press club gossip, which at the most made him appear as a flamboyant editor with a glad eye for women. 

As per the disclosures, he was a sexual predator on the loose, with no one to question or curb him and he got away with all this for decades. Journalist Saba Naqvi recalling her stint in the Telegraph and without naming Akbar summed him up very well, “He behaved like a village Thakur who set off to claim any young thing that caught his fancy."

Amid all this hoopla there are allegations of witch hunt and not adhering to the due process. While the former cannot be ruled out as a few innocent men may get pilloried for no fault of theirs, the latter point does not hold much water. 

In many disclosures the victims had stated that they had approached sexual harassment redress committees, but no action was taken. At the most the erring employees were transferred, which is just a change of scene for them. The infamous ordeal of Rina Mukherjee a journalist with The Statesman is a case in point. She was terminated for filing a sexual harassment complaint against her news coordinator and had to fight a long drawn legal battle spanning more than a decade.

It is a well known fact that at many media establishments sexual harassment redress committees are mere sinecures of little consequence. So far no media company has taken any drastic action like say Infosys took against Phaneesh Murthy in 2002, when he got embroiled in a sexual harassment case. 

Also Read: Bangalore Short Takes