The Tejpal media trial-Part I

BY A HOOT study| IN Books | 30/01/2014
Journalists themselves as victims and perpetrators of sexual violence is new territory for the media to handle, and balance has been difficult to maintain.
A HOOT study revisits the stormy Tehelka and Tarun Tejpal coverage last year. PIX: Shoma Chaudhury answering questions

 

Research:CMS Media Lab, Font and Pixel Media, Divya Jain.

 

Analysis: Sevanti Ninan

 

Did the media lose all sense of proportion in its coverage of the sexual assault allegations against TarunTejpal? Did it merit anywhere near the volume of coverage it got? Was it primarily of interest to the public or to the media? Two months after the story broke,the Hoot reviews what became an extended media trial.

How much news coverage does the allegation of a sexual assault inside a moving lift, made by a younger colleague against a celebrity owner-editor, merit? Even allowing for the fact that an amended rape law recognises such an attack as a case of alleged rape? When a sexual attack victim is up against her powerful boss, media coverage can enable justice, so the storm of coverage might initially have served an important purpose. But it needs to stop short of being destructive.

Journalists themselves as victims and perpetrators isnew territory for the media to handle, and balance has been difficult to maintain. In August last year, the gang rape of a young Mumbai journalist also saw extended coverage from media all over the country. But as sexual offences grow in number, some truly horrendous, the unequal media attention is dismaying. The preoccupation with the Tehelka incident saw scarcely any attention for the eight other incidents of sexual violence that occurred in the same coverage period.

So the television channels did not spend precious prime time coverage on them, nor did newspapers devote valuable news acreage on their front pages to them.

Other crimes of sexual violence in that period

During the period that the Tejpal story hogged the headlines the following incidents of harassment or assault were reported from around the country:

Nov 21

Harassed & stalked, Mum girl ends life

Nov 22
Court clears youth of rape, calls him saviour
Three arrested for assaulting woman
No HC relief for man who sodomized boy
Two arrested for raping 34-yr-old
5-yr-old physically challenged girl raped near Raipur

Nov 23
Man held for raping 8 year old in Delhi
JNU student alleges sexual abuse at IFFI

Nov 24
8-year-old girl raped and murdered in Agra

Nov 25
Court drops rape charge, lets lover go

Nov 26
Students' molestation on train: 5 GRP men suspended

Nov 27
Minor gang raped in Mumbai, three arrested
Lover, three others rape 16-yr-old in Bangalore

Nov 29
Yet another rape report from Mumbai. Woman files complaint against father
Property dealer arrested for raping live in partner
Rape and murder of an 11 year old girl in Greater Noida

How many of these were reported continuously for even three days, let alone twelve, on newspaper front pages and on prime time TV news shows? The short answer is none. The case reported on November 22 and 23of the JNU student who alleged sexual abuse at the International Film Festival of India (also held in Goa) was similar, but did not hold media attention for long.Ironically, the chairperson of the Entertainment Society of Goa made a statement urging the chief minister ManoharParrikar to treat it on par with the Tejpal case.

This seemed to be such an extraordinarily media-driven crime story that the Hoot decided to measure the coverage on television, at the peak of prime time, 8-10 pm.

Television too gave an inordinate amount of time to this story. We obtained measurement of the TV coverage between the hours of 8 pm and 10 pm from November 21toDecember2, two hours a day for every channel, 24 hours in all. The figures do not include the advertising minutes in those two evening hours. 

        Channel

             Total time

AajTak

           3 hours 40 Sec

ABP News

4 hours 40 sec

DD News

3 hours 13 min 5 sec

Zee News

6 hours 16 min 40 sec

CNN - IBN

8 hours 19 min 50 sec

Times Now

10 hours 22 min 32 sec

NDTV 24 X 7

7 hours 23 min 10 sec

Nov 21-Dec 2, 8-10 pm

                                                                                                        (Minus advertising time)

 

What is immediately evident is that the English news channels gave far more time to it than the Hindi ones with the exception of Zee News. And not surprisingly, much of the coverage was discussion-driven as these tables show.

 

Date
AajTak
ABP News
Zee News
 
Story min
Disc. min
Story min
Disc. min
Story min
Disc. min
21.11.2013
1.20
---
10.50
 
2.20
33.10
22.11.2013
12.55
---
11.50
Recording not Available From 8.40-8.57
2.40
35.30
23.11.2013
4.50
---
11.25
15.40
.50
33.20
24.11.2013
3.05
---
3.20
15.40
1.20
15.50
25.11.2013
---
.50
---
10.40
---
26.11.2013
---
9.30
---
1.50
31
27.11.2013
---
---
2.20
36.50
28.11.2013
9.40
13.35
10.05
13
4.10
45.30
29.11.2013
---
28.15
9.40
25
3
43.40
30.11.2013
---
103.45
72.10
15.30
3.20
48
01.12.2013
2.35
---
1
14.40
4.20
 
02.12.2013
.40
---
---
1
15.40
Total
35 min 5 sec
145 min 35 sec
141 min 10 sec
99 min 30 sec
38 min 10 sec
338 min 10 sec
Grand Total
180 min 40 sec
240 min 10 sec
376 min

CMS Media Lab and Font and Pixel Media

 

 

Date
CNN-IBN
NDTV 24X7
Times Now
DD News
 
Story min
Disc. min
Story min
Disc. min
Story min
Disc. min
Story min
Disc. min
21.11.2013
5.15
49.30
---
74.40
11.19
57.37
15.50
37.50
22.11.2013
1.20
75.20
3.20
46.10
22.31
58.05
12.25
---
23.11.2013
12.45
23.30
---
22.30
21.29
---
3.15
---
24.11.2013
4.40
---
2
---
37.05
---
4.55
---
25.11.2013
4.30
21.30
3.30
---
3.04
---
1.05
---
26.11.2013
2.55
40.15
---
43.20
23.11
47.50
6.25
---
27.11.2013
6.35
40.50
---
96.30
33.17
56.59
7.30
---
28.11.2013
10.50
64.20
---
44
28.09
59.12
26
27.40
29.11.2013
1.10
65.10
7.50
20.40
34.39
57.10
13.25
---
30.11.2013
.25
53.15
---
75.50
1.04.04
---
28.50
---
01.12.2013
9.50
---
2.50
---
3.48
---
4.05
---
02.12.2013
5.55
---
---
3.03
---
3.50
---
Total
66 min 10 sec
433 min 40 sec
19 min 30 sec
423 min 40 sec
285 min 39 sec
336 min 53 sec
127 min 35 sec
65 min 30 sec
Grand Total
499 min 50 sec
443 min 10 sec
622 min 32 sec
193 min 5 sec

CMS Media Lab and Font and Pixel media

 

Other news in this period

Why did this episode command so much attention? Was it a sensational story primarily because the accused was a celebrity and the prurient details of the alleged attack were easily available?  Or because both accuser and accused belonged to the media fraternity?

In the Tejpal case social media enabled the initial instant dissemination, and also the instant recrimination. The story broke in cyberspace on the morning of November 20 when NDTV tweeted it, at 8.46 am. The tweet said, “Tehelka editor TarunTejpal resigns: Happened not once but twice, girl completely shattered, scarred, person close to journalist tells NDTV”.

That evening the girl’s complaint and the chief editor’s apology became public, and quickly went viral, vigorously retweeted on Twitter. Many tweets were sent out by media houses or journalists, and picked up and made the basis of a story on Firstpost on November21:

“Tehelka sexual assault scandal: ‘TarunTejpal’, ‘Shoma’ trend on Twitter”. “A shocked Twitter is up in arms after it emerged that Tehelka’s editor-in-chief TarunTejpal has stepped down from the magazine for a period of six months after allegedly sexually assaulting a female member of his staff...Both 'TarunTejpal' and 'Shoma' are trending in India…”

 The Twitter community is neither shocked nor provoked to be up in arms when the victims are not celebrities or newsmakers. But when it is moved, television and print are moved as well. So media coverage took off thereafter and did not abate till Tejpal was finally sent to judicial custody on December 2. Where he remains till now.

In December 2012 the rape of a young girl in Delhi created a storm because of its brutality, and the spontaneous outpouring of public anger it triggered. The issue remained live in the media for a full three weeks during which period the victim died. By contrast, the November 2013 alleged sexual assault which amounts to rape under the expanded definition of rape after the post-NirbhayaVermacommittee report, took place in a lift in Goa. There were no witnesses, nor was it a crime with any medical evidence.

But the media pounced upon it with alacrity. Was it because of the sensational nature of the allegation and its graphic description, because of the admission of guilt in the apology tendered by Tejpal, because of his perceived temerity in deciding his own punishment, because of the adjective “untoward incident” used by Tehelka’s managing editor ShomaChaudhury?

Much of the coverage in the first few days centered on the language used by all protagonists, thanks to extensively leaked correspondence between the accused, the accuser and the managing editor of the magazine who was supposed to take action. That alone made this case highly uncommon. The phrases ‘misread the situation’, ‘untoward incident’ and ‘bad lapse of judgment’ (suggesting he thought it was consensual) set off a storm on Twitter the same night. Before the allegation of sexual assault can be proved, the language used becomes a crime, its offence amplified each time the media repeats it.

This may also be why the Hindi TV channels had less sustained coverage than the English ones. The hyperventilating over phraseology was not there, there were fewer long discussions, except on Zee News

Once the emails were leaked on the Internet, the reaction on the ground was news TV crews behaving like paparazzi. They hounded the principal characters and their homes and families for the next ten days. The victim’s identity, fortunately, was protected by the media at least if not by individuals on Twitter.

Tehelka, the magazine that both the principal characters in this story worked for, remained physically surrounded by TV crews. There were camerapersons at the gate of ShomaChaudhury’s house, Tejpal’s house, and on the plane as he left for Goa.The leader of the Opposition in Parliament, no less, was finding time to make daily observations on this case, which fed the media mill as much as anything else.

Why did the Tehelka-Tejpal incident provoke so much attention? One, because of the admission of guilt by the accused which he later attempted to retract,and the available description of the assault.Two, because there was an articulate and determined complainant who rebutted any effort by the accused to discredit her version. She also raised the alarm when the accused tried to reach her mother through his daughter. She put out statements. Tehelka magazine on its part, also put statements out on its website. It was an easy story to cover, and shriek accusatorily about. 

Three, the perceived hypocrisy also helped to drive the storm. Here was a righteous, constantly campaigning publication which did not implement the existing workplace guidelines on sexual harassment by setting up a mandatory Vishaka committee. By the time the whole thing blew over it became clear that many media houses which were severely critical of Tehelka did not have such a committee in place either, the Indian Express and the Hindu for example, though NDTV did.  

Twitter and television could not bring themselves to let go, even as the continuing coverage incited public anger against Tejpal, Shoma Chaudhury, and the magazine itself. But Tejpal is not the first editor to have made allegedly predatory moves on a female junior colleague. He is the first to have had his accusor go public, and sustain her accusations. All of that made it at easy story. You did not need to investigate, only opine.We have measured minute to minute only two prime time hours a day, but on the 12 days under review the story ran almost the entire day on all these channels. The media mill’s appetite for it was insatiable.

To be continued.

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