Driving justice: the Tejpal-Telheka coverage

BY The Hoot| IN Special Reports | 18/03/2014
It was a case of sexual assault with no physical evidence, but plenty of verbal evidence. And the media went completely overboard. Over 12 days Times Now spent more than 50 per cent of its news time at 8-10 pm on this story.
A HOOT post mortem of the November 2013 coverage.

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

A little over two months ago, on November 20, 2013 the story of an alleged sexual assault which took place at the Think festival in Goa, broke. The accused in the crime was Tarun Tejpal, the very well-known owner-editor of Tehelka magazine, and the victim who documented her complaint in an email to the managing editor Shoma Chaudhury, was a staffer of the same magazine. There was instant outrage, even in the media which seldom covers negative news regarding its own fraternity. The coverage did not abate till 12 days later when Tejpal was remanded to judicial custody in Goa where Think had taken place. We measured and analysed it.

Smriti Irani: “Why do you presume innocence on the behalf of Tejpal?”

Sanjoy Roy: “All I am saying that in any incident there are always two point of view. Let the law take its course.”

“But they are dodging the law!” Arnab Goswami  

 

Times Now, November 22, 2013  

 

That exchange sums up at least this channel’s attitude in the case of Tarun Tejpal. Guilt must be presumed, not innocence, and the law cannot be trusted to take its course. The media has to hustle it along. 

Tejpal was denied bail again on March 14 and Shoma Chaudhury still finds herself in oblivion after the shrill media hounding that lasted a week or more. A post mortem is in order. 

What accounted for the intensity of the coverage of the Tejpal-Tehelka rape allegations in November 2013? In print, and on the English news channels in particular?

For its sheer volume and tenor? What was it driven by and how justified was it?  What was the fallout of the coverage on others in the line of fire?

And what departures did it represent for the way alleged sexual crimes are now covered before a charge sheet is filed, before the case reaches the court?

There is a difference between the media taking it upon itself to give remedial justice, after poor investigation has resulted in a miscarriage of justice (as in the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases) and in its turning prosecutor and judge as soon as a crime has been uncovered. Does it have a right to presume guilt? Does it destroy people in the process?

What made this case different

There was a complaint in the public domain, which served as prima facie evidence of a crime committed. Other evidence in form of email part confessions from the accused, varying versions, was also in the public domain. Social media disseminated the evidence widely, and instantly. The case instantly became hugely sensational.

The victim demonstrated agency in terms of putting out a detailed account of the incident, demanding an apology, copying three colleagues in every mail, and asking for a large number of people to be sent the apology by the editor.

She then put-out her version to the media through daily statements. (Times Now announced on Day 2 that they had spoken to her.) Newspapers and TV channels proceeded to live off each of these, and the responses of the Tehelka management, producing many hours of daily coverage.

The complainant asked for an apology.  She did not go to the police. The rape accused apologised. He put out statements which were then mailed to several people, acknowledging his guilt in part, acknowledging that the complainant was clearly reluctant, referring to other past encounters, with some vivid description. All of this was fodder for non-stop coverage.

In that sense this was like no other rape reported in recent times. It was a sexual assault with no physical evidence, but with plenty of verbal evidence.

The third actor in this story was the managing editor of the magazine both accuser and accused worked for. She was the person the complainant sent her initial statement to, she acted on it, and was judged endlessly on those actions in the media. By the end of the media trial she too became a victim of her own action or inaction, which the media interpreted and broadcast footage of repeatedly through almost an entire week. Since the accused was not available to the media, and she was, she became the target of media inquisitions.

A fourth vocal actor from the day after the news broke was the main opposition party in Parliament. Its leaders and spokespersons were in television studios every day, expressing their views, condemning the accused. The leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley went on record the day after the story broke to ask if “secular philandering” would be handled differently. This does not happen in most cases of alleged rape. The incident took place in a state ruled by his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the state government took suo moto notice of the alleged rape within two days.

Distinguishing features of the coverage:

From day one, it treated allegation as fact. Perhaps because the accused initially self-incriminated. He did change his statement thereafter though.

It was voyeuristic. It played the complainant’s version endlessly, dwelling on sensational details. What had been proffered as evidence was speedily converted into titillation. It was extraordinary to find graphic passages from the FIR being played out on TV screens and on the front pages of newspapers like the Indian Express.

It was voluminous. The Hindustan Times, the Times of India, the Indian Express, and the Hindu ran this story on page one every single day, as the first lead, no less, on most days between November 21 and December 2, and a second lead on the rest of the days. They also had entire inside pages devoted to full coverage of the issue.

TV coverage on seven channels between 8-10 pm from November21 to of December2, two hours a day for every channel, was measured. The figures do not include the advertising minutes in those two evening hours.  This is what the tabulation showed: 

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
(Out of total 24 hours, minus advertising time) 

On November 21, the day after the story broke, NDTV spent a total of 74.40 minutes at prime time discussing the Tejpal story. Times Now likewise spent 11.19 minutes reporting this story, and another 57.37 minutes discussing it. CNN IBN too spent a total of 54.45 minutes on it on the first day. On another day, November 27, NDTV spent 96.30 minutes between 8 and 10 pm discussing this story. More than one and a half hours? Times Now had the most total prime time coverage over this period, at 10 hours 22 minutes, Doordarshan the least, at 3 hours 13 minutes.

It crowded out all other news: This prime time obsession with Tehelka in the last ten days of November took place while all of the following news was breaking—

  • The snooping episode involving Narendra Modi
  • Rioting accused MLAs of the BJP honoured by their party
  • The sting operation on AAP
  • The judgement in the Arushi Talwar case
  • Poll forecasts for four major state elections
  • Cyclone Helen and its aftermath
  • Iran signing a landmark nuclear deal with the west
  • Polling in MP and Mizoram
  • Post riot developments in Muzzafarnagar 

The tenor of the coverage stood out. There was something more here than shock, indignation and outrage at an editor (a tribe righteous by definition) sexually assaulting a young colleague. There was more than a tinge of wanting to ‘get’ people at Tehelka, particularly Tarun Tejpal and Shoma Choudhury. Their writings were revisited to pull out ironic contrasts.

The rape accusations triggered scrutiny of Tarun Tejpal’s business ventures. The finances of Tehelka and Think began to be investigated. It became open season and the two media houses to unleash the most fire power on Tejpal and Tehelka were the Indian Express and Times Now. The Express did it with investigative journalism, Times Now with accusatory verbal attacks.

Rape as an issue during this period was covered primarily through Tejpal and Tehelka. A case similar to the one involving Tejpal reported on November 23, also from Goa, got hardly any follow up coverage. This was the case of aJNU student alleging sexual abuse by an official at the International Film Festival of Goa. Six minors were raped during this period, one of them gang raped, two of them were also murdered. They rated minor coverage in the newspapers and no follow up.

Times Now’s priorities on rape

November 26, 2013, Times Now Tonight, the headlines:

  • Mother of 6 year old gangraped, mutilated and left to die (gets 55 seconds)
  • Cover up crumbles,Tejpal must face the law
  • Perpetrators of 26/11 roam around scot free
  • Also on the show, Tejpal’s weak defence 

Then follows 15 minutes of the Tehelka story, laced with the reporter’s opinion. K D Singh, a major stakeholder is interviewed, asked why he invested in the magazine in the first place.

Only 15 min into the bulletin does the Assam gangrape story come up, immediately followed by an ad break. And then that story disappears again for another 15 minutes.

“Eyes gouged out. Big story. Less than one min after lead. 50seconds. We are getting you details on that story.” And what reappears is silent footage of Shoma Chaudhury.

“Debate no.1 on Newshour.  Do we express outrage only when brutality happens close to us?”

“Gangrape followed by murder. Tonight. To all those 43 countries this channel is beamed to. The horror story India is not discussing.”

She is flung out of vehicle, they gouged out her eyes. They then throw her out on the road. She is fighting for her life even now. She dies.

Ladies and gentleman. And to all of us in the media. I openly seek your support across the country through social media. Lakhimpur in Assam a horror story that has not got India’s attention. Tweet Blind to savagery.  This horror story needs your attention and support.

Evidently this is a horror story that cannot hold Times Now’s attention either. After a total of 10 minutes duration (including headlines on Tejpal) the programme returns to Tejpal, for the remaining 47 minutes.

The next day Lakimpur surfaces again, after 34 minutes on Tejpal. An old email between the rape accused and the rape victim has surfaced. After 34 minutes spent discussing it you get to the news that the police have made the first arrest in Assam. “Breaking news coming in. Just spoken to the Assam DIG. Clearly a Times Now impact.” This story lasts for barely five minutes. Then back to promo for that day’s Newshour. ‘Should he be sacked?’

Case study, Times Now

Volume--the most time given to the story out of 7 news channels measured. More than 50 per cent of non-advertising prime time over 12 days was devoted to the rape allegedly committed by Tarun Tejpal. That was the level of overkill. 

Out of 24 hours of total prime time studied (8-10 pm each day) 4.40 hours was the total advertising time, 10.22 hours the Tehelka story, and 8.45 hours was devoted to other news!

Tenor--the most accusatory.

Examples: “No apology enough there must be severe punishment. We at Times Now will follow this story. Because we believe this is not sexual harassment, we believe this is attempted rape. And it must be dealt with. That absurd logic must be questioned. For last 24 hours India has been totally shocked.”-- Nov 21, 2013

“When that sexual assault not once but twice in the same place and same manner happens not once but twice. Then we are dealing with a hardened sexual pervert and criminal. And anyone who is complicit to letting such a criminal get away with an apology must also answer to that.”--Nov 21.

A three pronged approach

Apart from the anchor’s shrill hyperventilating, the channel reinforced its accusatory coverage in three ways.

1). Labels and rhetorical questions flashing on the screen, right through advertising, and unrelated news items. Through all of the preceding 60 minutes, on programmes like the Big Story and Times Now Tonight there was a constant drumming up of the topic to come on Newshour.

Statements and promos such as the following flashed continuously through 8-9 pm on November 23.

  • Shouldn’t Tehelka’s actions be questioned?
  • Why no action before mails were leaked?
  • As Goa policed gets Tehelka founder Tarun Tejpal, Goa CM sets out a strong message saying zero tolerance in the case
  • Another version--character assassination?
  • When was Shoma Chaudhury informed?
  • Tehelka in big trouble.
  • What did Shoma Chaudhury do when she was first informed?
  • Why no action before mails were leaked?
  • Shoma’s attempts at cover up crumble
  • Why didn’t Shoma Chaudhury take the legal route?
  • Tehelka’s version: Tarun had a different version of the story
  • Why no action before mails were leaked
  • Is Tehelka’s version argument an attempt at character assassination?
  • Watch the Newshour debate tonight by Arnab Goswami at 9pm
  • Centre calls rape case a serious matter
  • Now that the law is taking its course, can Tehelka still hide behind its internal probe argument?
  • Another version or character assassination? Tonight on Newshour.
  • Now Centre steps in
  • Shouldn’t Tehelka’s actions be questioned
  • Why did not Tehelka ask police to investigate
  • Shouldn’t tehelka’s actions be questioned
  • Why didn’t Shoma Chaudhury take the legal route
  • Tehelka in big trouble. Tehelka cover up crumbles.
  • Shoma Chaudhury speaks to several other news channels but not Times Now
  • Cover up crumbles
  • After having covered up, can Shoma Choudhury decide the nature of the internal inquiry?
  • These are the questions we would have asked Shoma Chaudhury if she had come on this debate
  • Cover up crumbles
  • Suddenly talking of a another version
  • Now Shoma Chaudhury has decided not to speak to Times Now and not to speak on the Newshour despite speaking at length to several other news channels.
  • Question one: how can such sexual assault be turned into a he said versus she said kind of duel? 

And so on, and on and on.The endless flashing over 60 minutes, at even just two questions a minute, meant repeating these assertions over a 100 times, in just one hour, on just one day. The technique was adopted every day, but on this one day it touched upon no other story.

2). The voice over: This channel deployed a voice-over that kept intoning questions and statements about Tehelka.

  • The glare has shifted to the systematic and shameful cover up the magazine has attempted.
  • Why didn’t Tehelka report the matter to the police as mandated by the law instead of treating it as an internal matter? Why did Tehlka not immediately sack Tarun Tejpal?
  • From atonement to laceration to now slander. Is this Tarun Tejpal’s last resort? Watch the Newshour debate.
  • He questions why she continued to party after the alleged rape. In that case, what did Tejpal expect the victim to do, create a huge hue and cry instead of going about her duties?
  • Did Tejpal expect the victim to casually talk about her trauma to colleagues at the event?

3). Through all the five editions of Newshour conducted on the subject, silent footage of Shoma Chaudhury being questioned by reporters on the first day played out intermittently in a central panel on the TV screen. The focus on her never let up. On November 25, for instance, during the discussion the same footage of her surrounded by reporters on November 21 was being replayed.

The aggressive focus on keeping the Tehelka story alive also never let up till November 30.

What effect did it have in speeding up justice for the complainant, and on the right to justice of the accused? The burst of coverage, with many BJP leaders figuring in it, probably did account for the suo moto complaint being registered within two days by the BJP state government. On November 22 a police officer said on Times Now, “What you all have shown on TV is sufficient for the FIR.”

As for the right to justice of the accused, in its 200th report put out in August 2006, on the subject of trial by media, the Law Commission said,

“If excessive publicity in the media about a suspect or an accused before trial prejudices a fair trial or results in characterizing him as a person who had indeed committed the crime, it amounts to undue interference withthe “administration of justice”, calling for proceedings for contempt of courtagainst the media. Other issues about the privacy rights of individuals ordefendants may also arise. Public figures, with slender rights againstdefamation are more in danger and more vulnerable in the hands of themedia.” 

On February 17, the chargesheet came, and Times Now devoted yet another hour to it. Do you have the chargesheet, Sanjoy Roy asked Times Now. Yes we do, said the anchor. Whereupon Roy said that was really surprising because Tarun Tejpal’s defence lawyers had been told that they would only get a copy the next day. For his pains he got a nasty rebuke from Arnab Goswami –“Don’t you ever try to teach me my journalism. I am trained to get material.”

No more talk of Shoma Chaudhury on this debate, because after all that non-stop flashing she figures not as an accused, but as a prosecution witness in the chargesheet. This after a lawyer on Newshour on November 22 had said that she had violated the Vishaka Guidelines which was contempt of the Supreme Court , had also violated the IPC guidelines by attempting a cover up, had been an accomplice to Tejpal and and could face three years imprisonment.

This analysis is not about TarunTejpal’s guilt or innocence, or about whether Shoma Chaudhury was guilty of a cover up. It is about the media’s news priorities, and whether the accusatory tone of coverage on television amounted to a travesty of journalism. 

The Tehelka media trial part I

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