The Fall Of Tarun Tejpal

I was perhaps 18 when I first met Mr. Tarun Tejpal. He was an icon to us in those days, just after the infamous “Operation West End” and the match fixing scandal in cricket. 

He was the standard to match for the journalists of our generation, and for once, the auditorium was packed willingly with student journalists keen to hear him talk. He walked in, wearing his trademark kurta, an imposing figure and charismatic. 

Strangely, I do not remember much of what he said. He spoke about the integrity of journalism and why it was important for the government to have good ‘watchdogs’. Those were the terms we used on a daily basis on those days. “The media is the watchdog of the government.” “A journalist must be unbiased and give all sides of the story.”

Tejpal and his magazine Tehelka faded into the student days, and we became jaded with the reality of journalism. We realised we were mere tools for propaganda and our ideas of being the watchdog were edited out. 

But a small part of hope was finally extinguished with the recent scandal surrounding Tejpal. More importantly, his response and reaction to the entire situation.

For someone who has supposedly constantly fought against injustice and corruption, his arrogance in the face of the accusation strips away some of the glory of his past accomplishments. 

It is disheartening to see a magazine like Tehelka, which has long positioned itself as the ‘true’ spokesperson of the people, to say that “what happens in our office is none of your business.” For Tejpal to assume that his standing excuses him from any actual punishment.

In that one statement, he became yet another power-drunk businessman / politician who believes that he is above society’s laws. That his actions do not deserve the same reaction as the rest of the commoner. 

What is the difference between Tarun Tejpal and Salman Khan, who was accused to running over and killing several people sleeping on the pavement? It is said that Salman Khan has made ‘retribution’ and is taking care of all the families of people he killed. It is said that he is taking care of their jobs and education. Yet, we demand for justice.

What is the difference between Tejpal and countless politicians whose actions have been brought to the forefront by the very same man who now claims a ‘6-month absence as the editor’ is punishment enough for his actions. 

Perhaps he never was the man that we all admired. Perhaps he has fallen from the heights he achieved, dizzy on his own power. 

But his fall marks an end of the purity of journalism in a manner that perhaps can never be restored.

Advertisements

Growth of an Idiot

It was perhaps 5 years ago… I was still a reporter, I read voraciously, I wrote a lot about big topics and used a lot of big words.

I talked about the economic recession and how the US should have seen it coming. I talked about India and how we were a miracle and I wondered how long we would be able to keep the miracle going. I spoke strongly against caste/religion-based politics. I voted against the BJP and thought Congress was the lesser of the two evils. I wondered how much could Rahul Gandhi contribute to Indian politics considering the man had never really spent much time with the aam junta to understand what the Indian mindset needed. Yet I cheered the entry of young blood into Indian politics, something that I thought was sorely needed.

I participated in rallies, I signed petitions to save the whales, the dolphins, the tigers, the women, the children, the leaf. I believed that journalists were actually the watchdogs of the country. Any country. I was inspired by journalists like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tarun Tejpal, Vinod Jose, Aniruddha Bahal and several others whom I knew personally. I strongly believed in what I wrote, and I believed that I wrote a fair story – giving both sides equal importance and allowing the reader to judge what was true and what wasn’t.

I really did believe that.

What a naive idiot I was.

5 years can be quite a short period. But sitting in front of the computer screen as flashes of today’s news pass me, I wondered if the world really changed in the five years or I was just a blind, naive idiot.

True, somethings I knew, if not the extent of it. The corruption in the country would have serious ramifications, I knew. I did know the extent of it. Rahul Gandhi would not really be useful in everyday politics, I knew. I did not know he was a puppet who couldn’t string two intelligent words together. I knew that the field of journalism was getting more corporate and commercial. I never realised the extent of it.

The reporters of yesteryears have faded away into photographs hanging on the walls and journalism textbooks. The key word today to be a journalist is how fast you can get the story and how long the story can stay in the headlines.

True, this could have made for such awesome news and policing. But when that turns into sheer greed for news, you begin creating news. No news stays long enough for people to absorb it. Now, it is about the girl who got raped, tomorrow it is about a child who got raped, day after it is about the politician who stole some money, and after that, some building that caught fire due to some issues in construction.

The world moves at a much faster pace. The capacity to absorb news and care about has also shrunk.

Scams, allegations of corruption and rape have become so routine that I nearly missed the whole Asaram Babu case. And perhaps I would have let it slide as “yet another religious guy” if someone on Twitter had not pointed out that this was the same guy who said the Nirbhaya, the woman who was raped in Delhi in Dec 2012 could have saved herself by calling her attackers “brother”. I would have perhaps forgotten about it if an old photograph with “tips” to keep women safe at night did not make the rounds again.

I would not have been no pissed if I did not get a message saying “It is Breast Cancer Awareness” time again and asking me to post a silly status message on Facebook.

All these social platforms have scrambled our brains into thinking only in form of “status messages”. You go to a restaurant and you think of posting “Awesome restaurant serving kebabs in blah blah blah”. I decided I would not post every little action of mine on Facebook about 4 years ago. My entire friends’ list of 500 and whatever people did not need to know where I was, what I was eating and what I thought of something. They were subject to that anyway when they met me.

There was a time when I read interesting articles through my friends on Facebook and had good debates which made me think. These days, I turn to 140 characters for that – Twitter and interactions with Twitter Handles. I do not know these people and that makes me think harder about the composition of this world.

I know how articles are written, I know how PR releases are made. I know why reporters choose the articles they do, I know why some of them choose the ones they do. I know the ones that are lazy, I know the ones that write articles to further their own agenda. The percentage of Vinod Jose and Tarun Tejpals in the world of reporting, I realised, are very very very less. The ones who became reporters in a journey of searching for the truth. The ones who do their research and are suspicious about all information.

My first disillusionment with reporting came when a senior editor asked me to withdraw my story because the PR of the company claimed it was wrong. The PR provided no proof, but was backed by a multi billion dollar giant. And the editor wanted to oblige. Why? I’ll never know. He wouldn’t get any favours from the company, so maybe he was just scared of his job. We fought and reached an agreement, making the story more balanced. But perhaps that was the beginning of the journey where I wondered if what we were doing was really free of bias, of favours and fear. If what I was doing was actually making a difference at all.

They say that reporters like a particular kind of place… a little shady, a little cheap. It was attributed to our poor pay packets. But it was just that we liked no-nonsense, simple stuff. Where a glass of rum was charged for what it was and not for the crystal container it was poured into. We were supposed to tear into pretense.

Last week, several reporters were fired due to ‘budget’ issues from a major network. I wonder if even a percentage of them would rethink their career stands, or just jump headlong into another company that offers better packages. Would any of them think of all the hours they poured into making stories and telling stories, shaping them to suit corporate requirements? Of how many people would be doing the same to their story now?

It is a dog eat dog world.

Five years ago, I argued for punishment for all wrong-doers, especially celebrities. One of them ended up in jail. Several more probably never will. This is a country that rewards dishonesty. This is a country that feeds on apathy and ignorance. Somewhere, I thought, we need to begin to change that. We cannot go back to the past and change much of what happened. We perhaps cannot even punish the ones responsible for some horrendous deeds. But we could start here, from our generation.

But tonight, even that thought seems futile. It seems we are fast headed towards a precipice, and everyone on the bus just woke up and know to do nothing else but to shout and wring their hands.

I am an idiot.

The Road Of Indian Journalism

Have you heard of this thing called ‘Medianet’? If you are an average citizen, you might not have. If you are a reporter, the chances are you definitely know about it… and you’ve chosen your camp as well.

Let’s try another question… have you heard of the ‘Radiagate’? That whole scandal about that woman who apparently had the power to influence politicians and appointments and all that. I’m sure a lot of you wouldn’t mind being her, despite the scandals.

These are two issues that the Indian media has surprisingly been quiet about. Not a carefully guarded secret but something not bandied about in public either.

Of course, after the ‘sting’ operation by a foreign newspaper, some of our own presses have begun declaring that the supplements, which were thought to carry news, are actually ‘advertorials’.

To me, that move comes as a relief, even if I find it a little funny.

The India media has been sliding down for a long while now. Bribes and corruption exist among the watchdogs too… and has only gotten worse since it all became about the bottomlines.

24 hours of news has to be filled, and it needs to be ‘fresher’ and ‘different’ from the other 24 channels reporting the same thing. Considering how many channels have a chance to get scoops, it is only natural that they each resort to the shock value. And as the audience gets a little numb, the voltage is hiked up a little more.

People break down under constant pressure. Burnouts happen. So sometimes, we do take the easy way out. If someone like Radia offers us an exclusive in exchange to play messenger, the journalist compromises. It doesn’t seem like a big thing.

Then we grow lazier. We want the stories to come to us. If someone offers you a story on a platter, you do not bother digging into facts?

The first rule I was taught in journalism was never take anything at face value, always verify the facts. Even if the PR sent me the release, I would have to double check everything.

Recently, someone wrote an article about how the PR people were harassing the journalists to get their articles in place.

The field of PR and brand management were created for a reason. The PR does have some use to a reporter… they are under as much pressure to get publicity for their company as a reporter is under to get news. Perhaps more.

Any PR person with ethics would not cross boundaries to get their articles in place. Any journalist with ethics would not take the freebies in return for an article.

So it all comes down to ethics… and what you are willing to do to get that job done. If you want to be lazy, if you want to compromise on quality, if you want to misuse the power that you do have.

We become journalists because, somewhere, we were all idealists and we believed we could make a difference.

We can. If people do believe us.

But now, we don’t believe that we can. So where does that leave the idealist?

Stage 2

Here is the thing.

As we become adults we are expected to follow a particular career path. Meet certain people, do certain things and generally, tread the worn path.

In between, if you want to change directions, it is sort of like trying to reverse in the middle of the day on a really busy road. Everyone starts honking at you and there is a bit of a panicky feeling as you try to push your car into the right gear to get moving. But there is a process in that – you need to press the clutch, move the gear into reverse and slowly, without stalling, move back and repeat the whole process again to get moving. During this time, everyone starts honking, regardless of if they are affected or not.

And if you are weak-hearted, maybe you just say screw it and go the normal way, hoping there is a U-turn somewhere up ahead or an easier spot. But what we forget is that there is never an easy spot or a place to turn around because it is peak hour traffic. It is now or never, every single moment of the day.

Right now, this is what I’m trying to do… change directions. I’m not sure which direction I want to pick in particular – reverse, right turn, left turn… it is all up in the air. But I want to try a different road.

And the honking is freaking the shit out of me.

A while ago, I wrote a post ‘Why Photography’. Today, I had to go back and read that post because it is an incredible feeling of amnesia that I am facing.

Here’s a short history of recent times.

I quit my job. It was a combination of accidents and I figured it was as good a time to get out and start doing something for myself. I have always wanted to experiment with photography for a while, and I figured this was a good time to start doing that.

But what I didn’t count on was the lack of savings (or almost) and the lack of a plan, and people giving me openings for other jobs. As God is a slightly contradictory person sometimes, I even got these jobs that I had applied for. And these jobs would’ve been the ideal, the perfect thing for me about a year ago. But since then, much has changed and I am not sure if I have the patience for those dreams anymore.

Dreams change.

But it is human nature not to be able to let go that easily. The lure of good money, a good company and a good place is incredibly hard to let go. I actually stayed up at night, wondering if I should really take up this job. And then I would look at my camera and how alive I felt when I was shooting a recent event. And figured, nope, I want to give photography a chance.

The question remains – how long is a ‘chance’. A week? A month? A year? And if it does not work out, what then?

The answer is also – that is a risk you have to take. (I can argue both sides of the argument really well, and I feel like putting a bullet to my head).

I’m trying hard to come up with answers to various questions – such as why photography, what is the future, what I do really want to be and trying to keep the images from the former dreams out of my mind.

Kevin Carter has been an incredible inspiration to my photography. His one single photograph of the child and the vulture touched my immensely and I strive to take such photos. Much of my photography leans towards the dark and I try to pull it towards the light when I see images of others – the bright, ethereal images that are photoshopped to an extent.

But to be Carter, I would need to be involved with news again. Hard news. Which I want to. Just not right now. I have pick to the road to travel on RIGHT NOW. And I don’t have the answers to all the questions. And I know that I will perhaps never have all those answers.

Wait… let’s start over again.

Why photography? What is the future? What do I want to be? What do I want to do?

I want to take photos. Of people. Of moments. Of places. In a nice way. I am just beginning to explore my photographic horizons in a serious manner and I have no idea about my style, idealogy or anything else. Yet. I like taking photographs and I would like to be paid for it. I’m sure that isn’t an intellectual answer but that is all I have right now.

The future – is dark and invisible. I don’t know where I will be and what I want to do. I do know I want to travel. Capture Cambodia, Istanbul, Nepal, Budapest, Andamans, Nagaland and wherever else on film. I still want to be able to do weddings and all that.

What do I want to be? Here’s the problem. I know I can probably survive doing photography… earn enough to feed myself and all that. But I want to be the best. That thing hasn’t changed in me. I want to be the best in whatever I pick to do. And that’s where I wonder if I am good enough.

What do I want to do? Freelance… photography… write interesting articles and keep the variety alive. I would love to work for a magazine but that would restrict some of what I could write. True, freelancing restricts a lot of other things.

But maybe I should give it a shot, right? 3 months of what is supposed to be my life.

I do not have that many contacts in photography. I do not know where to start or how. But I’ll figure that out. I’ll write till I figure that out. 3 months is all I ask for from my life.

Perhaps this is a mistake. Perhaps I will regret it and hate it that I threw away all these jobs.  But that’s a story of later. Right now, the question is this – jump off the cliff or not.

 

My Job

Here’s the thing.

I think my job is fairly simply. I write stories/articles and they get published in newspapers/magazines/online places and you read them.

It is fairly straightforward to me. Which is why it confuses the hell out of me when someone asks me “What is it you do?”

When more than half the people who ask this question read newspapers every day and are probably  holding one of those things in their hands at that very moment, how can it be so difficult to understand ‘what is it that I do?’

I collect news and I write about it, which you read and then pretend to be well-informed about the world. What on earth about that little thing is so complicated?

 

Kevin Carter. Being A Reporter.

I spent much of yesterday reading about Kevin Carter. And his friend Ken Oosterbroek.

That perhaps explains the melancholy I felt at the end of the day. Carter’s story is a depressed one. While his image of the vulture and the little girl is absolutely captivating, his story was written a long time before that.

Artists are supposed to be tortured souls. It is pain that apparently gives us the power to write. Without misery, there would be no poetry. Maybe that could be simply because it is harder to capture happiness.

But Carter lived and suffered. The little things of society – racism, money, bigotry, famine and sheer hate – got to him.

Carter faced much criticism for his decision to walk away from the girl and just leave her there. Nobody knows if she survived. And sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, it is easy to judge Carter for walking away.

But was she the only single kid there, starving and dying? Didn’t he go there to shoot a famine? What do you do in the face of such sheer misery? Such vastness of misery? How do you explain your helplessness and sheer inability to help a whole country of people?

A reporter constantly has the struggle between intruding and merely reporting. We are taught in journalism class to be objective. But perhaps it is already too late by the time we are even in that class, so the best we can do is try to get both sides of the story and let people figure out where the truth lies.

So sometimes we shoot wars, people dying, accidents and other tragedies and all we can be is a spectator. Do we feel nothing?

I cannot really answer that question. There is a sense of detachment that comes from self-preservation. Those images haunt you when you go back to the hotel room or your home. The cries of grief that you managed to block out and tell the story come back in your sleep.

Maybe that was the reason I did not choose television reporting. Perhaps the people who are working in that media platform are equally sensitive. But the Indian media has gotten so sensational that sometimes there is no time to think. My friends who work in that world talk about it with disgust. Some of them. To the others, it is just another job at the end of the day and just another story at it.

Self preservation happens naturally. For the moment at least. But when you sit alone, there are some of us who simply are not strong enough to block out those voices, the cries and the images that haunt us forever.

 

The reason I love my job

Well, sometimes. After you’ve been working for a while, you settle into a rhythm, a routine and things get boring. Even in a job that is as versatile as mine, sometimes you get into a rut writing about the same kind of stuff. You are writing new things like a new company’s results, a new product and all of that, and you are learning and it is fun. But it is still… mundane.

And one day you interview someone or just talk and you realise how much of a difference your writing makes. That there are issues much bigger than what you do and the writing contributes to it some small way or the other.

I spoke to someone regarding a story I am working on today. There was a brief I skimmed through before I called him. I knew what he did and all of that. It is an interview and you are prepared, to a certain extent. But during the course of the interview, it came out that he was physically disabled. Of course, I knew he worked for the organization that dealt with such things. But I did not expect him to belong to that group.

It is an issue that most of us do not even pay attention to. We do not have time for disabilities in today’s world.

Towards the end of the conversation, he mentioned that it was really nice I was doing this story and bringing people’s attention to this issue, which needs addressing.

Why was I touched? Because he reminded me of how important my job is… that I do make a difference in some small way or the other. And there are people who are capable of inspiring you, who overcome challenges and obstacles everyday and manage a perfectly normal life.

Maybe we expect people with disabilities to be a particular way… We are steeped in our mindsets that we forget to look beyond what appears to be the picture.

There have been several comments the past few days about how the media did a horrible hatchet job on the CWG. Is it true? Maybe not completely. But somewhere, every television reporter gets caught up in the pressure of delivering news 24/7. You need to fill in airspace and you need to get that edge. So you use  bigger and better adjectives than the previous report and the whole thing gets blown out of proportion.

It is an evil world out there, and money is the bottomline. I refuse to believe the media is corrupt but our integrity is somewhat compromised by the advertising revenues. Yes, we all watched the movie Page 3 and there is some amount of truth in it. But the thing is… every person who signed up to be a reporter has some idealism in them. At least when we start out. We are all idealists who are brutally abused by the system, or by what we see, and we choose to either go bitterly cynical, or simply say ‘screw it’ and give the people what they want.

The real news sometimes gets lost in the sensationalism. You know the “shock news” thing now. But we get the news. There is always a Tehelka, a Watergate. But to keep the public’s attention – which is more attuned to Rakhi Sawant’s thumkas and gossip, we need to add the mirch  masala. It sucks. It is also reality. It also isn’t right.

I cannot say which way it will finally go. Will shares dictate the bottomline of news? Maybe. But I do know that as long as there are organizations like Reuters, New York Times, and to an extent, some Indian newspapers like The Hindu, journalism will survive. And there is always a streak of ego and integrity in us that will not allow us to go completely overboard. And if we do, there are always the tons of new journos that graduate every year. So, limited their powers might be, but we’ll have good news till the cynicism takes them over.

And then there are some who weather it all to become legends like Khuswant Singh. And some who end up with a cloak of popularity and disgust like Barkha Dutt. But being a journalist, we take it all with a glass of much-need whiskey.