This appeared in the Sunday Times...
When terms of ‘Atonement’ backfire….
I was tempted to write this column in Spanish ( thank you, Shoma Chaudhary), but thought better of it, given that in any crisis, good, clear and honest communication has a far better chance of convincing people, than the use of fancy language and childish taunts. Since we live in an age of Brand Success overriding virtually every other attribute, this week’s sordid scandal involving an alarmingly young (18) female employee fighting off aggressive sexual advances of her middle- aged (58) boss/ mentor, inside the cramped confines of an elevator in a Goa hotel, is an interesting case in point. Regardless of how the saga eventually pans out , the damage done to Brand Tehelka is looking pretty grim and perhaps irreversible. Enough has appeared about the lurid details of the case, so let’s skip the muck, and focus on what could have been done to salvage a pretty hopeless situation. And, more importantly, what wasn’t. Briefly put , the charge against Tarun Tejpal is serious. And here’s Mistake Number One : It wasn’t treated seriously enough - either by Tejpal or his Managing Editor, Shoma Chaudhary. Mistake Number Two: the wording of Tejpal’s admission / apology. It was pretentious in the extreme. And sounded totally hollow. Excuse me, but who the hell talks of ‘atonement’ and ‘laceration’ except overwrought actors in dreadful Hollywood Biblicals from another era? Mistake Number Three : when the excreta had already hit the ceiling fan and there was clearly no going back, Ms. Choudhary chose to go on the offensive, instead of displaying remorse or even plain regret for what had transpired during her watch. She nonchalantly referred to the attempted rape of her junior colleague as an ‘untoward incident’. Mistake Number Four : Tejpal decided his own punishment for his ‘lapse of judgement’ and grandly mentioned ‘recusing’ himself for six months. Nothing more was needed . The damage was done.
If only, the two main players in this mess ( Choudhary and Tejpal), had shown some sensitivity towards the victim ( that’s the very least under the circumstances), and done the right thing by seeking legal opinion to help the young woman , perhaps the widespread criticism that has hit them would have been less strident. There is nothing heroic about a sexual assaulter admitting his crime, especially since he was probably aware of the CCTV camera footage that could eventually nail him. For his buddies to laud him for being ‘gutsy’ and ‘honest’ by owning up, shows a pathetically skewered way of thinking. It is the victim who showed guts by speaking up. Well after all hell had broken loose, and social media platforms had created a war zone out of the controversy, nothing of any worth was forthcoming from Tehelka’s side. And this is where arrogance and short sightedness kicked in. Asking a media person if he was ‘an aggrieved party’ compounded the original sin and only succeeded in alienating / angering the press further. At this point, what Tejpal and Chaudhary needed was the support of media colleagues and well wishers. But after this boo boo, nobody of consequence was willing to stick his/her neck out and defend what was increasingly looking indefensible. Even those early sympathizers who were shocked that “ one of us” had done something this horrible!
Now that the Pandora’s Box has been pried open, it will be very difficult to put a lid on the scandal. By challenging public opinion, Chaudhary may have hammered the last nail into Tehelka’s coffin. The answer to her rather rude question , “Are you the aggrieved party?” thrown at a jouno, is a resounding ‘Yes’. Every woman in India can claim to be the aggrieved party under these awful circumstances. Regardless of whether the young victim pursues the case, it is really out of her hands now. Public opinion is far more lethal than any amount of self-inflicted laceration and atonement . Admirers of the Tehelka brand of journalism have long believed that this powerful brand stood for the truth. Stood for justice. Penning weak apologies in over heated prose is a poor substitute for both – justice and the truth.
A young woman’s dignity is worth much more than the token ‘atonement’ on offer. Who should know that better than the two firebrand crusaders and activists who had taken it upon themselves to teach India how to THINK?