For whom the bell tolls

Linked with Tarun Tejpal – India, and with Tehelka – the people’s paper – India.

By Tarun Tejpal (2001) – The most unusual story I heard in the last eight most unusual weeks of my life came to me from a cameraman, an Indian who visited my office with an American crew. After the last question had been asked and answered – no different from a hundred other last questions and answers – and the interviewer was switching to a loose and chatty mode, the cameraman, winding up his wires, said tentatively, ‘Sir I want to tell you a story before we go. It’ll only take a couple of minutes.’

The cameraman had just come back from eastern Uttar Pradesh, after visiting his village in Jaunpur. There, as in the cities, the chaupal conversations had revolved around the Tehelka findings. But there was an interesting difference. There, in the crevices of eastern U.P., the denizens had no understanding of the medium the expose had taken place in. They had seen it on TV; they’d read it up in the papers; but they knew there was a new kind of entity that was responsible for the story. And they were clueless about it, clueless about the .com and the world wide web.

There was absolutely nothing in their experience or their imagination that could help them make any sense of a website or the internet. So they had conjured up a construct. Tehelka, for them, was a device in which subka bhrashtachar nanga ho jaata hai. A kind of x-ray machine which exposed naked anyone’s corruptions the moment they came in front of it. The talk there, said the cameraman from Jaunpur, was that this, the threat of the corruption-exposing machine, was the reason the prime minister had not appeared in public for the first few days after the scam broke …

… We, the media, tend to make oracles of anyone in the news. Fashion designers and beauty queens are asked to comment on everything, from food to politics, and they do, with grace and authority. So, my fellow-journalists inevitably deliver the coup de grace and ask me, what can be done? That the rot runs so deep, how can it be reversed?

I have no idea. Or at least no better than the next guy. I can only think of the same cliches. Claw back the credibility of the key institutions: the police, the judiciary, the media. In other words, don’t expect self-restraint to solve the problem, build in enough deterrence. Then the next cliche: start with yourself, and try and call a halt to corruptions at a personal level. I confess I do amuse myself sometimes with fanciful ideas: if in a hundred years of the last century we could go from being a feudal people to a colonial state to an independent democracy, can we not in the next fifty years go from degradation and corruption to some state of grace?

When we launched Tehelka last year we made some immodest claims. We said we wanted to rediscover the distinction between journalism, public relations, and entertainment. A distinction that had been blurred in the nineties by a combination of satellite television, colour pages in the newspapers, and the first giddiness of liberal consumerism. Also by the co-options of politics and business. By the end of the nineties, every senior journalist, every publication, could be identified with a political party or a business house. We said we too loved trivia, we too had friends among politicians and businessmen, but we believed that the core of journalism was a very serious one. It was built on the bedrock of uncomfortable questions, not comfortable alignments, nor pretty sentences or pretty pictures.

Since I in particular was a journalist of the early eighties, I made some loud claims about trying to bring back the hard journalism of the eighties. A decade when all the major issues of the day were centred in the public domain by print journalists. Not just centred, but scrapped and fought over. It has been a long, arduous and exhilarating year at Tehelka. There are things we’ve managed to pull off, and others that have just bested us. And then there have been things we could have never bargained for. Even as I write this the air is thick with rumours of plots to bump off some of us, and the television behind me informs me the Delhi police has just picked up six contract criminals commissioned to kill me. Bahal and Samuel inevitably live under as great a threat. The only way we deal with it is to not think about it.

We think about the stuff that is harder still: how to make both journalism and the business of journalism work? One we have some sense of, the other we are perilously discovering. The odds against a group of journalists like us are long. But we are determined to give it our all. Operation West End is over; Operation Hang-In-There is on.

Like the residents of Jaunpur, there is nothing in our experience or imagination that can tell us how it will all finally unfold … (full long text).

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