Much ado about nothing?
NO matter what criterion you use, there is no doubt that Tehelka is the news organisation of the year. Its expose of defence deals (Operation West End) very nearly brought down the Vajpayee government. Equally, it is as clear that Tarun Tejpal, the former India Today and Outlook journalist who founded and heads Tehelka, is very much Editor of the Year. He has spent the last few months accepting various awards and thanks to his frequent appearances on television is probably the most recognised editor in the country. Certainly, when it comes to the urban middle class, he is also the most admired editor, a folk hero, even.
And yet, many of the issues raised by the Tehelka storm (by both Operation West End and the cricket expose that preceded it) have yet to be settled.
Despite Tejpal’s popularity with the TV-viewing classes, important sections of the media remain leery of his methods. Despite Tehelka’s spectacular success, not one media organisation of consequence has shown any signs of adopting the methods that Tehelka made famous. Nor have those who believed in Tehelka flourished. For all of November, Tejpal raged against the government for nearly destroying First Global, one of his early backers. Some of Tejpal’s media colleagues (notably Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta in Hindustan Times) have taken up for First Global and its promoter, Shankar Sharma. But many more have failed to see First Global’s plight as a press freedom one.
The ambivalence has something to do with jealousy. Nobody likes a high profile, articulate editor who has done something they would not. And some of the hostility towards Tejpal and Tehelka comes from friends of the regime in the media. But mostly, the problem is that the debates over the issues raised by the Tehelka expose have yet to be resolved.
When Tehelka published its cricketing story, the issue was one of ethics. Tehelka’s modus operandi was to send Manoj Prabhakar to meet players and officials with a hidden camera. Prabhakar would raise the subject of match fixing, ask leading questions and then secretly videotape their responses. The Prabhakar tapes did not provide conclusive evidence against anyone, though they severely damaged Kapil Dev’s credibility. But they did demonstrate that players and officials were more willing to admit that match fixing took place when they believed that they were speaking privately.
The general criticism of Tehelka then was about its methodology. Not only had Prabhakar invaded the privacy of his subjects by taping them surreptitiously but he had also damaged the sanctity of the off-the-record convention, a journalistic practice that guarantees sources their anonymity. Tehelka’s critics said that the precedent was dangerous: nobody would speak freely to a journalist again on the condition of anonymity, fearing that they were being clandestinely recorded.
The broad point was probably valid but it missed an important distinction. None of the people who blabbed to Prabhakar did so because they thought of him as a journalist. All of them spoke as they would to a fellow member of the cricketing fraternity. There are innumerable precedents for journalistic use of conversations between two people of more or less similar standing who did not know they were being taped.
For instance, during the Tata Tea-ULFA case, the Indian Express printed transcripts of Ratan Tata’s phone calls with a host of people. Another example: in 1987, Arjun Singh secretly recorded conversations with a series of emissaries sent to him by Giani Zail Singh who was then considering dismissing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The media cheerfully carried the transcripts.
Tehelka could have argued in its defence that had Tejpal (or one of the journalists) spoken to a source and then secretly videotaped him, then yes, the rules of journalistic confidentiality would have been contravened. But Prabhakar did not approach his sources as a journalist; he approached them as a cricketing colleague. So people with public postures different from their private posture now had reason to fear everybody not just journalists.
But Tejpal chose not to make this point. Instead, he used a variation of what has now come to be regarded as Tehelka’s central defence: the view that extraordinary stories demand extraordinary methods. This sounds reasonable enough till you recognise that an extraordinary story is defined as any story that Tehelka is working on. In the cricket case, he could have claimed that the match-fixing scandal had already turned India upside down.
But it is hard to see how there was any extraordinary interest in defence procurement when he launched Operation West End. Curiously, Tehelka does not use its extraordinary methods in stories where situations that could be called extraordinary actually exist. No Tehelka reporter has won the confidence of Kashmiri terrorists and secretly filmed their planning sessions; equally Tehelka has not attempted to infiltrate the ranks of the VHP to find out if the organisation intends to build a temple at Ayodhya; nor has it used secret cameras to report on human rights violations.
Nevertheless, nearly everybody in the media accepted Tehelka’s defence thus possibly setting the stage for Operation West End. The general view was: the people have a right to know what important people say in private.
There were two interesting developments in this saga though both have gone largely unremarked because cricket faded from public memory after West End. The first was the rapid decline in Prabhakar’s fortunes. The CBI investigated match fixing and concluded that yes, it did exist. But, it added, Prabhakar was actually one of the bad guys, the sort of man who took money to do the fixing. At this, Tehelka more or less cut Prabhakar loose and made no attempt to defend him. Later, Prabhakar ended up in jail on an unrelated cheating charge, but by then Tehelka had moved on.
The second irony: many of those who had written editorials arguing that it was quite okay to tape private conversations were invited to breakfast by General Musharraf in Agra. Though a TV crew was clearly visible, the editors seem to have decided that the breakfast was only being recorded for PTV. So, a significant number grovelled before the General, agreeing with his every assertion and genuflecting before his jackboots.
To their horror, the entire breakfast meeting was telecast on Star News within an hour. As their craven behaviour was shown to their incredulous and outraged friends and readers in India, many of the editors looked for excuses. This was a private meeting, they thundered, how dare Musharraf tape it without our knowledge? In fact, the General had done no such thing; the TV crew was in the centre of the room. But the principle was instructive: one rule for cricketers and Tehelka, and another rule for India’s editors!
By the time Tehelka was ready with Operation West End, the ground rules for its operation had already received media endorsement. The two most significant rules included one that was explicitly stated – that it is all right to videotape people clandestinely for journalistic purposes. And one that was implicitly stated – that it is okay to entrap people by asking leading questions and getting them to say things that they may not have otherwise.
This acceptance made it nearly impossible to complain about the methods used for West End. Tehelka registered a dummy company (West End International) that said it wanted to sell military equipment to the defence ministry. Two of Tehelka’s reporters pretended to be salesmen for this company and visited various serving army officers, defence ministry officials and politicians to drum up support for their commercial projects.
What they found was not pretty. Nearly everybody they spoke to treated corruption as a given and told them that they would have to part with money to complete their transaction. Several of the officials and some serving officers even accepted small gifts of cash.
This was worrying and serious but the real impact of West End came from events that were tangential to the main purpose of the exercise. The Tehelka reporters met BJP President Bangaru Laxman and gave him a lakh of rupees (as a donation?) for the party office. They met an RSS veteran who told them how the BJP government accepted money. The Samata Party’s treasurer bragged about the money his party had made on defence deals. And after complaining to Samata Party President Jaya Jaitley about being unfairly treated, extracted an assurance that she would ensure fair treatment for them. Tehelka then offered her a donation. She said to give it to a party functionary who would use it for a convention in Bangalore.
Predictably, the videotapes nearly brought down the government. Eventually, the ministry survived but several individuals lost their jobs: George Fernandes resigned as Defence Minister, Jaya Jaitley gave up the Presidency of her party and Bangaru Laxman was sacked as BJP President. The consequence of the Tehelka expose had gone far beyond the impact of any single media expose in recent memory. Tejpal became a public hero and appeared on TV nearly every day. The middle class, in particular, lauded Tehelka for having had the guts and the ingenuity to take on India’s corrupt politicians.
All this, plus the cricketing precedent, placed the rest of the media at a distinct disadvantage. Clearly, there were serious issues to be debated here, and yet many of them had been seemingly resolved during the cricket expose. Could anybody really say that politicians had as much of a right to privacy as anybody else? And more to the point: hadn’t the principle of entrapment been implicitly accepted?
When a stunned government attacked Tehelka on the grounds of ethics, most editors found themselves forced into defending Tejpal and his methods. Consequently, no debate on the ethics of entrapment took place. The government said, in its defence, that nobody had demanded or accepted a bribe from Tehelka to help with its bogus transaction. And, in any case, if the system was so corrupt then Tehelka should have been able to sell something to the defence ministry. As it was, West End’s so-called products were not even considered by the ministry.
All that happened, said Tehelka’s critics within the government, was that Tehelka’s reporters had posed as gullible businessmen whom anybody could take for a ride. They had then visited various sleazeballs who had talked loosely to impress them and had been paid cash gifts. This was not investigative journalism. If Tehelka had investigated an actual deal and found evidence of corruption then perhaps these methods could have been condoned.
As it was, it had found nothing other than evidence of a willingness to sin. Put it this way, said one minister, if a woman keeps offering sexual favours to a man and if a man finally succumbs then who is morally superior: the woman or the man? This was all that Tehelka had done and its revelations should be treated with extreme scepticism.
Most editors took Tehelka’s side but there was always the suspicion that they did so under duress and moral pressure. This suspicion was strengthened when a second controversy over Tehelka’s methods broke out. Tehelka had been asked to submit all its videotaped footage (not just the bits that had been edited and released) to the Venkataswami Commission investigating the affair. This footage, officials at the commission discovered, included shots of Tehelka’s reporters offering not just cash bribes but call girls to defence ministry and army personnel.
The revelation that Tehelka’s bribes went beyond cash to include sex gave newspaper editors the opportunity they needed to rethink their stances on Tehelka’s methods. Almost without exception, every newspaper condemned the use of call girls and raised questions about the ethics of Tehelka’s investigation. Tejpal first tried to brazen it out, parroting the old ‘extra-ordinary stories demand extraordinary methods’ defence before throwing in the towel and accepting, in the face of this media onslaught, that the use of girls had been an error of judgement. He offered a few excuses – officers demanded the girls, we needed to keep the story moving and so on – which were not only unconvincing but of dubious validity.
Curiously, despite Tejpal’s admission of error and the stance of the press, the great Indian middle class did not believe that Tehelka had done anything wrong. Polls continued to show that Tehelka’s methods had wide-spread public support; the extraordinary methods defence had clearly worked with the public at large.
Now, several months after the second controversy died down, the impact of Tehelka is hard to assess.
* George Fernandes is back in office. The government has denied that West End did any lasting damage – and it may well be right.
* Kapil Dev has been exonerated by the CBI, is coaching the Indian cricket team and has announced plans to make a film about his life.
* The Samata Party has told the Venkataswami Commission that the Tehelka tapes were doctored. Tehelka has denied the charge.
* Manoj Prabhakar’s credibility has been destroyed but Tehelka says that this does not affect the validity of its expose.
* Most journalists say that they believe that Tehelka’s methods were justified. But despite this, no editor of consequence has adopted those methods. It is still considered unacceptable within the Indian media to tape people without their knowledge or to name the sources of off-the-record disclosures.
* There appears to have been a fundamental rethink on the issue of entrapment after the ‘call girls’ revelations. While it is hard for editors to disown their earlier support to Tehelka, most will now say that they are against stings, against stories where journalists pretend to be somebody else, wear false beards and offer money or call girls to sources and victims.
So, what has the lasting impact of Tehelka really been? When you consider that the exposes received widespread media support, nearly brought down a government and that Tejpal and his methods still enjoy vast public popularity, Tehelka should really have changed the way we practise journalism in this country, even if it could not change the way defence deals are organised.
And yet, the lasting impact appears to be minimal. Nothing has really changed as a consequence of the single biggest news story of the year. If that is so, then did the media over-react by rushing so readily to the defence of Tehelka’s methods? The evidence suggests that this might, in fact, have been the case.