Sex & The Newsroom

We ranted and slammed the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon (allegedly a norm) in the Hindi film industry when a starlet accused a film maker. Close at its heels came two sting operations showing two actors asking for sexual favours from a struggling actor. In both cases it was a journalist posing as a starlet.

So are we all outraged when the tables are turned on us? When a leading editor, and ironically a pioneer of sting operations, accepts his misadventures and calls it “a bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation” I am not aghast. The editor’s chair is one of immense power. Ask any greenhorn in the industry, struggling to find a foothold – that coveted byline or that first piece-to-camera on live television, there is a lot at stake. She will do anything to get noticed, to get the scoop, to do a ‘breaking’ story and to make headlines. So when she is suddenly picked for reasons beyond her understanding, she looks at it as her chance to shine. She will give her best, and in the case of an earnest, enterprising and bright journalist, she will perform. What if her enthusiasm doesn’t match up to her productivity? How far will she go to keep her job?

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I have been lucky to work in organizations where no one has made an untoward remark or exhibited behavior that can be remotely sexual in nature. I have worked all hours with my colleagues, video-editors and video-journalists, often late into the night, in deserted cold newsrooms. I have travelled with them, around the country and overseas. We’ve spent time in hotel rooms, looking at the footage, discussing shoots, work and life. I have never felt compromised.

But can I really say that in these past 9 years I have never witnessed sexual harassment? I may not have experienced, but yes I have witnessed it. We were trainees then, and there was a bunch of us. Young, chirpy, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, ours was a media startup and we were privileged to be part of the core team. For most us, those were exciting times. Meeting and interacting with senior journalists, calling them by first names (because they didn’t like the ‘sir’ and ‘maam’), lunching together, discussing stories over a smoke and going out for the occasional parties. We were young and we were all learning something every day. Lines of hierarchy were fluid and came into force only when we had to report our stories and apply for leaves. In some cases, these lines were easily blurred. So when a certain duo of senior journalists starting calling my friends by names of ‘vodka’ and ‘tharra’, I felt the line had been definitely crossed. I hated the sound of the newly earned monikers. And even though I was not the one to be named, I wanted to protest. My colleagues didn’t. They cringed every time the names were hollered out in the newsroom. But they didn’t protest. And nobody else either. This was my first lesson into workplace dynamics and that it can be hostile, very hostile for a woman.

We had heard stories of newsrooms where a woman’s word is considered the truth. Newsrooms and organizations that gave its women employees’ special privileges and put into place a strict, very strict code of conduct. People were fired if a woman as much pointed a finger at someone. Of course, this is what dreams are made up of!

Let’s go back to the early years again, because I was still one then. It was a big interview for me. A senior journalist, he acted as editors-in-chief of two prominent dailies and a weekly newspaper, a published author of several books and a much venerated figure in our field had to be interviewed. I read and read up as much about him, I was going to discuss hard news with him and I didn’t want to come across as silly. I read and re-read my questions again. I reached on time and set up. When he came into the room, he greeted me with a firm and friendly handshake. We went through the questions and the show for which I was conducting it. I spent the next twenty minutes conducting the interview. Much unlike other senior journalists, he didn’t walk away after we finished. Well, it was his office and he chose to stick around while we wrapped up. And then the small talk began.

The next ten minutes is ingrained in my mind as I watched this very senior and supposedly respectable journalist appreciate me for the ‘insightful’ interview I had just conducted. “Your are smart, Ritu,” he said, “How long have you been working?” I was two years old in journalism and said as much. “Do you like television?” Yes, I loved it and still do. “Do you go on air? Do you anchor news?” No, I didn’t. I occasionally went on air for a piece-to-camera for a story and I hated it. “Why? You are so pretty, you should go on air!” I frowned and smiled back saying I am better off behind the camera, I replied.  “Have you considered moving to print? You will be particularly good!” I hadn’t considered print and seriously I loved television more. “We are always looking for bright, ambitious and enterprising young girls like you. So give it a thought.”

I did. Not about moving to print and taking up his advice. But of what he said. Was this a sexual advance? To me, it wasn’t an innocent, well-meaning advice either. He clearly hadn’t spotted the spark in me, and he definitely wasn’t poaching. As I went back and discussed this at work, the stories came out. Senior colleagues and former subordinates of this particular gentleman narrated incidents, gave me names and shared the legend of his glad eye escapades. “Oh he tries his hand at everyone he meets these days,” someone said. Was I disappointed that his assessment of my talent as a journalist was not the truth? Hell, no!

A couple of years later, there was another time when we wanted to interview him. This time I was the show producer and I could choose to send one of my subordinates to do the interview. I didn’t. I chose to interview him. Again. This time, he remembered me. “Oh! I was surprised you are still there!” he started again. But I was prepared.

“I love television and I know I am better here. If you don’t mind, I have another shoot at the other end of the town and I need to get there in an hour and half. Can we please begin the interview?”

He shut up and we finished the interview in fifteen minutes. He was to-the-point and I got better answers this answers. I didn’t have a second shoot and I got back to office well in time for my lunch. Thank you!

What does a female journalist do when an editor looks at her with a special glad eye? Does she cower into a shell, withstand the advances or accept it as part of the job and give in?  There are stories all around. A newsroom is still a hostile place. And clearly there aren’t enough takers for the Vishakha guidelines.

Ambition is clearly a tricky thing for a woman. One has heard of women who baited themselves for the sake of their ambitions. There were mid-term promotions, a corner office, a fancy designation. I have heard stories of a reporter being elevated to become star anchor because the CEO of the organization spotted her talent. She obliged and earned the stars! Even as I am writing this blog, I heard the story about a politician / senior lawyer and a senior journalist squabbling over a journalist; the two were fighting over who would take her home. There is enough sleaze; there is enough sex and debauchery in our newsrooms, like there are moments of tolerance and intolerance. These are stories that epics are made of. If you are one from the fraternity, you either know them or hear them from an acquaintance’s mouth.

So is the Tehelka case an eye-opener? Is there bravado in the editor accepting his “bad lapse of judgment?” “I feel atonement cannot be just words. I must do the penance that lacerates me…” he wrote. He has chosen to ‘recuse’ himself from the editorship. Will he get back his chair? Well, life is not about ‘the alchemy of desires’, Mr Tejpal! But then…you never know.

Is it time to clean up journalism? Well, yes it is. We can’t go all guns firing at ‘snoop gates’ when there indeed is a need to turn the spy cameras into the editor’s room!

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7 thoughts on “Sex & The Newsroom

  1. For the record I did protest at being called ‘tharra’ and No, I don’t see it as a particular term of endearment. And, I fought my battles. Thank you. But, nonetheless, an insightful read.

    • Oh yes! It was never a term of endearment…! I wish some action had been taken. Because years later another senior editor got away by calling a female a certain name. This time she had to quit. Shameful!

  2. It is not in the field of journalism alone, I hear it in uniformed services, among lawyers, even among academicians… a systematic awareness has to be created. Girls should pick up courage to report.
    Good post, worth a read.

    • Yes Indrani. Unfortunately sexual harassment is all pervasive! I have only worked in newsrooms and so my view is limited to such workplaces. Yes, I agree that women must stand up and report. It is not easy. But it must be done always. Thank you for reading.

  3. Rituparna Have been married to a journalist for almost a decade now and I could find so many relatable scenes from his life and work and trust you me young MALE interns sometimes are not spared either. So the dirt is not probably about Jouranlism it is about the powerful and the marginal.
    Have myself worked in a lot of different environments and I feel most of the time sexual harassment begins as “casual banter” and then until it turns really ugly no body speaks up. The silence is the culprit that needs to be tackled.

    • Yes, Pooja. Sexual harassment is always about power. It is an abuse of power really and how much a person allows as ‘acceptable’. Talking dirty, or using double entendre is not new. But in all relationships it is about crossing the permissible limit. I may allow it to a friend / colleague but when he crosses the line it may get difficult for me to hold him up. Then there is a breach of trust. It is we who decide what is okay or not. If we are not comfortable with casual banter then it must be stopped at the first moment. So yes, silence is the real culprit…well said.

      Thank you for reading.

  4. Rituparna, in a publication that I worked for the editor-in-chief was also the chief of the casting couch. There was competition between the editor-in-chief and the bureau editors in baiting ‘vulnerable’ and ‘willing’ colleagues. One of the bureau editors used to openly sing the song, ‘aaj kal tere pyar ke charche’ to a woman colleague who was happy to be serenaded. And when the woman’s husband phoned her, she would coo, ‘Kya kar rahe ho, baby? How are you sweetheart?”

    The same editor-in-chief, now in an elevated position in his publication, wrote a holier-than-thou article after Tarun Tejpal was arrested.

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