Dilli Billi

The Tehelka Conundrum - King of stings, stung by scandal

November 30, 2013

With the resignation of Shoma Chaudhury, the curtains have all but come down on Tehelka. Along with her boss, friend, mentor and comrade, the now-disgraced Tarun Tejpal, Shoma was the face of Tehelka and of its Think Fest in Goa. This event was a narcissistic exposition of the self-importance of the duo – all other Tehelka employees were kept off the stage and out of the limelight – and also their occasion to party with their friends at the sponsors’ expense.

The past few days have been revealing of the Tehelka business model. It’s an old cliché in journalism that clever editors have a price for every big story they publish and a bigger price for every big story they don’t publish. Given Tehelka’s shifting practices and allegiances, did Tejpal and Chaudhury begin to believe in this adage?

Consider the evidence. Think is almost exclusively sponsored by real estate, mining and infrastructure companies that were once – but not now – targets of hard investigation by Tehelka. The cronyism, exploitation and super-profit that Tehelka accused Indian business of have come back to haunt it. Think was run by a separate company, owned by Tejpal and his sister and Chaudhury. Its massive profits were never ploughed back into Tehelka. The journalists of the magazine, on the other hand, were made to work for free at the Think event.

Second, at their schmoozing Think Fest or at the new “club” Tejpal was about to open in a south Delhi neighbourhood – underwritten by the Ponty Chadha family – the Tehelka promoters were offering a Faustian bargain. They were taking money from dubious and small-time businessmen and promising them respectability. They were also facilitating the interaction and appearance of such ‘sponsors’ with senior politicians, particularly of the Congress persuasion. The old-fashioned term for this is lobbying. At Tehelka, they called it investigative journalism.

While close to the Congress, Tejpal and Chaudhury angered their favourite party a few months ago when they sold the Raipur franchise of Tehelka’s Hindi magazine to investors propped up by Raman Singh, the BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh. At the inaugural event in Raipur, Tejpal, Chaudhury and Raman Singh were photographed together on the dais, smiling and shaking hands. After this, attacks on Raman Singh and his anti-Maoist policies disappeared from Tehelka’s editorial radar. It left Tejpal’s original benefactors in the Congress hopping mad.

As he contemplates life in prison and as she contemplates life beyond this mess, Tejpal and Chaudhury have left several questions unanswered. When the rape scandal broke, Chaudhury reacted so cautiously as to suggest a cover-up. Was this motivated by concern for the event company she co-owned with Tejpal? Why were her responses to previous allegations of sexual harassment in the newsroom – allegations she referred to in meetings at the Tehelka office in the past week – dismissive? Why were no investigations done or internal committees instituted?

Finally, is the ‘Tehelka model’ of journalism now gaining currency beyond just Tehelka? In election season, several fly-by-night, sting-and-run operations have sprung up – attacking the BJP one day, the Aam Aadmi Party the next, planning dirty-tricks operations against a series of regional opponents of the Congress. These operations will need to be helped and broadcast by a so-called media outlet, often a website or rag for hire.

As such, expect new media brands to emerge in the coming months, and disappear as quickly. The end of Tehelka is the beginning for other entrepreneurs masquerading as journalists.

Till next time, meow!

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