Tough lessons about truth-telling
Recently there have been several malicious articles against Tehelka. Such peddling of lies needs to be confronted once before they are ignored. Shoma Chaudhury puts some facts on record
OVER THE last few weeks, there has been a spate of malicious articles against Tehelka in some print and online publications.
After long years in the trench, Tehelka has learnt a couple of tough lessons about truth-telling. The first is to acquire a tough hide. The second is to hold one’s peace and let idle chatter slide over one’s head: let the work do the talking.
If we spent all our time combating the spurious conspiracies that float around us, we would still be stuck in 2001, in a time warp, trying to explain to people that we were not “ISI stooges”, “stock-market scamsters”, “defence dealers”, “Dubai-funded gangsters” or any of the fantastic things people accused us of being.
Worse, if we tried fobbing off every poison arrow that flies our way, we would spend all our time protesting and none of the work of the last 10 years would have got done: not the hard investigations, not the ground reports, not the exposes on mining, land grab, police atrocities, corporate scams, political greed, unfair policies or State injustices against Tribals, Muslims and Dalits.
On 12 October 2011, therefore, when a story against Tehelka appeared on Kafila.org—a story low on fact, argument and understanding—one’s instinct was to hold one’s peace and trust readers to do a bit of hard work on their own: read both Tehelka’s original story and Kafila’s analysis and make their own judgement.
Dismayingly, however, Kafila’s story has been followed by others in The Hindustan Times, Deccan Herald, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal – each lazily feeding on the story that had gone before, hyperlinking them and perpetuating them as truths without any independent verification, which is the first step of journalism.
The sum of the accusations in these stories is that Tehelka has “sold out” to corporate and government sponsors in order to fund its prestigious event THiNK 2011 in Goa; that we wrote a cover story on a tribal woman on the run for her life to “actually” exonerate Essar, one of our event sponsors; and that we “killed” a Goa mining story to curry favour with the government for our event, and supposedly because Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal owns a “beachfront” house in Goa (sic).
Tehelka rejects these stories as slanderous nonsense and there is a huge temptation to meet these outrageous allegations with the treatment they deserve: a disdainful silence. However, there are many readers who repose great trust in Tehelka and sometimes uncontested lies begin to assume a patina of truth. Such peddling of lies therefore needs to be answered once before they are ignored. For the sake of our readers, then, we would like to put some facts on official record so everyone interested can come to their own conclusions.
On 4 October 2011, Tehelka published an approximately 5,000 word cover story—How to Kill a Tribal in a Free State—on Soni Sori, an outspoken and fearless school teacher from Chhattisgarh. This was just one among several stories Tehelka has published on activists and tribals across the country caught in the cross-hair of the Maoist conflict.
Sori and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi’s story is particularly chilling though and Tehelka has reported on them several times before. On 9 September 2011, in a nightmarish climax to the harassment they have been facing, the Chhattisgarh police framed them in a high-profile case where they alleged the two were Maoist operatives caught taking protection money from an Essar contractor. (According to a senior CRPF officer, the police’s real intention it seemed was not only to silence the two tribals but mount pressure on corporates to get their cut of the protection racket.)
Kodopi was falsely jailed for this but Sori managed to flee to Delhi and the Tehelka office seeking help to put the truth out. Trying to help the desperate woman, Tehelka stung a Chhattisgarh constable to ascertain the truth and wrote its cover story overnight. (The urgency was not misplaced: Sori was arrested the same day; Tehelka’s story is now part of her defence in the Supreme Court.)
Right through this long, painstaking story—and we can only urge readers to read the story themselves to get at the truth—Essar makes only tiny and absolutely incidental appearances. Given that they happened to be, by sheer coincidence, the other party that was framed by the police in this case, it would have been journalistically impossible and highly unethical not to name them at all. (One could hardly wave a wand and change their identity just to please Tehelka’s critics.)
In a sheer leap of imagination, however, Kafila’s writer Bobby Kunhu somehow managed to transform this 5,000 word story on the life of Sori and Kodopi into a “blanket exoneration” of Essar. In a story full of clumsy innuendo, he claims he was “intrigued” by Tehelka’s “mischievous” attempt at “equating the travails of Soni Sori and Linga with the plight of Essar” and claims this “change of heart” in Tehelka was triggered by the fact that Essar was one of our sponsors.
Perhaps a course on elementary reading would have helped Kunhu read the story more accurately. Tehelka’s story did not “equate” Sori and Kodopi with Essar. In fact, it specifically put in a caveat while mentioning Essar: Tehelka said, “The police’s exertions to frame Linga and Soni — and in this instance Essar— is also exposed by another highly damaging video testimony by Jairam Khora.”
Perhaps Kunhu failed to understand that the parenthetical phrase—“in this instance Essar”—was a way of emphasising that Tehelka could vouch for Essar’s victimhood in the protection racket only in this case. Given that this was the truth, is it Kafila’s argument that we should not have mentioned it? Is journalism meant to be so doctrinaire that it should twist the truth just to wear a badge of being anti-corporate?
Far from according “blanket exonerations”, elsewhere in the story, Tehelka had quoted a senior officer describing how one Maoist commander had blown up Essar’s pipelines, while another was extorting huge sums of money from their contractor to relay the pipes. Tehelka could not prove this allegation journalistically, but the quote was left in the story to mark the complex truths of Dantewada and point to how police, corporations and Maoists have all become part of one gigantic mess. The story went on to mention “the unfair capture of natural resources and minerals by corporations” and pose the question: “how can contractors and mining operations survive in the region unless the Maoists are allowing them to continue for a hefty price?”
But all this just seems to slide past Kunhu. He does not see it as complex truth-telling—where a corporate may be both the wrong-doer in a larger context and the wronged in a particular instance. He does not see it as a fidelity to facts; he only sees it as an assault on his simplistic view of the world: a “contradiction”. In fact, he is so bent upon proving his spurious theory about Tehelka’s “sell out”, he works himself into several astonishing contortions.
At one point in the Tehelka story, a CRPF commander says the “public” in Dantewada was trapped between the Maoists on one side and the State on the other. He is specifically talking about tribals and villagers, and coming from a CRPF officer it’s a huge admission.
Preposterously, however, Kunhu asserts that Tehelka deliberately used the word “public” as a ploy to equate Essar with Sori and Kodopi as victims caught between Maoists and State.
It is staggering that Tehelka should write a 5,000 word story on a tribal woman and all Kafila can do is concoct a spurious conspiracy around the fact that Essar appeared in it as a minor strand. Of course they appeared in the story—one could hardly duck what the facts on ground showed. Tehelka has an established track record of being critical of many corporate practices, but it is by no means existentially anti-corporate. Not enough to start fabricating lies to look pure.
How can it be anything but reductive, therefore, to respond to Kafila’s allegations? As one of Kafila’s own editors told Tehelka, “Kunhu’s article is just lazy writing. Bad journalism.”
Unfortunately, however, even a publication as august as the New York Times didn’t think it fit to weigh the arguments before linking their blog to the Kafila article as “press critics accusing Tehelka of softening its criticism of a mining giant in exchange for sponsorships”. Nor did the NYT think twice before linking to another insubstantial Kafila blog asking “has Tehelka sold out?”
TEHELKA HAS never asked for concession from critics or blanket approval from friends: all we demand is that our detractors argue with us on hard facts.
But like the first Kafila post, another even more outrageous story has been doing the rounds alleging Tehelka “killed” a Goa mining story in exchange for government sponsorship. The Deccan Herald has gone to the scandalous extent of accusing Tehelka CEO, Neena Tejpal of “extorting money” from the Goa government in a story titled The crusader turns collector. Such a brazenly ugly and fictitious story does not deserve an editorial response: we have asked the Deccan Herald to publish an unconditional apology. Failing that, Tehelka will sue the Deccan Herald for criminal defamation.
As far the Goa mining story goes, however, Tehelka has tried to hold its punches while responding to allegations because putting the full facts on record involves embarrassing a former colleague. Unfortunately, however, holding our silence on this is now allowing our detractors to assume the garb of truth-tellers.
Early this year, Tehelka had sent a senior editor to Goa to do a mining story. Tehelka had already begun preliminary work on its event THiNK in Goa, but there was a clear decision that this would have no bearing on the mining story that was commissioned.
As it turned out, the editor spent close to two weeks in Goa but came back with a disappointingly soft story with no solid facts, no expose of either corporations or the Goa government and barely four to five human interest vignettes (that too insufficiently and poorly done).
Chided for the shallow story, the editor was asked to get evidence that actually nailed someone, in the Tehelka tradition. He was also specifically asked to do a hard interview with the Goa chief minister, who is also the mines minister. The editor spent another 10-odd days on it, then filed a fresh draft.
To our dismay, the story still fell way below Tehelka’s standards. The editor had managed to throw in some superficial figures—easy even for a cub reporter to gather from the many NGOs working in Goa—but the story still lacked muscle, showed no hard ground work and did not nail anyone. The interview with the Chief Minister read dismally like a PR interview. In frustration, with no real material to go on, we let the story lapse.
Far from killing an “explosive” story on Goa mining, therefore, the truth is we had to let the story go despite spending both valuable time and money on it because it just did not measure up.
(In the frenetic weekly run of journalism, occasionally stories do fail to meet standards and get dropped, while the sweep of news propels one on to the next story. Given the vicious smear campaign against Tehelka, however, and the way this innocuous, circumstantially driven editorial decision has been misconstrued, if necessary, Tehelka is ready to make both drafts of the rejected Goa mining story available online, so readers can assess for themselves how flimsy they were.)
It is deeply painful to be forced to go into the track record of a former colleague in this manner. But the truth is the Goa story was only one among many stories by him that did not make the mark.
The explosive Maran cover story—Who will Bell this Cat?—that Tehelka’s detractor Hartman D’Souza refers to in his Kafila post as proof of this former Tehelka journalist’s sterling skills, was actually reported and written overnight from scratch by another journalist—Tehelka’s investigation editor – after this editor had failed. The joint byline given was an act of courtesy. (The first unsatisfactory draft of this story too can be made available.)
Soon after this, Tehelka took the long-pending decision of asking this colleague to leave. At any given time, it is difficult to ask someone to leave a job; if the person happens to be an amiable, well-meaning human being with great personal relations but unsatisfactory work skills, the task is hundred-fold tougher. However, the reasons were put on record and the editor accepted that he was not cut out for a magazine, had seen the severance coming for a long time, and had in fact been looking for an alternative job.
Despite the frustrations at work, therefore, Tehelka and this journalist parted ways on amicable terms. It now appears that after he joined Firstpost.com, this journalist went back to Goa yet another time to rework his mining story.
Admittedly, the story published on Firstpost.com had a few more facts than what he had produced in Tehelka, but it was still poorly argued. As far as one knows, in fact, the Firstpost.com story made no independent impact when it was published. It’s only calling card now seems to be the cooked-up controversy over the fact that Tehelka took a legitimate editorial decision not to publish what it had deemed to be a poorly executed investigative story.
This account is sure to be as upsetting to the journalist in question as it has been for us, and even as we write this, we apologise for the intangible damage it does all of us as human beings. But dignity, courtesy and reasoned thinking, unfortunately, seems to be a casualty of our time and the scale and ferocity of the attacks on Tehelka has left us with little choice but to put this account on record.
AS FAR as the personal allegations published in the Hindustan Times go, Tehelka editor Tarun has already put on record that he does not own a “beachfront” house in Goa, has not violated any building laws, and has not cut a living tree in his life.
Lydia Polgreen’s blog in the New York Times seemed to suggest there were some other controversies around Tehelka’s event THiNK.
By every account—including Polgreen’s own tweets from ground zero – THiNK was an unprecedented success. Both speakers and audiences repeatedly said they had never been to an event worldwide that had been run with as much precision and stimulated as much thought and discussion across as wide a spectrum of subjects: free energy, nanotechnology, agriculture, land grab, corporate malpractice, tribal rights, the green economy, mining, genetic science, cancer, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, the Jan Lokpal Bill, education, architecture, cinema, art, music and media—to name just a few of the issues that were discussed at THiNK.
Yet, rather than focus on what was achieved, or assess and criticise Tehelka on the core task it had undertaken – a festival of ideas and the quality of discussion that triggered—some journalists have veered off into specious, or at least what seems to us specious, concerns.
Out of 66 national and international speakers invited to THiNK, for instance, four did not turn up: a small ratio by any standards. Central rural development minister Jairam Ramesh told The Times of India (it is difficult not to notice the irony there) that he did not come because, according to him, three Goa-based NGOs alerted him at the very nth minute that the Grand Hyatt at Bambolim, the venue for THiNK, had allegedly violated coastal regulation zone rules and was part-owned by men accused in the 2G scam.
Tehelka had invited Mr Ramesh to talk about land grab, tribal rights, the excesses of mining and the Maoist crisis as part of our attempt to sensitise high-powered audiences who are normally impervious to these urgent issues. The hotel was merely a facility being used. In no way was Tehelka asking Mr Ramesh to influence the case against Hyatt in court, nor legitimise the hotel’s existence with any positive comments about either its owners or its construction. Nor was Tehelka using its journalism in any way to defend or legitimise the hotel. Mr Ramesh was welcome to come and lambast the hotel from the stage if he so wished.
Mr Ramesh is a man Tehelka respects, but given the many grey area decisions political leaders like him have to take, we will leave him to work out his own complicated rationales for why he does and does not do certain things.
Like Mr Ramesh, The New York Times too is certainly within its right to choose its own focus and if Kafila’s posts and Twitter gossip caught its attention more than the entire gamut of discussions over three days, so be it.
There are, however, some basic facts Tehelka would like to put on record. Polgreen’s blog seemed to insinuate that other speakers did not turn up for similar reasons. She wrote “a number of high-profile Indian speakers, including two members of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet, stayed away” and listed UID chief Nandan Nilekani in the same breath as Jairam Ramesh. Later, she also wrote Newsweek editor and Tehelka’s event partner Tina Brown and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee “did not show up either”, “presumably for other reasons”.
Is it really difficult for a reporter from a publication as august as the NYT to do enough fact-checking not to “presume” reasons for such easily ascertained things?
Nandan Nilekani did not come because his ailing mother-in-law had passed away. Tina Brown did not come because she had a sudden and deeply personal crisis—this was announced from the stage on the first day. And Gbowee did not come because she had been travelling the globe after her Nobel win and when she was confronted by a sudden unscheduled layover in Dubai airport, she just caved in to the tiredness and decided to go back home to Africa.
Both the Tehelka and Newsweek teams were at the venue in large numbers: a simple question on this would have earned simple answers.
Just one other quick factoid for the NYT: Tehelka’s earlier, supposedly more “earnest” event, The Summit of the Powerless also had its fair share of Bollywood, musical performances and high-profile corporates and politicians in its line-up of speakers, along with a large number of fiery grassroot speakers. As did Tehelka’s two other acclaimed events in London. All these events have had corporate sponsors. Given that the events are constructed both to create valuable conversations and generate money for Tehelka, there is absolutely no embarrassment about admitting to this.
SPEAKING FOR itself, Tehelka has two journalistic philosophies: one half of its journalism is geared to expose wrong-doing and hold power and money to account. The other half attempts to persuade those across the fence with nuanced argument. We strongly believe the world is a changing and changeable place and even as we staunchly criticise certain government policies, corporate practices or right wing positions, we are always open to dialogue with those we criticise. The one thing we do not believe is worth our while is to preach only to the converted and live in the cocoon of only like-minded people.
The events we produce are also attempts to create conversations across disparate universes: bring hostile worlds within hearing distance of each other. As tribal activist Dayamani Barla, who got a standing ovation at THiNK, wrote back to us, she came to Goa fearing no one in that elite domain would understand her concerns. Instead, she went back strengthened and exhilarated because she felt people from across the class and consumer barrier had heard her and understood.
As far as the eternal dilemma of funding the journalism goes: if anyone knows of a pure fountain of money they are sipping at, do give us membership there too. At the best of times, it is difficult to find money for Tehelka’s work and it takes immense ingenuity to keep the flow going. Tehelka does more pro-poor, pro-justice journalism than any other mainline media company. Our exposes make for key case documents; our arguments persuade policy. Our work speaks for itself and we seek no certificates.
We are grateful to the few sponsors and advertisers, therefore, who have given us money at different periods with no or few strings attached. Tehelka’s editor Tarun has often said that the triumph of Tehelka is that it has doggedly used the money of the rich to tell the stories of the poor. The fact that it has done so for 10 years is proof that there are some corporates out there at least who are enlightened enough to stomach that difficult position. But these are few and far between: Tehelka is not only involved in dozens of cases in court, it has lost a millions of dollars of investment and several crores worth of advertising because of the stories it has done, like its expose on Gujarat 2002.
So, the going is never easy. Tehelka tries to fight some battles but it is not vain enough to believe or claim that it can fight all battles. Nor has it ever claimed the dangerous garb of the spotlessly pure. So far, our track record has not been bad. Perhaps in the years to come, it will get worse. Who can tell? All we can assert is read our journalism every week and assess us on what we do, not what we don’t. If our journalism speaks to you, if you feel it highlights important issues, follow it; if it doesn’t, do switch your allegiance to others you find more palatable.
And if you must attack us for what we don’t do, at least do us the courtesy of marshalling a few facts first.
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.