August 27, 2001


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T V R Shenoy

The Tehelka Tragedy

History repeats itself,' was Karl Marx's famous dictum, 'the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.' The father of Communism was probably talking about Tehelka!

I believe the average Indian has almost given up on politicians. They are supposed to be corrupt right down to the marrow of their bones. Once, Indians could look up to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Today, their heroes are most likely to come from the arena of sports or business. A Sachin Tendulkar or a Dhirubhai Ambani rates far higher in the consciousness than most politicians.

That is why Tehelka's 'revelations' about corruption and match-fixing came as a shock. (Of course, the allegations weren't really proved until the Delhi police caught Hansie Cronje in the act.) I know a couple of teenagers who nearly stopped watching cricket thanks to Manoj Prabhakar and Tehelka.

That was the true tragedy. (I am sure others shall disagree.) But, even at the time, I remember feeling a bit uneasy about the tactics that had been used to get those 'incriminating' pictures. Call me old-fashioned, but using Prabhakar to tape his former team-mates seemed just a bit, well, sneaky. Nor am I sure that the ends justified the tactics -- all that we got was a bunch of rather tawdry gossip.

On the surface, the second set of Tehelka tapes was the bigger story -- the ones which seemingly exposed corruption in defence deals. It led to the resignation of the then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and of India's defence minister. It gave Mamata Banerjee an excuse to leave the National Democratic Alliance and join hands with the Congress. (Which, in retrospect, was not the most sensible decision even by the lady's high standards of whimsy!)

But was it a tragedy? Not in my opinion. Face it, Indians have a very low opinion of the establishment -- politicians, civil servants, and so on. Ever since Bofors hit the headlines 14 years ago, it is part of the conventional wisdom that corruption is part and parcel of defence deals. It really did not take a Tehelka to offer any such revelations.

So where was the farce? Well, it was genuinely funny to hear the ridiculous excuses offered by some of those caught in the act of taking money. However, I found nothing in the 'shoot the messenger' attitude that seemed to be driving most of those reactions.

But it all seems to be going downhill. The Tehelka team seemed to be carried away by its successes. The day after breaking the story of the defence scams, one Tehelka reporter claimed that L K Advani and his secretary had taken a bribe while clinching a Rs 1,300 crore deal with Israel.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Tehelka offered an abject apology to the Union home minister. But the episode -- and the fact that the claim had been made at a press conference -- indicated that success had gone to some people's heads, encouraging them to make ever wilder claims. Journalists, let us face it, are expected to report the news, not make it -- and especially not with such outrageous fabrications.

That cloud on the horizon loomed ever larger with the story on Prafulla Mahanta, the former chief minister of Assam. A lady claimed that he had married her bigamously. Tehelka carried a report stating that she had been paid to make this claim. As I understand, this story too has been disowned.

And now we have the disgusting details of how Tehelka lured army officers. I don't condone the behaviour of those officers and politicians who fell for such tactics. But there is a smell of the gutter about the means that Tehelka employed.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. If Tehelka uses methods as sleazy as those popularly associated with politicians, if the company deliberately courts publicity to the extent of hosting press conferences, then it cannot complain about coming under the spotlight. And so it must now prepare for being asked some searching questions.

Such as what? Well, questions are being asked on the people who financed Tehelka. It is alleged they are bear operators on a very large scale who made a killing when the markets tumbled -- up to Rs 100 crore of pure profit!

Of course, you can't blame Tehelka if the men backing the firm happen to be speculators. But it is a different matter when it comes up with false stories. Or when it turns out that the now-infamous defence scam tapes were edited to the point of giving a false impression.

For instance, we know that George Fernandes was forced to resign because of the Tehelka expose. But the unedited tapes, the parts that weren't publicised, show that everybody said the former defence minister cannot, repeat not, be bribed.

Let me repeat: the shady methods used by Tehelka should not be cited as mitigating circumstances for bribe-takers. (Or potential bribe-takers.) Put them behind bars, and throw the keys away if a court finds them guilty!

No, what is truly inexcusable is the shoddy journalistic technique which Tehelka used. (It isn't the sole offender.) Whatever happened to cross-checking? If you are going to make an accusation, shouldn't you give the accused a chance to explain his or her actions?

As any journalist should know, those unwritten rules are in place to protect reporters as much as the people they report on. Cross-checking would have saved Tehelka the embarrassment of the L K Advani and Mahanta retractions.

I don't hold Tehelka to fault for the financiers who back it. (Though I think it will be a long time before Tehelka tackles the market scams!) But its methods and, even worse, its poor journalistic techniques cast the Indian media in a very poor light.

Tailpiece: This isn't directly related to Tehelka, but may I say that I cordially second everything that my fellow columnist Admiral Nadkarni said about the wretchedly boring Pearl Harbor. If anyone is genuinely interested in the events of December 7, 1941 -- and lacks the time or inclination to do some research -- please hire Tora, Tora, Tora! from the local video library. The truth, as Tehelka should realise, is dramatic enough without painting the lily.

T V R Shenoy

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