March 29, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Tarun Tejpal

'Any good story should hurt corrupt people'
'Any good story should hurt corrupt people'

Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of is the new media celebrity in New Delhi. Pleased that the web site's defence expose has shaken the Union government, he heralds it as the return of investigative journalism in India.

A journalist for almost two decades, Tejpal is being credited with creating the biggest media sensation in recent times. "If we (the journalists) could manage to do three or four investigative pieces in a year, we would force the politicians and bureaucrats to clean up the system," he says.

Tejpal is now looking for a strategy to build up his company Buffalo Networks, of which is a part. Though Zee Telefims is about to pick up a substantial share in his company, the man behind the expose remains humble. In separate encounters with Sheela Bhatt and Onkar Singh, he speaks about the story that shook India's political and defence establishment.

It does appear that your reporter Mathew Samuel had a contact in the home ministry...

Every reporter worth his name has a contact in the home ministry, foreign ministry, in the Intelligence Bureau, in RAW. What kind of a reporter are you, if you don't have sources there?

One of the many things discussed about the story is that your lead came from a home ministry source -- something related to insurgents in the north-east. That person has been shifted out. And, the same person in the home ministry gave you a handle to play in this story too.

Nothing. On West End, we got nothing. I know who you are talking about. Thomas Mathew. If you are asking was he a source of one of our reporters, he could have been. Every reporter has a source in every ministry. How can you say that because you have a source in the ministry, you are a problem?

Did Thomas Mathew have anything to do with the Tehelka expose? Did he introduce your correspondents to the ministry of defence officials to make your task easy?

Frankly, I do not even know who Thomas Mathew is. As far as we are concerned, he had nothing to do with Operation West End. From the newspaper reports, it is clear that he is being made a scapegoat.

Did Mathew Samuel know him?

It is possible that Samuel might have known him. We keep doing various stories and in that connection we all meet a lot of people. But this does not mean that all those whom we meet know what we are doing. This man had nothing to do with Operation West End whatsoever.

Can you clear the doubts about Mathew Samuel? Who is he?

Mathew Samuel is someone who was working with The Indian Express. He came to us when we broke the cricket match-fixing story. He called up and came to meet us. I put him on to Aniruddha Bahal, who was in the process of building up his investigation team. Aniruddha had a long chat with him.

We have five-six people in it (the Tehelka investigative team), which will probably grow now. From the beginning, we have been very careful. When we launched Tehelka, I said we would be doing a lot of hard investigation.

When I came into journalism in 1983, investigative journalism was the mainstay of journalism, it was the core. In the 1990s, thanks to all of us, including people like me, the whole trend of hard-hitting journalism slowly diminished. So of all things that I wanted to do here, the main one was hard journalism because journalism has become too much of public relations and entertainment.

So, I passed Mathew on to Aniruddha, he had two-three discussions over two-three days. We decided to hire him as a reporter in the main investigative cell. As far as we were concerned, he had worked in The Indian Express, he seemed to have lots of contacts all over and was an extremely resourceful guy when it got down to bringing out information. Over the months, he actually managed to get very very interesting stories.

What was his beat?

Investigation. Since August 2000, Aniruddha and Samuel have been working on this story.

And what about his connection with the Congress party?

I don't know what he did when he was 9 or 16 years old! And I really don't care as long as I don't suspect him of having any such motivation in his stories. And I don't think he has any. Again, this is something the media developed later. This story is not Mathew's story. This story is Aniruddha's story. This story is finally my story. The story is's story. Mathew is just one cog in that particular wheel.

But he could have been a plant to get this story done?

When this story is Aniruddha's idea, how can he be a plant, yaar? This is the kind of thing I object to. This is what journalists are being forced to do by vested interests and politicians who have been hit. They have been forced to talk about the issues that actually have no relevance to the story.

Arun Shourie himself said it very well. He said: "Alright, let me assume that Tarun is a very bad guy, also assume that Tarun is an awful chap, but does it take away the facts what have been shown? Does it really matter?" He blasted this on television, he said, "This is a position I think even Tarun would agree with. Let assume for a minute, Tarun or Arun Shourie are terrible people but look at the facts, does it take away the facts of the story?"

So let's assume for a moment that Mathew is a horrible man, does it take away the facts? Does it take away the corruption? Does it take away what has been shown? Does it take away the fact that defence has been totally subverted?

But Bangaru Laxman told us that Mathew lived in V George's flat?

This is bunkum. This is not true. I don't think so. I will be surprised if Mathew has ever met V George. I really don't know. I have never met Vincent... I actually.... met him once when I did a story on Sonia for The New York Times. This is being planted by Bangaru Laxman. He is the guy who has been hit. He has every reason to lie. He has been lying about the tapes which are clear evidence. His false claims were destroyed day by day as we released more stuff.

See, if you want to assume that Bangaru Laxman is a paragon of virtue, he is the most honest and wonderful man in the world, he is telling the truth that Mathew Samuel lived in V George's flat, and that both of them are the best friends or lovers and whatever else he wants to say... does it take away the fact that Bangaru Laxman took money to facilitate the defence deal? It doesn't.

Please look at the facts. Look at the story. (Screams) We are not the story. I am going on saying. These politicians are trying to make us a story. We may not be the solution, we are part of the solution. The media may not be the solution but the media is a part of the solution. We are certainly not the problem. The problem is what we have shown. Here is the problem. All the vested interests who have been hit are trying to make us a problem.

I am glad that finally the prime minister has clarified and come on record to say that the media has done what they have to do, and they should not be targeted. This is a classic example; this is what Mrs Indira Gandhi used to do. What Rajiv Gandhi used to do. Anybody who spoke against them... they were branded as ISI agents, Dawood agents... they are foreign hands... this is so banal and ridiculous.

How did you manage to keep the whole investigation under wraps for so long without anyone getting to know about it?

This is a tribute to our staff who worked round the clock and still managed to keep it under wraps. Initially only five or six of us knew. But in the last eight weeks, fifteen more people knew about it but they too kept their mouth shut. Normally journalists have a habit of shooting their mouth off. In this case we all kept things close to ourselves.

You said that at one stage the Intelligence Bureau got wind of what you were up to. Didn't they try to stop you or someone try to intimidate you?

Only my colleagues Aniruddha Bahal and Samuel knew what was going on between them and the Intelligence Bureau. Yes, at one stage R K Jain got suspicious of what we had done. He sent his men to our office and they kept on asking for a reporter called Samuel. We told them that there was no such man on our rolls. This is the closest anyone came to know about our activities. His men kept a vigil for a couple hours and then left.

Can you tell us how you started working on the story?

The story started as a normal story.

This can't be a normal story.

It is not a normal story now. But it did start as a normal story. Even the biggest stories in the world start as a normal story. Watergate was a normal story. Aniruddha came and discussed ten stories. This was one of the ten stories he discussed. He wanted to follow up this one and see. Read the transcripts of the tapes. The story starts with the section officer, it didn't start with Bangaru Laxman, it ends with Bangaru Laxman. It started with a section officer... that's about as humble as you can get for any journalist.

When did you last meet a journalist who went to a section officer to do a story? It just started as a very normal story. We started in August, it was finished in the middle of January. Week by week, month by month the story built up, because the story kept opening up, kept opening up, kept opening up. And that's the way, in fact, how the best stories are developed.

Some people think there were chances of the American or Israeli arms lobby planting some mole, when the investigations were on?

(Irritated) I don't like that. You are sounding like the government now. In this story journalists were posing as an arms-dealer. How would they know they were journalists, how could they see a plant? See the tapes. See how they go from one place to another. They are being led by bloody arms-dealers.

Arun Shourie himself told me that he was the first person to tell the Cabinet that, 'I know Tarun Tejpal very well, there is no motivation to the story.' Somebody should just look at my journalism of the past 19 years. I never eat at a politicians' house, I never eat at an arms-dealers' house. I have never eaten in the homes of businessmen in my whole life!

This is straight stuff. This is a straight story. Just because people are hit and hurt, they are trying to fly all kind of kites. And any good story should hurt people, and a good story should hurt people in power who are corrupt, if it doesn't then the story is no good.

Part II: 'If no middlemen exist, how come we see them crawling out on film?'

Design: Dominic Xavier

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