The tsunami of revelations by women media professionals about being harassed by their bosses and colleagues has brought out into the open a dreadful pathology that was only whispered about so far. At one time, the predators got away with their behaviour. No longer. Inspired by the growing momentum worldwide – triggered by the #MeToo movement in the United States, in which women came out publicly to shame their harassers – Indian survivors have begun to step forward. It is not as if they did not speak out earlier. Actor Tanushree Dutta had in the past, almost immediately after the incident, complained about how she felt uncomfortable at the way co-star Nana Patekar had forced her to do suggestive dance steps. No one took the slightest notice; even now, after speaking out again, she finds herself being targeted.
Fortunately others, especially in journalism, have taken up the gauntlet. In the past 48 hours, survivors have come forward and provided credible accounts of specific incidents in which editors have forced themselves on journalists working under them, as well as of instances of workplace harassment by male colleagues, and persistent and unwanted sexual attention. Each incident is traumatic but when it comes bundled with a power dynamic, the effect is especially deadly – for the survivor, for the organisation where it takes places and for journalism as a profession.
Journalism is not as rigidly hierarchical a profession as others; a newsroom is a fluid space quite unlike any other. Yet bosses can and do pull a lot of weight. Women, especially rookies in the profession, become easy targets of those higher up the editorial chain who have the power to make or mar their careers. What is common to the incidents that survivors have narrated is that managements took little or no note of their complaints – obviously because they lacked clout in the organisation, thus making it doubly difficult to get any justice or redressal.
That situation is not only untenable but totally unacceptable. Things cannot go on like this anymore. While there are concerns that names could be unfairly dragged in, accounts that contain details of who, what, where and how must be investigated, at the very least by the internal complaints committees of the various media organisations involved. Women who speak out, giving their names and the exact sequence of events about incidents of harassment, do not do so frivolously; they know that there could be a price involved. At the very least, other powerful people and organisations may shun them. Yet if they are ready to make specific complaints, then these deserve to be investigated.
Even if India’s sexual harassment law at the workplace envisages a time limit for the filing of complaints, media organisations must waive those limits. They owe it to the public to ensure that those who are still in the profession are called to account. This is not just about the law; it is about accountability and, eventually, closure. There can be no going back now. A higher standard of behaviour is expected from men in the media and it has to be made clear that those who cannot adhere to that standard have no place in a newsroom. Beyond this, changing the culture of the newsroom in a larger, gender inclusive way is the key to putting an end to the sexism and predatory culture seen in so many media organisations.
(The Internal Complaints Committee at The Wire is headed by our managing editor, Monobina Gupta. Anyone who wishes to make a specific complaint against The Wire‘s employees, including its founding editors, may email email@example.com)