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Tehelka still has teeth

Tarun Tejpal talks about two formidable names — Tehelka and Naipaul



Tarun Tejpal: `Journalism has become too snippety. All information is in morsels.' — Photo: K. Gopinathan

TARUN TEJPAL is easygoing, has no hang-ups, exudes confidence despite all the pressure he has been through, and is clear about the kind of journalism he would like to do. It was certainly easy chatting with someone who has made a name for himself, for all the "right or wrong" reasons. He has been way up there in journalism — Managing Editor of Outlook, Editor with the Express Group, and with India Today. Tarun, who was here with Sir Vidia Naipaul in connection with the first of the Tehelka Lecture series on Saturday at Crossword, said the only journalism he was interested in today was "Public Interest Journalism". "I know it is a tough battle, but I hope to be on the winning side."

In keeping with this conviction, Tarun and his friends recently launched Tehelka — The People's Paper. The publication, most of us will recognise, is also part of his effort to sustain investigative journalism after the eponymous website had to temporarily back down under immense state pressure following its sting operation on the Defence establishment. "If we had more money, we would have ripped the system from end-to-end," Tarun had said then. Not one to give in, he came up with the paper. "It is doing well and people pick it up wherever they see it. That is a good sign. We sell about 80,000 copies now and hope to sell more soon," he said, assessing the paper's performance.

Tehelka is probably the first mass-based publication in the world running exclusively on advance subscriptions. "We simply have no money to run it on our own. We do not have the advertising and marketing muscle yet. Despite that, it has done well. It is because of the trust people place in us and in quality, fair journalism. Such public response is heartening. It also means there are serious-minded, well-meaning people," Tarun remarked.

But what does it hope to do at a time when investigative journalism in the mainstream has almost disappeared? "It is true that the investigative mode has died in the last 15 years. But a healthy democracy cannot do without it. That is why we are aligned only with public interest journalism and transparency is the principle on which we work. I realise you have to make your own call and decide on the paper you want to be in. If you want to make loads of money, then you cannot do the work we are doing. But, if you want to do serious journalism, you can still do it."

Tarun, however, agrees that the face of news is changing, that it is becoming too snippety, and while one can read 300 to 400 words quickly, one comes away learning nothing. "All information is in morsels and one never gets the sense of a large bite."

He believes Indian newspapers are doing very little serious and consistent reportage "owing to lack of vision". "But I still think The Indian Express and The Hindu are doing a great job. And we know there is some kind of a battle on with commercial journalism. I am on the other side of the fence. It will be a disaster if we lose." Some sense of independence that newspapers earlier had, he believes, is giving way to hype, trivia, glamour, and marketing. Broadcast journalism, he feels, has largely contributed to this trivialisation. "Television has already done that mistake and I think print should not go that way. It will be a serious mistake. For democracy." He says western newspapers such as The Guardian or The New York Times still leave one feeling satisfied after a read.

Commenting on the august presence of the Nobel winner who is on Tehelka's board, Tarun confesses to being fascinated by Naipaul, both as a fan and as a close friend. While Naipaul's arrival at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi recently raised questions, Tarun believes too much is being made of it. "He was invited to speak at the BJP headquarters. He did not go on his own. He came there to understand what this BJP movement is all about. It does not mean he supports the BJP."

On Naipaul's reported support of the Babri Masjid demolition and his characterisation of Islam as disallowing room for private conscience, Tarun was forthright: "I think Naipaul is interested in civilisational cycles, in decoding. He is an inquirer, an analyser. He is curious. I do not think he is interested in snap judgments."

PRASHANTH G.N.

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