It started two weeks ago with the actor Tanushree Dutta going public with her accusations of sexual harassment against the filmstar Nana Patekar. Now a small leak in a dam is close to bursting. While Bollywood remains an impregnable fortress, with the big names ensuring they protect each another, the code of silence is breaking elsewhere, particularly in the media, of which I have been a part for over four decades.
#MeToo has not come a moment too soon. Sexual harassment in newsrooms has been the elephant in the room and all media managers, including editors, have been skipping around it.
Sexual harassment is a term of fairly recent coinage. In the 1970s, when I started out as a journalist, we did not have the language to describe what we experienced. Many of us shrugged off the strange behaviour of some men, not used to seeing women in a profession that was largely a male bastion, as just another occupational hazard. You took precautions (dressing down, being one of them), tried being as invisible as possible and hoping people would not notice you were a woman! This applied in particular to those of us women who were reporting – very few in those years.
Concepts of feminism regarding the right of women to be treated equal to men were still trickling in and had not yet permeated our ranks. Still, we did feel that it was unjust that merely because we were women, we were repeatedly denied certain beats, certain stories, and were mostly relegated to the editing desk or features sections.
As for off-colour jokes, as we called them then, we would attempt a weak smile and pretend we did not mind, or had not heard. Our desire to be treated as equals meant we had to try and be “one of the boys”, especially if we wanted to report and write on subjects that were exclusively male domains.
Not only was the media different then (it was only print), our society was as well. The most significant factor missing back then in the context of what we are discussing today was social media, and the parallel space it has created for politics, argument, discussion, as also slander, threats and name-calling. Also, the male-female ratio in newsrooms, at least in the English language media, has changed dramatically, although the top positions are still dominated by men.
Over the past few days, story after story by women journalists recounting their experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace has come tumbling out. And there have been a few instances of media houses instituting inquiries and asking the named men to step down or go on administrative leave.
Not all of these accounts qualify as sexual harassment in the strictest sense of the term as defined by the law. But even if women are venting about their bad sexual experiences with men outside the workplace, using the anonymity social media offers, we should not dismiss them as silly, a word used by at least one senior woman journalist.
How can a story of sexual assault be silly just because it happened outside the workplace? Why are some senior women journalists infantilising their younger colleagues by referring to them as “girls” and dismissing their experiences? What these women narrate is relevant to them and to many others who identify with what they write. This is what is germane. Not whether their experiences fit in the hierarchy of sexual misdemeanours that we artificially create.
Furthermore, these personal narrations should not be used to discount the very real accounts by women journalists, many of them prominent in the profession now, naming specific editors and senior journalists.
Some senior women journalists have suggested that “creepy behaviour” by men, even in office, should not be seen as sexual harassment. What is termed “creepy behaviour” – not just in office but when women are on assignment, at functions that are an extension of work – is simply not acceptable and has no place in a newsroom. It does mean sexual harassment. The onus is not on women to push off the “creeps”. The onus lies on men, and the managements of media houses, to make sure such behaviour is unacceptable.
Even if the #MeToo campaign in newsrooms subsides after a while, it will have achieved its purpose if media houses wake up to the fact that they need to follow the law and institute mandatory redress mechanisms against sexual harassment. There is no data available on how many media houses actually have functioning internal complaints committees, as required by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.
But even if media houses have such systems in place, how many work towards implementing the spirit of the law, that is, to ensure women can work as equals without having to, literally, watch their backs? How many have devised ways to inform all employees about the law, about what constitutes sexual harassment, whom they should contact if there is a problem, and how the system works? From conversations with young women journalists, one gets the impression that such diligence is the exception and not the rule.
So, if as a result of #MeToo, media houses, big and small, get their act together and simply implement the law, it will represent a positive step forward.
Time is up
One also hopes this moment will act as a deterrent not only to existing sexual predators in the media, but potential ones as well. They need to wake up and realise that the times have changed, and that their time is up.
On the downside, there could be a backlash against assertive and confident women in the media. There is already talk that employers might be wary of hiring women who come across as such, even though in journalism these are essential qualities.
There is also the danger – and some of it is already happening – of this movement being misused by those who want to target certain men on the opposite side of the political divide.
I am also aware that social media is a bubble restricted mostly to the English language media and, therefore, the urban upper class. The story in the Indian language media is vastly different as has been reported here and here. Yet, even if these women feel they cannot speak out, they are aware of the injustice and they are finding support.
Editors and senior journalists in all media organisations need to wake up and understand that there is now an entire generation of women in the workplace who know their rights, who want to be treated as equal, who are not prepared to put up with being demeaned. These are angry young women and they cannot be pacified with paternalism, or denial.
It will make a difference if we, men and women, and those who own and run media houses, have a conversation – not a slanging match – and work towards putting in place systems that deal with harassment.
At the same time, we have to figure how how to change the atmosphere in our newsrooms, which several younger women journalists describe as “toxic”, so that everyone is respected for what they bring to the table as professionals, irrespective of their gender, class or caste.
I know we are a long way from achieving that in this country, but the media is a place where this can begin given that we think of ourselves as people who try and uncover what is wrong with our society. When the rot lies in our own institutions, we are not exactly well placed to deal with what happens outside. Hence, it is time to deal with this elephant in all our newsrooms.