Senior Journalist Sagarika Ghose has seen some of the best years in journalism and some of its worst for women reporters. Gender bias at work, male bosses, ‘lady-like’ stories handed to women and features made the bastion of the female reporter – it was a sexist mix. Today things have progressed a lot for women reporters. In this candid conversation with She The People, the award winning journalist and author reflects on the troughs of India’s journalism cycle, dotted with challenges, shaken up by revolutions like the advent of television and of late disrupted by digital.
Ghose is Consulting Editor, Times of India, the author of ‘The Gin Drinkers’ and ‘Blind Faith’, and not someone who pulls her punches. She talks to Amrita Tripathi for SheThePeople.TV about sexism in the media, iconic women trail-blazers and forging one’s own path.
Amrita Tripathi: You’ve been a journalist for 25 years – congratulations. That’s pretty incredible. Encompassing some pretty major changes! Can you take me through one or two of the most major changes in that time – we’ve seen of course the rise of private tv news channels and digital media and expecting to see that disrupt.
Sagarika Ghose: When I first joined journalism, it was very much a male domain. The Women journalists were consigned to the softer subjects, to the health stories, the environmental stories, family stories, features stories. In a way that all has completely changed, in that these are now considered mainstream issues.
ICONIC WOMEN JOURNALISTS
When I joined, 10 years before (that) veteran journalist Usha Rai told me when she joined journalism, there was not even a women’s loo in the building! It was very difficult for women to make a mark. But they did, in the 70s and 80s we had Usha Rai, Prabha Dutt, Barkha’s mother, Coomi Kapoor…women journalists who had blazed a trail. We were stepping into some pretty formidable shoes.
THE GREAT EQUALISER
But then, what had to happen was the TV revolution, because that really opened up opportunities for women. Women got a chance to report on politics, defence, current events, various subjects, not just consigned to the soft ladies’ compartment.
I remember my first day in TOI when I had joined, when I was fresh back from Oxford. Another young man had joined with me, from a US university. The chief reporter looked at him and said there’s a political rally going on right now at Jantar Mantar, just pack your bags and go there, give me a report by evening. He looked at me, and said it’s a hot day, why don’t you look around the office, look around the library. Don’t strain yourself too much, just be safe. Tomorrow we’ll see what you do.
I had to say that… I want to go report on the rally. But he said, he’s already going, And I said, I’ll go with him. He looked a bit discomfited, but you have to have to push yourself a little bit.
You get a reputation for being a little aggressive, a little pushy but you have to, or you’re walked all over. The binary choices are ‘doormat’ or ‘pushy’. If you don’t push yourself, you’ll be a doormat, and I would much rather be pushy than doormat.
In print journalism, there was a strong dominance of men, and that gave way when the television revolution happened.
The television revolution, I would say, really opened up doors for women reporters, women out on the field.
Before that I had been reporting for Outlook magazine, where I did a lot of filed reporting and I have to say that was a very rewarding experience. I travelled the length and breadth of the country. I covered the ’96 elections. It was incredible. People would say are you safe travelling alone, going here or there? You’re completely safe actually. You’re very safe outside Delhi… I’ve never had experiences where I’ve been threatened or intimidated… Yes, there have been dangerous situations, where the situation is dangerous. But I’ve never been at the receiving end of gender violence in the field. The gender injustice that I’ve encountered has always been in the office, has always been in Delhi, in the air-conditioned environment of the news room. It’s Never been out on the field. It was very rough and ready and free.
There have been dangerous occasions… I was almost kidnapped in Bihar once, and in Sri Lanka I was in an interrogation situation with the police.
But otherwise, it’s not been that the situation of being on the field has made you a target of vender violence. But the discrimination or gender injustice has happened in the news room.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about that…what you call the air-conditioned environs of the newsroom and what happens online, where it escalates very quickly into horrible threats of violence.
What used to happen when I joined journalism was a lot of disguised sexual harassment. We weren’t even aware of it then. The male editors would say things and push you in a corner and you’d be upset and not know how to react. Now, with the awareness we have — we weren’t even aware back then — these were all muscle-flexing, power-demonstrating kinds of statements that male editors would make within the office spaces and that was disconcerting.
I’m very glad the Tehelka issue has happened and that other women journalists are speaking out. I think the Tehelka journalist is an extremely brave young woman. She’s speaking out against something. Of course, what happened to her is extreme but a lot of journalists have endured this, not the level of physical intimidation, but (they will have encountered) statements, comments, barbs.
Vinod Mehta at Outlook was a wonderful man, but he was a gentle, benevolent patriarch. He would always ensure that the managerial roles, the overall supervisory roles were always given to the men. The women were being sent out to report and being sent out to do stories, which was great. It was wonderful to be given the opportunity, but he knew who the senior people were and who the not-so-senior people were.