Editors beware of 'paramour preference'

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Media Practice | 02/12/2013
Is it ethical for editors and senior journalists to have consensual sexual relationships with their subordinates? After the Tejpal incident, they would do well to revisit the IPC amendment made this year.
AJAZ ASHRAF discusses a tricky issue.

In the deafening howl over the Tehelka shocker, the shrill TV Talking Heads refrained from asking a question which pertains to what you can call the original sin. Is it ethical for editors and senior journalists in positions of power to have consensual sexual relationship with their subordinates? Inherent in this question is the assumption that in an unequal relationship involving the boss and his subordinate, consent is often, but not always, manufactured insidiously and silently.

This consent is secured through the twin baits of allurement and fear even though these are rarely spelt out explicitly. The subordinate understands the cost involved in turning down the boss’s overtures – for instance, having to languish on the sidelines irrespective of her talent. She can also fathom the benefits accruing from a liaison with him: plum assignments, for instance, or an out-of-turn promotion. It’s a bias the courts in the United States have, rather archaically, called ‘paramour preference’, which invariably vitiates the work environment.

But even as the TV Talking Heads slammed the Tehelka editor, they desisted from mentioning the phenomenon of paramour preference that is rampant in the media houses. It isn’t possible they are oblivious of it. About 15 years ago, at least one among the Talking Heads on Tehelka, a frequent invitee to TV discussions, grabbed the hand of a young woman journalist, now quite famous, whom he gallantly offered to drive home late night. She gently slipped her hand out of his; he wasn’t crass enough to hit on her again. His conduct that evening wasn’t an aberration, though: he had a rollicking romance with another woman nearly half her age, a person fresh into the profession, and who was decidedly an intimidating presence to those low in the hierarchy of the newsroom.

There are tales too about other the Talking Heads who sermonised from the lofty TV perch on the alleged moral depravity of the Tehelka editor. No wonder, none tended to turn their withering gaze inwards. Had they chosen to discuss the libidinous indulgences of eminences in the profession, then they couldn’t have but alluded to the editor who has blazed a seminal trail in spawning the culture of bosses entering into consensual relationships. He would spin his web around women journalists working for him with the same felicity as he writes his column today.

This phenomenon of editors hitting on female subordinates isn’t of recent vintage. Nearly 30 years ago, the standard pick-up line of an acclaimed photographer, whose renown is global now, was: “Will you pose for me?” But the ambiguity of his proposition sounded as tacky as it was clear in its intent when he asked an ingénue in her first job: “Will you pose for me bathing in the Yamuna?”

Early in my profession, I happened to work for an editor who had the office seniors convulsing over his decision to send a female journalist to a neighbouring country for covering its election. Too inexperienced to handle the assignment, the editor took to writing her copies in Delhi, stringing a few of the quotes she sent from the field to justify the dateline. The secret was outed because in those days, in the absence of the internet, the stories arrived on the fax machine that was accessible to all. Often, the only similarity between the copy she sent and the story eventually published was her byline. Amour, it was said, had prompted him to be brazenly generous to her. Perhaps it was a case of tongues wagging needlessly. Or perhaps this perception about the editor arose from the deplorable tendency to explain the success of every woman journalist to her feminine charms and presumed wily ways.

Nevertheless, the above incident also underlines the nature of power in the media. The power to decide who is good or bad, or which story needs to be killed or played up, is in its very exercise, to a great extent, subjective. The responses of two editors to a story can be remarkably different. It is this subjectivity of judgment which leads to intellectual harassment of both men and women journalists. At times, it is because of ideological differences between them and their editors, or because their stories militate against their interests or of the owners.

However, for a woman whom the editor covets, intellectual harassment, or the threat of it, becomes an impossible move to counter in the amorous game of securing consent to his predatory advances. Either the person resigns, or remains reconciled to her marginalisation, or succumbs to the pressure to preserve or further her career.

Indeed, the line dividing consensual relationship from sexual harassment is fuzzy. It was this aspect Eve Tahmincioglu emphasised on in her article on Fox News host Bill O’ Reilly, who faced a lawsuit from a producer claiming she had been sexually harassed as they had indulged in phone-sex conversations. She explained she allowed the conversations to continue because he was her boss. “I’m not used to saying no to this man at any level,” the producer argued. Tahmincioglu, in her piece for msnbc.com, quotes Linda Henman, the author of The Magnetic Boss, to underline the problem: “When you have a boss and subordinate relationship, one person has power over the other. Whether that person abuses the power is irrelevant, the perception is there.”

You might wonder why bosses in the Indian media don’t fathom the inherent inequality of romantic or sexual relationships they enter into with their subordinates. Indeed, to ensure they are not hounded in courts, the editors and senior journalists need to take a closer look at The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, which was passed following the outrage over the gang-rape in Delhi last December. The act has added Clause C to Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, which reads: Whoever, being – (a) in a position of authority or in a fiduciary relationship;…abuses such position or fiduciary relationship to induce or seduce any woman either in his custody  or under his charge or present in the premises to have sexual intercourse with him, such sexual relationship not amounting to the offence of rape, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment…which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to ten years, and also be liable to fine.”

In other words, the new clause takes into account the inherently unequal relationship involving the boss and a subordinate, and provides ample scope for the latter to claim that her consent for sexual relationship was induced or prised out.

This is precisely why the American companies have evolved a strict code of ethics pertaining to office romances. When CBS TV host David Letterman was pilloried in 2009 for having affairs with women who worked for him, one reason was that these were in violation of the company’s policy, which required the supervisor (which Letterman was) to report to the HR department even a consensual romantic or sexual relationship. This demand was made on the supervisor, the policy explained, so that “there are no issues of actual or apparent favouritism, conflict of interest, sexual harassment, or any other negative impact on others in the work environment.” American companies have started to police office romances in order to ensure they are not entangled in protracted legal suits and pay heavy fines.

Most of them have a code of ethics governing boss-subordinate relationships and also enforce it stringently. For instance, the failure to disclose his relationship with a consenting subordinate was precisely the reason why Phaneesh Murthy was sacked as chief executive from the outsourcing firm iGATE. Similarly, in 2005, Boeing Co asked for the resignation of its CEO, Harry Stonecipher, because of his affair with a subordinate. Last year, a founder of Best Buy, Richard M. Schulze, had to resign following an investigation into why he hadn’t reported the affair between the company’s CEO and a subordinate to the internal audit committee, as was required of him.

No doubt, editor-subordinate relationships are discriminatory to others in the office, creating as they do an additional and illegitimate locus of power, fanning suspicions of the boss being biased towards his partner and consequently unfair to others, and creating a conflict of interest. Really, can the boss be trusted to evaluate objectively his subordinate whom he is romancing? This is why in some American companies, on disclosure of a blooming romance, the supervisor or the subordinate is posted to another department.

Not all office romances are a no-no. Only those that involve the boss and subordinate directly reporting to him are. Considering the provision of The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, the Indian media houses need to evolve a code of ethics requiring the journalist in a supervisory role to report his romantic dalliance to the HR. Not only can the company then take steps to ensure other employees do not feel discriminated against, but also that neither the company nor the supervisor get entangled later in protracted legal battles culminating in hefty fines and a spell in jail for the boss.

What about the editor involved in a relationship? Unlike others, he can’t be shifted to another department.  Since he supervises the entire editorial team, the transfer of his love interest to another place or department won’t enable him to evade the provisions of Section 376 C. What about the editor-owner, for in his concern even the HR would be answerable to him? For them, you can say, no sex please with the office staff, you are the boss.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist, and can be reached at ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

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