Akash Banerjee: Firstly congratulations on the Emmy nomination. What makes this one so special an achievement for you?
Barkha Dutt: It’s the first time actually that an Indian journalist, an Indian organisation, an Indian news progamme has been nominated in this category. This is the world’s most-coveted television awards and one would be in the presence of one’s global peers, people who have set the standards of excellence in television and I am particularly happy that it’s a nomination for Buck Stops Here ‒ when the show travelled to the field – something that I try to do as often as humanly possible for a daily show. This award is for the week we covered the Jammu and Kashmir floods and that makes me doubly happy. Also this gives recognition to the great team that I work with.
AB: This prestigious nomination comes at a time when there was initial buzz that you were moving on from NDTV and finally the confirmation that you were carrying on as Consultant Editor – but also venturing out to set up your own production house. Why this move?
BD: I would modify the word “move”, I think this is to seek and build on interests beyond television. I continue to do what I do here, in fact I have been doing more TV of late – such has been the cycle of news; be it the Vyapam scam, Lalit Modi saga or the India-Pakistan developments that has been my old stomping ground, as it were.
My interest in TV news is not going to diminish, but I do feel that there are other spaces where I could do interesting things. Digital is one such space, the reason why I haven’t taken off there, yet, is because I really want it to be a kickass idea; there are talks happening, but I don’t want to do another “me-too” product. There are a lot of excellent products out there and I don’t want to do a mini-version of what already exists.
AB: But will you be able to handle so many hats? Television anyways is a 24x7 job...
BD: One has to see. Even my fiercest critics wouldn’t question my capacity to work, so my capacity to work is endless. For now the idea I am working on immediately is organising summits, events, conferences, on-ground conversations; almost like salons, where there is an invited audience, a theme or an ideas festival.
I find the space for intelligent nuanced conversation shrinking and I think there are people interested in it. So one of the things in addition to TV and Digital would be in this kind of “ideas space”; that is something that I am already working on, the aim is to start with even two such events a year.
AB: Any particular trigger for this decision or something you have been thinking for some time now?
BD: The election was just an informal watershed in my head; there is no reason for the timing. I have been toying with the idea of “TV-plus” for a few years now. I have completed 20 years doing television, I joined NDTV in 1994 and 2014 makes it two decades.
At some point before the elections I had decided that post the results, I would like to look at other things that I would like to do, because I want to do them. Nobody asked me to do this. I really had a comfortable role as a full-time employee at NDTV, I got to do what I wanted to do, I had authority and a voice in the system; the only reason I altered this, is because I find there is more to do – in addition to television. I can’t see even one conspiracy theory – even on Twitter on why now – it’s just! The word that defines the change is JUST.
AB: How does Dr Prannoy Roy feel about this? Someone who saw you grow from “a child to an adult professional”, as he eloquently put it in the e-mail announcing your change of role at NDTV? You have been the backbone of the channel.
BD: (smiles) Well, I am here! And institution-building is also about building systems that work on their own. I think that there is an entire second generation of people coming up who are doing very well and NDTV as a pioneer in the space has the capacity to survive and do very well – beyond individuals…including myself.
In many ways I will continue to remain a child for the Roys, it has been a very parental relationship where they have seen me grow from 23 to 43!
AB: You talk about the “second generation” that is coming up and institution building, who is the next Barkha Dutt in NDTV?
BD: I don’t know! I think there would be only one me and only one somebody else with their own identity.
AB: But is that second generation there? There is a feeling that after Barkha, Arnab and Rajdeep you suddenly find a vacuum in terms of a face that carries authority and credibility – not just in NDTV, but the industry as a whole.
BD: Firstly I am very much here at NDTV and I am available for steering any news story that requires my inputs. Most recent case is the Vyapam scam that I was not only reporting from Madhya Pradesh, but also steering the news coverage for the channel; it was similar for the Lalit Modi story and for Jammu and Kashmir where I just know more, because I have experienced that story. There are other areas where people have developed expertise – where I am not needed.
However there is a deeper point to your question. My peers, Rajdeep, Arnab and I experienced something very special in television that unfortunately, subsequent generations have not got to experience because the nature of the industry has changed. We cut our teeth and learnt our skills at a time when journalism was about telling a good story, it was about being out there, it was about being the bridge between the viewer and issues that the viewer necessarily didn’t have access to – like a war, conflict or an epidemic. Now it’s much more “talking head” driven, much more glamorous. When we joined TV, journalism wasn’t a safe profession, it was a profession that tended to draw out the mavericks – much more than it does today.
As media multiplied and we got hundreds of television channels, it was not accompanied by increased programming budgets; this generation of journalists is also growing up in an atmosphere of polarised political discourse on social media. I find a lot of journalists being wary of being on Twitter because they’ll pick a fight with someone…they’ve not had exposure to an environment where people aren’t always picking on you for the story that you have done. That’s unfortunate. I can handle it because I have 20 years behind me, but someone with five years of experience, who’s getting massacred on Twitter, is going to feel a little more anxious about it.
AB: Does it worry you there are virtually no maverick women reporters/anchors/editors like you who are coming up in the industry as a whole. Also is the overall quality of credible journalists going up or down?
BD: I wouldn’t measure it in terms of credibility. Credibility comes from the quality of your work and breadth of your work, it’s both. Today I can say it’s difficult to mess with me, or make me nervous and that gumption comes from having really slogged, having really seen the world of news, it comes from having had a hundred different experiences. I do believe that once people are able to build a body of work, women or men, they will feel more confident.
As for mavericks…I miss mavericks! I wish there were more mavericks – male and female. More than the second generation, I am seeing the third generation (one is that old!), literally people out of journalism schools and who have come for their first jobs – some of them are here just to be on TV but many are willing to slog day and night, not ask for airy-fairy things like “work-life-balance”, stand in the rain, drive 20 hours to an earthquake ravaged site – there are not as many as I would like, but they are there. If there are not as many as we would like, it’s partly because of the shape that the industry has taken and what we have become.
AB: The Lalit Modi saga and the Vyapam scam – two of the biggest issues that stalled Parliament, put some life into the opposition and completely rattled the government. Both of them were exposed and highlighted by the media, do you think that the media gets credit where due – or only pitchforks?
BD: It’s so fashionable and lazy to bash the media and some of the media bashing is led by the media itself. Unfortunately, journalists or a section of media has it in for another section of the media and then there are egos at work and ideologies that are clashing, perhaps things even more petty. Who knows! This armchair media bashing bores me.
One of the reasons I took so much time to consider this interview and finally agreed to give it to you is because you have been the old-fashioned reporter; that is, keep going at the story, till the person says yes. I like the old-fashioned reporting. But one of the reasons I was indifferent about doing this interview is because I find there is far too much obsessive, fixated interest in journalistic personalities today. Does Barkha have two husbands? And I will have to explain a hundred times that I don’t even have one!! Is Barkha Congress or is Barkha Kejriwal; has she suddenly gone soft on the BJP? There is this constant deconstruction of the TV persona taking place in real time on social media and if you can’t reconfirm the prejudices of your viewer then suddenly you are biased.
I find the whole discourse around the media today is lazy, its kneejerk and it’s just fashionable to bash! We don’t even think about the journalists who are working in small towns, who are taking on the police and the administration, most recently in UP that’s why I am quoting it. They don’t have the protection that we do; we still have the protection of our class, our language.
I have reported in really tough circumstances, under tremendous pressure, often getting boycotted by one politician or the other. Still there is this imagination that we lead very easy lives and that we don’t go through physical hardships, emotional hardships and intellectual hardships – this is the most misplaced notion. I think we have one of the toughest jobs in the country. Where’s the appreciation for that? So I reached a point where I don’t take either the bashing or the praise seriously. Praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin and I wear both lightly.
AB: Are television journalists like you, Arnab, Rajdeep open to a lot more criticism because you are visible faces? Even as newspaper editors have to answer for a lot more many times, like allegations of paid media…
BD: The Election Commission report shows that the “paid media” allegation is much more about newspapers and state politics. Yet “paid media” when it trends as a hashtag is for all of us!
To me what is peculiar is that I am treated as the face of the media moment, even when I am not there! The night [of November 26, 2008] that [the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai was attacked and Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorist Squad chief, Hemant] Karkare was killed I was in Delhi, I am a Delhiite. I went to Mumbai only the next day. But somehow I was responsible. When you object to such lies being written about you and you send a legal notice to the guy writing this on his blog – then I become anti free speech!
It’s become farcical; to make two or three individuals the face of the entire media whether or not they are doing the things. For example, I have never in my life asked “Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai”, why should that line be attached to me? I consider myself far more intelligent than that. Why should my name be attached to Hemant Karkare’s death when I wasn’t even in Mumbai? And why shouldn’t I have the space to call out these lies. Why is calling out untruth anti free speech?!
I may have developed a greater capacity to take this shit, it’s like water off a duck’s back now, but it’s weird – people are obsessed!
AB: So just for the record, contrary to what Chaitanya Kunte wrote in his blog, you weren’t even in Mumbai on the first night of 26/11…
BD: Part of Chaitanya Kunte’s blog was about a night of 26/11 when I wasn’t even there. I don’t even remember if also had a reference to Kargil, but that’s another internet rumor that keeps coming up. The allegation is hilarious. The then army chief has written in his book that a young Barkha came to me and asked, ‘Sir, did I at any point do anything that compromised us or gave away our location?’ and how he replied “Don’t be silly, the Iridium phones that you used are exactly the same ones used by the army.”
The army chief has complimented my work during Kargil, and yet you have these random, faceless, anonymous people writing that I gave away locations in Kargil. When you quote the army chief, they say why should we believe what he says? Then who do you want to believe? Wikipedia?
However on 26/11, I would like to add that there were some unwitting mistakes made by all of us as journalists. Unwitting. We didn’t calculate that there were handlers monitoring our broadcast in real time, no one from the government told us either. When the advisory did come, we were 70 hours into the operation; by that time we as an organisation were doing a 15 minute delayed broadcast. In Mumbai, we followed the same protocol that we followed before for terror encounters – there was no notion that a third agent in another country was monitoring us. So 26/11 was a moment of learning, an unwitting set of mistakes made by entire industry – not one or two individuals. I also wish that there was greater communication between the government and the editors at that time – one phone call is all it would have taken and we would have had an immediate delay in broadcast.
The positive fallout of this is the creation of a Broadcast Editors Association and a set of regulations. It leads now to greater conversation amongst editors on how to handle sensitive broadcast; for example the Yakub Menon funeral procession, there was a lot of thought applied to what we should show and what not in real time. So while I have no problem in accepting 26/11 as a moment of learning – for the whole industry – I refuse to accept this bunkum that I was responsible for any deaths due to what we broadcast.
AB: Having reported on 26/11 myself, I find it strange that the media is blamed for leaking sensitive information, when all it did was stand and report from behind a rope – that the government had put – where any person from Mumbai could have come and stood.
BD: Including the ice-cream walla and bhelpuri walla!
AB: Exactly. But again in Gurdaspur we saw media getting access to film the encounter. Why don’t we still manage to cordon off an entire area?
BD: I agree. Forget Gurdaspur, what was happening in Udhampur? You had a captured terrorist [Muhammad Naved] talking to random villagers on a cellphone camera and then the footage is released to the media. He was not cordoned off, not taken to a secure location. How many things will you blame the media for? Understand one thing about the media: while it will not cover encounters live – it’s now a rule written in stone – but there will be other things that will happen on camera. This guy was taken to the interrogation center in an open tempo without any security, in full view of media cameras. I tweet that I am astonished to see lack of security cover; I am asked why is media filming this! But why is media allowed to stand there? Why should the media account for decisions taken by the government? That’s not our answerability.
AB: Ok now coming to the elephant in the room, the Radia Tapes…
BD: (Smiles) It’s hardly the elephant in the room! It’s been what, four or five years…where is it the elephant?
AB: You’ve put the whole thing behind you, but in retrospect how could you have handled the situation better then?
BD: In retrospect all I feel is that I should have been even angrier about the allegations leveled against me. In retrospect, I feel I spent too much energy explaining myself. With the benefit of hindsight, I feel that there was no need for me to account for how a journalist speaks to a source to cull out information. I still do it, I will still act friendly with the lowest level of people whom I have cultivated as sources in a ministry or a party and say “yaar khabar bata do” and the person may still ask me “tum kya khabar sun rahi ho” and I will say something. It will end there and I won’t even remember the conversation.
In retrospect, I find it fascinating that my talking to an official PR representative of Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata was found to be such a startling fact. Were we as journalists not supposed to know her?
Manu Joseph (then editor of Open magazine) kept changing the goalposts and when he came on my show – that we did without a moment of editing – and blamed me for not publishing a story on how “corporates were taking such a keen interest in who was going to be in the cabinet”! Good Morning! You mean you don’t know that corporates speculate on political matters?
I have never personally met A Raja in my life and do I really have the clout to influence the appointment of a cabinet minister? So when I break it down, I feel that I was so hurt that my integrity was questioned, that I over explained myself.
I had a conversation with a source about a party that I had no ins with. I knew nobody in the DMK, I was told that Nira Radia had contacts there; she was under the impression that I had information on who’s in and who’s out. We were having a gossipy chat...“What are you hearing?”….”Accha”…. “Will you tell them”….. If you hear the tape, I am sleepily saying “Accha, what do you want me to tell them”….I had no conversation with anybody, I get a bit of information.
I told everybody then as well, pull out what I said on air. What I said was that Manmohan Singh didn’t want Raja and Balu in the cabinet. If I was lobbying for him, why would I say that on air. So why not make your judgment on the news product?
I look at that moment as a moment of deep viciousness from within a section of the media industry and you still have the Hartosh Bals who would carry on, everyday tweet Radia to me, like I am going to run scared! It doesn’t bother me, though I wish I had not felt the need to explain myself then.
AB: How would you explain to people that a journalist has to get his hands dirty, that a journalist has to talk to all sorts of people to gather information?
BD: A journalist has to talk to all sorts of people. All sorts. I talk to separatists in Kashmir, in the present environment that we live in – that would be considered immoral! Certainly Times Now would consider it that. I talk to them because I want to find out what’s happening over there. Karan Thapar in his book, talks about how he was a go-between, if I remember, between LK Advani and Ashraf Kazi for the India-Pakistan talks. I didn’t see anyone ask him why be became part of the story!
We talk to all kinds of people, even the unsavoury ones, they are not friends – they are sources of information.
AB: Where do you draw the line in such cases then?
BD: You draw the line in never ever compromising on your integrity, in never taking a material favour from anybody, in never planting or manipulating a story. Getting your “hands dirty” doesn’t include any of the above. What it entails is talking to people who are not savoury, even talking to people who are facing corruption allegations. Sometimes you will push them more in an informal way to get something out.
Even during the Radia episode I said that my only interest was information, nothing else. Anyone who accuses me of anything else has to be able to show that I gained something, anything…a free dinner or a trip? I gained nothing but information and it’s my job to search and seek information – and not always use it – until I have crosschecked the information a hundred times. However at that time I felt that my viewers had a right to ask me questions – and I have answered them a hundred times over, so it’s not the elephant in the room. (smiles)
AB: Was the Radia Tapes incident the most hurtful moment of your career?
BD: Yes it was the most hurtful, because my integrity was questioned. There was a newspaper editor at that time, who went on TV to say that Barkha should quit journalism and later in some family dispute over his newspaper you actually had one of his cousins or brothers accusing him of taking advertisement money from the telecom ministry, I don't remember this properly....but the way I remember this is, taking of advertisement money in return for some soft story on Raja…Yes the editor rubbished the allegation, but where did all these stories go? Why didn’t people go after this allegation and deconstruct it, like they went after me?
Vinod Mehta, God bless his soul, used to write about lunching with Raja and published those tape transcripts without even calling me once for a response! What about his lunching with Raja, a man who was always mired in controversies? Why was the discourse so selective?
Do I think that it was the most hurtful episode? Yes, but I am proud that I didn’t get toppled over by a set of false allegations.
And since we are on this topic, I find it intriguing - and I am not playing victim, but is the word “controversial” reserved only for women journalists? Take Scroll.in, for whom you are doing this interview, when the website did a little report on my shift to a consulting role, the header read “Controversial television anchor changes role at NDTV”. Ok fair enough, I am controversial. But where is the similar tag for Arnab or has Rajdeep not gone through this share of controversies? I was puzzled by this sort of headline and I even wrote an email to Naresh [Fernandes, Scroll.in’s editor] saying that I was puzzled with this sort of a headline.
Another columnist, Aakar Patel, a good friend of mine, wrote a column on television journalists and their controversies, while every journalist has had his share of controversies, Rajdeep certainly has, yet the controversies described were only mine. I find this fascinating and no one seems to have any good answer for it. I told Naresh that I was happy to be called controversial as long as other journalists who are controversial are called the same.
AB: Do you think that it’s easier to tag you as controversial because you are a woman and don’t fit in the mould?
BD: That’s partly true, I can’t say that it fully explains it, but I just don’t fit into anyone’s understanding of what I am required to be!
AB: Like being a pretty thing on television…
BD: I am not a pretty thing on television. If by pretty you mean not my presence, my intelligence, my ability to hold a conversation; but a hyper-glamorised person who spends a lot of time on appearance – then I am not that. I have been in the field and have dark circles, the dark circles show; I have gone through fat phases and thin phases.
But it’s not just about looks, I don’t conform personality wise to people’s notions. I don’t think I am apologetic enough for people’s comfort, I think it bugs people that I am not apologetic enough.
AB: Coming to Twitter, do you think that the social media platform is punching way about its weight?
BD: I call Twitter the new PTI for TV newsrooms. (Pauses) It’s sad that so much news is being culled out of Twitter and what is sadder is seeing my colleagues feeling the pressure to explain themselves to some diatribe on Twitter! I may have gone through a similar experience briefly, but journalists have to let their work speak for their integrity. If you still think we are dishonest – so be it!
This is not to say that media has no accountability, if I ask questions then I must be ready to answer them too. But after I have answered, you will still call me names and put labels on me; then I don’t have to agree with you or keep explaining myself to you. I do find it very worrying for news that Twitter has begun to define people’s sense of validation as well as insecurities.
AB: Are Twitter timelines making inroads into editorial meetings and news rundowns?
BD: It surely is and if it doesn’t come in any other way, it will be a war of hashtags between two politicians or it will be about what is the top “trend”. This while we all know that all parties (now even the Congress) has organised paid people working for them.
I am not saying that people don’t have an opinion, but I think that we are heading towards the Americanisation of the media, where people who are Republican watch Fox and the Democrats watch MSNBC and then there’s poor CNN stuck in the middle, trying to be a bit of both.
Why people like us get attacked even more is because while I certainly don’t belong to the Right, I am not Left either. Therefore I can’t take shelter in either of the cabals and have at least one side rooting for me! I take my positions issue wise. But to come back to Twitter, it is making its way into the newsroom and it must not!.
It’s one thing to use it for getting exposure to a whole lot of information, I am not saying that I don’t enjoy myself on Twitter or don’t see anything interesting. Like Sachin Kalbag (the editor of Mid-Day) tweeting about this Muslim man who stood at Chowpatty with a board – Do you trust me? Come hug me. Without Twitter I wouldn’t have got to see this brilliant story because I live in Delhi and don’t get Mid-Day here. So while Twitter is a great medium for getting a volley of information, it shouldn’t be the voice in my head.
AB: Did the trolls on Twitter ever get to you?
BD: They don’t get to me at all today, but when I came on Twitter I would pick fights with anyone who tweeted against me. How can you say this, but this is not me, how dare you say this?…This kind of silly stuff! But now on an odd occasion I would retweet a particularity obnoxious post and ask, is this free speech?
There was a time when I kept explaining myself. I don’t do that anymore.
AB: Do you think that people are being forced to take positions on Twitter ‒ in 140 characters?
BD: Especially when it comes to issues of…(pauses) let’s say you want to talk about India-Pakistan, it is ridiculous that now if a journalist goes to the Pakistan High Commission for an invited function – somehow in the minds of some channels, these people have no right to call themselves proud Indians. Had I not been busy with TV, I would have gone. My country hasn’t derecognised the High Commission; the High Commissioner hasn’t been thrown out. If the Indian state believes that it’s honourable enough to have the Commission on Indian soil – why is it anti-national to talk to the High Commissioner?
On the other hand, I am an ardent lover of the Indian fauj; perhaps this is what makes me hard [to] label for many people! I cut my reporting teeth with Kargil, I am emotionally fixated with the army and I have done show after show on them. So I believe that it’s possible to be that person who’s neither Left nor Right, who loves the military, but can have a complex opinion on Jammu and Kashmir, who can honestly debate the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and yet support One Rank One Pension. It is possible to be both; I just don’t know where that discourse has gone, where is that conversation that takes place without labels.
AB: Is the youth today, influenced by social media, developing an opinion on everything under the sun without really knowing anything?
BD: As they say, a little information is a dangerous thing. But when I step out of Delhi and this Twitter echo chamber, I meet really interesting people! When I go into colleges to talk in other cities like Bangalore and Kolkata, or even Delhi colleges like Stephens, SRCC and LSR. I don’t find the conversation as dumb as it has become online. There is certainly a constituency for a more informed conversation, we are just nervous about embracing that constituency.
AB: For 20 years you have seen and reported amidst a changing media landscape. While growth has now become stagnant in the media, respectability is at an all-time low. What ails the media?
BD: When we started out, our job was to tell good stories, be the bridge where the viewer can’t be, tsunami or Kargil, for example. Our job was also to speak up on issues that others were too uncomfortable to speak on, to speak up for marginalised, to speak up for gay rights, to speak up against discrimination and on corruption.
Of these, the media has done a sterling job to speak out against corruption, but on the rest we have become too elitist. We are all stuck in the ratings game and only want to do things that will “sell” to “our” audience. So if “our” audience doesn’t want to see a story on malnutrition, we usually wouldn’t show it. The content would be urban and include what I call, the “dialectics of artificial confrontation on television”.
News is tamasha and what really bothers me is that people criticise it, but still watch it. People like to watch tamasha.
AB: Since we are taking about tamasha, arguably the most watched show on television across genres is Big Boss. Either the same masses will transform themselves into mature news watchers or India is getting exactly the news content it asked for?
BD: Whenever I am asked why the media is only chasing TRPs, I tell them that TRP is nothing but you! If you reject a certain kind of content (if you genuinely hate it so much) then the industry will respond to you – but the ratings don’t seem to suggest that.
Without going into the authenticity of the ratings, it seems that people want that tu tu mai mai, that tamasha and theatrics. The role of the anchor who speaks for the common man and says, “Tum sab chor ho”, I don’t want to be that person on TV, but you still have people asking me why is TV like that? I ask them, why do you watch TV like that?! Then they have no answer.
AB: What is ailing NDTV then, why is NDTV not at the pinnacle of Journalism as it was for an entire generation of news watchers.
BD: But I do think that NDTV is at the pinnacle of journalism ‒ it may not be at the pinnacle of ratings [but] I will not accept an interchangeability of these terms. I believe that NDTV has been brave enough to retain its character in a fast-changing media landscape, perhaps the only channel that still gives times to stories that are beyond the class of the viewers who watch it. NDTV will still not run a story without two sources or a proper authentication…so it may not be “first on NDTV” but it will be “right on NDTV”.
It actually takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence to not morph into something that everything around you has become. So I will not say that NDTV is ailing, because I will not accept that description, but we all have to adapt to the challenges of digital media. The challenge of everyone with a mobile phone and camera becoming a possible journalist, the challenges of shrinking budgets, challenge of people in small towns breaking news faster with their mobile phones than you can being headquartered in New Delhi. NDTV, like every other media house is caught in this churn – but I do believe that NDTV has tried very hard to be itself. I don’t see enough people trying hard to be themselves; everyone is trying to be a mini version of someone else.
AB: Does NDTV also suffer because it’s not aggressive and brazen enough? Because aggression these days is a good quality.
BD: I think there is a difference between being robust and being aggressive. I rarely shout on TV, I am not saying that it doesn’t happen at all; but it’s not a role that I adopt every evening. Just two days ago we had a guest from Pakistan who was talking absolute garbage and I snapped. He was being so provocative that I was offended.
But I believe that you can be robust and not rude, you can be firm, sometimes you can ask the most uncomfortable question with a smile and people trip on that and give away something rather than being shouted at and being on the defensive.
AB: The India vs Pakistan debating matches make for good TRPs…
BD: But isn’t it like a drama where people are playing their parts? It’s not news.
AB: Does this shrillness hurt the dialogue process between the two countries?
BD: Look, if it’s hurting the process then the media is not responsible. All governments have to get their messaging right, we are not responsible for how the government messages – be it the Congress or the BJP. Our job is to raise questions. For example, when it was Manmohan Singh, I was there at Sharmal Sheikh when the joint statement became controversial – it was my job to report it. On the Modi government, when the same government that drew a red line on Hurriyat meeting the Pakistani High Commissioner; now isn’t drawing the same line – it’s my job to raise that question.
The consequence of reporting is not the media’s problem – it’s the government’s problem. Governments have to be brave enough to not respond to the theatrics of these mostly staged television dramas.
But we’ll do robust reporting as well, for instance every Indian channel has a reporter in Faisalabad, proving that the captured terrorist, Naved’s father lives there. On the other hand when it hurts a security operation, or when it’s the question of national security in an ongoing operation – I can’t remember a single time we have got a call and we haven’t heeded to what the government needs us to do for that.
AB: Once upon a time there were three journalists from NDTV – Arnab, Barkha and Rajdeep. They all went their separate ways. Is there bonhomie, competition or animosity between the three of you!
BD: (laughs) Well I don’t meet Arnab, he lives in another city, so I don’t tend to bump into him. I do feel that I am struck by the fact that he seems to refer to NDTV or me a bunch of times and I don’t understand why. I even tweeted once saying if you believe you are number one then why so insecure about other people. Your work should speak for itself.
Rajdeep and I meet occasionally, we have perfectly civil conversations. I don’t think we were ever close friends who went their own ways, but I am sure we will be civil if we met.
If you put the three of us in a room, there wouldn’t be a war. We would be more polite off television with each other, than we are about each other on television. (smiles)
AB: What is Barkha: a reporter, an anchor or an editor?
BD: Reporter. Always.
AB: You are a journalist’s daughter. Would you encourage your niece or your nephew to join the media, given the current shape it is in?
BD: (thinks) I don’t know. I guess I am ambivalent, of course there are days that I am a lot more hopeful. You see I love my work, because it allows you to be yourself, every single experience I have had in my adult life, is because journalism allowed me to have that experience. The places I have been to, the experiences I have had, how journalism pulled me out of the cocoon of the class that I was born into, the friends I made along the way, the little states I have visited – if this is journalism then I would want my niece or nephew to join this profession.
AB: But Barkha, you have also done a disservice to an entire generation of young girls wanting to join news; they all want to become war correspondents! Does it work like that?
BD: (laughs) No you don’t get to become war correspondents just like that and often I ask them the next set of questions:
- Are you willing to live in the same set of clothes for 12 days including your underwear?
- Are you ready to wear no makeup on TV?
- Are you ready to possibly die?
- Are you ready to go without food for days?
- Are you ready to get dirt under your nails?
There has to be a hunger that drives you.
AB: What has been the most dangerous assignment for you?
BD: Kargil for sure, there were many close shaves. Our car got bombed, I got separated from my cameraperson; there were was shrapnel landing literally close to our feet. Another close shave was while reporting the Kashmir conflict when my colleague Pradeep Bhatia from the Hindustan Times rushed to cover a bomb blast and died in front of my own eyes because there was another booby-trapped car bomb that went off just then. The second, larger, explosion was supposed to be for the journalists who would come to cover the earlier blast. For once in my life I thanked god for being a slow runner.
Most recently, being completely demented we illegally crossed over from Egypt to Libya to cover Gaddafi’s collapse; no bulletproof vests, no Arabic translator. When we crossed over, my producer Ruby, my cameraperson and I were totally unprotected and just driven by an irrational hunger to cover this story; we didn’t speak a word of the local language and we hitched a ride to reach the border to cross over. I have read a similar account of another journalist who got abducted in that process.
I guess these three examples stand out in my mind.
AB: You have spoken about gender issues before, what is your brand of feminism?
AB: Here is the last question; it’s totally optional to answer, because it doesn’t reflect on what you do. In a very old interview, you had been asked about the institution of marriage and you had said something to the effect that you don’t trust that institution itself. Are you distrustful of the institution of marriage?
BD: I as a young person certainly questioned why one needs legal sanctity for a relationship to get validation. I continue to have that position. Two people who live together, two people who are married – the legality doesn’t change the quality of the relationship. However I continue to believe that only women are asked about marriage, that if I was Arnab or Rajdeep, and they were single men, they may not have been asked this question.
Akash Banerjee is a former journalist who worked with Times Now and India Today Television, between 2004 and 2013. He is the author of Tales from Shining and Sinking India: How News Channels Deliver the Big Breaking Stories. He currently works as Associate Vice-President for the Times Group’s Radio Mirchi.
Read his previous interviews with Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai.
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