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Sir Mark Tully, who worked as the correspondent for the BBC from 1965 to 1994, was in Bangalore on October 7 to deliver the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road.

Sir Mark is a celebrity in India. He is sometimes described as more Indian than Indians. Not without reasons. Unlike many other foreign journalists, he contextualized and interpreted better the socio-political and economic events he covered. His reports resonated with deep understanding of the country, and he played a huge role in demystifying India to the world. And he become  easily one of the most acclaimed correspondents, not just in Delhi but in the BBC itself. He has written a number of books, and still does programmes for the BBC. He resides in Delhi.

 

Sir Mark Tully at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, Bangalore.

 

He was gracious to grant me an interview the next day, at the Bangalore Club where stayed overnight. He is a very down-to-earth person, totally bereft of any vanity.

The following is the full text of the interview, an abridged version of which appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on October 9.

Sir Mak, you came back to India to start your career in 1964. You have seen at close quarters Indian democracy evolve. How do you compare Indira’s India with Sonia’s India?

Indira’s India was tightly controlled in many ways particularly economically. Indira herself exercised tight control over politics and country. Today there’s much more freedom, particularly economically. That’s one reason the country is flourishing. And politically, Congress party is not as powerful as before. And certainly, Manmohan Singh and Sonia together are not as powerful as Indira was.

The middle class has changed, has become more westernized. More people now have cars and are more mobile than before. Poor people also have changed. They are now more willing to claim their rights. There’s more migration to cities. There was a recent survey that showed that Dalits are not prepared to accept traditions even in rural areas that keep them in subjugation and humiliation.

 

Sir Mark Tully delivers the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, on Oct 7.

 

 

You spoke about how India has been developing, especially getting westernized. There are people who think this is not the right way forward, and at least some of them think the current Maoist troubles are a result of rampant western commercialization of Indian society…

One of the biggest problems of India is the government’s inability to deliver. India was recently described by an American academic as a “flailing state”. What he meant was that you have many bright people in the IAS, but the machinery for them to implement what they want to is simply not there. So, there are two factors in the tribal areas: One, neglect and inefficiency. Then there is the problem of land acquisition: it becomes an easy issue for the Naxalites.

There’s a policy vacuum, particularly with regard to acquisition of land of poor people in rural areas. And why does it take so long to start thinking of the possibility of people — whose land has been taken away — having some form of share holding in the new projects? Why is it taking so long?

The other problem of land acquisition is the antiquated and inefficient court system. Land disputes are getting stuck in courts for ages. Just as the government machinery is in urgent need of reforms, the courts are also in urgent need of reforms.

Talking of courts… we recently had the Ayodhya verdict. What has not gone unnoticed is the remarkable equanimity with which the people of India accepted the verdict. There was not even the slightest spark of unrest, leave alone major violence, anywhere in the country. Do you think this is symptomatic of the dawn of a New India, an India that is fed up with violence, an India that is eager to move on…?

I am very wary of expressions like ‘dawn of a new India’ etc. India has been changing gradually. I just want to take you back to the days of the telecast of Ramayan on Doordarshan. There was this huge outcry over how it’s a breach of secularism and all. And when I argued that it’d be a great pity if India couldn’t broadcast one of its great epics, I was accused of being pro-Hindu etc., and now you look at the television and you have a whole lot of channels devoted to people preaching Hinduism. This is one of the changes that came about; and now there’s a mature attitude towards religion in India.

And we should also realize that the whole Ayodhya thing was whipped up for political reasons. There was more of politics than religion, actually. If we are not whipping it up this time, it shows that BJP also realizes that the form of extreme Hindu politics does not pay.

Coming back to the verdict, as you’d recall, the judges relied on faith to decide an aspect of the case. All three judges in concurring judgment said the disputed site was the birth place of Lord Ram. Now this was seen by many as a dangerous precedent, wherein the judiciary instead of going by incontrovertible evidence invoked the article of faith to decide a contentious issue. And, it’s also feared that this could be a dangerous precedent for deciding some other similar cases pending in courts… What’s your take on this?

My own position is that the judiciary should have restricted itself to who owns the land legally, and left to the government the decision on whether or not a temple or mosque could be constructed. To bring in the matter of faith, raises a lot of questions. And I am sure the Supreme Court will look into the question.

 

Sir Mark Tully talking to yours truly at the Bangalore Club on October 8.

 

 

The religion of Islam has been going through a troubled phase. Though it’s said that terrorism doesn’t have a religion; it’s a fact that perpetrators of violence have been using the word Islam and Muslim, for reasons they think are legitimate. How do you see this linkage between violence and religion?

What’s important is for religious leaders to stand together and tell very clearly that terrorists are defaming the religion. So it should be possible for Islamic leaders and the local clergy as well to make this clear to everyone.

9/11 brought in a new dimension to Kashmir problem. Some commentators have seen it as a widening of the conflict zone. They feel the insurgency there is now a part of what is called the “wider terror network”….

I think irrespective of 9/11 and related issues, Kashmir is purely an India-Pakistan issue. India has genuine concerns of the message that will go out if the state with the largest Muslim population is cast away. On the Pakistan side, its army is very powerful. It needs the Kashmir issue to justify its existence. If there’s no Kashmir issue, if there’s no enmity with India, what do you need the army for? Now, of course, there’s another need, in the northwest of that country.

It needs two hands to clap, and during Musharraf’s time, it looked as though the two hands were willing to clap. Both India and Pakistan should be willing to make concessions if this problem has to be solved.

Just to take you back to the time you had to leave the BBC… What exactly was then Director-General John Birt trying to and why was it disagreeable to you, forcing you to leave the organization?

He was trying to create a revolution in BBC, whereas I believe in evolution. He denigrated the BBC, he poured scorn on all work the BBC had done previously. The denigration was unjustified and also very damaging. He bureaucratized the organization. He changed it entirely from a position where the responsibility was held at producer/editor levels to where it went to the hands of managers.

Are you aware of the Facebook page in your name, which has over 1,000 fans? How do you see the emergence of online journalism?

No I am not aware of that… Well, there are going to be changes. But I don’t think any media will die. When TV came everyone said that the radio will die. But that hasn’t happened. I don’t think newspapers will die.

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Mainstream media marries alternative media! A media revolution of sorts! But, before I explain this path-breaking development of CNN’s iReport.com let me take you through some background.

Today, media is no longer about one-way flow of information; it has increasingly become two-way, and the catalyst is technology. As individuals launched their own webjournals as blogs, the conventional media had to change. Now most media organisations have their own interactive platforms.

BBC’s TV has Have Your Say and BBC Radio has World Have Your Say. The Guardian has Comment is Free. In India The Times of India has turned the good-old Letters to Editor column into its new avataar of My Times My Voice. CNN-IBN TV channel has given space on their airtime to reports filed by citizens and has Citizen Journalist on its website. NDTV has My News wherein viewers are allowed to pick stories they consider most important for telecast, and on its website it has NDTV Interactive. Basically, in each of these ventures, readers are given space (albeit quite small) in the conventional media. Today, all this has provided plenty of opportunity for the citizen to express himself or herself in the traditional media. By any stretch of imagination, this is quite a revolution.

But now, CNN has taken this to a new level, by launching iReport.com: for uncensored, unedited, user-powered news. This is by far the best ever recognition of the alternative citizen media by mainstream media.

In all the above examples, the mainstream media decides the topic on which the citizens can air their views. There is a certain amount of control the media exercises. But now that barrier has been breached with iReport.com.

CNN’s iReport until recently was restricted to video clippings sent by viewers. It was vetted and only if found appropriate would be telecast. But now in iReport no editing, no filtering.

About iReport:

  • The content on iReport is not pre-vetted or pre-read by CNN. This is your platform. In some journalistic circles, this is considered disruptive, even controversial! But we know the news universe is changing. We know that even here, at CNN, we can’t be everywhere, all the time following all the stories you care about. So, we give you iReport.com. You will program it, you will police it; you will decide what’s important, what’s interesting, what’s news. More

This is, I guess, the first instance of a reputed news organisation opening up its space to put up unverified content. The only saving grace is the disclaimer: “The views and contents on this site are solely those of the iReport.com contributors. CNN makes no guarantees about the content or the coverage on iReport.com.” But the very act of giving space to such content itself is revolutionary. This is by far the closest mainstream media has come to courting alternative citizen media.

What next?

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Editor and Publisher has put together has put together a list of top 30 US news websites. New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal Online and Los Angeles Times are on top, in that order. All these have gained traffic over the past year. More

While traffic has gained, the average time spent by a reader on the NYT site has decreased from 44 to 36 minutes during Jan 2007 to Jan 2008. More

It’s well acknowledged that print media in the US has been losing circulation. But how well has the online versions of the newspapers been doing?

An analysis by Scarborough Research says that the online audience has been making up as much as 28% of the loses in print readership. More

But, on the contrary, Outsell Research says that online newspapers aren’t attracting eyeballs fast enough. More

I guess, the disparity is because of the types of newspapers covered. For a still fledgling medium like online communication, it’s very difficult to generalise.

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A cockroach makes a surprise appearance… and at the end of it all, 30 employees lose their jobs… More

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This is not something the media in India do — openly backing a candidate in an election. The first two editorials in today’s New York Times are about who the newspaper’s editorial board thinks should be the Democratic and Republican candidates for the Nov 8 US Presidential election.

“As Democrats look ahead to the primaries in the biggest states on Feb. 5, The Times’s editorial board strongly recommends that they select Hillary Clinton as their nominee for the 2008 presidential election,” the newspaper says. “The next president needs to start immediately on challenges that will require concrete solutions, resolve, and the ability to make government work. Mrs. Clinton is more qualified, right now, to be president.”

The second edit on the Republican Party, the NYT says, “We have strong disagreements with all the Republicans running for president. The leading candidates have no plan for getting American troops out of Iraq. They are too wedded to discredited economic theories and unwilling even now to break with the legacy of President Bush.”

Backing McCain it says, “Still, there is a choice to be made, and it is an easy one. Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe.”

Opinionated media & blogs

This is quite a normal feature in the US. But in India, though the media might editorially endorse or criticise the stand taken by political parties on specific issues, they (particularly big media houses) rarely openly declare its backing for a particular candidate, that too in a parliamentary or assembly election.

I guess the highly opinionated feature of mass media in the US is an indication of the highly evolved state of its society that makes elaborate use of multimedia to access, process and disseminate information. The society is not only highly literate but also has the benefit of sophisticated technology.

There is an argument that blogs have flourished in the US mainly because of the “bias of the mainstream media”. Probably. But in no way can blogs claim a “holier than thou” tag, since there is nothing to show that the blogs themselves aren’t biased and they themselves don’t have any agenda?

I feel the best indication of a well-evolved society is the diversity of opinions. To that extent blogs are only complementing in their own way the multiplicity of opinions in the society.

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The BBC as a matter of policy does not use the word terrorist. They choose words very carefully. Day before yesterday, there was a bomb attack on a mosque in Pakistan in which more than 50 people died. In their TV news bulletins, BBC did not use the word terrorist. More than that, they had a sentence: “… search is on for the organisers of the attack.”

  • Read Telegraph story on bomb attack here
  • Read BBC online report on the bomb attack here

This is not a new policy. It looks like the decision was taken in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005 London Underground and bus bombings. While the first reports on the BBC website referred to “terrorists” later they changed it to “bombers”. BBC’s explanation was: they do not want to use words that “carry emotional or value judgements”.

  • Read Telegraph report of July 12, 2005, on this here
  • Read the Criticisms and the BBC’s explanation on July 13, 2005 here
  • Read the BBC’s editorial guidelines on “Use of language when reporting terrorism” here
  • Read the BBC’s editorial guidelines in full on war, terror and emergencies here

It’s not surprising that BBC has gone for this, since it has a worldwide audience. What is okay for one is not for the other. One man’s freedom fighter is the other man’s terrorist. The bigger the audience, tougher it’s to satisfy all, and more are the probabilities of inviting criticism. In India, some of the big newspapers and TV channels which have high readership and credibility have to tread such cautious paths to ensure they don’t rub anyone on the wrong side.

Objectivity and impartiality are difficult to achieve, if not altogether impossible. And efforts to achieve that only robs the reportage of life. Use of seemingly neutral expressions runs the risk of making the report insipid. If one follows BBC news reports, it’ll be clear that they use lot of hard facts and try to balance views with counterviews as far as possible, probably to make the news reports more authoritative and impartial. The challenging tightrope walk is probably the price BBC has to pay for the acclaimed global audience.

I watched all the three programmes telecast yesterday by the BBC to commemorate 75 years of the BBC World Service Radio. They highlighted the difficulties experienced by reporters in covering conflict, where truth isn’t in black and white but in different shades of grey.

The episode I liked was the one on West Asia, probably because it’s one of my favourite subjects. The region is described as a crucible of violent ideologies and it’s also one of the most difficult areas to report from. The reporters are clearly told not use the word terrorist, and to be objective and neutral. The programmes showed the efforts the BBC takes to ensure they have accurate information in their quest to get to the truth.

Reporting from West Asia can be tricky — no one would know that better than BBC’s Barbra Plett. In the programme “From Our Own Correspondent” broadcast on BBC4 on October 30, 2004, Plett said, “….. when the helicopter carrying the frail old man (Yasser Arafat) rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry… without warning….” That got her into real trouble. BBC is more often criticised for its anti-Israel stand than the other way round, and there was a barrage of complaints over the use of the word “cry”.

The BBC governors upheld part of a complaint against Plett. Her comments “breached the requirements of due impartiality”, they ruled. From Our Own Correspondent is a programme which, unlike a routine news report, allows the listeners to get the correspondents’ personal experience of the news event. It’s difficult to be impartial and objective while being personal. It’s tough reporting under such circumstances.

  • Read Telegraph news item on the controversy here
  • Read the BBC transcript of Barbara Plett’s report here
  • Read BBC report on their governors upholding part of the complaint here.

Barbara Plett now reports for the BBC from Pakistan, and is one of my favourite reporters. She has a very unique way of signing off…. “Barbara Plett… BBC, Islamabad”. You need to listen to her!

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The British Broadcasting Corporation is arguably the best mass news media organisation in the world. What is most remarkable is that it has kept pace with time, without losing its traditional core values: it hasn’t changed, even though it has adapted to modern technology. Not many media organisations can claim that.

Some of the other channels that were quite popular in India were the Voice of America, Radio Australia, Radio Netherlands, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Deutsche Welle etc. I said were because today it’s extremely difficult to receive these stations even on a good shortwave radio because of the crowding of the airwaves by other signals like that of mobile phones.

Up to a good 15 years back reception in the morning and evening was so clear, it was a pleasant experience listening to these international radio stations, some of which also have broadcasts in Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Punjabi etc. These vernacular language broadcasts are very popular in smaller towns and villages. I guess the airwaves there aren’t as crowded as in cities like Bangalore, so probably reception there must still be good.

Though in cities we don’t get good radio reception, those of us who have good broadband connectivity can go to the websites of these radio stations, and listen to podcasts. So to some extent the loss has been compensated, but it’sn’t the same as listening to the transistor radio.

I first began listening to the BBC news in 1980, mainly because of the Iran-Iraq war launched by Saddam Hussein. That was the first proper war I could understand, so I kept tuning into the BBC to understand and follow it. Soon, I began to listen to many other programmes — music, current affairs, documentaries, radio plays etc. Though I also listened to other radio stations, I was spending more time listening to the BBC.

  • From Marconi to MP3; the History of the BBC. Spend some time reading it… There are some radio clips dating back all the way to 1940s… Amazing… Click here.

This month, BBC World Service radio completes 75 years. It began as Empire Service. On Christmas Day King George V gave the first royal broadcast to the empire. It was scripted by author Rudyard Kipling.

The BBC World (television) has lined up a three-part series London Calling on December 22. “….To coincide with the occasion, independent film-maker Neil Cameron has been given carte blanche to film the BBC World Service’s journalists and managers in London and in bureaux, studios and front line reporting locations around the world….” says the promo announcement.

Click here for the programme timings. The programme timings in India are: (to get GMT subtract 5h 30 min):

Part I Winners And Losers
Saturday 22nd December at 1340
Repeated: Saturday 22nd December at 1940; Sunday 23rd December at 0140; Sunday 23rd December at 0640; Sunday 23rd December at 1340 & Monday 24th December at 0140.

Part II The Battle For Truth
Saturday 22nd December at 1540
Repeated: Saturday 22nd December at 2140; Sunday 23rd December at 0740 & Sunday 23rd December at 1740

Part III Changing Faces
Saturday 22nd December at 1740
Repeated: Sunday 23rd December at 1540; Sunday 23rd December at 2240 & Monday 24th December at 0740.

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