Interview: Barkha Dutt on TV, media and India

December 17, 2015

Journalist Barkha Dutt at the launch of her first book in New Delhi. Handout photo by Aleph Book Company.

Barkha Dutt, one of Indian television’s best-known journalists, recently published her first book, “This Unquiet Land – Stories From India’s Fault Lines,” chronicling major events that she witnessed during her career, as well as notable events in her life and the way Indian media has changed in that time. Here are edited excerpts from an interview that she did with Reuters India Insight.

Q: People burn out easily in journalism, but you’ve been doing this for 21 years. How did you make it work?
A: I am absolutely consumed by my work. And every day when I do a show or report a story, I still feel that anxiety in the pit of my stomach. And I always say that the day I stop feeling that anxiety is the day I need to do something else because that’s the day I have stopped caring. I am sure I am as vulnerable to a burnout as anybody else. Like everybody, I too need to reinvent, learn new skills in a changing media landscape. There is no such thing as remaining at the top of your game.

Q: You’re a broadcast journalist. To what extent with your book and a new project are you reinventing yourself?
A: I feel that television media is going through an existential crisis, where there are very exciting things that are happening in new media like digital. But I think the television news industry can’t decide what we want to be. Do we want to be talking heads only? Do we want to be entertaining? Are we, some of us, content to be niche? I think just like print re-adapted when television came, television is having to adapt itself to the digital age. I think this is an existential churn. If 4G takes off and it becomes cheaper for everybody to create video content and send it, we’re going have to really figure out our relevance. For me, the reinvention partly reflects what’s happening in the industry, and partly reflects my own forty-something status…little bit of mid-life…OK, I’ve done this for 21 years, what’s my next 21 years?

Q: Are these changes in the business overdue?
A: You  don’t want to get flabby and complacent – not individuals, not industries, not professions. You want to be constantly challenged. Technology forces you to change, your approach to stories. We always talk about journalism being free from the tyranny of the state, but nobody talks about the tyranny of the market. The revenue model of the television news is so flawed that people always say “isn’t there corporate money in television news? You guys are not independent”. But look at the world. Television news is either financed by the state or by the corporate houses. Where’s the third model? I think these questions are necessary. I think there’s an interesting churn happening at a macro level. For me at a very personal level, I do feel that I don’t want to be formulaic and I think television news can sometimes be formulaic, including my own shows.

Q: Why can’t the television industry decide what it wants to be?
A: Because I think that the audience response seems to suggest that people are coming onto television while cribbing about it and say how puerile you all have become, [but they] seem to gravitate to it to be entertained. They want those shouting matches, what I call manufactured dissent. If you try and do quieter, more nuanced and more complex programming, which I do try and do, there will be some people who will appreciate you, but there will be a lot of people say you’re are old-fashioned.

Q: Is TV news becoming marginalised?
A: I don’t think we’re at the periphery. I think we’re still noticed and deconstructed by people who still hate us. But I don’t want to sit in a studio for the rest of my life to watch the BJP and the Congress spokespersons fighting. That’s not why I became a journalist.

Q: Did you think of writing about the problems in modern journalism?
A: It’s very interesting that you ask that. I did think of a separate chapter on media as a fault line because I do think that the media is a fault line of India today. See, this book is not about me. It’s India through what I have seen. And I felt that while it was important for me to address some of the media controversies that are associated with me, it was not a media book for me. It’s an India book. But you are right that there could have been a lot more on the media as a fault line. I put it here and there.

Q: What are these fault lines?
A: Our politics has Americanised and so has our media. I feel that while the Indian media has not declared any political affiliations, there is an enormously politically polarized narrative emerging out of the media. There is pressure today on the media to take a side. And if you take sides on issues as opposed to left-of-centre or right-of-centre, then you are stuck in the middle and being assaulted from both sides. The death of nuance – people don’t want complexity – is for me a second fault line. Third, we didn’t become journalists to talk, we became journalists to tell a story. Why have so many of us stopped telling stories? We are not judges. I am frightened of people’s innocence and guilt being determined in studios.

India’s former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja (C) arrives at a court for a hearing in New Delhi February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

Q: The Radia tapes controversy, in which people questioned your integrity  — do you think the book merited a chapter on it?
A: I didn’t think it merited a chapter at all because the only mistake I made at that time was that I kept explaining myself. And the stories I have done very clearly said that Raja [former telecom minister] was not wanted in the cabinet by Manmohan Singh. Raja is a man I have never met in my life. That’s the irony. So this outlandish allegation that “you were lobbying to get him”…firstly you mean I can get people into the cabinet? Wow. Secondly, Raja, I don’t know him. Thirdly, why would I? She [Niira Radia] was not my only source. I spoke to 15 people to get a sense of what was happening behind the scenes between the DMK and the Congress and when I looked back at the time I was just enraged that my integrity was being questioned. I have spoken so much about it that what more there is to say.

Q: How did you deal with it, apart from expressing your viewpoint to the world?
A: I dealt with it by knowing that my conscience was absolutely clear. My anger, which a lot of people thought was avoidable, helped to keep me strong. I was so appalled at what I was being accused of that I was determined that I would not let this get under my skin.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds up his hands in a “namaste” as he arrives at Heathrow Airport in London, November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Brady

Q: Some might say there is a sense of power that comes from your access to influential people in government. And now here is a government that you say refuses to talk to the media the way earlier governments used to. Do you feel powerless?
A: During the previous government, the key political family was inaccessible. The prime minister himself was not accessible to the media in terms of giving interviews and so on. [He] would give you off-background perspective if you travelled with the prime minister. In this government there are still many, many ministers who do that. The difficulty I find is that they take their cue from the top. I think the prime minister believes that the government does not need mainstream media because it can communicate with the citizen directly.

So, there is a perception right at the top here that there is a suspicion of the media because they see the media as biased, and we can keep arguing that we’re just doing our job, but I know that the BJP thinks that a large section of the English [language] media are against them. They had such a masterful communication plan in 2014 that they were actually able to come to the conclusion that they could be directly in conversation with the Indian citizen without needing the media to mediate that conversation. So this is the change. I am saying the Gandhis were just as inaccessible, but I think that government believed they needed to engage with the media. I think parts of this government do engage with the media, but I think the PM comes from – I don’t know him – a school of thought where he believes he doesn’t need to engage with the mainstream media. So when I go on a prime minister’s trip now, I am dependent on the Ministry of External Affairs briefing, but almost nobody meets you. It’s frustrating and boring to cover those trips because you could just sit at home and cover the press conference from there. For a journalist, a press conference is not journalism. It’s one aspect of journalism.

Q: How many times have you asked Narendra Modi for an interview?
A: Not in a long time. I think I soon got the message that he was not going to give me an interview, not now, not ever. So then I stopped asking because it’s quite clear that he won’t. I think he has a definite opinion about me.

Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are showered with rose petals by their supporters in Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar/Files

Q: You write about Rahul Gandhi, Modi and Priyanka Vadra in a nuanced way. Is that nuance missing from daily journalism?
A: This is why I wrote the book, because there were some things that suit this narrative form. If you notice, I actually do see an enigma in all these political players. So the PM may not like me, but I have a fairly complex assessment of him. He’s confounded all his critics as well. He’s confounded his supporters at times. He doesn’t play to a script. He has the capacity to surprise. He can be extremely charming when he wants to be. He can be abrasive when he wants to be. He can be many parts. Similarly, I write at length about Rahul Gandhi, whom Delhi’s drawing rooms have an assumption about. And I said, OK that assumption is not true. But he’s so tightly wound about meeting a journalist. You know if his sister had not pulled him into that room to meet me, actually it’s impossible to meet Rahul Gandhi either.

Q: So what are you doing next?
A: I am hoping that in the next six months I am getting to a point where the next thing can happen. My TV remains with NDTV. It’s my non-TV world. I want to do events. I want to do an ideas festival. I want to do a gender-specific summit. And then I am working with a couple of people on a politics opinion portal.

Q: How do you relax?
A: I binge watch American and British television serials.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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