BBC and India’s Problematic Romance

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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to former Bureau Chief of BBC New Delhi Sir Mark Tully.

The relationship between the Indian public and the government has often been fraught with tension. During such times, foreign broadcasters like the BBC have found it easier to make inroads in a new cultural setting and communicated effectively with the Indian audience.

However, in the history of independent India, the relationship between the government and foreign media has not always been stable. On June 25, 1975, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency—known as the “Emergency”—during which the BBC office in India was shut down. More recently, the Indian government made an attempt at stopping the British broadcaster from airing India’s Daughter, a documentary on sexual violence in the country.

Sir Mark Tully, an author and the former bureau chief of BBC New Delhi, started his career in India with the transistor radio in the 1960s. He has witnessed the evolving relationship between the Indian government and the media, both domestic and foreign. From the time of the Emergency to present-day claims that the media are gagged under the current government, Tully argues that Indian media have never been afraid to take on the powerful.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer traveled to New Delhi to speak with Sir Mark Tully on his love for India, the evolution of Indian media and the future of the country.

Nilanjana Sen: What is it about India that makes you stay? What do you find so alluring about the country?

Sir Mark Tully: Well, it’s a difficult story to explain. People often say that I love India—of course I like India, otherwise I would not be here—but it is not as simple as that. As a matter of fact, I am a great believer in fate.

My family has connections with India going back to 1857. But even before 1857, the first War of Independence, we have a diary written by my great-great-grandmother about what happened during that time. Her father was established in India during the time of the mutiny. He was an opium agent actually, in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

My mother was born in [present-day] Bangladesh, and I was born in Calcutta. When I left India, we were six of us children and we were all very sad. We all went to English boarding schools but none of us liked it, and we were all naughty children at school. We all had happy memories of Darjeeling, which was a lovely free place.

Then, 20 years later when I joined the BBC, I had a very boring job and I did not like working in London. Out of the blue I got a chance of working in India, and I thought it must be my fate that made me come back here. And ever since then whenever I left India, something has happened to bring me back here.

I left India after four years when I came here in 1965 as part of the BBC. The man who succeeded me got into a mess and was expelled from the country—not his fault though. Then, the BBC back in London thought that we must send someone who is experienced and can deal with this Indian government, which can be tricky. I held up my hand and said I was experienced. But during the Emergency, I was also expelled. And when the Emergency was over, I told the BBC to send me back, otherwise it would look as though I had done something very bad. After that, the BBC gave up trying to get me out of India.

And when I left the BBC, I thought to myself for few moments that shall I go back to England now? But then I thought that India has made me and it would be very ungracious of me to just leave India because I was no longer part of the BBC. And that was 20 years ago and I am still here. And I have no plans of going. But I would have to say that it is ultimately in the hands of God and we will have to go one day anyway. Whether I leave a little of myself here or not is still very much in the hands of God.

Sen: In your book, The Heart of India, you mention that you started your career with the transistor radio, which was replaced by television. What impact did this have on the Indian audience, especially those in rural India? Do you continue to believe that the radio enables a more intimate relationship with the audience than television?

Tully: Yes, absolutely. The radio does help connect better with the audience. My career has basically been in radio. It is still my favorite medium. If someone said to me that you can either do radio or television, I would not for a moment think. [I would] go for radio.

During the 60s, 70s and 80s, the transistor radio had come in by then. The transistor radio was very cheap. It operated on batteries, so you did not need electrification and it did not require a lot of money. This dramatically increased the spread of radio because it was easily accessible by people in villages, and the Indian government was giving away transistors for family planning. So there was a big radio audience. And during those roughly 30 years, the only radio that people could hear in villages was All India Radio and that was what they would call sarkari radio. But they knew that the sarkar was not to be trusted, so they turned to foreign broadcasts.

Luckily, the BBC was the first choice and, to be absolutely honest, the only choice then. We were broadcasting in English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu and Nepali. So, we had a huge audience and this made us have a huge impact. But very often, this also made us the target of anger of the government. We were sometimes accused of being a foreign hand, sometimes accused of trying to destabilize India—we were accused of all sorts of things. But my argument always was that if we were distorting the news or we were doing something which was blatantly untrue or wrong, then people would not listen to us. So the government and [the BBC] had a difficult relationship, but except during the Emergency, we had to live with each other.

Since the 1990s, television has come along. It has been free and it is allowed to broadcast news and current affairs. And the written press has expanded spectacularly, especially the vernacular press. So, the BBC is no longer as important as it was, but I had the good fortune to be broadcasting during the times when the BBC was quite important. That is why I became well-known, not because I was a genius or anything like that.

BBCSen: Some people used to call you “Munshi Tully”? What’s the story behind that?

Tully: Actually, what happened was that when I was writing Heart of India, I was in Varanasi near Premchand’s village, and I said to someone that not many people write stories about rural India—it’s only about the Indian middle-class. So, I said I am trying to do a Munshi Premchand. But I said I can never be anywhere as good as he was. So, some people began to call me “Munshi Tully.” But they also called me all sorts of other things—some not very polite, others polite.

Sen: As you have reported extensively on rural India, what are your views on mainstream media’s depiction of what Mahatma Gandhi referred to as “real” India? Do you think mainstream media gives enough importance to rural India?

Tully: No, I don’t think they do. Certainly, there are notable exceptions like P. Sainath, Shekhar Trivedi [and] Srinivas Jain, but basically they don’t give enough attention to rural India. But rural India is still very important because obviously the majority of the population lives in rural India.

Sen: You have often stated that Indian media is disconnected from common citizens and is elitist in its orientation. Why is this?

Tully: I think the Indian media is basically an urban media. I think all of us in the media have a problem that we are, on the whole, looking for bad news and, therefore, that does misrepresent things, because if you are giving only bad news—I mean if the bias is towards bad news—then the bad news becomes in people’s mind what is happening all the time.

You get some very obvious examples in this. I am the last person to deny that rape is highly objectionable and that women should be protected. Nevertheless, because of the coverage of rape now in the Indian media, everybody has the impression that no woman can walk out of the door in India without being afraid of [getting] raped. Nobody knows how many young women are in journalism, in IT and in all sorts of things—who are going in the streets of Delhi doing their jobs and living normal lives.

So this is one of the problems [and] corruption is another. Much is said about corruption and there is a lot of corruption, but there are a lot of honest people in the police. And even as journalists because of paid news—there are lot of people who think that every journalist is taking money. So that is one reason for the disconnect.

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Sen: How do you compare Indian media to British media—or, for that matter, American media? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Indian media?

Tully: I would say that I don’t know why the division. I think, to an extent, the Indian media are less divided on political lines than the media tends to be in Britain. I do not know much about the American media because I have hardly ever been to America and I do not read much of the American media. But as far as the British media are concerned, there is a fairly strong ideological and political divide. You know which side The Daily Mail is going to be—on the right—and The Guardian, for instance, is going to be left of center. You don’t have it to the same extent in India, but you do have individual journalists who are identified with one ideology or another. I think that’s one difference.

I think Indian journals, on the whole, publish more academic type of articles and perhaps less journalistic, though not all of them. I think they are less sensational. Indian newspapers are much more investigative than they were, but they are less investigative than British ones are.

As for television: When I was in Britain, I [didn’t] see all these discussion programs which go on endlessly and in which people shout at each other. I think these programs are very uninstructive. I don’t think you have that sort of thing very much in Britain. You have hard-hitting interviews, but they are usually one on one. You don’t have four people speaking all at once. So that would be another difference.

There is one more very important difference. In Britain, radio is a very powerful current affairs and news medium. And the one program that today the politicians like to get onto is not a television program, but it is breakfast show on Radio 4 called Today Program. In India, by contrast, radio for news and current affairs is virtually dead because no one is allowed to broadcast, except All India Radio.

Another thing which we have not talked about is social media. I don’t really know very much about social media, and that is a very big gap in my knowledge.

Sen: Corruption in Indian media has been a hot button topic. You have commented before that much of India’s governing apparatus is really the relic of the British Raj. Do you think some of this colonial, top-down mentality permeates Indian media today? Do you think Indian media enjoys independence, or are they timid when it comes to holding the powerful to account? If so, why?

Tully: I don’t think the media are that scared to take on the powerful. I think the one time during the Emergency they were, but we have known some journalists who took on the government. Take for instance Kuldeep Nayar, who was arrested during the Emergency. I do not think journalists are unduly afraid of the government, and if you watch the television every night, you will see that people come and say rude things, aggressive things, and they criticize the government.

But people are suggesting that because [Narendra] Modi is a strong prime minister, the media are feeling gagged, [but] I don’t think so. I find a lot of criticism of Modi and of the government. Remember all that rumpus about his suit?

Sen: What is your view on the controversy regarding the film, India’s Daughter? Do you think the media covered the issue satisfactorily? 

Tully: I think it was the government in this case. It is always, or rather usually, an unwise thing to make a fuss about something you don’t like, because you just draw attention to it and more and more people end up watching it.

There was no way the Indian government was going to stop the BBC from broadcasting it around the world. I know the BBC’s attitude: We do not allow foreign governments to tell us what to broadcast. So when Rajnath Singh said he was going to stop this from being broadcast anywhere, he was not going to be able to do that. All he did was attract international attention to it. So I think it was unwise of the government to make a fuss about it. But I do understand they felt political pressure on them. They must have thought if they did not make a fuss about it, people would think they were not taking the problem seriously.

About the film itself: I didn’t see it. To be honest, I did not very much want to see it; perhaps I should have. But I have read various views on it, and obviously there are different views.

Sen: Please shed some light on the role the BBC played in the restricted political environment of the Emergency in the mid-1970s.

Tully: During the Emergency, I was thrown out [of India] and the BBC office was closed down. It was a very difficult time, but what we tried to do was use other sources and information in order to provide a reasonably reliable service for people. And certainly, we were very widely listened to, but Mrs. [Indira] Gandhi hated us and the government [did] too, since we were defying them. They thought that by closing the office and throwing me out, they would close the BBC down, but they didn’t—the BBC continued. There were lots and lots of people who were very grateful to the BBC, and we had not damaged our credibility.

Sen: What motivated you to write your first book on India, Amritsar: Mrs. Gandhi’s Last Battle

Tully: What motivated me to write this book was that I felt the Punjab crisis was an example of something which was very dangerous anywhere and particularly in India, which was doing religious politics. I believe the Congress had created Bhindrawale and he had gotten out of control. We were happily working on this book when, suddenly, Indira Gandhi’s assassination took place, and that gave the book a new slant.

Although there have been lots of other books on Blue Star and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, ours was the first and, if I can say so, without being arrogant, [it] has reasonably stood the test of time. But as I said, there are lots of other books, and there is more information available than in our book because ours was the first.

Sen: In India’s Unending Journey, you mentioned that Christianity can learn from the Hindu tradition of acknowledging that there are many different ways to God. You mentioned that it might help people question their belief that denies the validity of other faiths. Do you think the semitization of Hinduism is currently taking place?

Tully: I don’t believe the majority of Hindu people are intolerant. There is a streak of intolerance, but even those in the Hindutva wing will always say that we are not intolerant and that we do accept that there are many different ways to God. They do say it, but quite often their actions and the things they say thereafter seem to suggest otherwise. But we Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to God. In that sense, we can learn from Hindu tradition.

Sen: Where do think India is headed, given its potential?

Tully: I have always said that India has enormous potential, and that is why she is recognized around the world. But India will not realize her potential until the administrative system is reformed, [and] the judiciary and the police. In order to realize her potential, India needs a government that functions more efficiently. You cannot function with a judiciary that does not deliver justice on time; you can’t go on with having as many as 70% of people in prisons under trial and trials that can go on for years.

So, yes there is potential, and yes the potential is shown. Even with this old British Raj-style government, which I think is fundamentally flawed. Take for instance the police, which still [operates] on an act that was introduced by the British in 1861. Well, how can that be right?

I think it is [fine] to have plans like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Make in India Campaign, but these campaigns won’t really be successful until we have an administration which functions efficiently.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Saiko3p / Andrey LobachevShutterstock.com


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