This edition of the Express Adda held at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, hosted veteran journalist Sir Mark Tully. In a discussion moderated by Seema Chishti, Deputy Editor, The Indian Express, Tully took questions from the audience and spoke on a range of subjects — on being a celebrity journalist before the age of the selfie, the BBC scooping the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and why he thinks an assault on ideas will not go too far in India.
On being British and Indian
My great-great-grandfather was actually an uncle of John Nicholson, who most of you know. He led the attack on Delhi when it was recovered by the British during the Uprising and he was an opium agent for 18 years before the Uprising took place. My grandfather was born in Aurangabad. My mother was born in Bangladesh. And I was born in Calcutta. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for my connection with India is fate. I was meant to be connected with India and I’ve always felt I belong here. But equally, if you’ve done your national service in Britain, if you’ve been to a university like Cambridge, if you’ve been to a public school like I went to, you can’t shake all that off and say I’ve become Indian. So, I would say that I hope I have something of India in me.
On television in India
Well, I think the problem with TV in India, certainly with TV news, which I watch quite often, is that there is a lack of professionalism. There is far too much concentration on doing radio, really, with the presenter speaking to the guy in the field or with a lot of people sitting around and talking to each other. That can be much better done on radio. You hardly see a properly crafted story on Indian TV.
On BBC scooping the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination
The story is this: Princess Anne was in India and she was visiting Tibetan schools above Mussoorie. I was covering that story and overheard two policemen talking to each other and saying, “Indira Gandhi has been shot”. So, I came down to Delhi to find that Satish Jacob (former BBC colleague) had done an immaculate job. He had scooped the world. He had gone up to the hospital, got into it and confirmed everything and really, in many ways, there was no reason for me to come back at all. So, that was the story of it.
On controlling the media and the power of rumour
We need more news, and we need more balanced news. Balance, I think is very important and I think anyone who tries to control the media is making a huge mistake because in the end, they will be hit by rumour, which is now, of course, an even more powerful weapon. Because of social media, rumour spreads like a disease, literally. But we always used to find that rumours were often spread by people saying, “Maine BBC par suna (I heard it on the BBC)”, and we would then be attacked by the government.
I remember one occasion when Mulayam Singh opened fire on the kar sevaks and an evening paper put out a story that the BBC is saying a hundred-and-something people have been killed. And I got a phone call from George Fernandes who said, “What the hell have you done?” And I said, “We have not done that. Just check.” We had two speeches against us. One by Mulayam Singh, one by Jyoti Basu of Bengal and I have to say, we always used to think of Basu as a very gentlemanly guy, but it was Mulayam Singh who wrote a very apologetic letter to me. When I met Basu some time afterwards, he just shrugged his shoulders as though it was a matter of no importance at all. This is why I think the importance of brand names that you can believe in is even more important than ever now.
On reporting on Pakistan
What happened with (Zulfiqar Ali) Bhutto in Parliament was that he was extremely angry with me and our coverage of the PNA (Pakistan National Alliance), the movement which eventually led to his downfall. And he made a speech and he went on and on about me, criticising me, mentioning how things are done and in that very dramatic Bhutto way of saying, “But we are a generous nation and we will not throw him out”. During the PNA movement, we were extremely unpopular with Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party, and extremely popular with the PNA, for obvious reasons. Anyhow, this led to situations in places like Lahore, for instance, where on Friday in the area of the city which was pro-Bhutto, there would be demonstrations against the BBC and in areas that were pro-PNA, there would be demonstrations for the BBC. I remember 40 days after the death of Bhutto, there was a huge crowd. When I was there, there was all this shouting, “Mark Tully zindabad” and I said, “Nahin, nahin, chup karo”. And at one stage, I literally had to fight a mob because they wanted to put me on their shoulders and carry me in triumph, which was quite contrary to what I was meant to be doing.
On being a celebrity reporter
I don’t really like the idea of a journalist being a celebrity, but as I said, I was working for the BBC, so I became one. It lead to unfortunate situations and funny situations sometimes. My friend Saeed Naqvi and I once went to a village in central UP, asking people who are they going to vote for. We asked a villager, and he said, “Don’t ask me now, ask me when I have heard the BBC”.
On his abiding images of India
It was my first Christmas in Delhi (1965) when I went to a Christmas service and I found sardars with pagris, Hindus, and people of all faiths. I had come from England, where my friends from Cambridge who were Catholics would not go to church with me; we had those sharp divisions. Ever since then, my belief got deeper that India stands for an extraordinary multifaceted faith, religious pluralism and tolerance. And I regard it as the most important lesson that I have learnt from India.
On India post-’80
In economic terms, India has changed enormously. In fundamental ways, India has not changed and in some ways, it has gotten worse. And this is my hobby horse, which I climb on at every opportunity. No one, no politician, has started to tackle the fundamental problem — of the institutions of this country. History shows that they are unsuitable for this country because they are essentially the institutions of the British Raj, particularly the police force. Second, we have not stopped the politicisation of the institutions. In
India, with its remarkable democratic tradition, institutions should balance each other out but there is so much of politicisation of the civil service and the police that it has undermined these institutions. And no politician has set about reforming these.
On the assault on ideas and killing of journalists
It’s a serious problem in India and it’s a serious problem globally, particularly concerning journalists. But in a pluralist and multifaceted India, any government, politician and individual who preaches or says anything that will spread hatred, is to be deplored. I believe India’s traditions are strong enough to prevent this from going too far.
On fascinating characters in politics
I was very fond of two Janata Dal politicians, Chaudhary Devi Lal and Chaudhary Charan Singh. I was very fond of him (Devi Lal) because he was a real grassroots politician. You could go to any village in Haryana, and they will say, “Aata hai, hamare se baat karta hai (He comes here, he speaks with us)”. These are the politicians I like. The Janata Dal was a great movement, it had a lot to contribute and I think it was a genuinely ideological movement. I was ironically very fond of Morarji Desai.
On Indira Gandhi
I interviewed her several times. I found her to be a very moody person. She could be very abrupt or she could be very charming. I remember the last interview I did with her in 1983. She was very charming. Then she said to me, in an extraordinary way, “Put off the tape recorder and tell me what is happening in this country.” We had quite a long chat about the Sikh movement, and she kept saying, “You go there often, you probably know more about it than I do.” She was charming like that but she could be very abrupt and abrasive as well.