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Is there a channel India can be proud of like British are of BBC or US of CNN?

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Whilst there are newspapers that I would unreservedly applaud I’m afraid there isn’t a single channel I can say that of without biting my tongue because I know I’m fibbing.

I’m honoured and indeed deeply flattered to be given the G. K. Reddy Memorial National Award and so let me begin with a huge thank you. Arthur Conan Doyle once said that work is its own rewards but it doesn’t need the genius of Sherlock Holmes to realise that a little recognition is a wonderful thing. And what more could any journalist ask for than to be remembered and recognised alongside the legendary G. K. Reddy?

Sadly I did not know Mr Reddy but who is there in my profession that does not know of him? His grasp of Indian politics and, more importantly, his understanding of Indian politicians have rarely been equalled and certainly not surpassed. Even three decades after his death the standard of excellence he effortlessly established remains the bar the rest of us struggle to reach.

There is, however, one small area where I can claim to have something in common with Mr Reddy. He served for many years as a distinguished foreign correspondent in Great Britain. During this time his weekly letter from London was widely read and greatly appreciated. I’m told he grew fond of the country and an admirer of the British people. I began my career in the same city and it’s always had a special place in my affections.

Today it may sound paradoxical but it is an amusing truth: I began my career as a journalist because of a fortuitous accident or, at least, good luck. In 1980, whilst struggling over my PhD thesis at Oxford, I wrote to 6 newspapers offering myself for employment. Four did not bother to reply. One simply said no. But the 6th, in the shape and form of Charlie Douglas-Home, then deputy editor of The Times, invited me for lunch.

Charlie was Scottish and he took me to the Caledonian Club. Pretending to be offé with food I was unfamiliar with I ordered Haggis. “Are you sure you want that?” Charlie asked. Sensing I’d done something silly I felt my honour demanded I stick to my choice. Little did I realise Haggis was the inside of a sheep’s stomach. Its taste is revolting.

“Serves you right,” said Charlie, when he saw I was gagging over the dish. He made me eat all of it. As I did, Charlie asked ceaseless questions and let me go on and on until he suddenly interrupted: “You seem to have a way with words even when you don’t know what you’re talking about. I guess that means you could be a journalist!”

But what clinched it was a rare error by Charlie. As we walked out of the club he said: “You’ve done the opposite of Norman St. John-Stevas”. “No” I shot back. “I’ve done the same”.

St. John-Stevas was a colourful minister in Mrs Thatcher’s government who had done his first degree at Cambridge before moving to Oxford for a PhD. So had I.

“Let’s go to my office and check,” Charlie insisted. “If I’m wrong the job’s yours”.

I’m not sure what would have become of me if Charlie had been right!

My life in television began a few years later. But, once again, luck played a big part. This time the credit for what I’ve learnt about interviewing goes to a very different sort of man. Unlike Charlie, John Birt was strong, silent and a structural analyst. As Director of Programmes at London Weekend Television, he was my boss. His glory days as Director General of the BBC were a few years further into the future.

“There are only 4 possible answers to any question” John used to say. “Yes, no,  don’t know and won’t tell. Your job as an interviewer is to collapse don’t know and won’t tell into either yes or no”. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

It is John I hold responsible for the fact many of you think I’m often aggressive or even rude.

“If a question is worth asking” John maintained “it’s worth ensuring it gets an answer. So if your guest evades or prevaricates, waffles or changes subject it’s your duty as an interviewer to bring him back on track. If you fail not only will he run away with the interview but it’s an insult to the audience who are waiting to hear the answer to your question.”

John, therefore, advocated firmness but he also equally stressed that the interviewer must always be polite. That, I fear, is a bit of his advice I sometimes forget!

All of that happened not only in another country but almost in another world. John worked in an environment where ratings were not the prime consideration for judging current affairs programmes. Content was always more important. Alas, it’s often the other way around in India today. If enough eyeballs are glued to your programme you can virtually get away with anything. Most of the people I know believe the media frequently does.

Which brings me to the question what would G. K. Reddy have made of Indian journalism today? Would he applaud his successors? Or would he cringe with despair? Would he feel the flower has brightened and blossomed? Or would he sense it’s starting to shrivel up and even rot?

The answer lies perhaps in two great changes that have occurred since the 60s, 70s and 80s, which are the decades when G. K. Reddy was compulsory reading in the Times of India and Hindu.

First, the reputation the media once enjoyed for reliability, balance and accuracy has suffered. Today you often hear the put down just because it’s in a newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true. Social media may have spawned fake news but the fact people rely on Twitter or WhatsApp to find out what’s happened suggests they no longer trust a paper or news channel to tell them the truth or the full story.

Connected to this is the claim the media could once make of being objective and fair. Few people are prepared to believe that today. Without double checking or giving a person a right of reply and often without knowing the full story the media judges individuals and finds them at fault. I don’t deny there are occasions when we’re right but every time we’re wrong we condemn an innocent person and leave him with little opportunity to correct the prejudiced image we’ve created.

The truth is whatever you make of the promise of achhe din, these are not good times for the Indian media. Most people I know have formed an irrevocable impression that it’s become pusillanimous. Where once newspapers and television channels boasted of challenging and exposing the government we now flinch from doing so. Worse, when our voices are raised it’s against the government’s opponents and critics – particularly those who have the gall to question the Prime Minister or the Army Chief. Instead of watchdogs that should growl at the authorities, even if occasionally mistakenly so, the media behaves like guard dogs, who seek to protect, or pet dogs, who just wish to be liked.

The saddest part of all this is that it’s the electronic media, of which I’m a part, which is widely thought to be the most to blame. Whether it’s our interviews of the prime minister, where we refuse to challenge and sometimes even to seriously question, or our panel discussions, where volume and heat is deliberately preferred to substance and light, or the crude hashtags we deploy on the screen, which are like drumbeats designed to marshal or dragoon the desired response, the net result is we fail to speak truth to power but also treat viewers like dumb animals who cannot see through our tricks and will not demand better.

We’ve even reached the stage where the Chief Justice of India in open court has had to admonish the electronic media and instead of standing up in our defence newspaper editorials have agreed with him.

This is what the Business Standard had to say on Monday: “There is little doubt that the abandonment of fact-checking and of even a pretence to fairness by the electronic media have put into jeopardy not just freedom of speech but also the smooth working of democracy itself.”

Of course, television, as we know it today, did not exist in G. K. Reddy’s day. In his time Doordarshan was the plaything of our rulers and rightly reviled. Today we have over 500 independent news channels and Mr Reddy might perhaps be flabbergasted at the number. But if he were to ask a simple question I wonder how many would stand up to that critical test: Is there a channel India can be truly proud of just as the British are justifiably proud of the BBC or the Americans of CNN? I’m not sure what his answer would be and, to be honest, I’m scared to find out yours. But let me end by sharing mine. There are some channels I’m proud of some of the time, some programmes I’m proud of most of the time but there are also a few channels and programmes that make me cringe all the time. Whilst there are newspapers that I would unreservedly applaud I’m afraid there isn’t a single channel I can say that of without biting my tongue because I know I’m fibbing.

But this is not the hopeless situation it might seem. After all, the media changes every day. Each edition of a newspaper and each bulletin of a news channel is a chance to begin afresh. A new reporter, a different anchor, a better editor and everything could change very quickly. Perhaps more than any other profession journalism can draw hope from the fact tomorrow is another day.

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for indulging me and I’m deeply grateful to the G. K. Reddy Memorial Award Committee for this opportunity to share my views.

Karan Thapar’s speech while accepting the G.K. Reddy Memorial National Award for Journalism at Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi, 22 March 2018.

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34 COMMENTS

  1. Well..

    If not NDTV® network or even स्वराज्य EXPRESS™( the NewsPlatform® website, since there are 2 Hind[ustan]i channels with not just the same name — but identical DOGs) can’t be equitable to the [B][B][C]® TV networks or [ CNN® ] network..

    …Then stop acting like just-another one of those masses and look deeper!
    Perhaps, the licensing-terms — mandatory to have a channel carried linear now.. Bolstered by plethora of statutes like Regulations, generic Acts, Penal Codes and even certain Constitutional Articles — are the actual bane?( Yep! More so than the unwilling, DF masses not willing to watch something not reinforcing their presuppositions or simply, “being bo-o-ring”.)

  2. The fundamental point has been missed in this article. Large sections of the Indian media have always succumbed to the diktats of the establishment long before Narendra Modi came to power. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is miniscule when it comes to controlling the media, except in the level of sophistication and sophistry – BJP has a long way to go in its learning. If BJP is now propping up certain print and electronic media channels, so did the Congress in its long history – HT, NDTV, Tehelka to name a few. Also the media is controlled to a large extent by a coterie culture where they all are beneficiaries of entitlement or patronage. The media can cleanse itself of its reputation by purging the nepotism and favoritism which has given rise to vainglorious and shallow talking heads. Charlie Douglas-Home quote to Karan Thapar rings so true and accurately reflects the system of selecting journalists in India “You seem to have a way with words even when you don’t know what you’re talking about. I guess that means you could be a journalist!” So Karan is as symptomatic of that problem as many others. The second important point is the quality of journalism – both in terms of intellectual grasp and in factual reporting. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to catch up with Western media channels which notwithstanding their colonial and political biases still have a stable of brilliant political commentators.

  3. Dear Karan I have been a big fan of your talks shows for years. I remember I even told you during one of your shows on Sab Tv as well
    and you said “This is great. Finally, there is someone who watches my show.”
    Well jokes apart, having become a journalist myself in last 15 years (thankfully print journalist) I feel you have exaggerated BBC and CNN. Well, even though I enjoy watching both of these channels a lot and ‘hate’ Indian news channels (due to Sagarika Ghosh and Arnab Goswami kind of ‘anchors’) I feel both of these international channels failed to qualify as ‘unbiased’ even in the eyes of their own people. Just like you have a style of putting across too much of an answer even before your interviewee could justifiably reply, Arnab also picked on similar style a few years later on Times Now. As a journalist in India, where television journalism is killing the meaning of journalism in public opinion, what do you think about coming across any true journalist and not opinion maker in TV world. Can you name anyone (with Ravish being an aberration)?

  4. Is there a journalist India can be proud of ?.We can either see a pro or an anti Modi journalist.

    • Broadcast journalism, reporting and presentation in India is just like the country’s film award shows – superficial, crass and driven by egomaniacs, both in front of the camera and in editorial rooms. Unfortunately one can’t see any transformation coming.

  5. Sure, BBC has a lot more respect in Britain, and CNN has quite a bit of it in the US. I have lived in both the countries – studied or worked for considerable duration to feel the pulse. And for sure, none of the Indian channels come even a tad close to these – not even all of them put together.
    When I screened a few clippings of noise box called Times Now, in the US for a public lecture, all the audience burst out laughing; some commented loudly, “our Fox is much better than this!” That is the quality of both the channels the notorious noisy gong associated with. He has made TV news unwatchable. Mirror Now, is much better, thanks to Faye D’Souza. So are NDTV with all its messing up in the recent past.

  6. Pertinent in the present climate. But with almost the entire media being corporate owned and with most of the media houses being not only pro establishment but also ideologically partisan favoring a particular party , a high order. The media stands shamelessly compromised.

  7. As long as the Print/Electronic Media is a business, we can’t wish away the paid-news. As for the way they regard Journalists, Ramanadh Goenka already said, “our journalists, you give them a large peg, they would write whatever you want them to write.” The shabby way they treated Arun Shourie, shows the Truth. As for the credibility of the BBC and CNN, sometimes they are as hopeless as our ETV News. But, I like Shri Karan Thapar for his inimitable style.

  8. As long as the News Paper or a TV channel has a business dimension, we can’t wish away the paid-news. As for the way the Journalists are regarded by the Owners of the News Paper, long ago Ramanadh Goenka said, “our journalists, you give them a large peg, they would write whatever you want them to write.” Even the shabby way they treated the most respected journalists like Arun Shourie is the mirror to show them the Truth. As for the credibility of the BBC and CNN, sometimes they are as hopeless as our ETV News. But, I like Shri Karan Thapar for his competence and confidence, and of course, for his inimitable style.

  9. As long as the News Paper or a TV channel has a business dimension, we can’t wish away the paid-news or highly biased news. As for the way the Journalists are regarded by the Owners of the News Paper Companies, long ago Ramanadh Goenka made himself very clear that, “our journalists, you give them a large peg, they would write whatever you want them to write.” Even the shabby way they treated the most respected journalists like Arun Shourie is the mirror to show them the Truth. As for the credibility of the BBC and CNN, sometimes they are as hopeless as our ETV News. But, I like Shri Karan Thapar for his approach and attitude, for his competence and confidence, and of course, for his inimitable style.

  10. It’s a good speech. But, it complains against the reality. As long as the News Paper or a TV channel has a business dimension, we can’t wish away the paid-news or highly biased news. As for the way the Journalists are regarded by the Owners of the News Paper Companies, long ago Ramanadh Goenka made himself very clear that, “our journalists, you give them a large peg, they would write whatever you want them to write.” Even the shabby way they treated the most respected journalists like Arun Shourie is the mirror to show them the Truth. As for the credibility of the BBC and CNN, sometimes they are as hopeless as our ETV News. But, I like Shri Karan Thapar for his approach and attitude, for his competence and confidence, and of course, for his inimitable style.

  11. It’s a good speech. But, it complains against the reality.
    As long as the News Paper or a TV channel has a business dimension, we can’t wish away the paid-news or highly biased news. As for the way the Journalists are regarded by the Owners of the News Paper Companies, long ago Ramanadh Goenka made himself very clear that, “our journalists, you give them a large peg, they would write whatever you want them to write.” Even the shabby way they treated the most respected journalists like Arun Shourie is the mirror to show them the Truth.
    As for the credibility of the BBC and CNN, they say also proved during the USA and the Allied Forces’ attack on Iraq, that they were no exception to the general rule. Their News are sometimes as hopeless as our ETV News in Telugu.
    Inspite of all the limitations, I like Shri Karan Thapar for his approach and attitude, for his competence and confidence, and of course, for his inimitable style.

    • You have stolen my words; I stop listening to BBC radio after it’s subtle and not subtle support for international bully called US, joined of course then by it’s pet the UK.

  12. When Karan Thapar speak and criticize at length the channels that are in favor of the government, I think it would have shown that he is being objective had me mentioned the channels which we know are blatantly anti PM, and want to see the end of his career at any cost, by building the narrative which never really exists except in the minds of those channels.
    No one would say that media should be favoring the ppl in power, at the same time is the role of the media is to only find the faults and publish the stories that are so depressing in nature. I mean like no media house is interested in covering the story on Insolvency and bankruptcy code, one of the biggest reform of this government. What is going on with that board what are the realistic expectations from it. All the media houses that Karan thapar is feel proud of some time also did not cover a story regarding this. For me the role of the media does not stop at questioning the ruling party but every gov will have some thing to show to their credit unless you get into a situation like btw 2011 to 2013 where gov are not making any decision. Is it not the role of the media to atleast some times cover a story on the things that can be credited to that gov. Only then me as a voter will be making a informed a decision when I go to vote. In a situation when are you not fully informed on successes and failures voters will be forced to vote for their caste and religion.

    Bottom line: The so called channel which you are proud of some time have also failed to leave to the expectation of Objectivity

  13. It’s Mr. Karan Thapar who introduced the brand of questioning in a TV interview where the person questioned would not be allowed to complete his/her reply or whose reply would be abruptly cut short by the harsh and omniscient interviewer. Of course, that art has been taken to the highest level by a person none other than Arnab Goswami.Both were equally disgusting.

  14. The Print should go for that opportunity and create a global news broadcasting brand. But please do not try to emulate BBC (except for their documentaries) or CNN. By no means are these examples of perfect media organisation.

  15. We cannot compare BBC and CNN to Indian media in many sense.

    Having said that even BBC and CNN are neither clean nor fair news entities. They are known for their dirty games outside the nation, they are not fair in geo politics news, and they push their country agenda. They play dirty softpower else where. They create many internal problems for many country. Many countries even Indian government has banned BBC for taking up sensitive issues while same vigour of reporting sensitive issues in home country is not done.

    That is why Russia started RT and arab has aljezzera to give counter narratives. To counter BBC and CNN. You should know how many false news has been published on syria and Iraq and Libya before the war.

    So what is BBC and CNN? British and USA are countries which are one political entity. They dont have too much internal conflicts.

    BBC and CNN serves that entity, serves to push the agenda of those countries political agenda.

    India has thousands of problem from muslim conflict, terrorist sympathisers, khalistan separatism, dravidian separatism, maoism, intra language problem, intra religion, cast, division problems.

    There are people all over india wanting to create a revolution and want to break india, including many in tamil nadu.

    With such diversities and of course so many power hungry political parties, none of Indian media can remain as BBC and CNN (showing good ness at home and being dirty else where)

  16. To be honest, nobody in the US probably feels any ‘pride’ when it comes to CNN. And as for the BBC, it has a near monopoly over British news media, which isn’t really good for diversity of opinions. And honestly, I’m surprised that nobody, not in the article or in comments, has made a mention of Rajya Sabha TV, which in my opinion is a great channel for nuanced and intelligent debate. Sure, it is government-owned and there may be a line it cannot cross when it comes to criticising the administration. But the value of a news channel isn’t exclusively linked to its ability to critique the government. For all its constraints, RS and LS TV both do a fabulous job of covering the news, much better than the private self-righteous entertainment networks that masquerade as news channels.

  17. I live in the US and have spoken to several Americans and most of them unequivocally hate CNN as a very politically-biased and an exaggerating news channel. There are South Park (American show) clips that mock the exaggerations and general hyperbole used in CNN. The late night shows in US frequently mock the low standards of CNN’s news coverage. Karan Thapar, after he is done admiring the white skin and English culture of colonial era, should wake up and smell the coffee. I have spoken to people in the UK here too. They revile the pro-Islamic bias of BBC. They feel choked because they do not get a platform to criticize rising Islamism in UK in supposedly liberal channels like the BBC.

  18. ‘just as the British are justifiably proud of the BBC or the Americans of CNN?’

    The BBC are reviled by both the left and right in Britain and the same applies to CNN in the US.

    Mr. Thapar needs to join the 21st century and wake up to its realities.

  19. 500 INDEPENDENT NEWS channels ; Are they independent? NO,NO a BIG no.They are gulams;Gulams of either political parties or industrialist who makes or mars the politics.As rightly told by you some channels call a pannel consisting of not two or three-6 to 8 people.A big noice. The anchor behaves like “All knowledgeable” “Polite”is not in their dictionary. SHOUTS ,screams,Questions and never allows to answer.Some times we agitate .Want to beat the anchor.But realise that the fellow is only a stooge.

  20. “After all, the media changes every day. Each edition of a newspaper and each bulletin of a news channel is a chance to begin afresh. A new reporter, a different anchor, a better editor and everything could change very quickly. Perhaps more than any other profession journalism can draw hope from the fact tomorrow is another day.” I would extend this further to include even the screechy anchors of today, the print journalists who are smitten by achhe din and its attendant fibs and false hopes. Even Arnab Goswami & the other channel he left behind, can wake up one day, and correct themselves and start doing News as they should. Nothing is permanent. I do think though that even Karan Thapar’s generalisations and blanket criticisms are lazy thinking. Judge every news article and TV segment individually, without presupposing and presuming. Even within a story, it’s time to read every word carefully and also allow for contradictions. Going around calling media sellouts and soul-sellers is just lazy thinking. Having said that – BBC and CNN are not above opprobrium. They routinely do cringe worthy stuff and Chomsky has pointed out where they went horribly wrong. Nostalgia did noone good. Modi, Shah are obviously clamping down on media and bullying both websites and newspapers. But to assume everyone is Keeling over all the time and it’s all for money and media is cowardly is such a cliche. If journalists don’t trust fellow journalists and start getting paranoid about how everything is monstrously sold out, then they clearly know nothing of life or their vocation.

  21. NDTV, with all its limitations, especially a financial crunch, tries to be fair, objective, impartial. It has also been a nursery of talent, although it may not be entirely proud of some of the exotic orchids it has produced. CNN – IBN, despite corporate ownership, is watchable. WION has a focus on foreign affairs, not sure how many viewers regard that as a primary concern. Republic TV one would not watch if paid to do so. The great diasappointment is Times Now – Mirror Now is much better – and it comes from a very respected media house.

    • “The great diasappointment is Times Now – Mirror Now is much better – and it comes from a very respected media house”.

      “and it comes from a very respected media house”. RESPECTED MEDIA HOUSE? Some respect it has

    • NDTV and Republic TV are two faces of same coin. One is supporting extreme left and the other is right wing supporter. NDTV a few years back were on right track but lately they have been hijacked by a few hate mongering anchors who run shows to malign individuals and a particular religion. When their chief Editor himself is a fraud then what can you expect from others working in that channel.

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