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.
Express Features Service