With substantive research, a sharp interview technique, unparalleled access, and disdain for the ratings game, Karan Thapar rises above the tamasha that is Indian television

Karan Thapar had just discovered Clause 2 (h) of the Right to Information Act. He excitedly pointed out that for any institution to be categorised as a ‘public authority’, it needed to be constituted by a ‘notification issued or order made by the appropriate government’. A debate had been raging for two days over the Central Information Commission (CIC) decision to bring parties under the RTI ambit. But this element was relatively unexplored.

“One can argue, through a tortuous and indirect reading, that national parties have deemed status because they are notified by the Election Commission. But there appears to be a degree of logical inconsistency,” said Thapar. Conversations with a senior editor and a politician-lawyer confirmed to him that the aspect merited more discussion.

But the text of the law was a technical matter. “You and I may find it fascinating, but this is a pretty difficult argument for a lay TV audience. Listening is anyway the worst form of taking information.” Thapar thought for a moment. “So, we will raise it, and then move on other aspects.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, and we were sitting in Thapar’s ground-floor office in a South Delhi colony, as he gave a glimpse into how he conceives and prepares for his popular discussion show, The Last Word, and a weekly current affairs interview, Devil’s Advocate. Thapar’s room was decorated with photographs of the Presidents, Prime Ministers, film actors, and business leaders he has interviewed in a career spanning over two decades in Indian television. Before he returned home in 1991, Thapar had spent over a decade in British media.

In the course of the conversation, what appeared to animate Thapar most were policy debates. To prepare for a show, he combs research files, newspaper pieces, original government documents, and gets his team to check and cross-check facts. Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, where Thapar’s shows are telecast, says, “He is like a public prosecutor. His eye for detail and intensive research puts him in a different league.”

What allows Thapar to practice this kind of journalism is his assumption that the audience which watches current affairs shows needs to be interested in current affairs, ‘not tamasha’; and the principle that journalists need to report complicated subjects in a ‘simple, but not simplistic or inaccurate, manner’. Above all, is a healthy disdain for TRPs in an industry obsessed with it. “The importance of the subject, not viewership, should determine content. I don’t care about the ratings.”

But while there is widespread acknowledgement that Karan Thapar knows what he is talking about, and practices serious and intelligent journalism, his style draws mixed reactions. The aggression, the cold stare, the constant interjections comes across as rude to many.

Thapar disagrees, “I am firm, but polite.” He justifies the interruptions by pointing out that the show is telecast unedited, and he needs to get answers within a limited time framework. “Indians often don’t answer questions. Ninety per cent of the people don’t think or respond in a structured way.” Allowing guests to evade and waffle, Thapar argues, is a sign of ‘disrespecting the audience’.

But there is a larger method to Thapar’s interview technique.

In his journalism days in London, John Birt, who went on to head the BBC, had told Thapar there are only four answers in a current affairs interview – yes, no, don’t know and won’t tell. Thapar’s primary aim is to get rid of the third and fourth options, and force the guest to take either of the first two routes. Birt also told Thapar that the interviewee is often locked in two horns of a dilemma, and through one’s questioning, he had to be pushed to one corner. Drawing up a mini-chart on a sheet, Thapar revealed, “So you have to work out what horn will he choose, and then question him about the costs incurred because of his choice.” This is the approach Thapar revels and excels in, with the result that his interviews often lead the news agenda.

But if research and interview techniques have helped catapult him, so has access to the powerful.

This has come after years of rigor and hard work, and being able to win the trust of his interlocutors. But Thapar’s personal background has helped too. He is the son of a former army chief; his aunt is Nehru’s niece; his cousins include the eminent historian Romila Thapar and late journalist, Romesh Thapar. Aung Sang Suu Kyi is a childhood friend. He went to university, played squash thrice a week for two years with Salman Khurshid, while Benazir Bhutto was a friend from the mid 70s.

Thapar is aware of his social capital. “No one can deny backgrounds help in a society like India, but it matters increasingly less and should not matter at all.” He adds that certain networks may have helped him get an interview a little before a rival. But people at that level – occupying high positions and exercising power – would chose to speak to a journalist only if he had achieved a degree of distinction in his own right and it was useful for them, not because ‘someone was friends twenty years ago’.

Access in fact brings in another problem; those you cover end up becoming friends and there is a crisis of expectations.

Thapar developed one such relationship with L K Advani, who he has interviewed innumerable times. The BJP leader has acknowledged, in his autobiography, Thapar’s role as an intermediary in facilitating his contacts with the then Pakistani High Commissioner in Delhi. But after one interview, soon after his Jinnah remarks, Advani was not happy and wanted Thapar to re-shoot the show. Thapar saw no reason to do so, and despite many requests, chose to be a ‘rigid, honourable journalist’ and telecast the footage.

“Since then”, Thapar says, ‘the trust has gone. We did an interview in 2009 too, but after eight minutes he said he did not want to do it.” Looking back, Thapar wistfully says, “I saw it purely as a journalist, but the fact is that there was another relationship with him and his family, which I had used for my journalism. I had called his daughter to fix me an interview with him as soon as he took over as home minister. She did it.” It was in that backdrop, of past intimacy and informality, that Advani may have made the request. Almost seven years after the incident, Thapar is not sure if he made the right call in hurting a person he respected otherwise, bringing home the dilemmas journalists covering the powerful often face.