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Mark Tully, once the Beeb's voice and face here, has a few things to say on broadcast news and his perennial love, India

Mark Tully: `Technology is distorting news in some ways.' — Photos: C.V. Subrahmanyam

IN SOME ways BBC in India is Mark Tully though the two parted company a while back. Sir Mark was around long before television came to our drawing rooms, speaking to a generation that turned to the Beeb for information when the country went through convulsions. He has known our vibrant geography since 1965. And he must have seen it move even if in "Slow Motion".

"Oh yes, it has moved. It cured me of socialism! But it has moved too far Right. Extreme." It has moved for him in other ways too even if not in ways he had hoped it would. He did some loud thinking at the distinguished speaker series, Colloquium, arranged by the Indian Institute of Management here when he spoke on The Market Must Work for the Poor.


"No. Reforms are not working adequately for the poor. Poverty, some say, has come down; but why the income disparities? Market can't be the sole arbiter in all areas... particularly health and education. We cannot have strict market here because market means money. The state alone can deliver such services... I am not anti-market. I am saying we need a market that keeps in view social considerations." What does it mean to have Coke and no clean drinking water in the villages? There is water all right, but bottled ones that "one needs to buy". He, however, sees reforms as having enabled the release of a human talent "huge in India".

Even as he sees the change to the Right, and reforms reaching the poor only haltingly, India, he believes, is a democracy that is moving "despite the vulnerability of the Civil Service to the political class". It could move faster, given the right private-public bond.

India, moving now, "not then" — was it a romance for Sir Mark? Did it bring out the Orientalist in him? He is all friendly laughter. Romance is an overstatement and his books, No Full Stops in India and India in Slow Motion, are "after all, highly critical" of certain institutions.

When one writes on the different cultures and religions of India, to some it seems romantic, but to him, "realistic". Indian culture in tradition is at its best because tradition, he sees, is the bulwark against the excess of the modern. He loves the Mahatma though he is wary of how far the Mahatma's ideals can travel. And he is emphatic that there are many things valid in Indian culture, the many ways to God for instance, unlike just the one in the West. "But that doesn't mean everything is Golden Age..."

The Orientalist bit comes across when one holds on to his ideas of Indian culture. His book was panned for winking at the caste system and sati. Ask him and he is all affable laughter again. "I never ever justified evil practices in caste. One cannot deny caste has ossified social mobility. But surely caste is very complicated," he asserts. He sees the positive in caste being a social security network "in a static society", one that is being forgotten in "fluid times now", caste enabling occupational stability even in the lower orders, in giving voice to the Mayawatis... "You see, caste — and democracy — allow that too."

And sati? No justification there. No way. "It was only a criticism of the way the activists handled the issue."

India is his great love, of course. "I have great gratitude for the generosity India has shown me. But I am not starry-eyed. I am not blindly uncritical. But if my sympathies were not with India, it would be a distortion."

So what happened with the BBC? Some highly paid staff, he says, were critical of others opposed to reforms within the Beeb. The whole thing was done in an unsavoury way; stories leaked about their misgivings and the like. All terribly unfair. "Someone had to reply. The National Radio Day of the Year came up. I replied. I became untenable to the BBC."

Whatever happened to the old ethos of the BBC, the impartial broadcaster of the world? The BBC, Sir Mark says, moved towards a managerial paradigm "associating broadcasting with biscuit-making". It needed evolution, not revolution. To him, it moved from an ambition to being the best broadcaster to being the best-managed broadcaster in the world. "Manage, manage, manage. You can't cut into news." The Kelly-Hutton affair could have only done more damage, I suggest. But he sees the Iraq leaks as almost only "a matter of emphasis". "It wasn't about a lie. The BBC mishandled the Hutton inquiry. It caved in after the inquiry. The Chairman resigned voluntarily. The Director-General was ordered to resign. This immediately lent the impression that the BBC had done something dreadfully wrong."

The Beeb's mistake

And then the British government was cut up with the BBC over the leak. "The BBC succumbed, yes, not in coverage, but in action. In the resignations. The biggest mistake it ever made. Every journalistic organisation makes mistakes. But if you have resignations every time a mistake happens, what does it mean?"

If the Beeb can give in, what about the others? Sir Mark is concerned that "Murdochism" is dictating news in print as well as electronic media. He is also concerned over technology's seduction of the electronic media. "The man talks even when he doesn't have much to say simply because there is a van out there and an outside broadcast (van). Far too many. It is now the ease with which you play with film. Technology is distorting news in some ways." He sees radio as being under-utilised and hopes it will air news as much as TV.

Suddenly pointing to Rajdeep Sardesai on NDTV, he asks: "Why is he so loud? And why are they speaking so loud? Why can't they be balanced?"

Something of the Brit still in you, sir? "Of course. If you believe in the Karma theory, you don't forget the place where you come from."


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