‘Tully Sahib’, one of India’s own

Mark Tully was vilified both by his BBC bosses and by the Indian government and was yet lavishly honoured by their successors. Ahead of his 80th birthday, a tribute to a national treasure.

October 24, 2015 12:14 am | Updated 12:14 am IST

“Send for Mark Tully, pull down his trousers, give him a few lashes and send him to jail.” — Aide to Indira Gandhi

Sir William Mark Tully, Order of the British Empire (OBE) was knighted by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace in 2002 for services to broadcasting. He had received the OBE in 1985. The Indian government honoured him in 1992 with the Padma Shri and in 2005 with the Padma Bhushan, two of the country’s highest civilian awards. He is the self-deprecatory sort of Englishman who squirms at the handles that now adorn his name. Yet his is quite a remarkable achievement. He has been vilified both by his bosses at the BBC and by the Indian government. Yet, when those who condemned him were themselves laid low, ‘Tully Sahib’ was honoured by their successors even more lavishly than he might otherwise have been.

Normally the only knighthood that goes the BBC way is to a retiring Director General. Reporters and presenters, if recognised at all, are usually to be found in the very small print. And it is unheard of for India to reward a foreign journalist twice — especially since it has sometimes treated ‘Tully Sahib’ even more shabbily than the BBC. Mark has found himself in the eye of so many storms that it is quite baffling to him that he is now a pillar of the establishment on a par with the bishop he might have been or the BBC Director General he publicly excoriated.

Mark was born in India in 1935, one of six children, to a successful businessman who worked for Gillanders Arbuthnot, the great agency house in then Calcutta. In those days it was conventional for English children to be sent home for their education. But the Second World War intervened and Mark found himself at a boarding school in Darjeeling under a liberal headmaster. He could roam freely and he exulted in his unaccustomed independence from adult supervision. “We used to run around the bazaars and go and beg chocolates from the American soldiers,” he remembers. “Our parents would have been horrified if they had known.” It was not to last: At the age of nine he was sent back to an English preparatory school which he hated. Four years later, he was enrolled at Marlborough. Mark rebelled and he claims he did no work at all. This can’t be entirely true because he was then accepted by Trinity Hall in Cambridge to read theology and history and he gained a respectable degree.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Mark decided he wanted to become a priest. He was inspired by his tutor, Robert Runcie, who went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. After two terms, Mark chucked it all in. “I simply wasn’t confident of my own moral integrity,” he says. “And the Church mattered enough to me — as it still does — so that I didn’t want to let it down.” After four years working for a charity, he successfully applied for a post at the BBC in London, described as suitable `for a personnel manager of middle seniority’. Then, out of the blue, came the chance of a lifetime. On the BBC notice board, Mark spotted a vacancy in the Delhi office for a junior administrative assistant. He impressed the appointment board by counting up to ten in Hindi and was soon given the hands-on opportunity of learning to be a radio reporter in India. Mark was back in the country where he was born and had left his heart. He was swiftly promoted to news correspondent; his job was to report for the BBC World Service on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

News first His despatches were translated into many languages, most importantly into Hindi and Urdu. For historical reasons the BBC had access to transmitters that gave wide coverage of India on short wave. The reception was far from perfect but the World Service was meeting a real need: broadcasting to the rapidly growing mass of literate people throughout the subcontinent who wanted to know what was going on in their world and beyond. Yet All India Radio reported only government-friendly news — a brainless policy since the newspapers suffered from no such inhibitions. Mark remembers a group of villagers telling him, “We listen to the BBC because it gives true news and it gives it first.” Until the mid-1970’s, there was no television at all to provide an alternative source of information and, when the government television service, Doordarshan, did get going properly, its news and current affairs were no better than All India Radio’s. Until the advent of cable television in the 1990’s the only comprehensive and reliable broadcast news remained that provided by the BBC World Service. Mark Tully explains:-

“I was confronted almost daily by the short-sightedness of those who drew up the policy for broadcasting in India, a policy which insulted the intelligence of their audiences. The policy was based on the concept that listeners will believe whatever they hear and so let them hear only what the government wants them to know about.”

So it was not surprising that millions of the newly available and cheap battery-powered transistor radios tuned in to the BBC World Service, especially during such crises as the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan and the 1975 Emergency. It was not long before Mark became a celebrity in India for his fine reporting. and, in a country which craves heroes and gods, something rather more. The adoration shown to Mark wherever he is recognised deeply embarrasses him. He winces at, but does not deny, that he was venerated along with the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa in the trinity of India’s most revered resident foreigners. It sounds like something of an exaggeration to say so but simple country people perceived him as some sort of embodiment of truth, a sentiment his masters in London would have found deeply disturbing, had anybody told them about it.

Then, in an unexpected turn of events, he was thrown out of India. He was in distinguished company. In 1975, 40 foreign correspondents, including those of The Guardian, The Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun all refused to sign the draconian restrictions that the Emergency censorship regulations demanded. A particularly unsavoury crony of the Prime Minister’s telephoned the Minister of Information and Broadcasting and told him, “Send for Mark Tully, pull down his trousers, give him a few lashes and send him to jail.” The minister refused, but Mark’s fate was sealed.

He found himself back in London whilst everybody waited to see what was to become of the world’s largest democracy that had overnight become a fear-ridden dictatorship. When Indira Gandhi finally ended the Emergency and called a general election, she lost her seat and her party was trounced. As she entered the political wilderness, Mark returned to India as Chief of Bureau. (a grandiose-sounding title that afforded some protection from political caprice.) However All-India Radio’s news remained strictly under government control and rumours continued to circulate as they had done during the Emergency. Mark explains the damage this did: :It is because I have so many experiences of the power of rumour that I disagree with those who say riots or events which might provoke riots should not be broadcast. If they are not broadcast, and broadcast accurately, rumours far more damaging than the events which have occurred will prevail.”

There could be no starker illustration of this thesis than the events which surrounded Mrs Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards. Mark was out of Delhi accompanying Princess Anne on a Save the Children Fund event. His colleague Satish Jacob was left in the office to feed the insatiable demands of the BBC’s many news and current affairs outlets. For hours there was no official announcement on radio or television but rumours of the prime minister’s death ran like a whirlwind through Delhi and thence out into the rest of the country. Gangs of hooligans in the capital started slaughtering innocent Sikhs and still there was no official announcement. Satish, broadcasting live from Delhi, was asked by the Today programme in London for confirmation of the prime minister’s death. All he could do was quote the BBC’s own World Service. To us in Britain it seemed ludicrous that the BBC should be confirming such a colossal news event by quoting from itself. But what else was Satish to do until an official announcement was broadcast?

As technology improved the quality of international radio circuits, Mark broadcast more and more frequently on the BBC’s domestic radio services, contributing both to news bulletins and prestigious programmes like Today, The World at One and From Our Own Correspondent . But the handicaps of trying to do a political correspondent’s job in India remained overwhelming. Luckily Mark burns with an innate stubbornness that fuelled his dogged determination to prevail over telephones that never worked, permissions endlessly delayed, terrible transport difficulties, heat and dust and a parsimony demonstrated by London that is hardly imaginable: the only sound-proof place from which Mark could broadcast was a walk-in cupboard off the office upstairs.

Television, too, claimed a good deal of Mark’s time; and that could be very tedious work: obtaining permissions from government Ministries, guiding untutored British producers through the maze of form filling, acting as long-stop when everything ground to a halt as the red tape ensured inevitably that it would. Mark was, not surprisingly, prone to rages, sometimes quite tumultuous ones; often they were a deliberate ploy to impose his will over a particularly recalcitrant babu. But sometimes he just lost it and bellowed and blundered like an elephant in musth until he ran out of steam or a colleague herded him into his pen and bought him a cool beer.

Whilst there is no doubt that his success is due to his talent as a broadcaster and his deep understanding of India, luck and laissez-faire have also played their part. Normally the BBC moves its news correspondents quite frequently. The policy is intended to ensure that each of them is widely experienced., each gets a share of the punishment stations as well as the cushy numbers and, above all, to make sure that no journalist is so long in one post that he `goes native’. Uniquely Mark busted that policy wide-open. It would be nice to think that a conscious decision was to keep a round peg in a round hole but nothing at the BBC is ever quite that simple. By not being too pushy and ambitious, Mark managed to place himself in a nebulous limbo. It seemed to be nobody’s job to ask, “Isn’t it time that Tully chap moved on to Paris, Washington or Rome?” Once, in my presence, a senior member of BBC management who was visiting India did tentatively pose that dreaded but pertinent hypothetical question. “I won’t leave India,” Mark responded. “And if I am ordered to go, I shall resign from the BBC.”

Speaking truth to power Typically, when Mark did hang up his spurs, he did so with a bang not a whimper. John Birt had arrived at the BBC first as its deputy Director-General in charge of news and current affairs and then as the fully-fledged director general. He was secretive, ruthless and frequently wrong. So it was not surprising that he quickly became the most hated DG ever. Yet members of staff, and particularly those on short-term contract, were terrified of criticising him openly. Mark courageously decided that someone had to raise a head above the parapet so he challenged the Director-General at a Radio Academy Festival in 1993. He accused Birt’s regime of being ‘run on fear and sycophancy’.

“I attacked what I called the revolution in the BBC and appealed for orderly change. I particularly stressed the damage done to staff morale by what I believe are ridiculously short term contracts. Damage was caused by abrasive, sometimes threatening, management, the dismissal of many of the deeply admired elder broadcasters and other staff, the derisory sniping at the old BBC ethos and many other aspects of John Birt’s revolution.”

In return, John Birt arrogantly dismissed Mark's criticisms — together with those expressed by the hugely admired David Attenborough — as the complaints of ‘old soldiers sniping at us with their muskets.’ Birt sneered at Mark publicly, referring to him as ‘our branch manager in Delhi’. The BBC idiotically issued Mark with a formal reprimand, warning him that speaking out publicly against the BBC was in breach of his contract. “I got fed up with a fruitless exchange of letters over whether I could give my opinion on the BBC and decided to resign,” he said. It was a spirited counter attack, typical of Mark’s obstinate bloody-mindedness that would have made it awfully difficult for him to have become the good priest he once wanted to be.

At the age of 59, Mark found himself out in the cold in Delhi, urgently seeking freelance work to supplement his over-modest BBC pension. His second book, No Full Stops in India, was attracting a good deal of critical attention both in India and in the U.K. but his financial situation was worrying him. Then a miracle of sorts happened. The BBC had been forced by the huge success of Channel Four into commissioning programmes from independent producers. One of the first radio slots put out to tender was early on Sunday mornings after Farming Today and before the 7 a.m. news. For as long as anybody could remember this slot had featured nothing more dramatic than the pealing of church bells. An independent production company approached Mark and asked him if he would like to present an accessible anthology of music, spirituality and poetry to be called Something Understood on Radio Four. Of course, Mark was keen. Not only was it something very different from the sort of work with which he was familiar but there was also a proper (if modest) fee. The problem, Mark thought, was that director general John Birt might sabotage any programme idea fronted by his old adversary, the recently resigned incumbent of the ‘Delhi branch office’.

With characteristic magnanimity Mark thought he should offer to withdraw from the project so that the production company might improve its chances of a commission. I disagreed, advising him that he had been chosen as the presenter on merit, probably by people who could read the runes of BBC politics far better than we could from outside. In any case, I said, the DG could not possibly allow himself to be seen interfering in mere programmes.

Despite John Birt — or perhaps because of him — Mark had found he had a champion in Michael Green, then controller of Radio Four. The very first tender document for Something Understood stipulated that Mark should write and present at least 30 of each year’s 50 programmes; some were to be recorded in India and Mark was to be given cheap air tickets so that he could record the remainder in London. Something Understood went on air in 1995 and Mark has been its main presenter ever since, his . His style is the very antithesis of the news man bawling into a microphone as the battle rages. Mark’s softly-spoken manner suggesting the inner peace of a counsellor, well-versed in life’s joys and sorrows. No one could be more surprised than Mark himself that he swiftly became something of a cult personality.

Now, in Mark’s 80th year, there is change in the air. The number of programmes he is asked to present has been substantially reduced to make way for new blood. In any case Mark has more than enough to do in India where his celebrity is huge, his voice recognised and his opinions respected throughout the sub-continent. He is in constant demand for lectures, newspaper and magazine articles and television talk shows. What’s more, he is a successful author with more than a dozen titles to his name; best known perhaps are No Full Stops in India and India in Slow Motion, which he co-authored with his partner Gillian Wright.

The BBC managers feared that ‘Tully Sahib’ would go native before they pensioned him off. Instead they themselves have been put out to pasture as we in Britain have come to recognise Mark as one of our national treasures. But there’s competition: a distinguished academic friend of mine in Delhi emphatically lays claim to him on behalf of India. “What you British don’t understand,” she told me, “is that we Indians regard Mark as one of us.” And the truth of the matter is that he does too.

(Updated & abridged from Beware Falling Coconuts by Adam Clapham.)

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