DUBAI, August 30, 2007 — Barkha Dutt is to Indians what Christiane Amanpour is to Americans: A heavy hitter fearlessly filing her reports from troubled regions of the world for viewers in South Asia and the Middle East. There doesn’t seem to be a conflict zone too hot for this 36-year-old managing editor for NDTV, one of the best 24-hour English-language news channels in India. Dutt produces and reports on the region’s major events as well as hosts popular talk shows.
She became a household name in India in 1999 following her daring reporting from the frontlines during the Kargil War. Dutt’s reporting from Gujarat during the communal riots in 2002 was the must-see news segments during those dark days. In 2004, Farhan Akhtar directed the film “Lakshya” about her life casting Preity Zinta as the intrepid Ms. Dutt.
Dutt did not emerge suddenly out of anonymity. Before she became a big name in the world of television, she did remarkably well on the academic front. Her bio speaks for herself: She earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Delhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College and then went on to garner two master’s degrees, one in Mass Communications from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, and another in Journalism from Columbia University in New York.
“I stumbled into journalism accidentally,” she said with a bright smile in an interview conducted during the shoot in Dubai for the 60th Independence Anniversary Special produced jointly by Geo Television of Pakistan and NDTV. In real life, Dutt betrays the larger than life image that she has acquired on the airwaves. She is quite unassuming on the sidelines and barely commands a second look. Once on the sets, however, Dutt is a bundle of energy, the queen of all she surveys.
“My job is to get all shades of opinion in the story,” she says. “That surely makes me unpopular. But then if you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.” Indeed she is. Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: You must be relishing life in the limelight?
A: People always think that everybody enjoys the limelight. That is not true. It is actually very awkward. A journalist is used to being on the other side of the camera. When the film Lakshya was being made, Javed Akhtar discussed the story with me before he actually scripted it. Preity Zinta would call me now and then and would ask: ‘Can I wear this? Can I wear that?’ And I told her: ‘Look, war was happening at that time and I really don’t remember what I wore.’ At one level all this adulation is good because it gives you the strength to carry on. But at the same time, I feel scared because I am under the scrutiny of viewers at all times.
Q: So it is actually very tough but people think TV journalism is very glamorous.
A: Nothing irritates me more than the glamorization of television. When I joined television, it was not about how you looked, or what makeup you wore; it was not about what clothes you adorned. It was about going out into the field and reporting old-style, good journalism. All these TV anchors and news readers that you watch now are extremely beautiful, they are models and air-hostesses. “Lekin dimaag kahan hain unka?” Where are their brains? Everybody thinks television is a very easy business. But if you want to be a cracking good reporter, you have to be prepared for hard work. You have to slog for 16 hours a day. When we went to cover Kargil and tsunami, we would go without food for four days at a time. We would survive on water and dry biscuits. Today’s generation doesn’t understand that. They look at it from a distance and they think TV is glamour. Yes, for some people it is glamorous. I know the psyche of viewers. They may say ‘Yes, that girl is beautiful’ but they will not respect her until she has done some real reporting.
Q: These 24-hour news channels have resulted in a lot of sensationalism. Do you think competition has led to compromises in the standards of journalism?
A: We in India are debating this very fiercely. The government wants to regulate and control the television media. While I strongly feel that governments and politicians have no business in the media space, I also feel that we have to acknowledge that we have created a certain amount of tabloidization of the news process. I am in favor of a self-created code of conduct that we all follow. Just as there is an ombudsman for newspapers, we in the television news industry should also set up a panel of eminent citizens to regulate our conduct.
Q: One view is that television channels are more into providing entertainment than news.
A: I think television has done very good things in South Asia. It has made journalism much more active. Television created campaigns for justice. It brought the Jessica Lal murder case into the limelight. The whole court case was reopened because of the media campaign. But yes, in our Hindi TV channels in India we find that superstition, rituals, blind faith — all nonsense — is being dished out in the name of news. Those channels are entertainment channels instead of news channels. They have no right to call themselves news channels. The time has come for us to scrutinize ourselves just as we scrutinize other institutions. We have to maintain some standards. I believe that despite the sensationalism, our viewers are intelligent and that good journalism will survive.
Q: In newspapers you have a group of people through whom news travels. Are there similar checks in TV to check sensationalism and avoid inaccurate reporting?
A: The same mechanism exists in television. We should, however, admit that TV is a new industry in India. It is only 13 years old; in Pakistan it is even younger. We have to learn things that are good about the print medium. Newspapers have a foolproof system through which news travels. There are checks and balances. In 24-hour television what happens is that because news is being broadcast in real time, mistakes are made. We do hire people from print to come in as our news editors and drive the news from the desk as it happens in newspapers.
Q: In the old days a journalist was expected to be a clinical observer of events rather than becoming a part of the news itself. That is not the case with television.
A: I think those days are gone when a reporter was just a clinical observer. He was never one. Say whatever you want to say, there is no such thing as objective journalism. I agree there should be no biases in journalism but a reporter cannot exist in a vacuum. He is part of society and he will tend to reflect what he sees or hears around him. I don’t believe that news has to be dry and boring. If there is an element of emotionalism, what is the harm? Yes, those emotions should be genuine. Not acting. However, it is the job of an editor to see that all points of view are incorporated in the story. Take the case of Kashmir, for example. There are those in Kashmir who believe that the Indian Army is all wrong and that the separatists are right. There are those who believe the separatists are all wrong and the army is all right. My job is to ensure that all shades of opinion are incorporated in the story. And when you do that, you become very unpopular. The army will then say, ‘Oh you always take their side.’ And the separatists will say, ‘You always take the army’s side.’ But my take is: If you are hated by all sides, it means you are a great reporter.
Q: You talk about balancing a story. What if there is no other side to a story as, for example, in Gujarat?
A: In that case I would say it is my duty to give Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi or the BJP the chance to respond. I agree with you that there are certain stories that don’t have another side. I would, however, trust very few journalists to make that assessment.
Q: How do you see Middle Eastern issues from the Indian point of view?
A: Our perception of the conflict in the Middle East is still very much shaped by how the United States sees it. When we were growing up, we were told not to call it the Middle East but West Asia. Now everybody calls it the Middle East. We have internalized their language as well. People in India don’t understand the issues here. There is a high level of ignorance about the Middle East conflict. There is ignorance about the Israel-Palestine question. People have all kinds of perceptions about the Middle East: That there is no freedom. That it is the land of terrorists. There is a lot of ignorance.
Q: There is a charge that the TV industry is too urban-centric.
A: It is just that you tend to react more to stories that are in your immediate vicinity. It is a fault and we should not be urban-centric. We are captivated by shining India or whatever you call it. Yes, we have to and we must go out of our metros and our studios and into villages to find out what is happening.
Q: What is your take on the current Indian government?
A: I think this government, given the fact that it is in its last two years now, has actually done quite well for itself. Primarily because the opposition has fared so badly for itself. There are certain achievements that this government has made. Manmohan Singh cares a lot about the dialogue with Pakistan. He has personally pushed it.
Q: And what about the Indo-US nuclear deal?
A: As a technical document I don’t really understand it. But I do trust the government of the day not to betray India’s interest.
Q: As a woman managing editor of a premier TV channel, how challenging is your job?
A: Even if I were a man, I would have faced similar challenges. The challenge of running a 24-hour news channel where every second counts is enormous. I keep telling newspaperwallahs (journalists) that you bring out just one product and we have 24 bulletins and we face the same kind of tension with every bulletin. The challenge is how not to make my news bulletin fall into inaccuracy.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
A: My mother (Prabha Behl) was a journalist. (She was the chief reporter of Hindustan Times in the mid-1960s.) She was one of only three journalists in India who covered the 1965 war with Pakistan. She broke the ice for people like us. (Prabha died when Barkha was only 13). I became a journalist by accident. I wanted to be a lawyer or a documentary filmmaker. I went and did an MA in Mass Communications and then went to NDTV to apply for a job where I told (NDTV chief) Prannoy Roy I wanted to be a producer. He said, ‘Try news first.’ That was it.
Q: Indians always blame Pakistan for being a theocratic state. But in fact religious parties never came to power in Pakistan at the center whereas in India the BJP did come to power on the plank of Hindutva? Do you see any dichotomy there?
A: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. I think the Shiv Sena is the equivalent of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BJP has Atal Behari Vajpayee who everybody thinks is a moderate leader. You can say that Narendra Modi is the counterpart of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Q: But then Modi and Vajpayee belong to the same party, don’t they?
A: Yes. It is a problem and the BJP will have to resolve this dilemma for itself. There are many people who are willing to accept the BJP as a mainstream party as long as it takes positions against such leaders as Modi.
Q: The Muslims of India have always aligned themselves with the secular parties. They never supported religious parties. But it is the media that gave space to the black sheep of the community.
A: I feel very upset about how much scrutiny is put on the Muslims of India. But the one thing I do feel is that when people such as Modi do whatever they do, 90 percent of the people who speak against them are Hindus. I sometimes wish that moderate Muslims would raise their voices against these fatwa-giving, self-appointed maulvis. I wish moderate Muslims would reject them more publicly. I know they reject them but sometimes a public statement becomes more important. About the media projecting the black sheep of the community, yes we are at fault too. For example, I don’t allow Bajrang Dal or the Shahi Imam to come on my shows. The Indian media sometimes looks for cliches because it likes conflict. The media is also to blame. I accept that.
Q: Where do you see India in the next 60 years?
A: We are at a crossroads. Right now we are in a self-congratulatory mood. We should not be in such a mood. There are vast areas that have not caught up with the wealth and well-being of India. If we are able to bridge this gap, then we will be on the global stage in the next 60 years. But if we are not able to bridge this rich-poor, urban-rural gap, we will fall by the wayside.
'I Hate Glamorization of News'
Barkha Dutt, the Best-Known Face of Indian Television, Speaks to Siraj Wahab