Saturday, November 19, 2022

Being the Devil’s Advocate to the Devil’s Advocate

Many of my friends and family wanted to know how my interview with Karan Thapar went, last week. So, I decided to write this blog post for those interested.

Bahrain Keraleeya Samajam (BKS) and DC Books had organized a 10-day Book Fest in Bahrain, for which many eminent writers, poets, and journalists were invited to speak to the audience, on different days. Some in English and some in Malayalam.

On Saturday, 12 November 2022, the renowned Indian journalist Karan Thapar, was here. And I am honoured that the organizers had asked me to conduct this interview -- with one of India's greatest television interviewers.

Before the Interview

As soon as I accepted, I was determined to prepare well. 

In three or four days, I'd completed Karan Thapar's latest book Devil’s Advocate, a biography, which was an amazing source of information for my planned interactive session.  I'd 'listened' to the book on the Audible app. It is my default reading mode these days while driving, or while walking (It was, in fact, this book that had led him here, to the Book Fest).

I heard it well, and I decided I will ask him at least some uncomfortable questions. 

Even, if my questions won't be like the ones he always asks others, I decided I'll still play the Devil’s Advocate, myself, this time.  As much as I can.

12 Nov 2022 - Morning

On the morning of the day of the interview, I texted him saying I wished to talk to him.

He quickly called me himself. And he said he was happy to meet me on phone, and asked me what I would like to talk to him about. 

I said that I'd prepared his short introduction for the audience and I wanted him to see it. And I also said I would like to send him some questions; so that he is aware of my line of interviewing, and what I am planning to ask.

He said, No No No….. Don’t send me anything. Let it all flow free and fair. Ask me whatever you want, and I don't mind you introducing me to them, in any way you wish.

12 Nov 2022 - Evening

After giving his short bio, I started off by telling the audience about a couple of interesting Whatsapp messages I'd gotten some time ago. 

I'd sent messages to my friends, in a couple of WhatsApp groups, telling them I would be interviewing Karan Thapar, on Saturday.  I quickly received two messages from two Indian women in Bahrain, now in their late 50s, saying excitedly that they had a huge crush on our guest speaker, since their college days.

The audience laughed. And our guest speaker looked at me seriously. And he said, please introduce  them to me, if they are in the audience. I said I will.

Not surprisingly, during the interview, our guest Karan Thapar, was very very critical of the current Indian government, and some of its policies. On Indian media, he kept saying that much of it has devolved into ‘godi media', a propaganda machine for the ruling party, bent upon fomenting divisions between Hindus and Muslims. He said majoritarianism is going to become a threat to civil society and to minorities. 

We talked about a lot of things. About Indian Politics and about the changing role of media, in India and abroad.

We talked about Washington Post being owned by Jeff Bezos, in the US, and how, it relates to the Ambanis and Adanis owning media channels, in India

We talked about how much autonomy BBC enjoys - through its charter - even though it is mostly funded by the UK government, 

We talked about the political leanings of Fox News and CNN. We talked about the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s ‘’The News of the World’’ which was a top national tabloid weekly published in the UK from 1843 to 2011

Avoiding portions of controversial Indian Politics, I am writing down below, a few of the other bits, as far as I can remember

-------- ----- -----------------------------

The following conversation-bits are from over a 'one-and-a-half-hour' discussion. 

  1. From my first few questions, the audience came to know that he has ties to Nehru-Gandhi Family.; that his aunt was Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s daughter Nayantara Sehgal (whom he used to call Tara Aunty); and that his own sister, and he himself, were very close to Sanjay Gandhi, as children and teenagers. 
  2. He told us some fun stories of those times, of his growing up.
  3. I asked about his education at the Doon School, then at Cambridge, and later at Oxford, where he had done a three-year research. 
  4. I asked about his first career break, and he told us how – during his time at Oxford - he was approaching newspapers for a job, and how he suddenly got his first job. It was at ‘The Times’, of London, as a foreign correspondent, and how he got posted in Nigeria. 
  5. (In the interview, we did not cover his Ph D, but in his book he mentions that he left Oxford’s St Antony’s, without submitting the thesis, when he found his first job. In my interview he stated he "always wanted to become a journalist, and not an academician").
  6. I asked him about the now-famous interview, from which the then-Chief Minister Modi - and now PM Modi - had walked out. I asked him why he was so rude to a very successful Chief Minister of Gujarat State (which Modi was at that time). 
  7. KT said that it was five years after Godhra, and no good journalist can avoid asking those tough but relevant questions.  He said that the ‘Ghost of Godhra’ was haunting Modi, who like Emperor Nero, looked away when Rome was burning. With these words, KT said he wanted Modi’s reaction, but Modi walked away after barely three and half minutes.
  8. I interrupted and asked – If, supposing, he was interviewing Indira Gandhi, after the mess she created by invoking the law of Emergency – would he have asked the same type of tough questions? In the same rude way? 
  9. He said he would have.
  10. I said, Indira Gandhi was your friend’s mother. A distant relative.
  11. KT said, Even then, I would have definitely asked. 
  12. He said that good journalism means asking fearless questions and holding those in power, accountable. It did not matter if the person is related or not. 
  13. Also, he said he was not rude. He was just forthright, like how journalists should be.
  14. I said, in one of his shows, he accused cricketer Kapil Dev, and made him cry, on camera, and kept taunting him, for much longer than what seemed necessary. 
  15. KT said that he had learned that ‘children laughing and adults crying’ will captivate any television audience. So, when KT confronted Kapil Dev, with the then corruption allegations, Kapil Dev began to cry, when explaining his innocence. And the crying, in a way, KT said was good for his show. 
  16. KT said, if Kapil Dev was crying, why should I stop rolling my cameras? I had gotten what interviewers wanted. 
  17. KT added that he and Kapil Dev have been good friends from that time, and that Kapil Dev had  recently invited him to a big family event of his.
  18. I also said he was a friend of Benazir Bhutto (the former PM of Pakistan, who was assasinated in 2009), when they were students at Cambridge and Oxford. And he was very close to her. Was that not true?
  19. He said yes, and narrated some stories when Benazir Bhutto was the president of Oxford Union, and when he was the President of the Cambridge Union, both Unions noted for their high-powered debates.  He told us how they both first met, and how they had been good friends for years. 
  20. For this friendship, and for another reason - that KT’s forefathers, the Thapars, were from Lahore - isn’t he really a “Pro-Pakistan journalist”?
  21. He angrily asked how I can call him a ‘pro-Pakistan’ journalist.
  22. I said, it was from his articles
  23. He said, show me one article of mine that was pro-Pakistan
  24. I said, I’ll show later, but there was at least one article of his, which Pakistan itself quoted as his support to them. It was on the issue of Kulbushan Jhadav whom Pakistan called an Indian spy
  25. He said no, there was none (later during audience Q&A he said that Pakistan’s stance has nothing to do with him, and that it was some misunderstanding and that he was not culpable)
  26. About the 'Thapars' being from Lahore, he said if my critics think I am a Pakistani because my forefathers were  from Lahore, then Pakistan's President the late Zia-Ul-Haq should've been Indian because Zia-Ul-Haq, himself, was born in Jalandhar in India. 
  27. When I asked about news channels and the stances they take on the political spectrum - from extreme right to centrist to extreme left - he said there is nothing wrong with it.
  28. He said, in the US, Fox News favoring Republicans and CNN the democrats is not really wrong because the public will just get to know all sides. In UK, he added that the Daily Mail was a right-wing tabloid and a tory paper, while The Guardian was a left liberal.
  29. He said that when a wide range of media channels support various stances on the political spectrum, the audience gets to know more perspectives and becomes more educated. 
  30. When I said free and fair journalism is gone, he said, No. Not everywhere.
  31. I said yes, it was, particularly, in India. And he then mentioned that the NDTV, the Wire, Quint, News Laundry and Scroll are all telling the truth better.
  32. I said they are all paid media. Even The Wire, for which he is now working on TV news-show.
  33. He asked, paid by whom. 
  34. I said, ‘paid by Congress Party and its allies’. 
  35. He said that if Congress had money, and if they had given him money, he would not have asked the Bahrain Book Fest organizers for air-tickets; He said he would have had enough money to come to Bahrain, all by himself.
  36. I said he was a secularist, which is a word that’s now being used derogatorily.
  37. KT said, yes, he was. 
  38. He said he was very proudly secular. Just as he is guaranteed that belief, by the constitution. And that it should not be used derogatorily, like how some are doing.
  39. I said he was an elitist.
  40. He said he was sorry if he comes across like that, but that he is down to earth and wants to speak for the masses
  41. I said we cannot trust today's press anyway, or that is what most people say.
  42. He said that we can be sure that with some anti-establishment posture, by good journalists, we can look optimistically at the future of journalism.  
  43. He criticised some sections of the Indian Press that pander to government, as ‘Godi Media’.

Among the questions from the audience were those related to newer revenue models of online newspapers - whether subscription based or advertising funded. There were also questions related to journalistic ethics, education in mass media, independent press, and government control

The media platform he is related to, The Wire, recently retracted its story which had accused Meta of granting an Indian politician special permissions to remove posts on its platforms. There was an audience question related to that.

KT said it does not matter. He said when “discrepancies” emerge in evidence used to back up a story's claims, it is only fair to retract the whole story. He said, unfortunately, some published stories can be found in error. So, withdrawing such material, and letting the readers know the truth, is good journalism.


All said and done, I had an enjoyable time. 

During the vote of thanks, the President or BKS, Mr P V Radhakrishna Pillai, asked Karan Thapar how he would rate Joel’s interviewing skills. 

And Karan said, "Very good.  Joel gave me a tough time. And that's what matters. I enjoyed it".

That made my day. 

And even my next day was made, when a Whatsapp message from him, and an e-mail from him, to organizers, appreciating my role, did a lot of good to my ego. :-) 


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