Saikat Datta has been in journalism for over 19 years. In this exclusive interview with acadman.in Saikat Datta has talked about his student life, working with The Indian Express, Outlook, DNA, Zee News, Hindustan Times, Scroll and his book ‘India’s Special Forces (2013)’, a seminal book on the history and the future of India’s special operations capabilities.
This interview is taken by @alokanand and edited by Prakriti. To suggest an interview, feedback, comments – write at email@example.com
What motivated you to pursue a career in Journalism?
I always wanted to be a journalist because at that time, I realized that I had a talent for journalism. In school I was the school magazine editor. In college again, I was the college magazine editor and I was interested in writing stories.
You have a degree in journalism from the University of Pune. How did you get into Pune University?
In 1995, there were very few institutions which gave a post-graduation diploma or a degree in journalism. So, first of all, I wanted a degree and not a diploma. Most of the Colleges like IIMC and Asian College of Journalism granted a post-graduation diploma, but I wanted a degree. Pune University, in those days issued a post graduation degree in journalism. That was the first consideration.
Which was your first job in journalism?
My first job was with Maharashtra Herald and I had to start working while I was studying because I needed money. My father had passed away while I was studying and I didn’t have any financial support. I needed to get a job very quickly. So I started working there.
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What was your role and experience at the Maharashtra Herald?
I was a trainee reporter and sub-editor. I had to go and cover stories and also edit some copies during the night. It was a small newspaper agency. They lacked specialization, anyone could do anything. Basically, the idea was to go and bring as many good stories as you can. So, very early in my life, I investigated how wild pigs were being surreptitiously smuggled into the city and then killed for their meat. It created a big noise in the Municipal Corporation and the whole chain was exposed.
How did you come to work with Indian Express?
Indian Express had seen my work, so they offered me a job. Initially, I was hired as a retainer. They wanted to see how good I was. So, as a retainer I worked for a year on the feature desk, basically, editing copies and making pages. I had the liberty to go out and do special stories if time permitted. So, during holidays or weekends, I used to go out and cover stories and then come back to my daily job of editing copies and making pages. After a year, they liked my work so much that they made me a part of the reporting team and I became an employee of Indian Express.
Do you remember any memorable incident from that time?
Yeah, there are many, in fact. I remember at that time, the Shiv Sena-BJP Government was in power and the Shiv Sena constantly talked about Maratha pride as well as Shivaji Maharaja. Pune and the surrounding areas are full of forts, which were once a part of Shivaji Maharaja’s empire. All the forts were in a very bad state. So, one day I decided to go and investigate the condition of the forts and how they were looked after. All the forts are on hilltops. I took a bike from my friend and drove down some 60-70 km to a fort called Rajgad, which used to be the capital fort of Shivaji Maharaja for many years before he moved to Raigad.
I climbed there and found that the walls of the fort were crumbling, the water was very dirty and the man who was made in-charge of the fort by the government was drunk most of the time. Under his bed, I found almost 50 to 60 bottles of liquor. I quietly took photographs, interviewed people and came back. I wrote down a page one story on it and this created a huge furor and the Maharashtra government had to issue instructions to take care of all the forts from that day.
So far you have worked with four big media houses – Indian Express, Outlook, Hindustan Times, DNA. Would you like to compare the work culture and work environment at these places?
Indian Express is a very good newspaper for reporters because it has a tradition of being called a reporter’s newspaper. Traditionally, whatever story the reporter gets, takes priority over everything else and that’s a vibrant culture to have because even now you will see some of the best reports coming out in Indian Express. You can easily recognize someone who has worked with Indian Express, you can identify them because they have a very different edge as a journalist, more often than not, they are anti-establishment and they don’t have any preference for any government. The whole idea there is, that the journalist should constantly question the establishment and keep them on their toe. Indian express really institutes that thing. So that’s a very memorable part of Indian Express.
My favorite stint, of course, was at Outlook. I spent 7 years there and worked with my favorite editor, Mr. Vinod Mehta. He was an editor who gave you complete freedom and he would back you up completely, no matter how difficult the story gets. You might be getting threats from the government, from private companies, saying they would cancel all their advertisement, and all other kinds of threats, he would not let anything come in the way of a good story. He was a great person and a human being because he used to care for people, which again, is a unique thing in the newsroom and it really shaped me at Outlook.
In DNA again, I had a very good editor, Aditya Sinha. I too had become an editor by then. I really enjoyed DNA because there I could create my own team which could function as journalists, I could protect them from external threats, just like Mr. Vinod Mehta used to protect us and also show them how to do good journalism. So, that was a great experience.
What about Hindustan Times, Sir?
I didn’t enjoy my stint at HT very much.
How would you describe your current job at Scroll?
Scroll has a great team and Naresh Fernandes is the editor-in-chief. He is a fine editor, extremely cooperative and extremely encouraging. The best thing about Naresh is, he is open to all sorts of ideas and he gives a lot of freedom to all the journalists. It doesn’t matter, How senior or junior you are! Everybody gets a lot of freedom which is very very unique. Another thing unique about scroll is, the person who founded Scroll, Sameer Patil, is himself a very open-minded person. So he gives a lot of freedom to the editorial team and he is constantly immersed in news. So, he does not approach Scroll as a business but he approaches it with the eyes of a person who is very keen on seeing how to get news and how to distribute it which is a unique approach and provides a great atmosphere to work in.
You switched from print to digital journalism. So what are the positive and negative aspects of making a career in print journalism and where do you see print journalism after five years?
I wouldn’t look at it as anything positive or negative; you know, as a journalist, you are trained not to look at anything in positive or negative manner.
Because some people say a career in print journalism has no future because readers are getting…
I don’t agree. First of all, I personally believe that if you are a good journalist, you can survive any medium. So, the medium actually does not restrict you in any way, if you are smart, if you are hungry for news and if you are aggressive, if you are compassionate and empathize with the subject you write in, then nobody can stop you, it doesn’t matter if you work in print media or digital media.
Every medium has its advantages. One should concentrate on the advantages rather than on the disadvantages.
One advantage is that once you make the transition from print to digital, it gets very exciting because you can do a number of things. At the same time, it’s a very immersive and an interactive medium. You constantly get feedback, people come to you very quickly, you can do various kinds of things because you can distribute the story electronically through different mediums. So it’s a very exciting time to be a journalist.
Do you think it is possible for a journalist covering a conflict to remain objective and neutral?
For any journalist, whether he/she covers conflicts, politics or business, it’s important to be objective. Objective not only because you have to write, but also because people you are interacting with will not respect you or they will stop respecting if they don’t find you objective. It does not matter whether you are in conflict or whether you are covering corporate or politics. In any sphere of journalism, if you are not objective, you start losing the respect of the community that you are dealing with, that’s the first part.
Second, even if one group of people you associate with start liking you because you are speaking their line, at some point of time even those people will stop respecting you because they will start thinking that this guy is already with us; so we don’t need to treat this person with respect. So respect, integrity, and objectivity are very very critical for a journalist because, without these, the journalist will just stop functioning. You also have to decide how you define success. Some people define success with lots of money and a grand position but in my view, that is not the success. The real success of a journalist is when they can consistently, over a number of years, come out with great stories and encourage younger and other journalists to do better. You will always get respect for your objectivity and integrity which is very very rewarding.
Sir, neutrality, and respect are a little conflicting as some channels…
First of all, I don’t think journalists have to be neutral. For example – if you see a rape taking place or a genocide taking place, then you don’t have to be neutral to those things. I am not in the favor of a journalist being neutral. Neutrality means that you are immune to what is happening around you and no journalist can function like that. What journalists have to do is be objective, which is very different from being neutral. So do not be neutral, but be objective.
India is ranked 136th in World Press Freedom Index. Where do you think Indian journalism stands and in which direction is it moving today?
First of all, we don’t know how the freedom matrix is created and we have to understand and see the parameters under which it is created. In America, the first amendment to the constitution is very clear. It upholds the freedom of the press and no law and no decision can ever be taken in the US that threatens the freedom of the press. As a result, you have created through a legal statute, ways, and means to protect journalism which is very important. You have to find the ways and means to protect journalism, which unfortunately in this country are not present. We don’t have a direct constitutional provision. The freedom of the press is drawn from Article 19(1) of the constitution, which is about free speech. But journalism is something that goes far beyond free speech.
And where is journalism today? First of all, all the revenue models, which are basically advertisement based, are all broken. Journalism is just not attracting enough revenue.
Point number two, journalists as employees have no rights, not right now. First started the contract system, now some of them are made content managers, some of them are called content producers and these things are done to ensure that a journalist is not recognized as a journalist.
Point number three, journalists have no freedom in terms of what the corporate houses say or what the powerful political party in power says. There is no institutional protection for a journalist. So, all this is creating a problematic situation for journalists right now and we all have to find ways and means of institutional mechanisms which can protect journalism and through that, journalists.
You have co-authored a book on India’s special forces. What made you write the book and which things, in general, students will learn if they read this book?
My interest in special forces goes back to the time when I was in school. I used to read about operations by Indian Special Forces in Sri Lanka and then I started to look at the Special Forces in other parts of the world. I started reading about how Special Forces in other countries have evolved, not only as a part of the military strategy but also as part of national strategy. Special forces today have evolved as one of the most potent strategic tools for the national strategy. Just like nuclear weapons, special forces are a strategic tool that nations have.
There are situations where there is an increase in the role of non-state actors, for example – terrorists. They don’t belong to any country. They just follow an ideology, they come together and they attack a country or its assets. Special forces are found to be one of the most effective tools against them.
All these are very fascinating topics and I always believe that the more knowledge you have, the better you will be able to perform in whatever subject you are writing. So, while my colleagues wrote books on politics or political parties or economic issues or on business houses and since I covered areas like defense, security, and intelligence my interest in special forces came very handy. I also started spending a lot of time with them. I actually used to go out with them, see how they operated, see what kind of in thought they have, what is their culture, what kind of equipment they use.
So, I decided to compile my knowledge and experience and put it all together for future generations, who will join special forces. I was very lucky to meet one of the finest General that Indian Army has ever produced and a person who is from the special forces, Gen. P. C. Katoch, a very distinguished man and somebody I personally learnt a lot from. He had done so much for the Special Forces when he was serving. I went up to him and said – Sir, I can take care of the history and I have a lot of knowledge about this. So let us put out our individual capacities together and produce a book. We then approached United Service Institution of India and they gave us a fellowship under which we did this.
And anybody who is interested in understanding how the military functions, what are the pressures, what are the challenges, from a security standpoint, will surely find this book intriguing.
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What kind of skills should a student develop in order to get a job in the mainstream media?
First of all, work on your people skills. As a journalist, it’s imperative that you are able to meet different kinds of people and make friends with them. Start absorbing knowledge as a sponge. People can easily spot whether your knowledge is deep or shallow. If you have good knowledge, the kind of respect you will get is very different from somebody, who you have just made friends with. Because not only will they like to be friends with you, they would also like to interact with you and share more information with you because they will be hoping that your deep knowledge can also contribute back to them.
Two, constantly study and absorb as much knowledge as you can.
And thirdly, learn how to articulate all that. Which means whether as a television journalist or a digital or a print, how you translate and tell a story is the third most important skill that you need. You also need to constantly experiment with how to tell the story-how quickly you can tell the story, and with as much depth.
What would be your message to students who want to pursue a career in journalism?
I would like to tell them that always develop your voice. When I say voice, it means learn to speak up, because that is very important. But more importantly, don’t speak up because you have an opinion, everybody has an opinion. Speak up after you have researched on the subject and you have developed some views, based on solid research and study.
Because if you have an opinion and you are speaking up – It doesn’t matter. But if you are speaking up as somebody who has deep knowledge and understanding, then your voice will find a lot of audiences.
And most critical for you is that you must develop the capacity to think critically. Which means that you should be able to not only objectively look at a subject but also be in a position to objectively criticize it. Because if you are not able to do that, then again, you will become a stenographer. Which is basically like somebody gave you a press release and you published it in the same way. Then you are not doing the function of a journalist. People come to you as a journalist because of your critical thinking capacity, because you are then able to analyze a given set of information.