Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a veteran journalist, political commentator, author and a documentary film maker who has the reputation of being a ‘true muckraker’, fiercely independent and completely non-partisan.
Paranjoy co-authored an article about the Adani Group’s tax evasion following which Adani Power sent a legal notice to the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) which eventually led to his resignation.
In this Interview with acadman.in he talked to us about his early days, stories of the time of the Emergency, the current undeclared emergency, media-corporate nexus among several other things.
How was your life at La Martiniere Calcutta, St. Stephen’s, and Delhi School of Economics?
I was truly privileged to have studied in India’s leading educational institutions. La Martiniere for Boys was one of the finest schools of its kind in Calcutta, where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I was also really blessed that I got into St Stephen’s College (1972-1975). Their policy of only admitting students with the best grades made it possible for me to study with the best minds in the country. I must confess that I was not a very good student, in the sense that I did all kinds of things other than studies. I was having a good time enjoying myself staying away from home and hostel for me was a life of freedom; devoid of parental restraints. I was at St. Stephen’s from 1972 to 1975.
I joined Delhi School of Economics in 1975, which is again one of the leading educational institutions of its kind and there too I was doing a lot of things other than studies.
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What drew you to journalism?
The two years I spent at the Delhi School of Economics more or less coincided with the emergency. The emergency was imposed by the Indira Gandhi government in June 1975 and was lifted in January 1977. For me, that was a period when I became politically aware of what it meant when those who are holding most important political positions themselves don’t believe in democracy. It was a period when many of the fundamental rights of citizens of this country were restricted and breached considerably. 1977 was the year when I voted for the first time. For me, it was and is an amazing experience.
At that point of time, I was in a dilemma – whether I should seek a career as a teacher or become a journalist and I think the emergency had much to do with my decision to become a journalist 40 years ago. I do also consider myself very fortunate and lucky that along the way I have also been a teacher of media.
Please tell us some stories of Media during Emergency?
There are two incidents that I would like to narrate here-
In those days Doordarshan had the Monopoly in television broadcast- it was relatively new in India. There was a public rally being held at Ram Lila Maidan which was the first major public meeting against the Indira Gandhi Government. On the dice was Jai Prakash Narayan. Flanking him were the leaders of both left and the right. On the left were the right and on the right were the left, as the members of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani was on the left and on the right were leftists like Jyoti Das Basu, Indrajit Gupta of CPI (Communist Party of India). There were those who were once a part of Indira Gandhi’s government like Babu Jagjivan Ram, Nandan Bahuguna among others.
At that time the information and the broadcasting minister was Vidya Charan Shukla and he decided to play what was then a very popular movie. Doordarshan usually showed old films but on that occasion, they showed the recent release and popular, ‘Bobby’ so that people would not go to Ram Lila Maidan.
Another incident is what happened a few months later when the results of the 1977 Lok Sabha elections were announced. My friends and college mates had come from Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg and someone had told them that Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi had lost the election to people who were hardly known in the political circle. However, there was no formal announcement so we were all glued to the radio and it was 3 o’clock in the morning when we heard the news that Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi has lost elections and there was merriment and clapping and bursting of crackers, beer bottles being opened. The person on the radio had a sense of humor- he played the song ‘Kuchh le ke jayenge kuchh de ke jayenge. Sawere Wali Gaadi Se Chale Jayenge.’
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How different is present day journalism from what it was at the time of emergency?
The reason why I mentioned the story about Doordarshan is to bring home the point that, in a way, we are in a state of undeclared emergency, because the kind of programs All India Radio and Doordarshan put out are no different from what was at the time of emergency. They were all singing praise for the supreme leader.
The then general secretary of Indian National Congress Devkant Barua had made a very famous remark that ‘Indira is India and India is Indira’, so I wonder how different it was from today when the person who is our vice president, Mr. V. Naidu, he has gone on record saying ‘Narendra Modi is God’s gift to India’. So, this blind adulation that one sees of the Prime Minister is not good for a healthy democracy. The way the official media is working, I mean Prasar Bharati is an autonomous Corporation but you can’t find a single line even mildly critical of those who are in powerful positions and authority being broadcast today by All India Radio or Doordarshan.
Going back to 1977 when LK Advani became the information and broadcasting minister in Morarji Desai’s government, he was once asked the question that why so many editors except a few so meekly capitulated before the emergency reign of Indira Gandhi government? He made this very famous remark- ‘when they were asked to bend, they crawled.’ Barring a few notable journalists which include Kuldeep Nayyar.
Very few publications, among English Daily it was The Statesman and The Indian Express who were willing to be critical of Indira Gandhi and I look back today and I say it today, we have a situation where Mr. Advani is the angry old man of BJP. I don’t know what he would have said today but so many of our editors are crawling without even being asked to bend.
What was your first job? How was your experience there?
My first job was with a small monthly magazine which went defunct within a very short period of time. It was called Perspective, a Kolkata based English monthly and was edited by the late Bhawani Sen Gupta. I was given the position of assistant editor and was paid a monthly salary of 800 rupees way back in June 1977. After that, I became the correspondent of Kolkata based leading Business Magazine called Business India. In February 1981, I switched to Business World Magazine which was a part of Anand Bazaar Group. In those days I also used to contribute on a freelance basis to now defunct Sunday Weekly, Ravivaar, Business Standard etc.
In July 1982, I joined Telegraph which was edited by MJ Akbar. So I worked in a daily and then I work with a Mumbai based publication- ‘Update’ which later became ‘Business Update’; that magazine was started with a lot of high hopes and idealism, but it did not last for long. After that, I joined India Today magazine and then later The Pioneer newspaper and then I was for almost 6 years an Idiot on the Idiot Box of Network 18, there I was responsible for anchoring and putting together a daily talk show called ‘India Talks’.
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You have worked with leading media houses like Business India, Business World. Several people allege that the work which business channels do is from the point of view of corporates and not the common people. How do you look at it?
It is correct that many of the television channels and publications tend to be less than critical of the working of the private corporate sector. They are far more critical of the government and the public sector. There are a number of reasons why this is so- because those private corporations are also their major advertisers. However, I don’t say that it is the case with every Publication or news channel.
Also, many of the individuals who work there are ideologically in favor of a strong private sector and today we have yet another reason- we see that the private sector and some of the richest men in India are also the owners of these publications and media offerings. We may take the example of Reliance Group headed by Mukesh Ambani or Aditya Birla Group headed by Kumar Mangalam Birla.
So because of the changes in the ownership pattern you see that whatever is put out in these publications and television channels tend to be less than critical of private corporations. Sections of the media tend to be controlled by individuals with very distinct political affiliations including people who are members of political parties.
Naturally, the news channels are reluctant to disseminate information which hampers the interest of that particular individual. One of the most egregious examples of this happened when the Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP were in power in Punjab. During their reign, they controlled the cable networks. They were not willing to even put out a television channel like day and night which was quite critical of Akalis and the BJP. There is a similar phenomenon in Tamil Nadu.
This leads to shrinking of space for critical reportage, analysis, and commentary. After the great recession of 2008, we find that in many countries of the world the expenditure on advertising has either shrunk, stagnated, hardly grown or decelerated. This has had a direct impact on the revenue model of large media organizations. So they have become more dependent on the advertisement by government and political parties and that could be another reason why we see such an uncritical media. It is a fact that in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the corporate media and the corporate sector as a whole were endorsing, plugging for Narendra Modi.
What kind of challenges would you suggest young journalists to be prepared for if they want to do real journalism?
Get rid of the star in your eyes; to be a good journalist is not easy. It requires a lot of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and diligence. There is no easy way forward. If you want to be a journalist and not a stenographer or a public relation officer or a person working in an advertising agency, then you have to hold truth to power. You should have the willingness to take the difficult road.
I compare journalists with dogs – there are dogs and dogs and there are journalists and journalists. In the very first journalism class, you are told that if a dog bites a man, it’s not news. But if a man bites a dog, it becomes news. But if a dog bites Mr. Narendra Modi it is bound to become news; it depends on who the dog bites.
The media is sometimes called the Watch Dog of the society. Now, there are two kinds of watch dogs. There can be a dog that can bark but can’t bite. But at least the dog is doing its job. Because the burglar doesn’t know that this dog can only bark and can’t bite.
Then, there are lap dogs. Lap belongs to a person who is holding an important position- be it a politician, business man or a senior government officer.
Then there are intelligent dogs who rescue people.
So, the question that I ask young students is – What kind of a dog you want to be? If you want to be a Watchdog, you have to accept the fact that the road ahead is going to be difficult.
Have you ever thought of taking a retirement?
Khushwant Singh died at the age of 99. Vinod Mehta died much earlier (73). There is an old saying that – journalist don’t retire, they just fade away. I am 61 years old. I don’t know how many years I am to live but as long as I have breath in my body, I would continue my work as a journalist.
Do you have any plans to write your biography?
I have no plans for writing a biography. I have written a text book which has been published by the Oxford University Press. It is called Media Ethics: Truth, Objectivity, and Fairness.
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