It is hard to interview two television news debate veterans and not have multiple interjections, half-sentences and contradictory views bombard you from both sides. But as the “Oxford sporty jock” and “Oxford black-clad intellectual (with her hand-rolled cigarettes)” slug it out, you cannot help but realize that while the two of them are different in every way when it comes to the approach to journalism, Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief, IBN18 Network, and Sagarika Ghose, author and CNN-IBN deputy editor, have similar views.
“With every issue you have to evolve an opinion based on what you observe. That’s the way I see my journalism,” says Rajdeep. “After so many years in journalism, this is something we have both adhered to, that basically your instincts as a journalist must always get the better of your instincts as an activist,” adds Sagarika.
Rajdeep and Sagarika met for the first time in 1986 in Jamshedpur, now in Jharkhand, where they had gone for an interview with Russi Mody, former chairman of Tata Steel, for The Rhodes Scholarships.
“She got it. I did not. I am still trying to get back,” says Rajdeep.
Sagarika says: “In those days, Rajdeep was extremely laid-back; in fact, he was so laid-back that he was horizontal. I remember when the results were being announced he was sleeping somewhere up there in his room.” Rajdeep tries to defend himself but ends up muttering while Sagarika ploughs on: “I remember thinking to myself ‘Does this guy really care about the scholarship?’”
But now, Sagarika says, “Rajdeep is a workaholic, a newsaholic, a journoaholic. Thank God he is not an alcoholic.” Sagarika feels that as editor-in-chief, Rajdeep should not be taking so many decisions. “He is obsessed with what’s on the ticker, the top bands. This way the people who are doing the work are not empowered because they keep trying to second-guess him. In fact, my team is obsessed with Rajdeep. I delegate much more and believe if you empower people, things run on their own and you get fresher ideas.”
Rajdeep interjects: “I have a resolution—to leave office by 6pm on Friday. I have left office early for the last few Fridays.”
“Yes, sure,” protests Sagarika, “and then conducted OB (outdoor broadcast) interviews from the house on Sundays.”
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Sagarika: I take all the decisions at home. He pays the bills. Rajdeep: When you have your wife working in the same organization, how do you ensure right down the line that there is an element of fairness across the system? That’s been a challenge—a professional and a personal one."
Oxford was not a dating ground for the two. That came later, in 1991-92, when both were working for The Times of India (ToI)—Rajdeep in Mumbai and Sagarika in Delhi. He clarifies, “It was the year of the Babri Masjid.”
Sagarika, 26 at the time, was the unofficial resident third editorial writer at ToI covering South Asia while Rajdeep was getting plum assignments, including covering L.K. Advani’s rath yatra to Ayodhya in its early days.
“I used to read his stories all the time,” she says.
“Yeah, that influenced her in my favour,” retorts Rajdeep wryly.
“I used to wonder how he has become so serious,” says Sagarika, still sounding amazed that at 25, Rajdeep was able to write the lead editorials for ToI’s edit page. “I never got the kind of breaks that he had. In Delhi, we had flanks of senior editors who would not let a chit of a girl get big reporting assignments. I was being oppressed,” laughs Sagarika.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Rajdeep: A common area for us is our journalism and political views. Sagarika: Our views on issues, where we have common views.... Rajdeep: Sometimes...."
“Newsrooms were patriarchal then, male-dominated. Men were allowed to do things women were not,” says Rajdeep.
Yet Sagarika was not tempted to switch to television, even though the medium excited Rajdeep, who took the risk of experimenting with it in 1994, more than 10 years before Sagarika ventured into it in 2004 with a programme on BBC. “Between us, I would say, I am more adventurous when it comes to something like scuba-diving or sky diving. But Rajdeep is more of a risk-taker professionally,” says Sagarika.
Rajdeep, who read law at Oxford, worked with Prannoy Roy and NDTV after his print journalism stint, and even though the duo were married by then, Sagarika was anti-TV. “My father (Bhaskar Ghose, former director general of Doordarshan) dissuaded me from going into TV. He said TV will shut down in India in two-three years.”
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Sagarika: Opposing points of views means bitter fights. Rajdeep: I am more likely to back out than Sagarika is. By nature, if I am put into a fight, I fight and then I rescind. Sagarika: He has a huge temper. He flares up, screams, shouts, finishes it and then forgets about it. I sulk."
Rajdeep says he never attempted to pull Sagarika towards TV. “I always pushed her in the other direction. Always told her that her real métier is to write. She feels that is the sign of me telling her to get out of TV but that is not it. I know Sagarika saw TV as somewhat of a lesser profession.”
“Not lesser, but I always thought: How do you communicate a complex message on TV?” says Sagarika.
In the last nine years that she has been on TV, Sagarika says she has learnt a lot from Rajdeep. “On TV, you just have to land into a story and immediately get all your systems to go and begin reporting. You don’t necessarily have that lead time to look around, take notes. Rajdeep is terrific at that and he is able to report on a story and analyse it at the same time; TV journos mostly do one of the two at a time,” she says.
Rajdeep firmly believes that TV is much more of a team game. “As a reporter in TV, you are as good as your camera person, editor and producer. I think one of the lessons for Sagarika has been to learn that. It has taken her time though.”
"DO NOT OPEN: Sagarika: I am a complete non-sport person. Rajdeep: That’s why we have two TVs. So she can watch her TLC, HBO movies. And I can watch sport. Sagarika: And obsess over the ticker."
According to Rajdeep, a key area where they differ in their approach to journalism is how opinionated they are. “Sagarika has stronger views on almost everything and expresses them more strongly too. I tend to be more fuzzy, and that’s OK I think. As a journalist, I believe that you should allow many thoughts and not believe that THIS is the only way...” Sagarika interjects furiously: “I don’t believe in that either. But yes, on some issues such as gender justice, I tend to have a stronger opinion.”
“I think ideologically Sagarika is much further than I am... There are certain issues where it is clearly black or white but, personally, I believe most issues are in shades of grey. I know Sagarika may disagree but she has a more black and white approach,” says Rajdeep.
And Sagarika disagrees vehemently: “Nah... I don’t have a black and white approach.”
“But she is more black and white than I am because...”
“No, I am not black and white at all.”
“... because she has stronger opinions.” He adds: “Though Sagarika and I may differ on issues, at the end of the day, there is a broad agreement that journalism must approach each issue shorn of ideological baggage.”
“Yes, both of us believe that when journalists try to become chest-thumping patriots or uber nationalists, it is dangerous,” Sagarika says. “As Rajdeep was saying, as reporters we have to just tell the story.”