Home / Industry / Barkha Dutt | I don’t want to be a me-too version of Arnab

This week, television news anchor Barkha Dutt comes out with her first book, This Unquiet Land–Stories from India’s Fault Lines. Dutt joined NDTV news channel in 1994 as a “reporter-cum-producer". It was her first job-and she has since reported from ground zero of some of the biggest news events that have shaped the country. Early this year, Dutt resigned as NDTV’s group editor to start her own multimedia content and policy group. She, however, remains with the news channel as consulting editor and continues to host her shows The Buck Stops Here and We the People. On Thursday, Dutt sat down for a candid talk with Mint at her home in South Delhi’s Greater Kailash I neighbourhood. Edited excerpts from the interview:

At one place in your book, while talking about an interview scoop with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, you make a fleeting mention of “my competitor at Times Now". Were you referring to Arnab Goswami?

Of course, I meant him. That reference was relevant only to the context that who got the Rahul Gandhi interview and how he got it. I don’t think I had to clarify who exactly I was referring to. Everybody would know. There’s nobody else in Times Now. It’s a one-person channel.

Arnab is hugely successful. He has pulled off many scoops. He has got some of the biggest interviews. His shows do very well. But I do not relate one bit to his brand of journalism. His style is hectoring. It predetermines guilt. There is no space for nuance. I also take sides on issues, but they are few, like on decriminalizing homosexuality, or on sexual or caste violence. On almost everything else, I have an open mind in engaging with different opinions. Whereas Arnab is very much after the American mould of television news wherein he comes on the show with a predetermined and, I must add, declared opinion and the show has to fit into his opinion. That works for him, not for me.

The kind of journalism that you don’t believe in has proved to be spectacularly successful.

Agreed. It worries me that there is only one accepted template for television news now. When people complain to me that why so many panellists shout on television and why so many of them are called in the first place, they are really only talking of that kind of journalism... which means they have given their thumbs-up to it while cribbing about it.

No doubt Times Now is a successful brand and Arnab has completely changed the rules. Let’s be clinically objective about it. Does it worry me? Yes, it worries me that I may soon become a misfit in an industry where I don’t want to be a me-too version of Arnab. Arnab is Arnab. I am me. And it’s very important for me to remain me even if only 10 people watch me… It does, however, make me feel that I must seek a reinvention beyond television because I don’t know if I will remain in daily TV for the rest of my life. I would like to go out to the field as my first love.

Why don’t you do that?

That’s not easy. We are now in the middle of a very different media environment than the one in which I joined journalism. If I were a student today, I might not have wanted to become a television journalist. The problem is that we all have stopped telling stories. I try but if I want to be on television daily, I can’t go out to the field as often as I’d like to. It’s Catch 22. I can leave my daily (show) and do only a weekly or fortnightly show and then I’d be able to travel… but in this age of hyper-information, would anyone notice a weekly show? I don’t think so.

So then you tell yourself that it’s probably better to remain in your daily space and be who you are, try to reinvent yourself within that. But I feel we all should not make Arnab responsible for that. We all are responsible… because, as I said, too many anchors tried to be Arnab’s me-too version. They should have the guts to say who we are and not copy somebody else.

You were an early news person to join Twitter (in early 2009). How has it altered your journalism?

Twitter was more impactful when it first arrived. I would take it very seriously and wonder why people are reacting so strongly, whether negatively or positively. But over the years I have developed a huge problem with the news selection and the ideological positions being defined by Twitter trends. While I’m thick-skinned.., I have been called all kinds of things. Murderer, anti-national, liar….

You mention in your book about the rumour of a romance between you and Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah.

Yes, and they also keep making this husband rumour on social media about my marriage to a Kashmiri Muslim man called Haseeb Drabu and they always emphasize on the Muslim bit as if that explains my politics.

Sometimes when TV news addicts watch you or some other popular anchor on TV, they tend to say, “Here goes Barkha again." Do you also occasionally respond similarly while watching your counterparts on TV?

I have that reaction to myself, too. There are days when you third-eye yourself even while you are doing the show…. I can’t say I’m free from formula but I try and buck the trend. Now suppose despite my effort something very formulaic happens, like a predictable squabble between the politicians or my intervention, too, turns out to be predictable, so even while it’s all going on, there is a voice in my head saying, “O ho, you are being so boring."

There are days while I’m on the camera, I can feel that my tone is shriller or louder. But it just happens. It’s not acting... there are also days when I come home and hate what I’d done.

As a news anchor, what is your idea of misery during the prime time show?

The pool of people who come on television is so limited. We are really diminished by the fact that not many people are willing… we try to invite some really interesting people but they always say, ‘We don’t do TV’. For instance, I have called Pratap Bhanu Mehta so many times. Or people will agree to appear but only for an interview but they may not be interview-worthy that day. So the same 10 people drive your show….

There are questions being raised about financial impropriety in NDTV.

I belong to the editorial, not the managerial department. But NDTV has already rebutted every allegation in a very detailed statement on ndtv.com.

What is one thing you would really like to do at this point in your life?

I would love to go back to being a care-free reporter who did a weekly show and was in a different part of the country every week. Sometimes I joke that I’d love to be a Srinagar bureau chief… I could give up all this and live in Srinagar.

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