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Treading the Tully path

Andrew Whitehead, Director, BBC Worldwide Service Trust, India, takes on his role with poise


I told the story of 1947 through the voices of the people ANDREW WHITEHEAD



KEEPING VIGILAndrew Whitehead: `In my bones I am a journalist' Photo: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Andrew Whitehead, Director, BBC Worldwide Service Trust, India, carries the sense of caution, clarity and balance that Sir Mark Tully does. He does also carry `the sense of India' though he would acknowledge that that sense is not in the league of Sir Mark's. He shares with MetroPlus his experience as a BBC journalist, his India stint, and the media transformation in recent times.

What has been your India stint?

I first came to India in May 1993 as correspondent and worked till September 1998. I spent a lot of time in politics, caste-based parties in North India, Kashmir, liberalisation, MNCs coming in, India's remarkable success in beauty contests, and choli ke peeche, in other words, culture. I spent a lot of time in Kashmir, which was at the height of its struggle then.

Sir Mark Tully's legacy. There is an aura there isn't it?

The legacy is fantastic. It gives the BBC a status here. I worked alongside him for my first year here in Delhi and he's a very generous journalist. There is this groundswell of respect for Sir Mark because he understands the heartbeat of India. He reflects that. He cares about this country. Journalists find they have to live up to Mark's expertise. It is a challenge.

The most exciting experience you've had in India.

In 1997, I made five half-hour radio programmes on the social history of Partition. I told the story of 1947 through the voices of the people. I've always been interested in history and I had to ask people to excavate their painful memories. I was nervous that I would be intrusive, that people would be resentful that I ask them to relive their memories. When I went to an Ashram in Jalandhar, I interviewed two among three women living there since 1947. They told me very powerful stories. It was getting late. I started to fidget. One of the women sensed it and turned to me and said: `I have waited for 50 years to tell my story. You just sit and listen.' And she wanted to tell all of it. It was very powerful for a news journalist who gets usually get a minute and a half. I got two-and-a-half hours and I wanted to listen to every bit of it...

What's it to be working on both radio and TV? Where do you belong?

Working for radio is simpler in some ways. Working for TV you always have someone to work with, a cameraman, producer, editor. When you do something for radio you are by yourself. I used to do radio news features myself — the recording, editing and sending them off down the line to London. But radio's quicker. If you want to get a radio story on air, you can just pick up the phone and say talk to me. But I am a radio man.

Is there the sense of dumbing down in the media?

I don't think so. I think it is about the media changing to meet an expanding market. We are no longer talking about simply reaching the elite. The media agenda has to broaden and finding space for stories other than politics is a good thing. Political stories do not often touch on how people live their lives. Stories about crime, health and education do. I think we got to have a balance between political and other stories. In India when I came here the print media was politics obsessed. Everyday the lead story would be a political story. I think serving an audience by telling a broader range of stories is good. That is not dumbing down.

There is emphasis on lighter content and aesthetics. In some papers, light borders on the frivolous and yet they sell.

I get The Hindu delivered to my home every day. I think it is a great paper. It is quite conservative, but the redesign I think is superb. I really like it. It makes it a much warmer, friendlier paper and that matters whatever the content is. It makes better use of pictures. I don't want to get into saying one paper is better than the other, but talking about frivolous, some aspects of life are frivolous. I don't mind that, but between high culture and the frivolous, popular culture deserves a place. People care about film stars. It sells papers. I am not going to say popular culture is inferior and all that matters is the big fat books and the serious artistes and films... Culture matters in ways that people absorb it.

What's the aura about BBC? So many of us want to be there.

It's got the biggest network of journalists around the world. It is that authority and reputation, which means the door is open for you. If you say you are from the BBC you have a head start in journalism. We care about editorial standards, about being accurate. It makes us feel serious in our journalism. That makes people want to watch us, listen to us, on some occasions want to work with us.

The core values of journalism.

Journalists must have the basic integrity to find out what happened. They need to have a certain level of rebelliousness, they need to be committed and they need to be curious.

PRASHANTH G.N.

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