Lessons Learned from Journalism

Bikash C. Paul

Bikash C. Paul has been a Journalist for many leading media brands in India including top channels like NDTV, ETV, News X and Times Now. Starting his career in mass media as a Reporter twenty-two years ago he gradually moved to back room news operation, shaping up agenda of top English channels in the country. As one of the top journalists in the current media scene, he has seen many phenomenal stories taking shape and has worked on many important national scoops. An expert in content management and news analysis, Bikash has many valuable lessons to share about media and journalism.

You have had a long association with media as a journalist and as an editor. Please share the lessons you have learned from this profession.

The greatest learning experience has been, of course, to see, feel and understand the evolution of Indian media through these two decades. It’s mind-boggling to learn the changing complexion of Indian media….its emergence from the shadow of traditional print and wire to TV, on-line and convergence. It’s fascinating to observe how the media has been shaped up infusing fresh outlook in content generation and its presentation; it’s interesting to find how a whole new generation of editors dared to challenge the status quo, exploring uncharted areas in journalism. Undoubtedly, it has been an enriching experience to be an active participant of every ups and downs of this roller-coaster journey.

No other country in the world has so many varied hues of journalism….it has a robust regional news market catering to the local needs; it has an extremely aggressive Hindi news space which has its own unique way presenting news to the masses; it has a few ‘elite’ English channels that had no other option but to shed its upmarket tag to grab shares from regional and Hindi channels.  As a backroom news manager for the past several years in top TV channels, my job has been to understand, interpret and act to the need of audience. Creation of new forms of storytelling, conceptualizing contemporary content and putting it on air for the audience has been the greatest challenge for me.

On a lighter vein….journalism taught me how to work 24 hours, even sometime without any break. It taught me how to work in a tight deadline skipping many lunches and dinners. It taught me how to miss social gatherings, company of family and friends. It taught me how to sneak into home after midnightyear after year. It taught to twist a story to fit the editor’s whims even sometime distorting facts here and there. It taught how to rub shoulder with bigwigs and feel myself too a big shot carrying an inflated ego!

You have a passion for political and economic journalism. What lessons have you learned here?

Governance had been my key area of functioning as a reporter.  With the launch of economic reform in 1991, however, the governance in India changed forever. Politics and economy mixed in such a manner that it brought a paradigm shift in the thinking process of all stakeholders, government officials, political parties and media.The initial era of reforms had taught us to analyze public policies through the prism of political-economy. The understanding is still valid asno political party can ignore the linkages between public policy and economy in today’s globalizing world.

As a journalist, you must have seen thousands of headlines, making news and history. What was the most pivotal moment of your career as a journalist and an editor and the lessons learned from it?

There are many and a few did make their places in the history. Sample these: Babri Masjid demolition that I covered for a leading Pakistani newspaper; coverage of Parliament attack when I myself was holed up in the mess inside; assassination of Nepal’s King Birendra and his family; Indo-Pak Agra summit between Vajpayee and Musharraf just after Kargil War and Advani’s “Bharat Uday Yatra” in the run-up to general elections in 2004.

It had been terribly a daunting task to cover Babri demolition and subsequent riots for Pak media from the epicenter. I was then a ‘Correspondent’ for Pakistan’s leading daily The News International in its Delhi bureau. For me, it was a great challenge to present a factual reporting without sounding biased.  I precisely did that. However, my dispatch used to be grossly changed in the desk in Islamabad. Worth mentioning here the eight-column banner headline on the demolition next day: “Babri Masjid reduced to rubble in ‘secular’ India”!

Terror reared its ugly head in Parliament premises in a calm morning in 2001. The House had a brief adjournment….me and NDTV’s Divya Malik Lahiri along with late Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley were enjoying a few relaxed moments in Mahajan’s chamber. Suddenly we heard gunshots and all rushed to the lobby. We found frantic activity in the lobby with Parliament security personnel, SPG running helter-skelter. We were told “terror strikes Indian Parliament”and the rest was all history! The next few hours were literally a face to face encounter with death.

The assassination of king Birendra and nine others in the royal family of Nepal was the bloodiest mass murders of royals in recent history. On a Saturday morning, Nepal woke up to unbelievable news of the massacre that decimated an entire line of the Shah dynasty that had ruled the Himalayan Kingdom for 233 years.The nation refused to accept that King Birendra (who was not only a royal figurehead but also revered as the living incarnation of Vishnu) was murdered by his own son Prince Dipendra. “Shocking” must be an understatement, Nepal exploded in utter frustration, confusion and overwhelming grief and anger. Conspiracy theories abounded and the simmering rage below the surface turned violent in major towns with spontaneous outbursts demanding the death of ‘real murderers’. The streets turned to battlefields with burning tires, stones, overturned cars, uprooted trees, attacks on Indian journalists and direct clashes with security forces, killing many. It was the time of hardcore reporting, sometimes even defying curfews till midnight.

The 7-km-long funeral procession–from the Army Hospital to the crematorium on the bank of Bagmati river–was a very public farewell! Disconcerting, painful and a terribly emotive journey! It seemed as though the entire population of Nepal had lined up shoulder to shoulder to bid farewell to their beloved royal family. People armed with bouquets and prayer scarfs wailed in grief…flowerers rained down from every nook and corner on the way. As the flames leapt higher and higher engulfing the bodies….it started drizzling. A TV commentator remarked….even the God was crying. I too cried…forgetting the very sense of ‘objectivity’ in journalism.

The Indo-Pak Agra summit took place in the backdrop of simmering uneasiness between the two countries following the Kargil War. While for Atal Behari Vajpayee, the summit was an apt manifestation of his artful diplomacy and statesmanship, for President Pervez Musharraf it was more of a domestic compulsion ensuring his one-upmanship back home. The high-profile summit was surcharged with hype, melodramatic ups and downs and unprecedented media ‘plants’ from both the sides. The most dramatic moment was when India rejected an ‘almost-signed’ joint declaration at the last moment and a frustrated Musharraf terming it as a ‘handiwork of hawks’ in Vajpayee government. Musharraf had to go back empty-handed…but we, the journalists, learned many valuable lessons about political and diplomatic maneuvering that takes place at a summit level.

Advani’s “Bharat Uday Yatra”, spanning across almost 8000 km and 16 states in the run up to 2004 general election,  was another learning experience. I would remember the Yatra for two reasons : (a) How Advani tried to shade his pro-Hindutva image, making a desperate bid to ‘re-position’ himself so that he is acceptable to Muslims. (b) Politicians and journalists alike were sure of NDA’s victory riding the wave of ‘India Shining’ slogan. The overwhelming public response to Advani’s Yatra strengthened our belief of another term for Vajpayee.  But the huge gatherings proved to be deceptive and misleading. We all failed to understand the underlying resentment in public mind. And important lessons learned here was never to take electorates for granted.

You have worked closely with many media stalwarts like Dr. Prannoy Roy, Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami and Jehangir Pocha.  Any notable experience or lessons learned from them?

Of course, Dr Prannoy Roy stands apart…a great soul, a perfect gentleman, a great teacher and most crucially an immense contributor to Indian journalism. I must say Dr Roy is a rare breed, who believes in quality journalism based on facts devoid of sensationalism, right information with lots of social obligation. He taught us that despite the shifting landscape of journalism, the talent, tenacity and passion to do meaningful work is ever-present. “Do that….and you will never be out of place”, Dr Roy once told me.

I have seen very few journalists as inhibition-free as Barkha. As a boss, Barkha was non-interfering and a driving force for quality work. Her tenacity and passion to do something big is quite infectious. I can vividly remember one incident. I was then a Special Correspondent in ETV. Barkha used to report for NDTV. On a chilly afternoon, we all were waiting outside Palam Technical Area in New Delhi as the then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was to fly to Kandhahar with four Pak terrorists who were being released in exchange of Indian hostages of IC-814.  While we all wanted to grab the footage of the historic moment, Barkha had a different plan. She wanted to be a part of Jaswant Singh’s entourage to Afghanistan! A relentless persuasion and argument with the MEA officials followed, obviously in vain. But her perseverance to achieve an impossible task was remarkable!

Arnab Goswami is a dreamer. He dreamt of making Times Now number one channel in the country….and he has done so. Arnab’s passion and fierce conviction whatever he does—right or wrong—is unmatched. Arnab bulldozed many age-old concepts in TV journalism….he has narrowed down the differences between English and Hindi channels. His managerial style is of one-upmanship and it broke all set standards inside the newsroom. I was a part of his launch team and worked almost 17-18 hours a day even when the channel was not on-air. In his lexicon, there is nothing called breathing space….he himself does not take it, nor does he give it to anybody. Arnab experiments everyday almost with all stories in its treatment, writing style etc. He takes risks even when he knows that he may be wrong. Arnab inspired me to push my journalism further.

I have lost a mentor, a great story-teller with impeccable English, Jehangir Pocha few weeks back. I worked with him for almost five years…closely. He had nurtured me, polished me and most crucially tolerated me with a sense of great affection and indulgence. His knowledge in business journalism was unmatched in the industry. It was he, who helped me emerge as a news manager with multi-tasking skills…from strategic planning to building great team. Jehangir used to tell me ”Journalism is at a crucial stage. The opportunities are endless given the growing capabilities of digital media. Tap it.”

In your experience what was the best scoop that you worked on and the lessons learned from it?

My national scoop on Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report on defence purchases during Kargil War was damningly critical about the Union Defense Ministry and its Minister George Fernandes, for stonewalling documents from the House body. The revelation created massive row in Parliament day after day, leading to an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion against the Vajpayee Government.

Another national exclusive….how fake stamp scam-fame Abdul Karim Telgi was patronized by the then Karnataka minister Roshan Baig and his brother Rehan Baig. I filed a document-based story that was aired in ETV Kannada as a campaign forcing Roshan to resign from the state ministry and Rehan had to surrender to police following a FIR.

Any lessons that you want to share with wannabe journalists?

I have often encountered many peculiar situations. Many aspiring journalists have come to me for two specific kinds of jobs…reporting and anchoring. Sadly, many seem to have glamour as their main criteria to be in the profession. This is a dangerous trend and I would advice wannabe journalists to get rid of such inhibitions, as journalism is certainly way beyond all this. Explore other avenues and let passion for quality and work be your hallmark.

If you can travel by time, what lessons would you share with your younger self?

I wish I had made less mistakes. I wish I had broken more national scoops with real impact….wish I would have less emotional in professional relationship and most crucially, wish I would have made a balance between my work and family life. Given a chance I would have followed Ratan Tata’s philosophy, “Do we really need to get so worked up? It’s ok. Bunk few classes, score low in couple of papers, take leave from work, fall in love, fight a little with your spouse…it’s ok. We are people, not programmed devices. Don’t be so serious, enjoy life as it comes.”

http://lessonslearned.in/lessons-learned-journalism-2/

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