Made-to-order ‘Exclusive’ Interviews!

The print media in the state is on Cloud Nine – and understandably so. After all, an interview, exclusive or otherwise, with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is as rare as lotuses in the Thar desert. For long in the shadow of Big Brother (TV), the print media legitimately felt left out in Naveen’s scheme of things. That the man who had given not a single proper, full-length interview to anyone from the regional print media in 20 years has now chosen to give over half a dozen in one go certainly calls for rejoicing. That it comes with full-page advertisements for the newspaper worth lakhs of rupees is just the right icing on the cake. Having got their elusive date the big man, the reporters are happy. Having raked in the moolah, the owners are happy too!

But read the interviews that are splashed across the front pages of local newspapers today carefully between the lines and it becomes clear that none of them qualifies to be a proper interview. The vast majority, if not all, questions are designed to sing paeans to Naveen and not to stray into areas that might cause him the slightest degree of discomfort. Not one question has been asked on any of the mega scams under his watch – the mining scam, the chit fund scam and the real estate scam – each of them involving loot of several thousand crore rupees of public money. Nor is there one on his government’s multiple acts of omission and commission that is at the heart of the impasse over the sharing of Mahanadi water with Chhattisgarh today. Not even a perfunctory question on the unceremonious dismissal of Damodar Rout from the cabinet the other day. The questions asked by the reporters give the distinct impression that they were vetted by the Chief Minister’s secretariat before allowing the ‘interview’.

Some like The Economic Times and The Times of India at least had the grace to admit that the interviews they were publishing were not face-to-face, freewheeling affairs where the reporter is at liberty to ask any question. While ET made it clear that it was emailed interview and TOI announced that it was ‘partly verbal and partly in written form’, others simply sought to pass off made-to-order stuff as ‘exclusives’!

Those in the business of reporting would know that the best way to distinguish a proper interview from an interview ‘under test conditions’ is to see how many of the questions emerge out of the answers of the interview. Viewed on this parameter, none of the published interviews can claim to be a freewheeling interview. Read attentively and you would know that they are all stand-alone questions with no supplementary question on any topic – except perhaps the one published in ‘Sambad’ where Tanaya Patnaik asks a follow up question after Naveen’s answer on how he manages to remain unperturbed in the face of criticism.

Of course, this is by no means intended to belittle the interviews done by my colleagues in the profession. After all, having a ‘vetted’ interview is any day better than not having an interview at all. And as someone who has interviewed Naveen a few times in the past, I know how difficult it is to get an interview with the man and – once you do – to ask the questions you really want to ask. I clearly remember one occasion in the run up to the 2009 elections when a colleague from BBC radio, a real combative reporter if ever there was one, had the mortification of watching helplessly as Naveen pulled off the lapel and walked out of the interview the moment she asked a question intended to pin him down!

Knowing as I did his visceral dislike for journalists asking tough questions and the danger of having the interview shelved midway, I asked him only a mildly uncomfortable question the last time I interviewed him: in the immediate aftermath of the Phailin in October, 2013. Fearing an abrupt end to the interview, I had deliberately kept that one question for the end after finishing the other mundane, run-of-the-mill questions. And sure enough, he got up from his chair without answering my question, said a perfunctory ‘Thank you’ and left. When I sent the recording of the interview, I duly got a tongue-lashing form my editor for not being ‘aggressive’ enough! [This when I thought I deserved a compliment for getting an interview with him in the first place!!]

I had the good fortune of interviewing his father – the great Biju Patnaik – several times in the 1990s when he was Chief Minister and can say from experience that the contrast between the father and the son could not have been starker. Biju loved tough questions; his son abhors them. The father granted interviews to all and sundry and answered all questions; the son picks and chooses – or at least his secretariat does – both the interviewer and the questions.

In the circumstances, one should perhaps be happy that the son has at least agreed to talk – even if only on his terms.