How Little Miss Muffet got Mark Tully his BBC Job

For 30 years, Mark Tully was Bureau Chief of BBC, New Delhi. He joined the Beeb in 1964 and moved back to India in 1965 to work as the corporation's India Correspondent. He covered major incidents in South Asia during his tenure, ranging from Indo-Pakistan conflicts, Bhopal gas tragedy, Operation Blue Star, Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to the Demolition of Babri Masjid. He is the author of many books including No Full-Stops in India (Penguin, 1991) and Upcountry Tales (Speaking Tiger, 2017).

Mark Tully spoke with Harshita Sethia and Gunjan Sharma.

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Gunjan Sharma and Harshita Sethia in conversation with Mark Tully

 

Excerpts from the interview:

 

Marginalia:

What was your job interview for BBC like?

 

Mark Tully:

In the BBC, you had a system where every job was competed for, every job went on notice boards throughout the corporation. So there is a funny story about that. I was brought up as a child in India. Being English, my parents were very keen that I should not be affected by India, but I should be an English child. I had a European nanny to make sure that happened. So when the interviewing people said, ‘You have to be a good person for the job, because you must speak Hindi very well.’ And I said, ‘Unfortunately, I don't.’ And then without thinking, very stupidly, I said to them, ‘But I can recite the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” in Hindi.’ I thought I had blown it but they laughed, and said, ‘Why don't you say it then?’ So I did. And I suppose Little Miss Muffet got me the job.

 

Marginalia:

When you moved to India BBC, you moved as an administrator. What was it like?

Mark Tully: Well, it was a job you made for yourself. There were some administrative duties. But they were so nice that I had the freedom to do other things. I quickly moved into working with television teams. In fact, almost on the first day I arrived, Lal Bahadur Shastri died. I went with a television team, which was sent out for London, for the funeral procession, and I worked with them as they were reporting all the events surrounding the choice of Indira Gandhi as the next Prime Minister.

 

Marginalia:

At what point did you realize that you enjoyed journalism? And when did you move behind the microphone? When did that shift happen?

Mark Tully:

I realized I enjoyed journalism as soon as I started doing it and so I began by radio features. I've always said, ‘If you told me that you can either do radio or television’, I would always say radio. And until last year, at the age of 84, I was still doing radio for the BBC. Funnily enough, it was a programme which was associated with my theological background. It was a programme called “Something Understood”, which went out every Sunday, and which was about thinking about the big questions of life. I love doing that and ironically I'm hoping that we will be able to restart that in a very small way.


Marginalia:

What were your first few interviews at the BBC like?


Mark Tully:

I remember two interviews I did. One was the annual rally of vintage cars in Delhi. I had never made a radio programme in my life. But I decided to have a go at making one. At the end of the rally at Sona, each driver sat with his friends having breakfast, and the Maharaja of Bharatpur asked  me to sit down and have a glass of champagne with them. The people in London thought this was so marvellous that they told me to go ahead and make a programme. The second interview I remember very strongly was with a man called John Freeman. Freeman was a famous interviewer himself. He was such a zabardast or sakht (strict) interviewer that he even made people cry. He had been made High Commissioner in Delhi. So I was sent to interview him, to ask him how it was going from journalism to being High Commissioner. And when I arrived in his study, very nervous indeed. I opened my computer and, to my horror, those were the days of wind on tape machines. And I found to my horror that I hadn't checked the tape recorder. So I said to John Freeman very nervously, ‘I have a spare full tape. I can unwind all this tape from that and use it’. He said, ‘Then why don't you do that?’ And so, the carpet in his office was covered in tape but he gave me a very nice interview all the same. Those were the first two I did because in my first spell in India, most of my work was either working with television teams who came from London, or doing radio features rather than radio hot news.

 

Marginalia:

Could you share with us what your days at BBC Delhi Bureau looked like?

Mark Tully:

Delhi Bureau in my day was a very small show in terms of staff. I had one colleague, Satish Jacob, who has been there for some 20 years. And he and I were really responsible for reporting the news from India. I also used to go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal. And as a result of that, I was witness to some historic occasions, I was there when the King of Nepal stepped down. I was in Pakistan when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged. I was in Bangladesh immediately after Shaikh Mujeeb returned there.

So I covered the whole of South Asia. But our main job was covering the news in India. And it was a nerve-wracking job. Because we had a very large listenership in India, through our language services in Hindi and Bengali, Urdu,  Nepali and Tamil. And if people didn't like what we said, they made it absolutely clear. And when the governments got angry with us, they made that absolutely clear, as well. So in a sense, we were in part really working for local broadcasts, for an Indian broadcast, as well as for international because of this huge audience which language services had.

 

Marginalia:

How were dissenting voices treated in your organisation?

Mark Tully:

We always had discussions. There was a long running discussion on how to describe Kashmir, and the two different parts of Kashmir. Because if you described  it one way, Pakistan would claim that you were being anti-Pakistan, and if we described it another way, India would complain. So that was the result of a lot of discussions until we finally decided to use ‘Indian-administered’ and ‘Pakistan-administered’. However, one of the biggest frustrations was that there was a tendency, for the people in London, not to accept story ideas from us, but to pick them up from newspapers. So sometimes you had the frustration of having your story turned down at the idea stage. 

 

Marginalia:

Did fake news exist in those times? We think of it as a recent phenomenon, but did it exist during your time as a journalist?

Mark Tully:

The question of fake news is very interesting. Yes, there was a lot of fake news, that fake news took the form of rumour. And often we would have lots of phone calls, and suddenly, one afternoon someone would call saying is it true that the President of India has been shot? Or is it true that America has declared war in India, all sorts of fantastic rumours. I'll give you one story of fake news. It’s an interesting one. People would often say ‘BBC ne ye kaha tha’ (BBC said this) to give it authenticity. And when Mulayam Singh’s police opened fire on karsevaks, during their first attempt to get to Ayodhya, that afternoon, the papers produced stories, saying a fantastic number of people were being killed and that BBC has reported this. I got a phone call from George Fernandez, he was a minister in the government here. He said to me, “Mark, what on earth are you reporting?” and I said to him, “George, we are not reporting this. But your people, including the Chief Minister of West Bengal, without confirming us, had made a speech against us, saying that the BBC is totally responsible.” and George said, “I'm just going into a Cabinet meeting.” And I said, “Well, you tell your colleagues, this is the figure we have given.” A colleague of mine was reporting on this, and he had filed a perfectly reasonable and accurate figure. Another way fake news became a problem was during election campaigns. Candidates time and again would say ‘ki BBC ne kaha hai ki hum jeetenge’ (BBC has reported that we will win). So fake news was a big problem, but it's a bigger problem now, of course. 

 

Marginalia:

What was the reaction of the government to a foreign journalist? 

Mark Tully:

I think one has to say that the BBC correspondent was usually in a special position in a way, more in the eyes of the government, because of the audiences which we had.  I remember in Pakistan during the anti-Bhutto movement every other day, I would open the Pakistan Times which was a government newspaper, and I would see a headline like ‘Another BBC lie nailed’ or something like that, an attempt to discredit a story which I had sent. So we were very much in the eyes of the government. They were looking at us, worried about what we're doing, sometimes that was very embarrassing. And there were two occasions, I remember in Pakistan particularly well. One was when, Bhutto made a whole speech in the National Assembly, attacking me, and attacking the BBC. And he ended it by saying but ‘We are generous people, so we will not throw him out’. After that, I was called in by the British High Commissioner who said, ‘The government does not like you, I think you should leave’. I said to him, ‘Well, the fact that you think I should leave means that I cannot leave’. I stayed for another two or three weeks before coming back to India. And frequently in this country as well, we were accused by the government of being a foreign hand destabilizing India. And I always used to say, “If you think the BBC can destabilize your country, you have a very poor opinion of your own country,” and I still would maintain that.

 

 

Marginalia:

What was the reaction of the common people towards you as a foreign journalist? 

Mark Tully:

When you're working in the streets, people always come out and it’s difficult to do a piece to camera. For instance, one of the problems with doing interviews was that we would get a crowd around and either they would start agreeing with what the interviewee was saying, or disagreeing with him. And so you could find yourself in the middle of an argument, rather than recording an interview. But of course, you got very contrasting responses when you were in times of trouble. Again, going back to Pakistan, there was a part of Lahore, where there was support for the Pakistan National Alliance which was opposing Bhutto was and the part of Lahore where Bhutto’s party was favoured and you if you went into the Bhutto part, you would get a crowd shouting “Mark Tully murdabaad” (Mark Tully must die). But if you went into the other side, you will get people saying “BBC zindabaad” (Long live the BBC). The public gets the impression sometimes that we are on the side of the opposition, because we are the only people giving the opposition news. But we also give the government's point of view. And interestingly, the same people who were shouting BBC and Mark Tully murdabaad were the ones in Rawalpindi who, 40 days after Bhutto was hanged, tried to put me on their shoulders and started shouting “Mark Tully zindabaad”. And I had to say, “You will have me put in prison, if I continue sitting on your shoulders with you shouting Mark Tully zindabaad.” So you know, almost inevitably we would be seen to be on the side of the opposition but we did our utmost to be balanced.

 

Marginalia:

In one of your interviews, you told that a lady came up to you and she said that she doesn't see you as a journalist, but as a friend, because of your voice on the radio. So how do you visually tell a story on the radio when people can't see you? 

Mark Tully:

Well, that's a very good question, and it's to do with radio. One of the reasons why I love radio is that you have to be able to allow people to form pictures for themselves. As a result we always say that the pictures are best on radio. Because if you film the picture for yourself, you get more interested in it, more involved in it. So it's a matter of writing of location, of background, wherever possible, you try to go to places so that you can describe them and perhaps get some sound effects. And I remember I made a whole programme with Vanessa [Harrison, producer of Yoga Head to Toe at BBC radio], talking to her about B K S Iyengar, the legendary yoga teacher and who started Iyengar yoga. And we started the programme with Iyengar standing on his head. Well now, people sitting in London have to imagine. But in imagining that they make it more interesting than perhaps they would be if they actually had a film of it, you know. Interestingly, one of the great figures of radio in my time, once said, “Radio will always survive if you don't put pictures to it.” And I think that's a very good thing to remember if you're ready to report or become a radio producer. Only last night, for instance, I was listening to a radio drama, it was all about a part of London, I knew very well, so it brought back tremendous memories and I made my own pictures.

 

Marginalia:

Can you tell us your first impressions of Delhi?

Mark Tully:

When I first arrived in Delhi, I thought this is what you might call a very hick city. Avery small, backward type of city and it was incredible, the difference from 1965 to the present. We had a lot of animal-drawn transport, horses and bullocks dragging carts; there were railway crossings all over the place, no flyovers, very limited transport, hardly any high-rise buildings, hardly any hotels. It almost looked like a backwater. It was also a city of scarcities. One of the things for instance, which I have written about, that there was such a shortage of consumer goods that when diplomats left, their wives would sell things like half-used lipsticks. Because people couldn't buy lipstick. There was a very limited range of clothes. There was only one car really on the road: the Ambassador. You saw a few others but the one you saw most was the Ambassador. When I arrived in Delhi, I was told that don't go and live in Hauz Khas because nobody will come and see you there, it's so far out. Now  look at it. I think in those days if I remember rightly, we were all together 4.5 million people in Delhi, and now it is about 23 million. East Delhi again, almost didn't exist, North Delhi really stopped at the university. So it was a very hick place. I remember being taken to Khan Market and being told that this is our top market. And I couldn’t believe it. So, I've seen it change and honestly not entirely for the better either.

 


Marginalia:

What advice would you give to the future media professionals? 


Mark Tully:

Well, all I would say is please, don't put yourself too much in the story. As journalists, we have a habit of standing around in bars and places and saying, “Did you read my story?” It’s not your story. I remember where this used to be brought home to me, particularly when you would set out from a nice hotel room, get in the helicopter, fly over a cyclone- or flood-affected part of Bangladesh, perhaps get out of your helicopter, walk around, meet a few people, that's one thing, then you would go back to your hotel room comfortably and file a story. And sometimes I would feel like a vulture because you arrive and sort of pick at these very unfortunate people and come back. And as I said, really do nothing for them. I think, when you're interviewing people it's awful if you say this man or this woman, everyone has a name. When you're interviewing people, people who are in grief, you should realize they are in grief, they are suffering, try and make sure that you do not increase it or intrude on their grief. Try to not to be judgmental or unduly harsh or unduly impersonal. 

Mark Tully shares a piece of advice

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