Archive for: October 2015

The use of strategic silence

The more delicate problem is on-the-record interviews. The rules are straight-forward, but interviewing is still a subtle art. A journalist should have the knowledge that helps fashion a question, and then catch contradictions in any evasive answer. It is a very dead interviewer who goes with a static list of queries, and does not possess the agility to ask the right follow-up. It is only reasonable to expect that the person being interviewed will only give that much of information which suits his or her interests, but there are ways of inducing out what has not been said.

Aggression is not the answer. Accusatory questions are meant to provoke an unguarded response, but any seasoned politician will deflect such bouncers with practised ease. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle. They almost inevitably try to fill the silence vacuum with something, and that something turns out to be the observation or story that brings an interview to life.

But this was far easier in an age when print media was dominant. A print interview has time on its side. Television has enormous strengths, flawed by a fatal weakness. Television does not have space or time for silence. It is the journalist who inevitably ends up saying something, thereby letting his or her target off the hook. At its worst, of course, television encourages a screaming match on the assumption that an audience is more interested in a brawl than dialogue.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this, as would anyone being interviewed by a heckler. But, equally, politicians should probably understand that their problems lie less in what a journalist has asked and more in their irresistible eagerness to say what they might later regret.

I enjoy the word “piquant”. It has the succulent resonance of onomatopoeia. It is sharp, tangy, pleasant to the taste and yet can sting. There is no pique, or irritability, or ire, in piquant. The best question in an interview is piquant. And the best answer? Cool. Anyone who loses his or her cool has lost the interview.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this.

The relationship between government and media is surely the most tempestuous fact of any democracy. The two represent parallel poles of power, but they are never really poles apart. Their moods vary, depending on circumstance, stretching from mutual admiration to suspicion, scepticism, cynicism and, in the worst case, hostility. Sometimes, their interests are in conflict. At other times, personality takes over, and the irrational ego interferes with judgement. There is always a sub-text of need hidden in the dynamics, and this need can be personal or institutional. It should, therefore, be a relationship that is handled with care. Too often, it becomes a victim of carelessness.

It is important to lay down a marker before we proceed. A democratic government does not have censorship as an option. There are no ifs and buts. Freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right. There are occasions on which journalism may become as yellow as the tongue of a hypocrite, and governments may have a list of grievances stretching from Kashmir to Kochi, but the only recourse is redress as permitted by law. The law does not, and will not, allow the brutal knife of a censor. Censorship is unethical, illegal and unworkable. What next?

There are structures in a democracy that have found a way around this, most notably self-censorship by individual journalists as the quid pro quo of inducement. This, for obvious reasons, is hard to catch. The risk for media is that if this is once proven, then credibility is lost forever. Credibility cannot be restored by surgeons. If the audience loses its faith in a media product, then the life-cycle of that publication or channel is over.

The normal equation between a journalist and a politician is filtered through that most basic of all media tools, the conversation. It may come as a surprise, but sometimes the most productive chat can be off-the-record. This is the ultimate bond between politician and journalist, that of trust. Any journalist who breaks this trust is not worth a day’s further salary. Similarly, anyone in public life who misleads in an off-the-record discussion is shallow: no one in power tells all, but you do not mislead or distort either. There are cases where journalists misuse such confidence, but they end up hurting themselves more than the person whose trust they have abused.

“Aggression is not the answer. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle.”

The more delicate problem is on-the-record interviews. The rules are straight-forward, but interviewing is still a subtle art. A journalist should have the knowledge that helps fashion a question, and then catch contradictions in any evasive answer. It is a very dead interviewer who goes with a static list of queries, and does not possess the agility to ask the right follow-up. It is only reasonable to expect that the person being interviewed will only give that much of information which suits his or her interests, but there are ways of inducing out what has not been said.

Aggression is not the answer. Accusatory questions are meant to provoke an unguarded response, but any seasoned politician will deflect such bouncers with practised ease. The technique that I liked was the use of strategic silence. Ask a question, as gently and plainly as you can. There will be an answer. If you believe the answer has been inadequate, or selective, let silence reign, as if you are waiting for the answer to be completed. Interviewees find silence very difficult to handle. They almost inevitably try to fill the silence vacuum with something, and that something turns out to be the observation or story that brings an interview to life.

But this was far easier in an age when print media was dominant. A print interview has time on its side. Television has enormous strengths, flawed by a fatal weakness. Television does not have space or time for silence. It is the journalist who inevitably ends up saying something, thereby letting his or her target off the hook. At its worst, of course, television encourages a screaming match on the assumption that an audience is more interested in a brawl than dialogue.

It is the job of media to ask questions, although the spirit of inquiry should never descend into the malice of inquisition. Politicians, naturally, resent this, as would anyone being interviewed by a heckler. But, equally, politicians should probably understand that their problems lie less in what a journalist has asked and more in their irresistible eagerness to say what they might later regret.

I enjoy the word “piquant”. It has the succulent resonance of onomatopoeia. It is sharp, tangy, pleasant to the taste and yet can sting. There is no pique, or irritability, or ire, in piquant. The best question in an interview is piquant. And the best answer? Cool. Anyone who loses his or her cool has lost the interview.


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar

If Left doesn’t do God, it should try Godfather

When an obituary of the Indian Left is written, it will be said that it died of complacency. It was not homicide, really. It was suicide.

This must rank as one of the funniest stories in a long while. The Marxist candidate for mayor for the municipal election in Bidhannagar, next to Kolkata, on 3 October was the now-venerable Asim Dasgupta, who served as Finance Minister of Left Front governments in Bengal for more than a quarter century; but this is not a joke about how the mighty have fallen. In fact, it goes to the CPI(M)’s credit that it does not permit anyone’s ego to interfere with a party diktat. If a lofty Finance Minister is ordered to try for a suburban mayor’s job, so be it. The joke lies elsewhere.

Comrade Dasgupta is canvassing in the old-fashioned manner, door-to-door. According to the Indian Express, he tells citizens, “Don’t forget to vote. And make sure you’re there early in the morning…because that’s when we expect the trouble and disruption by TMC [Trinamool Congress] hooligans to be the least.” He also distributes a pamphlet captioned “Nijer Vote Nije Deen”, or, “Cast your vote yourself”.

This is uproarious for anyone who lived in Bengal between 1977 and 2011, when the Left Front held what seemed to be interminable power. In every election, the Marxists supplemented their vote, and ensured victory, in precisely this manner. Their cadre would, with the confidence of hooligans protected by state police, capture polling booths where they believed the vote would go against them. Officials manning the voting centres were intimidated if they did not collaborate. It is always fun to hear a shrivelled pot calling a whistling kettle black. Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is doing unto CPI(M) precisely what CPI(M) did unto others. It is almost impossible to imagine Bengal’s Marxists as advocates of fair elections. But defeat works wonders. It can even make you virtuous.

The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men. The Leftists have neither reinvented their philosophy to restore their equation with the young, nor retired the old men who have long passed their sell-by date. Asim Dasgupta is 69 now. In other words, he was 40 when appointed Finance Minister. Why has CPI(M) not made a 40-year-old its candidate for mayor in Bidhannagar? Is it because the party does not have too many members who are young and capable? Or is it because they still suffer from what might be called the “Soviet Politburo mentality”, in which once you were taken into the charmed circle you remained there till God sent summons? Since the Marxist icon Stalin did not believe in God, he solved the problem with a periodic purge, but that option is not available to Bengal’s Stalinists.

The odd thing is that four years after losing Bengal the Marxists have still not understood why. One phrase sums it up: Old Doctrine, Old Men.

Irrespective of localised results in a municipal poll, it is unlikely that the red flag, currently at limp half mast, will flutter under the leadership of tired old men. The interesting question is this: can leftists ever regain the space vacated by them in India’s electoral equations? Has pseudo-Marxism in India become as passé as Marxism internationally? The last outposts have fallen. China’s Communists have egalitarian intentions, but no longer believe that they can create prosperity through old, formulaic prescriptions. Cuba’s Raul Castro is beginning to see the light of radiant religion. He welcomed Pope Francis to his country by signalling that he could return to the faith. The pillars of Marxism have crumbled, leaving only good intentions behind.

The secret of Bengal-Marxist longevity lay not in doctrine but in a party machine. Their nemesis, Mamata Banerjee, understood this, which is why she simply usurped enough parts of that machine and adjusted it into her own networks. Simultaneously, the challenge of poverty is being addressed by political forces that owe nothing to the Left, and view this as a national mission rather than as part of an international revolutionary project. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee wins because she has the support of the poor.

For three and a half decades, Marxists treated Bengal as their citadel, and it was a pretty effective fortress. Strangely, leftists never once believed that the doors of a fortress can also open outward; that it can be a secure base from which a realm, or an ideology, can expand. Instead they closed the doors upon themselves and retreated into an arrogant smugness.

Parties, like individuals, can become bed-ridden for many reasons; many have died an early death because of irrelevance. When an obituary of the Indian Left is written, it will be said that it died of complacency. It was not homicide, really. It was suicide.

Is it too late for recovery? No. But the Left does not need a doctor. It needs a miracle. Miracles require God. If the Left will not accept God, it should at least try a different Godfather.

 


M J Akbar
An article by:
M J Akbar