FOR the longest time ever, and long before we began to watch our news instead of listening to it on our radios, the BBC has been universally regarded as the authentic and most reliable news service in the world. At that time, their Bureau Chief Mark Tully and the BBC became synonymous for many Indians, some (in sadda Punjab at least) had ‘Indianised’ his name to sound like Mr Tullie. The affable Sir Mark Tully cheerfully accepted his inclusion into the Indian subcontinent and returned this affection by making India his home for over the last 50 years. During this half-a-century stay, he has toured the length and breadth of the country and can speak Hindi quite fluently. Above all, he is a wonderful listener and so adept at picking up inflexions and confidences that several of our current newspersons (with their mikes ready to be pushed into faces) seem singularly unable to do because they have forgotten how to listen. To quote a friend (a dedicated fan of BBC’s world service), “Their receivers are off and their transmitters perpetually on.”
At a recent ‘Adda’ organised by a prominent newspaper, his admirers had the opportunity to ask their favourite India hand all that they had wanted to. His dedicated reportage and busy travel schedules have taken a toll and Sir Mark is now beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Nevertheless, he has not lost any of his magical touch when telling stories and recalling some memorable occasions, many of which are regarded as watershed events in India’s post-Independence history. Who can forget that Rajiv Gandhi confirmed the news of his mother’s assassination by tuning into BBC as he waited for a plane to bring him from Calcutta to Delhi. Readers of this paper will also recall the BBC’s riveting dispatches from Amritsar after Operation Bluestar.
Listening to him that day as he recalled his long and eventful years as the subcontinent’s star broadcaster, several facts became clear. Today, when fake or planted news and biased reportage are the norm, Mark Tully stands as a reminder of the fundamental truth that the primary role of a reporter is reporting news as it breaks. This is not as simple as it sounds because the reporter must also ensure that such reportage is free of any personal opinion, bias or slant. So while we have our TV screens flash the ‘Breaking News’ sign every now and then, how many care to confirm facts before leaping to conclusions? Sadly, almost no one cares to do so because they cannot bear to be left behind in the race to be there first.
The other memorable point made by him that day was about the use of language. That it should be restrained and responsible that goes without saying but what we have lost in the marriage of picture to sound is the ability to imagine a scene of action. If you have any memory of cricket commentaries on radio by the likes of Vizzy, you will get what I’m trying to say. The broadcaster used his eyes to paint a picture before you that brought alive the scene being described. Also, since the listener was included in the act of creation, that picture stayed for a long time in one’s mind. Related to this is the fact that listening to a radio made one feel as if the news was being relayed by a friend, a familiar voice that spoke to you as an individual. This is what perhaps (claimed Tully modestly) gave him such a wide audience that he could walk into a remote village and be hailed as a friend.
There is an apocryphal story about him that should make this clearer to my readers. During a royal state visit to India, the British High Commissioner hosted a reception of prominent expats to present to the Queen and Prince Philip. Tully had retired by then and his successor was introduced to Prince Philip as the BBC Bureau Chief. “No he’s not!” snapped the distinguished visitor, “The BBC man here is that Tully fellow.” That Tully fellow is still around and still quizzed about the news of the subcontinent, one may add.
What drew him to India, someone asked. A few know that his family has a relationship with India that spans many Tully generations. His grandparents were Christian missionaries here and his father a boxwallah of Calcutta, where Sir Mark was born. When he came back after his education in the UK to take up his assignment as a BBC reporter, he found himself in Delhi. On his first Christmas service, he says he was amazed to find in the congregation a Sikh wearing a turban, a Muslim gentleman with a skullcap and doubtless several Hindus as well. It struck him then that this was a truly plural society where people of different faiths joyously participated in each others’ festivals. It is an observation worth highlighting in this festive season as we hurtle along a perilous slope to intolerance.
It takes an outsider to point out what is good and what is not about a country. Listening to Sir Mark Tully reminded us all of a time when phrases such as brand loyalty had not been coined, and what makes a brand in the first place.
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