Exclusive: Nidhi Razdan says India facing a breakdown of democratic institutions including media
One of India’s top journalists, Nidhi Razdan has quit television to go teach at Harvard University as an Associate Professor. She says Indian media is in a ‘serious crisis’ as part of a larger ‘breakdown of democratic institutions’ in the country. In this conversation with Shaili Chopra, Razdan talks about her relationship with social media, public jabs at her personal life, and the goals she hopes to achieve through her academic career.
Q. What prompted your decision to move to Harvard as an associate professor?
A. For some time I have been wanting to make a shift from television as I have been doing it for 20 years now. It’s been great, fulfilling and very challenging.
It’s just that the offer came my way last December and I thought it was a great opportunity. It is something that is related to journalism, but it is a slightly different track, and it’s on the other side. At this point, in my career when I have been on top as Executive Editor at NDTV, which is the best news organisation in the country, I thought if I don’t take a chance now, I never will.
I think also one of my regrets in life was even though I did very well in college, I wanted to study more. I always wanted to go to an Ivy League university but instead I ended up working straight out of college.
So in a way this is a fulfilment of an earlier dream because for me this is both an opportunity to teach but more importantly for me to learn. Especially in an environment like Harvard where I can listen, grow, learn.
Q. Are you tired of being in media? Did the current scenario in the industry and the trolling take a toll?
A. I have never been bothered by trolls but I think one has realised over time, you have to develop a thick skin to be part of the media industry.
I am disillusioned by the way media has shaped in India. As an institution they have crumbled. There are some honourable exceptions. There are places like NDTV, some portals that are doing an outstanding job and we shouldn’t paint them with a broad brush. But there is overall an institutional crisis. We have forgotten what our journalistic responsibility is.
It is sad to see much of journalism in India reduced to press releases and government handouts – Nidhi Razdan
But as I said there are some exceptions. There is still some excellent reporting we are seeing. For example, even in this pandemic, if journalists hadn’t reported on the migrant crisis and such issues, we would not have seen the government stepping in to attend to that crisis.
So I am a little disillusioned but not without hope.
Q. Does your exit make this case stronger – if you feel so passionately about independent journalism, why vacate the space?
A: Thank you for the compliment. There are enough voices out there. All of us have the right to grow personally. We don’t have to be on prime time television to make our voice heard.
The issue of media freedom isn’t just about what’s happening in India. We are seeing it in South Asia, South East Asia and even in the US. There are ways in which you can lend your voice credibly even if you are not reporting on mainstream platforms.
For me, I have never taken a sabbatical, this is a lifetime opportunity. In 21 years I have been non-stop. I have never had a chance to look back at my work or my life. So I owe this to myself. I can still lend my voice to the right causes even in the new avatar.
Q. Pick the most powerful moments of your career.
A. There are lots of such stories. So the hijacking of IC 814 in 1999 was the first big story I covered as a young reporter. I covered the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. I covered every important election whether it was state or general elections.
The Indo US N-deal is my favourite story. It got me interested in Ministry of External Affairs as a beat. I also covered the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the 2007 London bombing and many more.
My documentary on PoK was a runner up at Asian TV awards and that’s something I really worked hard on. My reporting from Iran and the PM’s visits – I could say a whole of stories stand out for me.
I think basically I am a hard news person – politics, the thing that’s happening in the now, international relations, all these have been a big part of my career.
Q. Is there an interview that you remember because it didn’t go as planned?
A. Only such interview was with Pranab Mukherjee when he was Foreign Minister. I asked him about tensions with the US over Iran. He got upset. Took the microphone off and kind of stormed out of the interview. We weren’t live thankfully as it was a recorded one. I was stunned. He was expecting that the interview should have been only on SAARC and not US relations.
But soon after he called Prannoy and told him about the incident and said, “I got upset with Nidhi and I want to apologise.” I thought it was magnanimous of him to do that.
Q. What kind of gender bias have you faced as a journalist?
A. There have been one or two politicians over the years who have spoken inappropriately or somehow been far more informal and unprofessional than they should have. I pushed back on that. Other than that I have not faced any specific gender bias.
So far as it’s about bias within the organisation, Shaili you have been part of NDTV so you know. In NDTV you live in a bubble because it’s driven by women. We never had to think of ourselves as different. It didn’t matter what your gender was. Our top editors have been women. So here it’s never been what we saw in other media houses. In fact, it’s been great to see a lot of women reporters in tough and frontline beats over the years.
Q. What is it that you want to achieve through moving to academics?
A. I love journalism and news. This will be a great opportunity to learn. When you do the same thing day after day and are kind of in that space where there is pressure of prime time every day, it does take a lot out of you. It’s such a refreshing change for me to head to teach. It’s a challenge as it’s something I have not done before. The thing I was told in my interview was that “The reason we are interested is because you don’t bring the baggage of what teaching is supposed to be. We would like you to teach through your own experiences.” It’s a change from everything one has done. And who knows I may return to television in a few years.
|RAPID FIRE WITH NIDHI
Q. What would be your advice to female journalists in today’s world of media
A. If you love news, put your heart and soul into it. Don’t let anyone tell you anything about work-life balance, you can’t do this or that. We all have done it. It’s not easy but I would say go for it.
I have a lot of issues with media and those are irrespective of whether you are a woman or man. We have seen an institutional decline in India not just in the media but also other arms of democracy, whether it’s the Parliament or the judiciary. And I think the media decay is another cog in the institutional decline in this very fraught democracy of ours.
I would really urge that those who come into the profession now, come into it for the right reasons.
Come into the right organisations. It’s not easy to be a journalist. Let’s face it, now there are not those many jobs, and they not paying very well. So you really have to be careful as you make that choice.
We need people who are idealistic. People laugh and say I am silly when I say that. I believe good people can turn things around but these good people need to come with their eyes open.
Q. Way too much conversation has happened in public, on social media about your private life. What has that done to you as a person? You had also left social media as a result in between.
A. It is not nice to have the world speculate on your private life. But let me just tell you that I have learnt it the hard way that what matters to me is the truth that my family and friends know. There is so much misinformation including outright lies speculated about my life for years now. It’s a free country and it’s a democracy. People are free to speculate and you just have to move on.
Frankly what matters to me at the end of the day is not all this. Not trolling or the speculation.
Q. Did this trolling ever break you?
A. I left social media many years ago because I never liked it in the first place and I still don’t. The only reason I am on Twitter is because people were using my name with fake accounts. Therefore, people just assumed those were my tweets. Twitter told me to come back and have a verified account so at least people weren’t getting to believe the fake commentary by fake accounts. That’s one of the biggest reasons I had to return.
Q. Nepotism is a big debate in the light of Bollywood gangs today. One imagines, it’s across sectors. Would you say there is nepotism in media?
A. Often people have assumed that my dad was a journalist, a top editor so that’s how I might have got a job at NDTV. Let me dispel that myth right now. When I first applied for an internship way back in 1999, NDTV rejected me and said they don’t take interns. My father never knew Prannoy and Radhika Roy. He got to know them only after I was hired. I left my CV with NDTV and I was called back after six months when they interviewed 8 or 10 people for reporting positions. So it wasn’t because my father called Prannoy that I got this job. So that is as far as my personal story is concerned.
Nepotism in any field means that there are people who get an unfair advantage in terms of the opportunities but you cannot survive in an industry because you are someone’s son or daughter. If you suck, if you are not good at what you do, you will be rejected no matter what whether you are a politician, an actor, actress whatever. Of course you may have an unsaid advantage but ultimately it depends on what you do with those opportunities.