Perhaps you’re aware that Shashi Tharoor is upset with me and are wondering what it’s all about? Normally I would not satisfy such curiosity, but on this occasion I will. The incident helps explain the nature of journalism. It also clears up some common misunderstandings about interviews. Finally, it reveals a tension inherent in many television exchanges — the attempt to make guests say things they ought not to.
Shashi claims I bullied Farooq Abdullah into suggesting he should resign by “putting words in his mouth”. And because, earlier, I had offered Shashi the opportunity to present his case in an interview to Devil’s Advocate, he adds my Abdullah interview is a “betrayal”.
I can understand Shashi’s anger. In his place I might have felt the same. But, on both counts, Shashi is mistaken. However, it’s an error others could also have made. Hence the need for this explanation.
First, the Abdullah interview. I asked if, on the basis of the Caesar’s wife principle, Shashi should resign. “That point is to be decided by the prime minister,” was Dr Abdullah’s initial response. “When the prime minister decides he will be ordering Shashi Tharoor,” I replied, and repeated “do you think Shashi Tharoor should voluntarily take the honourable course himself?” “That I leave to him.”
At this point I changed tactics. “If you were in that position what would you do?” After a certain hesitation,
Dr Abdullah gave me a clear and unequivocal answer: “My decision will be to go…. not only (because of) my honour but also (the) honour of the country and the government.”
Whilst it’s undeniable that I tried to lure Dr Abdullah into answering the awkward Shashi question, it’s also equally true that he could have continued to prevaricate if he wanted to. If he had refused to respond on the grounds it’s a hypothetical question I would, probably, have given up.
So why did Dr Abdullah answer? Ultimately, that’s for him to say. But it wasn’t because he was boxed into a corner and left with no choice. My guess is he either wanted to or felt he should.
Next, did I mislead Shashi by earlier offering him Devil’s Advocate as an opportunity to present his case, an invitation he did not decline but, equally, did not take up? If you think carefully, the answer has to be ‘no’.
No doubt an offer to present your case suggests you will get a sympathetic hearing. But, again, that doesn’t preclude asking difficult questions. Only that you will hear the answer, assuming it’s not a deliberate filibuster. Nor does it mean you won’t raise the issue with others. In fact, Shashi’s decision not to accept my offer forced me to find other interlocutors. The irony is had he spoken to me I would never have interviewed Farooq Abdullah!
A final word about the Abdullah interview. He knew I would be raising Shashi and did not ask me to desist. Nor was he upset with the way I pursued the subject. In fact, he repeated the same answer a few hours later to the Indian Express. Further proof I did not prise it out of him.
My points are simple: journalism often involves coaxing people into saying things they might prefer to be silent about. That’s what makes news. Second, an offer to interview someone doesn’t preclude questioning a third party about them. Third, if you’re upset by what they say, don’t blame the interviewer.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)