Recorded for the BBC’s College of Journalism.
This is the full interview with Sir Mark Tully, in audio below. He is a former Bureau Chief of the BBC’s office in New Delhi and this was recorded at the BBC’s Blackstaff studio on July 6 2011.
Below it are extracts listed by theme for those who’d like to just dip in.
The normal role of the foreign correspondent is to live abroad and report on events there for the audience at home.
Mark Tully, as BBC Bureau Chief in India found himself catering for a much larger audience there than in Britain. His reports for home were also broadcast on the BBC World Service to millions of listeners in India who had no other independent source of radio news.
India is a democratic country, though it slid into dictatorship for a brief spell in the 1970s. But the radio broadcast news is still controlled by the government and no independent indigenous station is licensed to provide news and current affairs.
‘This created tensions’, says Tully.
For the requirements of broadcasting to a home audience and a distant one are different.
The listener in the country being talked about is familiar with the context of the stories reported and expects the journalist to demonstrate a rich acquaintance with detail.
This allows the reporter to skip detail that the audience can be trusted to know. There was, for instance, no need to remind Indian listeners that Indira Gandhi was the daughter of the first Indian Prime Minister, Nehru.
Writing for the distant audience, the reporter has repeatedly to labour points just like that, on the assumption that the listener knows little, and might even lightly assume that she was the daughter of Mahatma Gandhi.
The editor in London, receiving reports filed for broadcast on the BBC in Britain, expects broad-stroke pictures, stripped of distracting detail and simplified for listeners who have no familiarity with the story.
And this editor will resist any suggestion that the demands on the foreign correspondent inpose superficiality and simplification. Instead such editors regard the ability to encapsulate the problems of a foreign political culture in simple language that can be understood by the casual listener as a great skill of which only the best journalists are capable.
But Tully had both audiences and this fact imposed strains on the style which he had to adopt. On occasions, he exasperated London editors with the detail that he put in his stories for his Indian listeners.
During the Emergency in 1975, when Indira Gandhi suspended democracy and jailed opponents, Tully reported lists of the people that had been arrested; people that most listeners in Britain would never have heard of.
“The Foreign Duty Editor said, “For God’s sake, why are you giving all these names? We just want one and a half minutes.”‘
Tully knew that Indian listeners might have only this one chance to hear the list of those arrested before a news clamp down.
Another consequence of Tully’s reports going out across India, though he was primarily commissioned to serve the BBC at home, was that he became a celebrity there.
Most foreign correspondents have a low profile in the media of the country they report from. Tully, on the other hand, had no rival across the whole Indian subcontinent, for the freshness and independence of the news he reported.
He lives there now, for most of the year, and is remembered affectionately as Tully Sahib.
The fate of most other foreign correspondents is that the come back after a time, take up other positions or postings and are remembered and respected only by the audiences they reported to at home.