‘Sabki Dhulai’ With Madhu Trehan: Turning The Mirror On The Media

Posted on March 2, 2015 in Interviews, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Kanika Katyal for Youth Ki Awaaz:

[su_row][su_column size=”1/2″] “So what’s wrong with that? Be anti-establishment. Let them call you what they like, you do what is right, what you think is right,” says Madhu Purie Trehan, veteran Indian journalist, and the founding editor of the leading Indian news magazine, India Today, bolstering Youth Ki Awaaz to fearlessly ride the bandwagon of the fourth estate.

Newslaundry, Trehan’s brainchild, is an independent media website that turns the mirror on the media itself. Be it interrogating Markandey Katju on “asking for more teeth” for the Press Council; or telling Barkha Dutt straight up, “You spoke to somebody at the Taj. And he told you that there were a 100 hostages, suddenly everyone including the terrorists knew that there were hostages, because of you, Barkha!”, the tagline of Newslaundry – “sabki dhulai”, sets the ideological framework right.

Suffice to say that Madhu Trehan’s “Can you take it?” interviews of journalists, get her trending.

In 2009, her book Prism Me a Lie, Tell Me a Truth: Tehelka as Metaphor came out, which examined the 2001 Operation West End exposé and its aftermath. While on one hand it became a clarion call for all the aspiring journalists, on the other, it got embroiled in its share of controversies when renowned journalist Karan Thapar down-reviewed the book in the Hindustan times, calling it, ‘Truly sorry, Madhu’. In an unprecedented move, Madhu Trehan replied to the review in the same newspaper with an article titled, ‘Who’s afraid of Karan Thapar?’

That’s Madhu Trehan for you.

Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with the veteran journalist, whose mission is “to make news a public service again”, in a quick chat on the ethics of it all.

Q. We have very few organisations that are holding the media accountable for their reporting. As far as my knowledge goes, it’s only The Hoot and Newslaundry. What was your idea behind starting Newslaundry ?

A. Two is a lot, because in other countries there isn’t even one. And the idea – as you know, the credibility of journalists and journalism has been so damaged ever since news management started selling the editorial space (advertisements in the editorial space) that (now) you don’t know whether you’re reading an advertisement, or whether you’re reading a genuine report. The lines have become so blurred! Earlier, business and marketing stayed out of the editorial’s hair, and vice-versa. But that changed in the 90’s when The Times of India started selling their editorial space. Business and advertising began to lead the editorial, instead of the other way round.

Q. How would you describe your transition from print journalism to electronic journalism?

A. There was no transition. It makes no difference. If you’re a journalist and you write, you don’t care whether it’s being printed on a hard copy, or it’s going on the web, or whether you’re doing it for the television. It’s all the same. In fact, I think today’s journalists are natural convergents. They converge easily and I embrace that. I find it wonderful that if I want to, I can do an article which could also include an iPhone review for one minute or 5 seconds, and I can also add links to other stories in the same article; so it’s an amazing time! You’re lucky because you’re young, because I’ll be gone, because there are so many new things that are happening in technology and it’s very useful for journalists. Research is so simple; we used to go to libraries.

Q. Rajdeep Sardesai expressed in a talk that journalists have gained more freedom after Doordarshan. They have become more analytical. Now, there is a tussle, almost a fight to get the fist scoop, “the nation wants to know” sort of a scenario. How do you think this affects and impacts the public sentiment?

A. It’s good that journalists aim for getting the news first. That’s what a journalist does! Getting it first is important, so I don’t see any problem with that. I think they should do it that way. But not when you go for cheap and quick journalism, with just bytes and no in-depth reporting, no research done. For instance, I saw a woman on a television channel who went to Mira Nair and asked, “ Accha to ye to batao, ki apne yeh naam, Vanity Fair, kaise socha?” ( So tell us, how did you think of the name ‘Vanity Fair’ for your movie?) While the truth is that she should have done her research! Mira Nair very patiently explained, “Vanity Fair bohot purani classic hai jo Thackeray ne likhi thi” (Vanity Fair is an old classic written by Thackeray). Today, research is so simple. It’s the press of one button, and you get all of it instantly. So it’s inexcusable to not do your research.

Q. We at Youth Ki Awaaz are also an independent, journalistic platform, liberal, and progressive in our approach. Due to this, we are sometimes accused of being anti-state, or anti-establishment. What do you suggest be done to deal with the pressures of independent journalism being called overcritical?

A. So, what’s wrong with that? Be anti-establishment. Let them call you what they like. You do what is right, what you think is right. What difference does it make? People will call you all kinds of things.

Q. At your talk, you said that the generation before the 1990’s had seen state riots, such as the Godhra, so they could make those connections, and had a better sense of what was happening around them; today the generation is fickle, and is only jumping from one story to another. So, what do you think is the boon and bane of belonging to the post 1990’s generation?

A. I don’t think that it’s a generation’s fault. The onus is on the editors who push them to do these things, and many of them are misguided. They think that it’s all about ‘getting a byte’, and nobody is doing in-depth stories except for a few, like Sreenivasan Jain does it for NDTV. There are good pockets of journalism here and there. Hindi journalism does in-depth stories, Ravish is brilliant, Prasoon is good. But, I think that it’s the organisations; it’s the cheapest to get six idiots in a studio and let them scream at each other. It costs money to send a team to the north-east, or to Kashmir, or to the south. To go to all these places and do actual stories – it costs money. So they are going for the cheap option. But I think it will come from the circle, when they find that good journalism is what sells.

Q. When your book, ‘Tehelka as a Metaphor’ came out, you were quoted saying that you hope it becomes “a ray of hope in this highly cynical, jaded, Machiavellian society”. How essential do you think it is for journalists to be objective and not cynical, when it comes to investigation?

A. See, being objective is very difficult. Because when you are talking to a rape victim, how are you going to be objective? When you see somebody get beaten up by the police, how are you going to be objective? How are you going to be objective when a policeman is beaten up by a gunda? So journalists also have feelings. I think that’s fine. But the only thing to be careful about is not to allow yourself to be used by any political party, any corporate house, and by your own organisation. You have to stick to your guns, and I think junior journalists don’t realise how much power they have. I’ve seen incidents in a news meeting where the journalists get together and they tell the editor that we will not do a story, because it’s cheap.


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Photo Credit
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What does your writing space look like?

It’s like a mad scientist’s…books, papers… and I keep promising myself “Ek din tidy karengey”.

The view from your window…

Greenery, bamboos.

That which keeps you from writing/work…

My children, my grandchildren.

What aspiring journalists must not do…

They must not ever go with a story just because one person is telling the story. They have to get it checked, double checked, and always get the other side.

Tea Or Coffee?


Early Bird, or Creature of the Night?

Creature of the night

Road trip, or flying?

Road trip.

If not a journalist, you’d be?

Maybe a stand-up comedian [/alert]


The interview was conducted as a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival