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'Being Indian is like having the right visiting card'

Last updated on: March 28, 2013 21:51 IST

'Being Indian is like having the right visiting card'

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In this exclusive interview with Rediff.com's Suman Guha Mozumder, Time International's new Editor Bobby Ghosh discusses Iraq, India and the New Journalism.

A fascinating conversation with one of the world's finest reporters.

Aparisim 'Bobby' Ghosh, who started his career in journalism with the Deccan Chronicle newspaper in India before moving to the Far Eastern Economic Review and has worked as an editor and correspondent in Hong Kong, London, Iraq and the United States, was last month named Editor of Time International.

He will oversee Time's international coverage for the US edition, Time.com and Time's three international print editions.

Ghosh, who is nicknamed 'Baghdad Bobby' by the media following his five year-stint in Iraq as Time's Bureau Chief during the United-States-Iraq war, became the first non-American world editor in Time's history in 2007.

'It gives me great pleasure to announce that Bobby Ghosh is our new international editor,' Richard Stengle, managing editor of Time, said last month during a staff announcement.

'Bobby,' Stengle said, 'quite simply, is a magnificent journalist who has done the highest level of work that one can aspire to in our profession. During his five years as our Baghdad bureau chief throughout the worst of the Iraq war, Bobby wrote two of our most unforgettable cover stories: Life in Hell, and Sunnis vs Shi'ites. He was not only fearless in his work in Iraq, but he was the guardian of all who worked for us in Baghdad.'

'The breadth of his interests and the depth of his expertise are reflected in a sampling of his recent international covers, from soccer star Leo Messi to Bollywood icon Aamir Khan to a profile of Egyptian president Mohamad Morsi,' Stengle, who collaborated with Nelson Mandela on the great man's autobiography, said.

Ghosh, 46, spoke to Rediff.com's Suman Guha Mozumder.

You spent a lot of time in Baghdad. Ten years down the line, what is your take on the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq?

The fact that the (George W) Bush administration got its information wrong about Iraq was clear within months of the invasion. Within weeks of the invasion, it became clear that there was no Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Ten years later, what do we know? We know ten years later what we knew two months after the war. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction that the Bush administration talked about and didn't work hard enough to try to get the correct information.

There has been a lot of discussion about the causes of the war, but I'm not particularly interested in that conversation because we already had that conversation. We had that conversation in 2003, 2004 and in 2005. There's not much to be gained by having the same conversation ten years later.

The bigger question for me is this: Is Iraq in a better place today than it was one day before the start of the war in 2003?

So is it a better place today?

I think it is a better place. True, it is a bloody place, and there are lots of problems. But you know, it will be a while before it becomes a stable, peaceful country.

Now Iraqis are free to vote, they are free to oppose their government, they are free to say things against their leaders if they are unhappy with their leaders. They are free to travel anywhere. They are free to pursue any kind of business or profession that they want. They are free to leave the country if they want to leave the country. All of these things!

When I first went to Iraq, it was still Saddam Hussein's Iraq. None of these things were possible 11 years ago. Now these things are possible. So those are all positives.

The reasons for the invasion were fraudulent. In the best case, they were mistaken. In the worst case, they were fraudulent.

But that alone, the invasion did not lead to the problems that Iraq faces today. It was what they did after the invasion; what the administration did after the invasion. The invasion was successful. Saddam and his military collapsed immediately.

All things considered, there was very little bloodshed during the war itself because the Iraqi army didn't put up much of a fight. The campaign was conducted by the American generals brilliantly.

Then what went wrong?

They made some terrible mistakes afterwards, and those mistakes were unnecessary. Those were not mistakes of omission, commission, or anything like that. They were just unnecessary.

They were bad decisions, and there were lots of smart people who, even at that time, were saying that they were bad decisions. It's not something that we are looking back now with the benefit of 2020 hindsight.

Even then, when those decisions were being made, people were saying these are bad decisions. But they made them anyway, and those are the ones that led to the bloodshed and instability, the state that Iraq finds itself today.

But I have confidence that the Iraqis will pull themselves out of this.

They have the intellectual capital to do it, and they have the real capital. They have lots of resources. They have a relatively small population. Compared to many other countries in the world. So the challenges they face are not insurmountable.

You are pretty optimistic about the future of Iraq.

Yes. About the long-term future and not the short-term future.

The short-term is going to be very bad, very unpleasant, very hard for us to take; particularly those of us who spend a lot of time in that country, have lots of friends there, and have a lot of emotional investment in that country. It will be very hard.

But in the long-term, it will work out.

But will that happen without the help of the United States?

Oh, they don't need American help. They have made that very clear. The United States offered to keep some soldiers there to help with security. They said 'Thanks, but no, thanks.' The American oil companies that are interested in pursuing exploration there have to compete with the Chinese companies and Russian companies, and others. They don't need American help.

There are plenty of other places where they can turn to for help. They will pick and choose. What they need from America, they will get from America. What they need from other places, they will get from other places.

And why shouldn't they?

They will make the choices that make the most sense to them. If they are looking for high-tech computers, they will obviously buy them from America. If they are looking for weapons systems, America is the best place to buy.

But if they're looking to buy food crops, or construction materials, they won't buy them from America. They'll buy them from wherever they get the best deal.

So there are lots of discussions about who are the winners of the Iraq war. Are the Iraqi people the winners, are the Iranians the winners, or are Al Qaeda the winners? That question is hard to answer.

The question that is easy to answer is: Who is the loser? America was the loser. America spent 2.2 trillion dollars, it lost 4,500 lives, and at the end of the day, what did it get from that?

You said just now that Baghdad will look for wherever they need to look for and not necessarily to the US.

Given that India and Iraq have a long, historical relationship, do you think Baghdad will also look for assistance from India?

If India gives them a good deal, they'll take it. If India does not make that, they won't take it. The same thing that applies to America applies to India.

The Iraqis will buy goods and services that make the best sense for them. So if Indian companies can compete with other companies around the world for contracts and for exports, they'll get it.

There's no special consideration because our relationships were good 30 or 40 years ago. Countries don't think like that. Countries have to think in a much more pragmatic way. They have to think where they can get the best deal today.

India's relationship with Russia is old and strong. But that has not stopped India from buying stuff from other parts of the world, even though Russia has similar goods and services. And that is because it makes more sense for India to buy stuff say from Australia, or from America, or from somewhere else.

The Iraqis are the same. They are not going to give India any special consideration. Why should they? We are not going to give them any special consideration, so why should they give us any?

In the specific context of the India-Iraq relationship, are you suggesting that economics might take precedence over politics in terms of bilateral business and economic ties?

Absolutely. They like Indians. So if an Indian businessman goes to Iraq with a proposal, he or she will have a certain advantage. It will be easier to get their foot in the door, compared with a complete stranger from a different part of the world.

But after that, doing that actual deal will depend on the commercial viability of the deal, and the economic attractiveness of the deal. It won't depend on your being Indian or not.

Being Indian is like having the right visiting card. You can get in the door in some places -- Iraq is one of those places. But after you get in the door, there is no easy pass.

You know, before the war, all the consumer electronics in Iraq, or the majority of the consumer electronics, were Indian electronics.

Every home I went to had fans, light fittings etc that were all made in India. All the electrical things in the homes were Indian. They had been buying Indian products for 30 years.

But immediately after the war, the Korean and Chinese companies came in there, and they were selling not only electrical, but also electronics; televisions and so on, at very competitive prices.

Indian companies did not have the foresight to do so, or did not have the entrepreneurial ability and the risk-taking ability to do so. So they lost out.

Nobody buys Indian brand fans or other electric or electronic goods anymore; instead they buy some Chinese brand, or some Japanese brand, or Turkish brand. Turkish products are very popular.

The fact that they (the Iraqis) like Indians, and didn't have any strong feelings about the Chinese or others did not discourage them from buying stuff from them. Somehow, the Indians were not able to take advantage of Iraq's liking of Indians or India.

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Image: Bobby Ghosh
Photographs: Courtesy: Joseph Moran/TIME Inc

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'America has changed its idea about its role in the world'

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Since you came back from Baghdad, do you think the US has lot more on its plate in terms of handling the troubled spots in the world today than it was before the Iraq War?

There are always troubled spots in the world. Whether there are more or less is hard to tell. It kind of depends on how you define it, and who is keeping count.

First of all, America has changed its idea about its own role in the world about these things.

I think after the Bush administration, even in the second term of the Bush administration, people began to step away from the idea that it is America's responsibility to go and solve these problems. Also, America and many other countries in the world now face grave economic challenges which are at home. And they have to deal with those challenges first.

One thing that we have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan is that war is very expensive, and invariably will take much longer and cost much more than you think. So I think, given all of that, it's understandable that America doesn't want to get too closely involved in foreign conflicts at this moment.

During most of your professional career you have worked as a reporter/correspondent in various parts of the world. Now that you have been named an editor, obviously you will be spending more time behind desk.

Given a chance which one you would like better -- being on the field reporting for your publication or behind the desk?

You know, you exercise completely different parts of your brain in these two jobs. Each is challenging in its own way. I've actually done both in my career. I was an editor when I was in India, then I became a correspondent. Then I was an editor for a while in Hong Kong.

Then I was a correspondent again followed by my stint as an editor in London for a while at Time, and then I again became a correspondent.

I have gone from one to the other throughout my career, and each of them has its own attractions.

To be able to run your own ship is a new challenge for me, and that's interesting and exciting.

I'm sure there will be days when I miss being on the road, and doing old-fashioned reporting. But now I get to send other people to go and do those kinds of things, and I have to give other people opportunities.

I'll enjoy thinking about the magazine in a completely different way, from a higher altitude a little bit to understand what a magazine should look like and feel like to a reader. It's kind of difficult. It's a little apples and oranges and it's hard to make a comparison.

Newsweek's print edition has folded up and it is only the Web edition that one gets to read here.

What kind of challenge do you expect from Newsweek's Web edition going forward and how do you propose to cope with that?

Newsweek is not our challenger, and not our competition. And we are not Newsweek's competition. That idea was out of the window ten years ago. Now our competition is with everybody. CNN is my competitor, Google News is my competitor, The New York Times is my competitor. I am no longer a magazine. I am a magazine, I'm a Web site, I'm a mobile app, I'm a tablet edition.

I'm competing with different people in different places, and different times of the day.

Every day, more than 90 percent of the journalism that Time employees do today, never gets into the magazine. It only goes to time.com People don't always realise this, but 90 percent of the work I do is not in the magazine.

So, I'm competing with everybody -- with BBC.com, with CNN and with every news site. I'm even competing with Rediff.com in India.

So it's no longer profitable, or no longer makes sense to think of the world in those sort of monochrome terms where it is black versus white, or you versus me, or one magazine against the other.

All of us are competing. Each of us is competing with everybody else.

And the challenge is, for me, to make my product competitive, and to persuade people to follow me, not just in the magazine, but everywhere.

The nature of competition in our industry has changed so completely that we can no longer think about these old formulas of who we are up against.

Going forward, will you change focus from lamp-post journalism to lighthouse journalism?

I don't think that those formulas apply anymore. I think, going forward, you will see two kinds of things.

The value of journalism has not declined. People are reading more, and consuming more information, more journalism, than ever in any time in the history of mankind.

It's just that the consumption pattern has changed.

And going forward, I think the two pillars of it, which is not lamp-post or lighthouse in my humble opinion, but the two pillars of journalism will continue to remain the same, which is the brand name of the individual, and the brand name of the platform.

People will follow Nicholas Kristof (two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist) because they trust him. They will follow Nick Kristof whether he is writing for the New York Times, or tomorrow if he decides he wants to go and write for the Abu Dhabi Times.

That is one kind of brand, journalist's brand. This has always been true, by the way.

People followed M J Akbar when he was producing Sunday magazine. When he moved to The Telegraph in Kolkata, they followed him there. When he moved from the Telegraph to other places, they followed him there too.

The individual journalist star has always been, and will continue to be somebody who gets followers.

The other thing is the credibility of a brand. If you are to create a brand, you have to create trust; you have to create confidence in a brand. Brands like Time magazine have that advantage.

You cannot remain static. If you remain static in one place and doing one thing like you always have done it, then you're in trouble.

But if you are able to translate the values of your brand across different platforms, then you're okay. You're fine.

So I think that the New York Times will survive. I think Time magazine will survive. I think BBC will survive.

Even though these are old institutions, they no longer function like they used to function even ten years ago, never mind a hundred years ago.

As long as they show the ability to be nimble, and switch from one medium to the other while bringing the values and the quality of their journalism, they'll be okay.


Image: TIME International's Editor Bobby Ghosh with TIME Managing Editor Richard Stengel in New York City.
Photographs: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
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