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A good student with multiple degrees and an above-average cricketer, Rajdeep Sardesai is a liberal voice. Affable and humble, the editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, in a freewheeling conversation with Maheshwer Peri of Careers360, speaks on his cricketing ability, the accidental brush with journalism, his career, the country's politics and equality of opportunity.
Your father was a cricketer and your mother was in academics. How was it one would always want you to be an outdoors person and other would want you to focus on studies?
It's a tough question. But it helped me to be good in both without excelling in either. I think in my heart of hearts I was always happier on the cricket field than I was in the classroom. The good thing about cricket is that it is meritocratic. I realised I wasn't good enough. As time passed, I was able to concentrate on academics. I think mother being a professor helped in maintaining discipline. It's great when your parent's take your ambition and interests seriously.
You are being modest when you say you are not good in cricket. You are one of the few journalists who has a page dedicated on cricinfo. Do you think you gave up cricket too early?
I think I was not good enough. I was reasonably good at a certain level -- under 19, university-level. But to make the next grade you got to have something special in you. Maybe you have to have a certain hunger in you, not just skill. I had every facility with me. So, I am not being modest, I am just saying that there was a level beyond which I couldn't go.
When you were playing for the Combined Universities, the Indo-Pak animosity was at its peak. On the field in UK, did you witness tensions between the teams?
Not really. The Combined Universities team in the UK had a bunch of English students, mainly from across the country. There was no animosity there. I always believe Indians and Pakistanis get along famously as long as they are out of their sub-continent. That is why I am a great advocate for that idea that India and Pakistan should play at neutral venues.
You graduated from St Xavier's. And then you went to Oxford to study MA LLB. Why so many degrees? Do multiple degrees help you (Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Bachelor of Civil Law)?
I didn't know what to do with life, so I kept studying. Obviously, BA was something which you have to do. The MA LLB in Oxford was essentially because one had scholarship to go there and study. I was quite interested in doing Law. I thought law was a potential career. I liked the idea of debating, arguing and all. So, I thought I would become a decent lawyer. I think the training one received as a lawyer became useful in this part of my life.
Were you a good debater?
I was a better quizzer than a debater. I represented my state in the Cadbury Bournvita Quiz Contest hosted by Amin Sayani. It was really a tough quiz contest. I did a lot of elocution, drama and participated in debates at the same time.
You were not a journalism student. How did you get into the field?
In the mid 80s, when I was in college, Behram Contractor had started the newspaper, Afternoon. The office was close to my college. I approached Bahram saying "Would you like me to help you out with work." He was very kind and took me. I joined there as a trainee reporter. I always liked writing. It was another close interest.
When I came back from Oxford, I started as a lawyer at Crawford Bailey, a leading law firm. There was so much studying of law that I wanted to take a break. There is a tradition in Times of India -- those who come from Oxford are offered a job of assistant editorship. I saw it as a year away from Law. It was purely an accident. It's not that I set out to be a journalist. The one year that I had given myself became six years at TOI. Then it became too late.
How did the shift from print to television happen? Your experience.
It was very difficult. Even today, deep down inside I still believe that I would be more comfortable doing print. The joy you get from a byline, for me at least, is a bigger high than on TV on a daily basis. Given a choice, I will still go for print. But print doesn't pay as much as TV.
You are the head of the Editor's Guild of India. On the controversy about 'paid news', Do you think the Editor's Guild could do much more than just showing intent?
The Editor's Guild did bring out a resolution against paid news. At the end of the day, most editors have to do what their proprietors tell them to do. And unless proprietors become part of this, it is not going to happen easily. Our business model does encourage a greater commercialisation of news.
Is it far easier for you to be a good journalist on political issues? In the last five years, I don't recall a single expose by any big media organisation against any big advertiser. Are politicians easy prey?
It is true that there are no stings on corporate India. All the stings are on politicians because they are softer targets. Corporate India can hurt your bottom line. As a general practice, TV channels and newspapers are reluctant to take on corporate India. It's more of the economics of the profession which are inclined more and more with corporate and commercial interests. There is less accountability for corporate India as compared to political India.
Media only talks about politics. Real issues affecting the common man are ignored?
Now, that is changing. There should be a bigger debate on the right to education, the collapse of the public health system when we are facing epidemics like dengue, malaria. I think these are all critical areas. Perhaps, we haven't spent enough time in building expertise on these subjects. But I do believe these are the critical subjects for the future.
Your take on the privatisation of education?
I have always believed that you need to strengthen the public school education system in this country. You need to improve the quality of government and public schools first. Private schools will act according to their commercial intent. I have no problems if you create conditions in which private schools also flourish. But you cannot create a system which is two-tiered, where public schools are languishing and private schools are flourishing.
It's about creating a brand new model, perhaps on the lines of the Kendriya Vidyalaya model. You need thousand more Kendriya Vidyalayas in this country. The Right to Education should rather turn to right to quality education.
There is a huge debate on private schools denying admission to poor children. Are we creating ghettos?
Private schools will run for commercial profit. It's like private hospitals. If you set up a private hospital on government land and tell them they have to give a certain percentage of beds to BPL patients, most of them don't.
If you look at Britain, the best students are from the public school system. My domestic help's kids should have access to the same education facilities as my kids. Only then things will change. The reservation policies are tinkering with it. The larger thing is, invest money in building a completely radical new public school infrastructure.
Do you think the politicians involved in education are messing up the entire system?
In my home state Maharashtra, you have a string of colleges and educational institutions set up by politicians. There are two-ways to look at it. 1) The politicians are taking education with a commercial motive in mind -- it is a step backward. 2) The other way to look at it is they are filling in the vacuum created by the fact that the state has not invested in education. I am inclined to believe that the second is true.
When Kapil Sibal spoke about the education tribunal in Parliament, he was resisted by his own party. I think you cannot stop politicians from becoming education entrepreneurs. What you can do though is put in place the legal framework so that they all are appropriate within rules and regulations.
What we really need is a good education regulator. It is a shocking thing that we haven't had it so far. Two sectors primarily need regulator Health and Education. In health, you have the Medical Council of India where you appoint people as a favour to some political party and this is turning out to be some scam-ridden institute (the Dental Council of India likewise). Therefore, you don't have any proper regulator who can really be transparent and where people can have faith.
What is your opinion on Kapil Sibal's work?
Kapil Sibal has brought a new energy to a dormant ministry. He deserves a lot of applause for the efforts he made. Perhaps, he is not thinking through the policies so there is resistance and he is facing roadblocks as a result. But in general, we are moving in the right direction. If he thinks the education tribunal is the nature of regulator for colleges then why not...
The right to education needs to be thought through more -- as in where the resources are are going to come from, how you will manage them...Purely as an idea, it's a great one. Overall, you have to give him first rate marks for the efforts he has put in.
What are your thoughts on reservation? Is the quota system compromising good quality students?
In a country like India, you cannot get away from affirmative action. My only concern is that it doesn't have to be through 50 per cent plus reservation. Why can't it be through a robust scheme of scholarships? I mean like other western countries -- why can't we create a stronger system of scholarship? It may end up with giving the same number of students as you do through reservation benefits. But hopefully it will be more economically grounded than caste.
But having said that, I think I would support affirmative action. At the end of the day, affirmative action is a form of building education as equality of opportunity. We are an unequal society, where we need to have affirmative action.
In visual media, only people with great personalities succeed and intelligent people might not find a way into the system. Do you agree?
In TV, it does matter that you should be presentable. You have to be someone who is a good communicator. Let's put it another way, say you don't have good writing skills, then certainly you cannot become a good print journalist. Therefore, just because you have good writing skills does not mean that you would have good TV skills. TV is very anchor-face-driven, but there is still space for investigative and intelligent journalists.
In the last five years, you have been through huge ups and downs. At times, you do a story and go to hell, and if you don't, you still go to hell. How do you tackle constant criticism and backbiting?
The biggest challenge for journalism is the ethical challenge, and the only way you can meet it is by being true to yourself. Over time, you will build so much credibility that even when you do a mistake -- you could say it is a legitimate one.
In your 20 to 30 years of journalistic career, you may make a couple of wrong choices. Does that mean you may have to smart for life? If somebody asks me "What is that you really care of -- is it recognition, money, fame?" Frankly, it is credibility. One wants to be seen as a stand over, robust credible face of journalism on TV.
On Twitter I see you more outspoken...
On TV you are like a neutral umpire. Yes, we take a stand when we feel very clearly about something, it's not that one doesn't take a stand at all. But your overall focus should be to become a neutral umpire. Our task is on exploring shades of grey.
When you are on Twitter -- you are venting or at least expressing yourself. Perhaps, maybe in a more black and white manner. Twitter is more like what we say inside our closed walls.