Even if a subject denies being interviewed, publishing a thorough profile is a democratic duty

07 November, 2020

The following is the introduction to The Caravan Book of Profiles, a selected anthology of our publication’s long-form profiles, published in 2016 by Penguin. It features 13 of the 110 profiles that The Caravan had published by the summer of 2016, including that of the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, the former finance minister Arun Jaitley, the former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the media mogul Sameer Jain, the musician MS Subbulakshmi and the liquor barren Ponty Chadha. In its introduction, Vinod Jose, the executive editor of The Caravan, writes about profiling public figures in India, and discusses why a journalist or publication must proceed with a piece of well-rounded journalism even when its subject refuses to be accessible.

There was a time when, world over, everybody knew the standard protocols for what a newsperson called the “celebrity profile.” To write the profile of a famous person engaged in the work of politics, culture or business, the journalist first went straight to the celebrity. They were routinely stonewalled by the celebrity’s publicist, who set the rules of engagement: in almost every case, it meant the journalist would be given access to this luminary only on the condition that he or she would write something pleasing about them (the subject). 

When published, these profiles sounded like run-on versions of long transactional Q&As. They contained little criticism of their subject, and the voice of the essay was that of the celebrity, not of the writer. Oozing across the pages, inevitably, were a few well-posed pictures, good enough for the appeased idol to frame the pages in glass, teak and rosewood, and tack them next to his certificates on the office walls. 

The other sort of profile emerged later. Attempted with the greatest distinction by American magazines of narrative journalism, this style only grew to prominence in the mid-twentieth century. Investigative, critical, and often witty, the piece let the reader know, through its voice, that the writer-journalist was in command here, rather than the subject. Any material thrown up by way of a personal encounter with the subject was just one of a range of raw materials at the writer’s disposal. 

These works of journalism came closer than others to literature. Their character sketches were created through the imprints of strong imagery and scenes that were woven together in the fashion of a plot. The persons under investigation became not unlike the memorable, well-crafted figures of classic literature. This sort of writing became a genre unto itself.

For seven or eight decades, this variety of profile, part of American new journalism, established a tradition in the newsrooms in many Western nations. In India, however, the celebrity profile followed the old school for a very long time, except for a few random experiments. When The Caravan arrived in its re-launched avatar, the profile found a life of its own in Indian journalism. 

To portray a life in something like totality, old rules of allegiance to the subject must fall by the wayside; as the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski said, with due respect to the subject, the writer’s allegiance was now with the reader. There was no missing a subject’s foulness, inconstancy and fury of wickedness. Human deceit became important, and in some ways central, to the deep profile. 

These profiles made extensive use of investigative techniques. They deployed wit, irony and dramatic flair. They consigned the publicist to irrelevance. The resulting story was not just the chronicle of a life in itself. It was multi-layered, and had many little stories in it, explaining a complex life by complex means. You reported close, and pulled back while writing. It made journalism a lot more liberating, but also several times harder. 

Every aspect of such a story had to be based on credible sourcing, and put through rigorous fact checking. They were often reported after talking to forty or fifty people. The Caravan profiles were written after talking to over a hundred people. If the character profiled was a complex personality or put hurdles in the way of reporting, if we found ourselves, for whatever reason, on unsure ground, the journalist worked harder. Such reporting, which lay readers called research, for profiles was unprecedented in Indian journalism. Allowed time and space, they could not easily be found elsewhere. 

Across the world, there is a widely accepted set of dos and don’ts in journalistic ethics, which are then shaped more specifically by their cultural milieus. Indian English journalism is defined by what we may safely qualify as the domineering Lutyens’ Delhi School of Ethics. This is marked by the principle that a journalist’s grind for access to a power list of celebrities is directly proportionate to how much familiarity and social trust they have gained over the years. 

In other words, the relationship is not even slightly that of two professionals talking to each other; instead, one of those professionals must play the ally. A celebrated columnist who regales readers with political gossip once played fixer to the Gandhi family, taking Indira Gandhi’s daughters-in-law shopping. Later in her career, this columnist’s allegiance shifted to the household of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, where she went as far as sorting out differences between politicians and acting as a go-between to many of them. The style and method suited her, and she has been distinguished in her pursuit by the degree of intimacy she achieved with her subjects, if nothing else. 

Another way of securing access will be familiar to readers who tracked the story of the infamous Niira Radia tapes. On those recordings, acquired by tapping the phone of a high-profile publicist, a journalist–editor offers to do “well-rehearsed” and “fully scripted” interviews with, among others, Mukesh Ambani, the tsar of Indian business. “What kind of story do you want?” the journalist asks the publicist Radia, all bluntness and tongue-in-cheek familiarity. 

In this market, The Caravan had nothing to offer. Of the thirteen profiles in this anthology [referring to The Caravan Book of Profiles, which this essay originally introduced], writers gained access to their subjects only in eight cases. Two of these were from the current [in 2016] prime ministers of Pakistan and Nepal. The Indian who granted the most access did so from jail. 

In another political profile where we got minimal access, our subject promised the reporter a longer second interview after their first meeting, then chose to inspire one of his crony businessmen to send us a barrage of legal notices before the story was published. The use of legal threat and intimidation to kill a story before it can hit the stands has a long tradition in India. In our case, we chose to ignore the threats and run the article. 

Among our profiles of people involved in the economy, only Raghuram Rajan, the RBI Governor also an academic, gave access. Cultural figures were uniformly more forthcoming. As this makes clear, in India, A-list politicians and businesspersons, or A-, B- and C-lists alike, have a problem taking questions from independent journalists in one-on-one settings. Ironically, forfeiting personal access has worked largely to our advantage, just as some masters in the West turned the denial of access to their advantage. 

Vanity Fair once reported that Gay Talese’s famous profile of Frank Sinatra, published without writer ever having met subject, was often cited as the inspiration that steered generations of youngsters to a career in journalism. Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, published in Esquire in 1966, was written because Talese was tasked to profile Sinatra but was repeatedly given the brush-off by the singer’s publicist. He completed the assignment, and created a classic of modern journalism by writing about trailing everyone around the great man instead. 

The thumb rule for The Caravan profile is that access is good, but if it isn’t given, the writer will have to be sanguine. Of course, they are often a little relieved that their story is now free of one of the most persuasive restraints on a writer: the potentially manipulative emotional influence of a direct conversation. Many Indian public figures, believing that a story would be discredited without their participation, turned us down. Perhaps few realised at the outset that a well-executed long story takes on a life of its own in the reader’s mind, with the readers often remembering lines, dialogues and scenes, just as they did with literature and film. 

The press in India is certainly better than its counterparts in monarchies, theocracies and dictatorships, but let’s compare apples with apples. This, I am afraid, produces a dismal scenario in a democracy whose self-image is so intimately concerned with close comparisons to established, industrial democracies in the West. 

In India, fearing retribution, the standard “source” on whose shoulders a story stands—the powerful celebrity, the insider at a corporation, the wheeler-dealer in a political party—habitually remains anonymous. Where it isn’t threat at work, it’s personal ambition. One of the people I spoke to for a profile was a very senior politician who lived in Gurgaon—a desirable address in some professions, but worse than Tihar jail for someone who was once a Lutyens’ Delhi insider. The man was deadwood, cast off in the wilderness: yet at the end of the interview, when he insisted on anonymity, I realised that this octogenarian was still hoping to come in from the cold, repatriated to the land of the living with a gubernatorial position or some other decoration. 

Journalists seeking attributed accounts have been at the receiving end of such systemic unwillingness. (An additional complication arises at The Caravan due to our dislike of the airy newspaper habit of ascribing things to “sources” who said them, and to changing names. This is why, instead of “Mr X,” you hear from “a senior party general secretary who was witness to the discussion,” or “an industrialist from eastern India who funded the leader” and so on, in our reportage.) We look for material that outlines a whole life, its characteristics, its ups and downs, its encounters, how a particular character behaves at key points in his life. 

How much easier the convention of he-said, she-said journalism is, which stops at putting out opposing points of view. But this sort of journalism is only as good as its sources, and the cheap compromises and peculiar hollowness of Indian public life have not served our press or our democracy well. A president or prime minister only has to exit office in other democracies for hundreds of people in his administration to open up on their experiences in the regime, eager to clear the record for a variety of motives. Of the thousands who exit our political or corporate system year on year, only a few are open to recalling their work with any measure of frankness. Our lack of interest in thinking deeply about the past, in learning as a people from our experiences, and our shyness about candid conversations have made us less wise as a people—and the job of a profile writer more stressful. 

After making interview requests respectfully, and hearing back in the negative with almost bureaucratic regularity, The Caravan’s profile writers said—so be it. This spirit—of irreverence, of audacity—was also needed. By doing this, you were performing a democratic duty. By labouring to produce the results in a long, artfully constructed story, you were bringing pleasure to your reader. Some people like us for the former, some for the latter. For some, myself included, it’s the mix of the two that contains the kick. 

The journalist’s primary role—that of sending information from a site of action to the consumers of that information who are further away—is no longer quite as fundamental. The citizen on the street can now fulfil that function through her phone. The reader need not be beholden to a few oligarchic suppliers for his news.  

There are several answers to the question of what we should do now. One, for certain, is that reporters would do well to don the additional hats of writer and intellectual. In this regard, I hope The Caravan’s profiles also offer something like an idea for the future. In spite of the similarity in the processes of reporting and writing, as I look back on these stories, I am struck by how different each one is. This is because each profile was produced by someone who assumed all three roles—reporter, writer, intellectual—in their approach to the story, and each person’s individual style determined the balance of power between the three. 

There is evidence that this might be one of the ways forward. Our profiles, which make the major chunk of The Caravan cover stories, are shared and read widely, every month. The last numbers available for 2014 on Twitter show that The Caravan’s cover stories were shared over 50,000 times; top Indian newsweeklies with four times as many issues per year collectively did fewer than 10,000 shares. The value of doing well-rounded journalism, profile or otherwise, perhaps is one of the few ways to validate the profession itself. 

Executive Editor, The Caravan                                                         Vinod K Jose

August 2016 

This extract has been edited and condensed.