Sunday, June 10, 2007

Karan Thapar defends his interviewing 'style'

In his latest column in the Hindustan Times.

I know the word 'style' in this post's title is awfully misplaced. I remember watching a few episodes of Devil's Advocate, his interview program, last year during the fracas over OBC reservation. I'm all for a lusty debate on TV, but Thapar's interviews pollute our airwaves (or, rust our TV cables) far more than throw light on issues of public importance. His program is either a harangue / monologue or an irritating series of frequent interruptions, even when the interviewee isn't being ponderous or evasive. Though he acts as if his mission statement is "we make pit bulls appear pacifist," he is not above going easy on those on 'his side'. In other words, he is self-servingly selective in employing his 'interviewing style'.

One interview that I recall vividly is that of Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, whose towering stature was clear all through the interview. Whenever Thapar tried his silly interruptions, Chidambaram put him down very effectively. [This is also an interview in which Thapar comes across as just plain ignorant. There was a section in which he chose a silly line of questions regarding Chidambaram's own education, where he gets his college wrong!]. Let me just highlight a bunch of PC's replies:

Mr Dipankar Gupta can have an opinion. You can have an opinion. But you must listen to the other opinion. So just be patient. [...]

You got your facts wrong. I went to Presidency College, which has reservation. [...]

Your facts are wrong. [...]

You ask for empirical evidence and you don’t have the patience to wait for the answer. [...]

Listen to me. That will come in the Supreme Court in a form of an affidavit. [...]

Wrong again. It will be put together in the form of an affidavit and will be given to the SC.

Listen you are quibbling on words. Let me explain my position. [...]

I am sorry the government does not have to answer you in an interview.[...]

I have told you about the material. Shall I say it in Tamil for a change? [...]

If it is a fact then why are you asking me the question. [...]

Sorry that’s your conclusion. Let me conclude the way I summarised it. My conclusion is there is ample material, you are simply refusing to see the material [...]

You must give up this habit if quibbling Karan. [When Thapar responded with "I am not quibbling!", PC retorted, "You are."]

Karan Thapar's program may give his viewers some vicarious pleasure because he appears to talk down to powerful people; this, however, is illusory. Much of the harangue and talking down happens because of the disparity in communicative skills. The interview with PC is a good example of how ineffective his interviewing 'style' really is: at the end of it, Chidambaram still managed to evade a lot of things, while Thapar's ignorance was on display on the history of reservation in the South.


  1. V.Venkatesan said...

    You may be correct as for as this interview with Chidambaram. But I think Thapar's is perhaps the best discussion programme on T.V. because of the research effort he puts in to understand every subject he discusses with his guests - as compared to superficial analysis which we normally comes across even in the mainstream media. Look at the range of subjects he chooses on a daily basis for half-an-hour discussion - topics left out by the print medium or channels, he seeks to do justice within the constraints of his programme to explore it, and make it comprehensible to the viewers, even analysing it in all its nuances. Like everyone he also has his biases, like reservation issue, and this clouds his judgment of men and matters, and prevents him from keeping an open mind, and let his guests speak.

  2. vatsan said...

    interview with JJ was even better,

  3. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I have to agree with Abi - Karan Thapar prefers bombast over substance: in fact his shout-down style is precisely because he lacks substance. He moulds himself after American wingnuts like Bill O'Reilly, who openly tell their guests to "shut up". A genuinely knowledgeable and interested interviewer, for example David Frost, does not do this, because he does not need to.

  4. barbarindian said...

    I am not suprised. We don't like those who says things we don't want to hear.

  5. Anil P said...

    There are many out there on his shows who I believe deserve far worse grilling than Thapar manages to.

  6. Pratik . said...

    I dont agree when you say Thapar goes "easy" on those on his side. True, he grilled Arjun Singh too badly on the reservations issue. If you noticed, he grilled Arun Shourie the same way, when Shourie was speaking against reservations.

    Yet, it looked bad for Arjun Singh, and not for Shourie; this was simply because Arjun Singh had no answer, even to the most obvious questions like "what is the percentage of OBCs in Indian population" (as far as i recall, he said "I dont know"). Shourie on the other hand, didnt shy away from Thapar's questions, and actually made Thapar look dim witted.

    Which brings us to one of your other points - Much of the harangue and talking down happens because of the disparity in communicative skills. This rings true. Shourie and Chidambaram are far better communicators than Arjun Singh, and I dare say have a better wit too.

    One of Chidmabaram's replies is interesting. "The government doesnt have to answer you in an interview". I guess he is 100% correct. They need throw questions and answers only during the Parliament sessions, where what they discuss is conviniently drowned in a melee of drum beating MPs [:D]

  7. Abi said...

    Venkatesan: I'm sure Thapar takes his job as a journalist seriously, covering a lot of different things. But, on the big question of the day last year, he just didn't take it seriously enough to educate himself on reservation policy in the southern states. And Chidambaram caught him.

    Srivatsan: Is there a link for that interview with JJ?

    Rahul: Exactly. Thanks for that comparison with David Frost; I will look for an occasion to watch him.

    Anil: Some examples (preferably with links) would be great.

    Pratik: I didn't watch the interview with Arun Shourie, and I'm glad to hear that Thapar didn't go easy on him. But I recall watching Thapar interviewing a bunch of college students in one show. The difference in the way he handled the pro-reservation and anti-reservation students was so huge it was embarrassing. He was barking at the former, while treating the other group with kid gloves. So, his prejudices do show through in his interviews.

    The example you cited shows that Thapar's style can be countered quite effectively by a suave politician like Chidambaram. Like I said in the post, PC did evade some thorny questions, and Thapar's famed 'style' could do nothing!

  8. Anonymous said...

    Hmmm, well the government did supply the affidavits which were supposed to contain all the information to the Court and failed to convince it. Perhaps, Chidambaram should fight the government's case in the Supreme Court.

    If you still fail to accept that there is lack of data to justify OBC reservations, then there is little to be said.

  9. Cosmic Voices said...

    also go through his interview of Narayanamurthy....... shockingly he did not ask him any question related to him.........the interview went mostly on his views of politicians, governance etc etc

    here is the link for jayalalithaa's interview

  10. Anonymous said...

    hmm..there you go again. bottomline: abi is upset because karan thapar is on the other side of "big question of the day".

    read between the lines folks :)

  11. Ritwik said...


    Selectve representation. You have conveniently glossed over those parts of interview where all PC can say is " I dont know" or "I have not seen that document" - an interviewer knows the details of a document written by a cabinet minister but this minister's colleague doesn't? How lame is that.

    Also, PC has diplomatically, but unsuccessfully tried to avoid the Rajiv Gandhi speech issue with 'All I can say is that a congress government went ahead and implemented reservations - what kind of a defence is that?

    The affidavit backed with 'prepared material' failed to convince the SC, as confused noted. You may dislike Thapar's 'style' - that is perfectly ok. To conclude from the interview that PC summarily demolished Thapar is stretching it a little too much.

  12. Abi said...

    Confused, Zen Babu: The example I cited is not to show that PC 'won' and Karan Thapar 'lost'. It's to show that KT's famed 'style' can be effectively countered (by putting him down); even worse, on substantive issues, his 'style' cannot prevent evasive answers from the interviewee. So, what good is his 'style'?

    When PC said things like "I don't know", there was nothing that KT could do. In other words, when someone with a greater facility with English could run circles around him, what is this 'style' that KT is so proud of? It's all bark and no bite!

    On top of all this, I found his ignorance of reservation in the South very revealing!

    Having said all this, I must admit I rather like his columns. I just wish he would stick to writing them.

    Confused: I guess we have now come to a stage where we just have to say: "to each, his own data"!

  13. Anonymous said...


    Do you know he is responsible for Pratabiha's Patil elevation as president! Read his latest column. And thats what A.B. Bardhan told him--according to his column.

    Man selects our next president, and you dislike him. What's wrong with you professor? :)

    ''Confused: I guess we have now come to a stage where we just have to say: "to each, his own data"!

    Abi, you are fond of asking readers for data. You should try in this case too. On a more serious note, if the government has the data, it is hiding it well. But it still can do it. Let it conduct a caste based census and that will solve most of the problems. Not all of course because the proper classification of castes is still a major issue.


  14. Anonymous said...

    A pretty late comment but I have been catching up with several episodes of The Devil's Advocate as well as his India Tonight programme on CNBC on occasion. I think all said, Karan Thapar is one of the best interviewers on Indian TV. I like the way he pummels tons of politicians and its too much fun to see them shake in their boots at simple questions. Discussions like the ones with Narendra Modi, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, Veerappa Moily, A B Bardhan, Jayalalitha are memorable representations of these interviews, where the facts are laid bare in front of these people, and they fail at every step. I especially enjoyed how he mauled Renuka Chowdhury and Arjun Singh. For the most part, these politicians deserve to be taken apart in such a show.

    While he is too good for most Indian politicians (who are generally cunning but not intelligent), he falls short on many counts, when interviewing the intelligent people in politics. He looked positively bad in front of Arun Shourie, Arun Jaitley and P Chidhambaram, because these guys simply know what they're talking about.

    All said and done I can easily recommend his show to any serious minded Indian who wants to see a politician squirm.