From Sense To Insensitivity

From Sense To Insensitivity

Malala Yousafzai was interviewed by both Jon Stewart and Barkha Dutt. Which one crossed the line?

By Rajyasree Sen

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It seems NDTV 24X7 has a penchant for referring to female victims of hate crimes with pet phrases, never by their name. First there was Delhi’s Braveheart (which is an odious name in itself) made worse by calling her the Daughter Of India. Last night, we had the Daughter Of Courage. This was the title given to Malala Yousafzai. At least when it came to Delhi’s Braveheart – and yes, I balk while I write that – the girl was not supposed to be named according to the media code of conduct. But what of Malala Yousafzai? Would it really have killed NDTV 24X7 to simply refer to her by her name? Who is thinking up these names? Is there a list submitted by editors, much like countries submit lists of names for cyclones and tsunamis – and hope against hope that their name will make the cut?

Yesterday was Barkha Dutt’s interview of Malala. A coup of sorts when you realise that this was the first interview given by Malala to an Indian media house. And you have to give it to NDTV for pulling this off – and to be the only Indian news channel to interview her father as well. Malala’s interview, of course, came on the heels of the much talked about Jon Stewart interview of Malala on October 10, 2013. An interview which you couldn’t help but watch without interruption.

I am of the strong belief that however wonderful or impressive a child’s experiences in life are, we as adults owe it to them to never make them behave or feel older than their years. Of course if you’ve been shot in the head by the Taliban, issued death threats, whisked to Birmingham for treatment, fought for the rights of women in Pakistan and then been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize – your life experiences have been far from that of any ordinary 16 year old’s life. And an interview with such a child is meant to discover what motivates her, provides her strength and what she hopes to do with her life once she grows up.

But there must be some lines which should not be crossed.

And that was what was wonderful about Stewart’s interview. He asked her multiple questions. From – where did your love for education come from? When did the Taliban come to Swat valley? You describe in the book, the Taliban took the signs off of schools, they went underground, but they continued, what gave you the courage to continue this? When did you realise the Taliban had made you the target? The people of Swat Valley when the Talib first came, they thought they were bringing order. When did that begin to turn? Why did people listen to the Talib? We don’t know what to do to help. What can the US do?

The questions were meant to inform Stewart’s audience. To explain who Malala was and where she came from. And Malala answered clearly and lucidly and displayed that she is wise beyond her years. It was also clear that this wisdom is a combination of her upbringing, education and the experiences she has had. What made this interview a delight to watch, was the fact that Stewart never once overstepped his boundaries or forgot he was speaking to a child – however extraordinary that child may be.

He joked with her and treated her as you should someone of her age. He made her giggle when he said he wanted to adopt her because she’s “swell”. When she said she believes women are more powerful than men, he pretended to gasp in shock, eliciting even more laughter from her. After she told him about her love for school, he remarked how it reminded him of his children and then rolled his eyes. For every serious discussion that they had, he lightened the mood immediately after. Neither being condescending, nor being sanctimonious. And not once did he ask her about the time when she was attacked. After all, why should you make anyone relive an obviously traumatic experience, especially if she is just 16 years old, and also what is the point when the incident has been written about and reported ad nauseum?

And it isn’t that because he refrained from asking her intrusive questions or describing to her that she was Anne Frank, Mother Teresa and the Great Feminist Hope all rolled into one – that you felt that you didn’t learn anything about Malala at the end of the interview. Quite the contrary. You learnt about her life in Swat, where she came from, the Taliban’s activities there, her plans for the future, her work with the Malala fund and also how you could help. And most of all, you learnt that she’s a teenager who loves to laugh as much as she loves to study.

So how was Barkha Dutt’s interview different from Stewart’s? Well, for one, it seems old habits die hard. There is nothing like trying to make people seem larger than life or asking them intrusive questions which should never be asked of anyone – let alone a child. This is not unique to Barkha Dutt or NDTV. This is a condition which plagues television in India. We love melodrama. We seem to believe that reality is synonymous with reality entertainment. If someone gets shot, we like to shove a mike in their faces and ask how they’re feeling while they’re bleeding on camera, or ask weeping children how they feel that their parents have been killed.

This love for melodrama and high emotion is why reality TV prospers in India and there seems to no fatigue or hesitation in crossing all boundaries of sensitivity and sensibility in news television. The NDTV interview had the usual questions about the Taliban and how much Malala loves studying. There were sweet anecdotes about how her first thought upon gaining consciousness and regaining her ability to speak in the hospital, was to call her father and ask him to bring her Physics book with him. How she always wanted to be a topper and was extremely competitive. How she loves Justin Bieber. How when her mother told her that boys were looking at her, she told her mother that she also looked at them now and then – much to her mother’s horror.

And then Barkha did what NDTV does best. A repeat of what they did to the “Delhi Braveheart’s” parents when they were given an award at NDTV’s Indian Of The Year event. Which was to repeatedly ask them about how much they missed their daughter till the Delhi gangrape and murder victim’s stoic mother burst into tears. When Malala told Barkha that she was an “ordinary girl”, Barkha interjected to say “ordinary girl” questioningly. When a child says she’s an ordinary girl, I might be wrong, but I’d say we should agree with the statement – even if we have to pretend to do so. The questions which detracted from all the other questions Barkha asked were first, “Do you remember that last thought before that bullet came for you?” Malala said she doesn’t remember it. But then we have our journalists to remind her. The other question was – “Isn’t it something that the day your mother stepped out to study is the same day you were shot?” Really! No, it isn’t something. There isn’t a correlation between the two. And since there’s nothing like placing irrational responsibilities on the shoulders of children, she was also asked whether she is the future PM of Pakistan. No pressure there.

You might think I’m splitting hairs, but I cannot understand why as a journalist one can’t ask Malala what is relevant and let it be. Is it so difficult to treat her as an above-ordinary child who has undergone extra-ordinary experiences, but now deserves to enjoy what remains of her childhood? There are few things for which I wish India would turn to the land of milk and money. But I do wish our editors would tune in to some of the interview shows there and learn a thing or two. How not to be insensitive for one.