Where sycophancy has become an art-form

May 28, 2006

The BBC promotes itself as a source of unbiased news. And it is common to find those who have worked for the British government broadcaster trying to pass themselves off as the last word on good journalistic practices. One only has to spend an hour or so watching the beeb to realise that these are just two more myths which the United Kingdom has sold to the rest of the world successfully.

After literally years of not having watched the service, I tuned into the BBC telecast last night and watched one of its reporters, Michael Peschardt, interviewing Vijay Mallya, an Indian entrepreneur whose businesses control nearly 80 per cent of the Indian liquor market. Mallya is a bombastic sort, one who is inclined to give interviews only on his own turf.

The situation with Peschardt was no different - he sat cosily in Mallya's bullet-proof Mercedes, asking inane questions and swallowing all the bulldust which the Indian dished out. He even justified the venue of the interview by claiming that Mallya was a person whose life was often in danger - the only thing which he didn't mention was the common Western myth that such circumstances have come about because the world changed on September 11 and every second person on the globe is a potential terrorist. (The run-on from these is normally a justification for George W. Bush's so-called war on terror.)

It was incredible to watch an experienced reporter - I have seen Peschardt report for the BBC in 1994 - swallow fiction by the ton, with no question being raised. Mallya went on and on about the nature of Indian business, painting it as the best game in town, the most demanding, the one that depended on hard work and nothing else, and Peschardt just sat there like a happy hooker. If some ads from any of Mallya's companies had followed soon after, one could have understood Peschardt's inane grin. But that didn't happen.

Peschardt seemed to be more of a PR type, conducting a paid interview. There was no question raised about the possibility of instability in India, something which could well threaten the profits of multinationals who have outsourced work there or else established branches of their own businesses. There was no talk about the possibility of instability in Pakistan affecting the business climate in India.

A bit of history is necessary here. Vijay Mallya came into a massive inheritance when his father Vittal died in the 1980s. His father was a low-profile person who quietly acquired companies and built up a huge empire. The son, arrogance personified, was one of those who indulged himself by racing formula cars at the only race venue in the country at the time, Sholavaram, about 40km from Madras.

His battles with Vicky Chandhok, the son of the Madras Motor Sports Club president, became so personal - the club would routinely alter the rules to ensure that Chandhok would win - that Vijay once spent a fortune on bringing down the British national formula one champion, Jim Crawford, to beat the hell out of Chandhok, when Mallya himself was prevented from racing by some last-minute rule brought in surreptitiously by the club.

Mallya later became the patron of an Indian motor sports club based in Bangalore and having listened to him talk from a distance of about four feet at the Bangalore Club, I can testify to the absence of a sense of reality in his speech - it's something that seems to affect the rich in India.

Mallya is also one of those who think that the rich have to be treated differently. When he was arrested in Bangalore on alleged violations of the Indian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, only the Indian Express (for which I worked at the time) had the guts to report the story. My close friend and then colleague, Allen Mendonca, wrote the yarn and came to the sports desk of the Express around the time when the first edition was done, with more than just a few pegs of whisky under his belt, to tell me about it.

A few days later, Mallya called Allen and invited him for a drink in the vain hope that he could cultivate the man and avoid such damaging exposures in the future. He didn't know that with Mendonca, a journalist to the core, it was always a case of "drink his booze, and then f... him; it's so much sweeter."

But back to the interview with Peschardt. Even when Mallya blithely opined that there was total unity in India on the country being a single unit, Peschardt smiled back inanely, in the same manner in which a woman tries to endear herself to a man whom she is meeting as a result of a matrimonial advertisement.

The BBC itself probably has a ton of tapes on the numerous groups, right from those in Kashmir downwards, which are trying to carve out autonomous units in India based on ethnic or religious lines, but when Mallya made this incredible statement, Peschardt merely looked at him in a fatuous manner.

Later in the night, when I heard the advertising jingle of the beeb - "this is the BBC in <city_name> - I could not help thinking that the mighty have indeed fallen. And having recently encountered one of those former BBC employees who lays claim to being a journalist but does not understand the role which a style book plays in a newspaper - he did not know that the book laid down styles which copy from external sources should meet  -  one can only conclude that the BBC is indeed an organisation in decline. Or maybe, it was always so... and the mistake lay in the fact that we all believed the illusion.