Barbara Walters. Larry King. Oprah Winfrey. David Frost. Oriana Fallaci …. These names figure in every list of the all-time best interviewers. Sir David Frost owns the record of interviewing as many as 8 British PMs and 7 American Presidents. A British journalist of Indian origin, who today figures among the toughest contemporary television interviewers, is Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News whose questions have made Hollywood icons Tarantino abuse him verbally and Robert Downey Jr, simply walk out in anger.
Personal interviews constitute the most exciting yet the toughest assignment in the journalist’s profession. And among the toughest aspects -that is if the interviewee happens to be a big shot and you are not known for puffery- is to first get them to sit for you, howsoever seasoned you or your organization may be. That’s why the record number of heavyweights Jipson John and Jitheesh P M - two young and small town Malayali journalists - have interviewed within a course of 2-3 years is mind-boggling and filled me with enormous admiration, and some envy too. The duo’s record is difficult to break even by most top professionals during their entire lifetime. Just look at their stunning catch so far; Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis, Akeel Bilgrami, Rob Wallace, John Bellamy Foster, Samir Amin, John Pilger, Patrick Cockburn, Wolfgang Streeck, David Harvey, Venki Ramakrishnan, Aijaz Ahmed, Romila Thapar...the list goes on. Many were talking for the first time to Indian media.
John (30) from Idukki and Jitheesh (29) from Palakkad are alumni of Kerala Media Academy and have been associated with the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and also People’s Archives of Rural India. Their tryst began when they were students at the Media Academy when they accompanied journalist P Sainath on a trekking assignment to the Western Ghats. Later, in 2015 they interviewed Sainath which was published in the Mathrubhumi weekly, without editing a word. Since then they have never looked back, although getting each interview was a Herculean effort. They took three months to get Australian journalist John Pilger after efforts through his website and many common friends for their first cover interview published in the Frontline. Rob Wallace, the American evolutionary biologist and author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu’ took six months. Interview with Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmed of California University took 19 months to complete. The duo’s record belonged to their Chomsky interview for which they kept trying for 26 months and was completed finally in two parts- one in 2018 and the second in 2020! Another unforgettable encounter was with Venky Ramakrishnan, the Nobel-winning (Chemistry 2009) structural biologist and the first Indian-born to become the President of the Royal Society. Initially, the scientist flatly refused to talk saying he would rather concentrate on his research. But the next day, the duo received a mail from Ramakrishnan asking to send the questions immediately if they were still interested. What’s more, the celebrity scientist later even confided he was quite impressed by the questions coming from two journalists without any science background.
The big fish the duo is still waiting for is Amartya Sen. They have been trying to get the Nobel laureate through many of his friends like Dr. Bilgrami, Jean Dreze and also a Kolkata-based NGO, Sen funded with his Nobel money. But all the duo got was a promise to consider when Prof Sen would be in India. “A few days later we got a phone call from Kolkata. An elderly voice on the other side said he was Amartya Sen! We were dumbfounded. He even apologized for being too busy and promised to meet when he would come next. But sadly, the pandemic keeps his visit delayed,” said John. Yet, despite the initial difficulties, their efforts to get the big names have mostly turned successful eventually thanks to their perseverance and also the quality of their questions.
Their interviews have been published by The Hindu, the Frontline, The New Left Review, The Caravan, The Wire, etc. Besides getting the interviews, publishing them by top journals too was equally tough. Particularly, because the interviewers were greenhorn and also because the interviews were in long-form, containing many thousands of words at an age when soundbites ruled. For instance, The Frontline accepted their interview with John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review but wanted it to be halved since it had more than 10,000 words! But after reading the interview, the magazine published it in full, spread in two parts.
What is their criterion to choose their interviewees? Most of them have certainly belonged to the Marxist intellectual tradition which is the duo’s passion too. Yet, the views expressed have been far from being homogenous on most topics although they all believe that Marxism is more relevant today than ever before. Clearly, most interviews form as much an incisive introspection of the Left as a critique of contemporary capitalism. For instance, Bilgrami, the philosophy professor from Columbia University, calls for a fundamental rethinking on the Left’s assessment of Gandhi and modernity while Chomsky disagrees with Cockburn’s observation that US hegemony was on the decline. “Trump, no doubt, is inflicting serious harm on the United States, but even he is unlikely to seriously damage US hegemony, I suspect. US power remains overwhelming. In the military domain, it is beyond comparison,” says Chomsky. The British Marxist David Harvey dismisses the view that capitalism has reached a dead-end or it would collapse on its own contradictions. “Capital is not at a dead end. The neo-liberal project is alive and well... Capitalism will not end on its own accord. It will have to be pushed, overthrown, abolished. I disagree with those who think all we have to do is wait for it to self-destruct. That is not, in my view, Marx’s position.” He also questions the Left’s opposition to automation which is of special relevance to Kerala too where it always faced flak for opposing computers and tractors in the past. “The Left lost the battle against automation in manufacturing and is in danger of repeating its dismal record in services. We should welcome Artificial Intelligence in services and promote it, but try to find a path towards a socialist alternative. AI will create new jobs as well as displace some.”
Wolfgang Streeck, the German political scientist too has somewhat similar views on the naive certainty about the end of capitalism. “It is not that we don’t need to confront capitalism. I said we don’t have the collective capacity to do away with it. I wish we did. But capitalism is now a global regime while anti-capitalist politics is inevitably local. That makes it possible to throw sand into the wheels of capitalist development but, I am afraid, not to end it.”
According to the veteran Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, the global inequality portrayed so well by Thomas Pickety had failed to distinguish between two types of growing inequality; one accompanied by the growth of income for most of the population (China) and another causing greater pauperization to the majority (India, Brazil). He also slams “reformists like Joseph Stiglitz types” who believes poor countries can catch up with the rich by reformist capitalist policies.
Most scholars believe that the world is in for more serious challenges on account of climate changes, fresh pandemics, sectarianism and also increasing despotism in democratic countries like India and Brazil. Yet, they rightly point to the need for fresher thoughts and actions instead of traditional answers. Streeck hits the bull’s eye: “Marx’s writing is more relevant today than it ever was. One must read him right, though. Marx expected to see capitalism end during his lifetime. For this reason, he did not spend much time on what might delay the end and what the world might be like in between. We must do that thinking instead of him, with the tools he provided and as we need to, update them.”