Barbara Walters. Larry King. Oprah Winfrey. David Frost. Oriana Fallaciâ¦. These names feature in every list of the best interviewers of all time. Sir David Frost holds the record for interviewing up to 8 UK PMs and 7 US Presidents. A British Indian-born journalist, who is among the toughest contemporary TV interviewers today, is Channel 4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy whose questions prompted Hollywood icons Tarantino to verbally assault him and Robert Downey Jr. , to just come out angry.
Personal interviews are the most exciting but difficult task of the journalistic profession. And one of the most difficult aspects – that is, if the interviewee is a big guy and you’re not known for your skirmishes – is getting them to sit down first. you, regardless of your level of experience or that of your organization. This is why the record number of heavyweights that Jipson John and Jitheesh PM – two young journalists from the small town of Malayali – have interviewed in 2-3 years is mind-boggling and filled me with enormous admiration, and a certain desire too. The duo’s record is hard to beat even by most of the best lifelong professionals. Just look at their superb take 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 speaking to Indian media for the first time.
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 People’s Archives of Rural India. Their date began when they were students at Media Academy when they accompanied journalist P Sainath on a trekking mission to the Western Ghats. Later, in 2015, they interviewed Sainath which was published in the weekly Mathrubhumi, without editing a word. Since then, they have never looked back, although securing each interview was a Herculean effort. It took them three months to get Australian journalist John Pilger after straining through his website and many mutual friends for their first frontline cover interview. Rob Wallace, the American evolutionary biologist and author of âBig Farms Make Big Fluâ took six months. The interview with Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmed of the University of California lasted 19 months. The duo’s record was from their Chomsky interview which they kept trying for 26 months and ultimately ended in two parts – one in 2018 and the second in 2020! Another unforgettable encounter took place with Venky Ramakrishnan, the Nobel Prize-winning structural biologist (Chemistry 2009) and the first Indian-born to become president of the Royal Society. Initially, the scientist flatly refused to speak, saying he preferred to focus on his research. But the next day, the duo received a letter from Ramakrishnan asking to send the questions immediately if they were still interested. Moreover, the famous scientist even confided later that he was quite impressed by the questions of two journalists without any scientific training.
The big fish the duo are still waiting for is Amartya Sen. They tried to get the Nobel Prize winner through several of his friends like Dr Bilgrami, Jean Dreze and also a Kolkata-based NGO, which Sen funded with his Nobel money. But all the duo got was a promise to consider when Professor Sen was in India. âA few days later we received a phone call from Kolkata. An elderly voice from the other side said he was Amartya Sen! We were stunned. He even apologized for being too busy and promised to meet when he came next. But unfortunately the pandemic is delaying his visit, âJohn said. Yet despite the initial difficulties, their efforts to get the big names were ultimately successful thanks to their persistence 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, getting them published in top journals was just as difficult. In particular, because the interviewers were novices and also because the interviews were long in form, containing several thousand words at an age when sound bites prevailed. For example, The Frontline accepted their interview with John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, but wanted it to be cut in half because it was over 10,000 words! But after reading the interview, the magazine published it in its entirety, divided into two parts.
What is their criterion for choosing their interlocutors? Most of them certainly belonged to the Marxist intellectual tradition which is also the passion of the duo. Yet the views expressed are far from homogeneous on most subjects, although they all believe that Marxism is more relevant today than ever. Clearly, most of the interviews form as much an incisive introspection of the left as a critique of contemporary capitalism. For example, Bilgrami, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, calls for a fundamental overhaul of the assessment of Gandhi’s left and modernity while Chomsky disagrees with Cockburn’s observation according to which American hegemony was in decline. âTrump, without a doubt, is inflicting serious damage on the United States, but even he is unlikely to seriously harm American hegemony, I suppose. American power remains overwhelming. In the military field, it is without comparison, âsays Chomsky. British Marxist David Harvey rejects the idea that capitalism is at an impasse or that it crumbles on its own contradictions. âCapital is not at a dead end. The neoliberal project is alive and well … Capitalism will not stop on its own. It will have to be pushed, overthrown, abolished. I disagree with those who think that all we have to do is wait for him to self-destruct. This is not, in my opinion, Marx’s position. He also questions the left’s opposition to automation, which is also particularly relevant in Kerala, where it has consistently faced criticism for opposing computers and tractors in the past. âThe left has lost the battle against automation in manufacturing and risks repeating its sad record in services. We must welcome Artificial Intelligence in the services and promote it, but try to find a way towards a socialist alternative. AI will create new jobs and displace some. “
Wolfgang Streeck, the German political scientist, also has somewhat similar views on the naive certainty of the end of capitalism. âIt’s not that we don’t need to confront capitalism. I said we don’t have the collective capacity to get rid of it. I would like us to do that. But capitalism is now a global regime while anti-capitalist policy is inevitably local. This helps to throw sand into the cogs of capitalist development but, I’m afraid, not to put an end to it.
According to the veteran Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, the global inequality so well described by Thomas Pickety failed to distinguish between two types of growing inequality; one accompanied by income growth for the majority of the population (China) and the other causing greater impoverishment of the majority (India, Brazil). He also denounces “reformists of the Joseph Stiglitz type” who believe that poor countries can catch up with the rich through reformist capitalist policies.
Most researchers believe the world is facing more serious challenges due to climate change, new pandemics, bigotry and also growing despotism in democratic countries like India and Brazil. Yet, they rightly point out the need for fresher thoughts and actions instead of traditional responses. Streeck hits the mark: âMarx’s writing is more relevant today than it ever was. However, it should be read well. Marx expected to see capitalism come to an end during his lifetime. Because of this, he didn’t spend a lot of time on what might delay the ending and what the world might be like in between. We have to think about this for him, with the tools he provided and, if necessary, update them. ”