Sanjay Pinto talks to Richa Tilokani about his interesting journey from being a journalist to an advocate.
1. You were a pioneering journalist, now an author and an advocate. Tell us about your journey.
My career has witnessed a transition from color to black & white – TV to Law! My tryst with journalism began in school! The activist streak probably first surfaced through my Letters To The Editor which used to be published in the Indian Express – on issues of public interest. Not many would believe that I was a shy, reticent and yes, skinny lad in Don Bosco, Egmore! The real transformation took place at Loyola College, where I started & edited a students magazine – Loyola Herald and went on to become the President of the Loyola Debating Society, breaking a debating record set in 1974 by my own Principal Fr.Xavier Alphonse! Post Loyola, I joined the Dr.Ambedkar Govt Law College, where I emerged the National Debating Champion. But I was hell bent on joining the Indian Police Service (IPS) and wrote the Civil Services Exam twice in `95 and `96. I guess I had too many irons in the fire and didn’t clear it. I didn’t have a financial cushion to see through a gestation period that a legal career required. So I joined NDTV in `98. Over a decade and a half, I played two innings – as the Bureau Chief and Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7, which involved breaking news in South India (elections, the tsunami, sensational arrests, court trials, sting operations and so on) and as the Executive Editor of NDTV Hindu, which gave me an opportunity to head a channel editorially and anchor flagship shows on current affairs.
I think the media, especially 24 hour TV journalism, should have short service commission. I experienced symptoms of burn out, coupled with stagnation and a burning desire to spend quality time with my family. Vidya and I were blessed with twin angels in 2011. This was when my family became my new target audience! I quit NDTV with a heavy heart to plunge into legal practice. It was a big risk at the peak of an eventful tv career but I have survived! And hopefully will thrive!
With a lot more free time, my long pending project (rather my wife’s wish!) – a book materialised. “Speakers Are Made, Not Born”, published by Covenant Media and distributed by Landmark has become a bestseller.
2. Today the news media is undergoing drastic change because of the opportunities for independent journalism on blogs, because of the ability to constantly update stories online, and because many people prefer to read news online rather than in traditional newspaper format. What do you think about these phenomena? Will they change journalism for the better or the worse? Why?
Journalism is an ever evolving profession. When there’s a air crash or some big tragedy, who captures the news first? Amateur videographers, tweeple and the person on the street. Everyone has a mobile camera and that makes every citizen a potential journalist. The social media today is the latest barometer of public opinion. Soon, newspapers and tv channels may end up losing their ‘mass media’ position and become the niche media. Online or what I call the `word of mouse` is the future! Why, even TV is being watched less on TV and more on hand held devices. If Journalism is forced to keep pace with technology, that’s a question of survival. And yes, a good sign too! The flip side is the venom spewed on the social media, especially on twitter by anonymous users. You can regulate the mainstream media. The social media is out of bounds!
3. Any regrets about switching careers in your life?
The joy of being there for my kids far surpasses the thrill of breaking news and anchoring shows on TV! But I still host weekly radio shows on Chennai Live 104.8 FM and write columns. My second book is also in the pipeline. It takes time to establish oneself as a lawyer. That’s a Hobson’s Choice.
4. Tell us about the struggles that you have faced as a journalist and advocate.
Every profession has pitfalls and challenges.
As a journalist, the biggest challenge was being on call 24×7. Throughout my 15 year stint in NDTV, I had never switched off my mobile phone. Not even during holidays. It was attached to my ear, a part of my anatomy, next to my pillow while sleeping. The unpredictable nature of the job – not knowing what the day would bring was both exciting and tension filled.
As an Advocate, you are on your own – without an assured salary every month, that I was accustomed to. God has been kind and my wife has been understanding. I know that what starts as a trickle can become a torrent one day. I’m waiting!
Minus the NDTV tag, I have realised who my real friends are.
5. You won a landmark judgement for Dipika Pallikal against Axis Bank. Tell us about that.
Dipika was my first client. Her mother Susan Pallikal trusted me when I had just got enrolled as a lawyer. It was a case of deficiency in service by the bank. The Consumer Court awarded a significant sum of 5 lakh plus interest and expenses as compensation. There was a lot of media interest in the case. Arguing this case was very fulfilling. I really got to put my oratorical skills to good use here. I am happy that the bank honored the verdict.
6. Your views on consumer awareness and being fearless about demanding one’s rights.
I do feel that the Consumer movement must be strengthened in India. Consumers are either not fully aware of their rights or don’t care to protest when they need to. Mercifully, consumer courts, despite the vacancies and the backlog are quite effective. Do you know that there are so many illegal disclaimers like ‘Parking At Owners Risk’, ‘We accept no liability of persons using this Lift’ and so on? When a shopping mall switches off the AC when you are inside or when bank ATMs don’t work, how many of us take up the gauntlet? We must demand a minimum standard of service. Accountability is not like automatic transmission. We need to gear up for a fight!
7. Politicians, bureaucrats and cops alike seem to have a lot of good will towards you. Tell us about that.
A journalist need not be feared but can be loved. I have always adhered to old fashioned principles – be fair and balanced, be sensible and sensitive and not sensational and put people first. Trust is sacred. I have never divulged my sources, even at the risk of being misunderstood sometimes. I have had a good rapport with political leaders of all parties. I particularly admire our Chief Minister Ms.Jayalalithaa who has always been very kind to me and even stopped her convoy to give me a short interview in the 2011 assembly election. I had written a column last year listing 10 reasons why she would make a good Prime Minister.
I have always been close to officers – right from my school days. My classmate’s dad was the Commissioner of Police and he inspired me a lot. Many officers are my good friends. I socialise and even play badminton with some of them. I respect their work and know where to draw the line. We trust each other. I don’t take advantage of our friendship and ask for favours that are ‘out of the way’.
8. Where has the chivalry gone with the number of rapes and manhandling that has been going on all over the country? Can you talk about your take on Badaun girls? and the gang rape in Lucknow?
My first reaction about these criminals was ‘bloody animals’. As a father of a little girl, my heart goes out to the parents of those victims. These heinous crimes are a grim reminder that the hangman needs to keep his job. These perpetrators have had a violent streak that either went unnoticed or ignored. Self defence classes must be part of every school curriculum. Women must be trained to give it back. These men who harm women are cowards. Stand up to bullies and they will take to their heels. Self Defence is recognised in the Indian Penal Code. Of course, there is the doctrine of ‘proportionate force’.
On the chivalry front, I’d say it should start with upbringing. I know of parents who proudly proclaim that they never let their sons raise a finger at home doing domestic chores. I wish they say, ‘I will never let my son raise his hand against a woman’. Giving roses and diamond rings on Valentines Day is not chivalry. Promising to bear the entire marriage expenses is a more meaningful form of showing some spine.
9. Tell us about your interactions with Dr. Prannoy Roy, Arnab Goswami, and others.
Dr. Prannoy Roy was not my boss but a role model. Do you know he doesn’t like to be called ‘Sir’. It’s either Prannoy or Dr.Roy. Having grown up admiring the man from ‘The World This Week’ years, it was a dream come true to have worked for him and Mrs. Radhika Roy. They are wonderful people. I’m saying this after quitting NDTV so there’s no extra increment on my mind! I may have left NDTV but the umbilical cord is intact.
Arnab Goswami is a dear friend and was a great former senior colleague. I still remember how he motivated me to do investigative stories at NDTV. I recently requested Arnab to give me a few lines about working with me for my second book and what he sent moved me to tears. Contrary to what many viewers think, he is actually very soft spoken in person. On The News Hour, you see a very different Arnab. I like him.
Rajdeep Sardesai was my political mentor at NDTV and is one of the best brains in the industry. You cannot find a more down to earth and unassuming Editor. He leads by example. A General who has fought many wars.
Sonia Singh has been a strict, no nonsense pillar of support. She is very fair to everyone.
I have known Barkha Dutt much before we both joined NDTV. We met at the Mukherjee Memorial Debate at St.Stephens College. A workaholic, she brings energy to the channel.
Sreenivasan Jain has been like an elder brother. I think he writes the best TV scripts.
10. Tell us about Your best selling book and your public speaking institute.
My wife Vidya runs the Silver Tongue Academy Resource. The tagline – ‘Speakers Are Made, Not Born’ is the title of my first book. It’s a practical guide to master the art of public speaking. I’m grateful to my dear friend and brother Joshua Madan for publishing it through Covenant Media and to Landmark for making it a bestseller. Having fought stage fright as a little boy, I know the struggle I went through to become a national debating champion. As the Mentor of the Silver Tongue Academy Resource, I always tell our students that Public Speaking is not rocket science. We train students of select institutions. We recently opened a Public Speaking Lab in Mookambika Complex in Alwarpet to coach an assorted group of students. We are also planning to offer crash courses for housewives and professionals. Those interested can sms Vidya at 9952705555 or email her email@example.com.
11. Tell us about your Family life.
My Life revolves around my family. Vidya and I have had a love marriage. We belong to different religions but share common values and goals. Our twin angels – Sanvi & Vidan are now in Pre KG and mean the world to us. My facebook profile picture – of my daughter trying to talk to me through the TV, when I was anchoring the news on NDTV in 2011, set me thinking about priorities in life. I have placed my family over my career. That’s how it should be.
12. A few words about RITZ
Only a few words?! The story of RITZ reminds me of NDTV. It has the first come advantage. It has stood the test of time, as many other lifestyle mags fell by the wayside. It has given rise to other publications from the same stable. Just like NDTV that started with one show and today is a collection of channels. Aruna is a dear friend but that does not color my opinion. I always respect people who come up on their own steam with middle class values. My wish? Ritz should go international in 5 years. After all, it interviews the right people!!!