By Carla Parks
Terror strikes in India, the US presidential elections, the execution of Saddam Hussein and the London riots. Neha Bhatnagar has reported on some major world events in a professional, detached manner as a news anchor.
One of her biggest challenges, however, was more personal – she moved from India to the UK in 2009 through marriage. Finding her feet took a bit of time, but today she is the presenter of BBC Hindi’s Global India and shares a dressing room with Jeremy Paxman, although she has never once seen the formidable interviewer and is probably now unlikely to.
‘My makeup artist talks about him all the time,’ the journalist says. ‘I think his presenting style would go down well with Indian audiences.’
In election mode
Thinking about what the Indian audience might want to know is part of Bhatnagar’s daily job. One of the biggest stories to come out of the country recently was the Indian elections that had a record turnout of 66% across the country. The previous highest voter turnout – 64 percent – was recorded in 1984.
Bhatnagar returned to Delhi, her home until she moved to London, to hear what people were thinking before the elections took place. ‘It was very exciting to go back,’ she tells Ariel from her base at Broadcasting House. ‘From the taxi driver to the auto rickshaw guy, everyone was in the election mode.’
She describes an entirely new vibe taking over the country, one which she hadn’t experienced in her lifetime. ‘I had never seen voters that involved before. Usually there has been a sense of disillusionment, especially among the middle class. This time there was a different sense of involvement.’
The irony is that Bhatnagar was not allowed to vote. She gave up her Indian citizenship to obtain a British passport. There are approximately 10 million non-resident Indians around the world who are not allowed to vote because there is no system for counting absentee ballots. It’s an issue the young presenter explored in a segment for the programme.
‘Catching more eyeballs’
Global India is a wide-ranging magazine show that picks some of the BBC’s best stories and showcases them to an audience of about six million in India. A recent survey in several Indian states revealed that almost three in four people thought their perception of the BBC had improved after watching the programme, and they found it objective and unbiased.
It covers a variety of topics. One explored how immigration issues in the UK are affecting the British curry industry; another, the plight of Sikhs in Afghanistan. She believes only the BBC would cover this kind of story, which delves deeper into the lives of people who are often overlooked and forgotten.
The difference between journalism in the UK and in India is of particular interest to Bhatnagar, who first came here on a Chevening scholarship in 2007. It was her first time abroad and it gave her a new perspective on her country.
‘Sometimes news [in India] can be more like infotainment, sometimes it can be quite a bit more driven by sensationalism,’ reflects the television presenter. She puts this down to intense competition, with the media-driven by ratings and advertising. ‘So it’s about catching more eyeballs and ensuring that when your audience is flicking between channels, you are doing something at that point so that they stick with you.’
Consequently, there’s a focus on celebrity gossip and fancy, eye-catching graphics, while localised, sensationalist stories can top news bulletins for a long time. Her recent experience at the BBC has trained her to think about what is in the public interest versus what is interesting for the public.
‘The fact that the BBC is publicly funded, the kind of autonomy it has, the values that it’s driven with, it’s hugely different [to broadcasters in India],’ she observes.
Luck and hard work
Despite Bhatnagar’s extensive journalistic experience – she worked for the TV Today Network in India for about five years – she does believe she’s been lucky to land a job with BBC Hindi. Hard work, she adds, also comes into it.
For about four years, after arriving in the UK, she became a freelance journalist, regularly sending stories to her contacts at TV Today. One of these was the London riots in 2011. Some of the violence occurred close to her new home of Croydon. The reporter was watching television when she heard shots that sounded close by. She did what any adventurous TV reporter would do – she went to the heart of the action and started filming it herself.
‘I did some pieces to camera, got some shots and everything,’ she says. ‘It was really appreciated in India because it gave the company I was working for a bit of that exclusive edge that our reporter was there at the time.’
She once also reported from a street market in Delhi in 2005, which was the scene of a series of bomb blasts. ‘That was very challenging for me emotionally, because that’s where I would hang out with my friends.
‘Street vendors would come up to me and ask if I had seen their son or daughter. It was more upsetting because I had seen those faces before, I had seen these people on that very street.’
Asked if she would take risks for the job today, there’s a long pause before the journalist answers. ‘To a certain extent, but I would be sensible.’
To a certain extent, of course, coming here was a big risk. ‘I think I underestimated what it would be for me, to not only physically move out of India, but also to give up my career there,’ Bhatnagar judges.
She speaks every day to her mother as she walks from Oxford Circus tube to the office – ‘it’s just two or three minutes but I call her’ – and she has a supportive husband who encouraged her to get a masters.
‘He’s very understanding,’ she smiles. ‘I work late many times. He takes pride in my work and he’s very excited in what I do.’
Her husband is no stranger to risk himself. He gave up a career at PwC to set up a travel business, which is how the couple met. They are both now united by a love of travel and sometimes make travel choices on the spur of the moment. One such trip took them to Cuba. ‘In our spare time we are looking for trips everywhere and making our itineraries.’
There is an acknowledgment that some things are more difficult here than in India, even if taking time off to travel is not one of them. ‘I don’t know how people manage with children,’ says Bhatnagar, who does not have any. ‘Childcare is so expensive here; I find some of those things so prohibitive… people having to decide based on just financial implications whether they can have a career or not at the cost of childcare.’
In India, she explains, there may be fewer opportunities to take as much time off when you have children, but your extended family will support you, while domestic help is affordable for the middle class. All this helps to take the strain.
But the journalist believes women do have decent opportunities at the BBC. ‘Something I used to notice in the lift day in and day out for a long time was this little [poster] about the male to female ratio [at the BBC]. For me, it was interesting to see an organisation so transparent about something like that. In a lot of other private companies it might not even be discussed.’
Copy-paste with gratitude from BBC