Ranjona Banerji: So, how do you feel about… and such inane questions asked by reporters…

23 Aug,2016

By Ranjona Banerji


You have to feel sorry for young reporters at the foreground of journalism. Like those sent to airports to interview returning sports stars from the Rio Olympics. Having searched their hearts and minds and been properly briefed by their seniors, in an Olympian feat of excellence, the best question they can come up with is, “Sindhu, how do you feel about winning a medal?”


That you and I get to hear this daft question is the joy of live television and the apparent lack of editors in TV newsrooms. But it is not that print journalists at press conferences ask questions any more intelligent than this, whether here or anywhere else in the world. It’s just that someone somewhere in a newsroom hits delete.


I have usually avoided press conferences if only to spare myself endless amounts of cringing at the behaviour of my fellow journalists. But sometimes, you have to be there. At Wimbledon in 2013, defending champion Roger Federer won his first match with ease. So there was nothing significant to ask him. One bright spark came up with, “What do you think about the fight between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova?” (The two female tennis stars were in the midst of a spat over a former boyfriend of one and a current boyfriend of the other, also a tennis player.). You really expect me to answer that, asked Federer. And did not.


Federer lost his next match. Apart from the usual questions, came this one: “Did you lose because the Wimbledon authorities made you change your shoes?” It is true that Federer’s shoes worn in match one did not fit Wimbledon’s strict standards so he had to change them for match two. Presumably however he wore tennis shoes for the second match as well? We’re talking about an international sports star who has higher earnings than anyone else in the game. No, said, Federer, the shoes had no role to play in my loss.


But by far my best press conference experience was with Ian Anderson, lead singer and founder of the rock band Jethro Tull, in Mumbai in 1993. The band was in town to perform at the now defunct Rang Bhavan. They had a select press conference at a hotel. Just bear with me on this, the story is long. One of Jethro Tull’s hit albums ‘Thick as a Brick’, released in 1972, claims on the packaging to have been based on a poem written by a genius little boy. Any rock fan knows that the story is fake, that the lyrics were written by Anderson. But believers, what can you do.


So at this Mumbai press conference in 1993, up stood a serious young man, ready with his serious question, “Is it true that ‘Thick as a Brick’ was written by an eight-year-old boy called Gerald Bostock?”


Ian Anderson, hands down the funniest man I have ever interviewed, came up with the wickedest takedown I have ever heard. This was his answer. He said that the band had recently decided to collate all its unreleased tracks and release them in an album. The name of the record label they had come up with for this new release was “Jolly Roger” as a sort of send-up to music pirates (this is in pre-internet times). Anderson said that after the album was released, he fully expected an intelligent and worthy reporter like the one in front of him to ask him if he was aware that a pirate record company called “Jolly Roger” had released an album of Jethro Tull’s unreleased tracks.


I still feel sorry for the young man but my larger sympathies lie till today with Ian Anderson and Sindhu. So, how do you feel about that?


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