Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Media-wallah who knows too much

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THE BBC has struggled to keep face in India, where a certain lobby in Broadcasting House has been trying for the past year to retire Mark Tully from New Delhi on the grounds that he was not telegenic, that he spoke with an old-fashioned accent (Indi-aah]) and, of all things, knew his subject too well (to know all is to forgive all, after all).

The criticism of this excellent reporter, whose name has more authority in South Asia than many of the region's governments, concerned John Birtian ideas that feature 'packages' were more important than news and commentary. Tully, it was alleged, was not much good at the former, which was rather silly because his broadcasts on life in India have brought the subcontinent alive in the same way as Alistair Cooke's letters have from America. On the other hand, Bush House, the home of the BBC World Service, which understands Tully's talent and knows his value to the BBC's reputation here and abroad, did not want him to go.

Captain Moonlight is happy to declare whose side he is on, having shared Tully's whisky bottle in Pakistan during the dark days of martial law, in Kabul on the eve of the Soviet invasion and in various corners of Punjab.

I learnt last week that a compromise had been reached. Tully, 57, remains in Delhi, but will no longer be a staff correspondent. He will be under BBC contract, but free to write for other organisations. A new man is being sent from London who will share the title of South Asia Correspondent - the question of who heads the bureau was left open, presumably so that if the BBC has any trouble with the authorities then Tully, a man the Indians trust, can be rolled out as the fixer.

Tully is the son of a Calcutta box-wallah. He was sent home to Britain at the age of nine to be educated at Marlborough College and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read theology and planned a career in the church. He distinguished himself during national service with the Royal Dragoons in Germany by accidentally setting alight his armoured car. Since then his life has been combustible, even by journalistic standards, being chucked out of India by Indira Gandhi, threatened on all sides by outraged politicians, pursued by litigants from Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh to Peshawar in Pakistan.

Many things make him immensely likeable - his generosity, his lack of pomposity - but perhaps his greatest attribute, both for his friends and his BBC audience, is that he is not like most journalists. The trade, you will have noticed, has more than its fair share of bores, poseurs and prats. Tully has never become any of these because his career has been India rather than journalism - he would be quite hopeless as your man in the safari suit in Beirut or Bosnia because no place beyond the subcontinent interests him.

Some people say that recently he has become rather strange. He is certainly a more complex character than the usual 'Tully Sahib' profiles and interviews would have you believe. He is inclined, for example, to despise India's English-speaking elite and its 'secular' ideals, and to find some merit in the caste system and Hindu nationalism. As a devout (if infrequently-attending) Anglican, he once confessed that his dream was to build a great Gothic cathedral in the Himalayas, and he believes that all civilisations need religion if they are to remain civilised. This, in a country which is always struggling to reconcile religious differences between majority and minority communities, is a controversial and perhaps even a combustible view.

But many people there, being religious, understand it. In Britain, where people are defined by what they can buy, Tully is a lost soul, exclaiming at the poor state of the trains and the politicians. I don't think he will ever return. Somewhere in a hill station there will be a bungalow, and in that bungalow will be a white-haired man pouring Indian whisky and remembering how the BBC used to be. 'I had that John Birt on the back of a rickshaw once . . .'

(Photograph omitted)