In June, senior journalist Shekhar Gupta resigned as editor of The Indian Express, having already stepped down as its CEO earlier. He joined the India Today group as its editor-in-chief and vice chairman, but soon left that job as well. As he prepares to start a media venture of his own, spanning TV, print and web, he speaks to on a range of issues concerning the media and his own journey. This is the first of a two-part interview. The second part can be read here.

How do you feel about media-watch going mainstream?
Media being covered by media is a very good thing. Ideally, it should be issue based. Having said that, I think the definition of who is a public figure, has now changed, particularly with social media. So the old explanation that I am a private person, may not hold anymore.

The Caravan magazine has published a long profile of you. Its revelation that your salary at the Express was Rs 10 crore per annum. People don’t expect journalists to be rich. They expect them to be…

Or middle class. Parents discourage their children to pursue journalism because it would keep them poor. Even other journalists are surprised at the revelation. Do you consider it a breach of privacy?
It is not a state secret. Any honest tax-payer is generally entitled to privacy of his tax returns. But if somebody wants to do a little bit of tax- return pornography, that’s also fine. That doesn’t bother me so much.

What bothers me is this value judgement within the media that journalists shouldn’t be paid so much. Why? Journalists must be paid more. My endevaour all my life, since I got editorial responsibilities and I got to hire and allocate salaries, has always been to pay journalists better and better. Frankly, I’ve also been blessed with media owners who have never objected to that.   

From entry level onwards, journalists must be paid well. They must be given the resources they need. Newsgathering today needs to be very quick. It needs various tools and aids. They also need to be safe.

Even by the standards of editors in this country, people think you were paid too much. The Caravan story says you were paid five times the editor of The Times of India.
First of all, I am not commenting on any figures. I am not even accepting this figure. If it was 20 crores I’d be happier! I’d hope that that becomes the benchmark for everybody. I am the last one to complain of being paid well.

While I am contract and honour-bound never to disclose the compensation of my colleagues, I do think that my very talented, and successful younger friend Jaideep Bose has been hard done by, made to look so underpaid. But that is for him to complain about!

What was your first salary?
It was Rs 650 in 1977. By today’s prices, that should be about Rs 12,000. A trainee walking into The Indian Express today will get about Rs 25,000. Salaries have gone up and they must go up further. I disagree with the idea that journalists are low-skilled people. I don’t believe in citizen journalists. I say give me citizen doctors and citizen lawyers and I’ll give you citizen journalists. We learn the journalistic skill, we come with bullshit detectors, which gets better with age and experience.

So, owners pay what they can afford to pay for the kind of talent they want. It’s the principle of free markets.

Do you think that top editors should publicly declare their assets the way ministers do these days?
Look, every tax-paying person declares his or her assets. Every higher net worth individual declares his assets in a very detailed form. So every year, such individuals file not only their tax returns but also their balance sheet, which tells your assets and liabilities last year, this year…it is very comprehensive. So it is not as if anything is hidden. Is any purpose served by making it public, I don’t know. If that becomes a norm for everybody, I have no issue with it.

For any private limited company like the Indian Express, these details are available in the filings with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. Anyone can look up the details on the ministry’s website. So that is enough transparency. If somebody is living outside the tax environment, if somebody has benami property for instance, they won’t declare it anyway, publicly or privately. Politicians who declare their worth as one or two crore, you think it is really just that? At the same time, people who honestly file their tax returns, they should not be punished for it. There should be no guilt about being well-paid.

What jumped out at you about The Caravan story?
I have only one odd problem with it. I find it disappointing that after 37 years of leading a completely bindaas journalistic life, I seem to have upset only half a dozen people, and even they are willing to speak out against me only off the record!

This means I failed at my job as a journalist. I should have made at least a few good enemies!

One could argue that some didn’t speak out of fear…
Whatever, but I am disappointed!

The second thing I’d say, and this is very important in my family, the story changes the gender of one of my dogs. That’s a capital offence to my dogs. Poor Bhoori has been called Bhoora. This is a huge mistake!

Isn’t the Delhi media naturally pro-establishment? During the first Manmohan regime for instance, they were mostly toeing the line.
The media can be pro- or anti- some policies of the government. If you look at the Indian Express, which I ran, we strongly supported the nuclear deal. But then, many of their povertarian policies – we invented the term povertarian – we attacked them. We attacked not only Manmohan Singh but also his party leadership.

This expectation that you should either be on this side or that side of the government is tricky. It is George Bush-isation. You can be for one policy and against another policy of the same government with the same leader.

The Indian Express had perhaps the best reportage on the Gujarat violence in 2002. Is that something that bothers you now, in terms of access?
Not at all. I must say with great satisfaction that Modi once told me that nobody has caused me more harm than your paper. You attack me for Hindutva but that’s fine because I believe in Hindutva. But when I do something good, you must acknowledge that.

The tough thing in Gujarat was to continue covering the Gujarat story as it evolved and not remain frozen in 2002. At the same, we had to make sure we didn’t forget 2002 either. How do you create that simultaneity? Fact is that what happened in 2002 was unforgivable and inexcusable. Yet it is also the reality of Gujarat that the chief minister won three elections and there was good governance and economic growth.

That’s where a big test comes. All of us vote. Even the chief justice of India, the president and the chief election commissioner vote. So how do you separate your journalism from your voting preferences?

The Caravan story has a discussion on stories being killed. One hears all the time of stories being killed in the media, everywhere, including The Indian Express. This may be for various reasons: to protect particular people, for instance. The Caravan mentions two names, and you deny it there. Arnab Goswami constantly makes the point to people that he prefers being in Mumbai so that he doesn’t have to socialise with the power players of Delhi and can thus take them on easily. Then there are advertising pressures why stories are killed. You say that it is about editorial filters but is it not true that there are all kinds of pressures that result in stories getting killed?
Why are we editors? We become editors because we learn to deal with these pressures. We are not here to walk around wrapped in latex. Journalists have to go out with bare hands and shake hands with everybody. One has to have the skill to ensure that that doesn’t affect your editorial judgement. I always say if Dawood Ibrahim calls me to meet him, I will go meet him. I will not put him under citizens’ arrest. I am a journalist.

This is a vague accusation that some stories may have been killed at the Express. But if you tell me specific examples, I can answer. The newsroom is a sacred place. Newsroom talk is privileged like pillow talk.

What is the real power of an editor? The real power of an editor is now not how much he gets paid or what car he drives. It’s not who he can hire or who he can fire or who he can give what raise to, or who he meets and whose house he goes to and who visits his house. The real power of an editor is the power to decide which story will be published come what may, and which story will not be published come what may. It’s ultimately your judgment. Sometimes a story ticks all boxes but something in the pit of your stomach tells you that all is not right. This is where how much experience you have, counts.

Sometimes you can make an error of judgement. Nobody bats at 100%. Even Don Bradman did not bat at 100%. He stopped at 99.5%.

This kind of investigative journalism which the Indian Express specialises in, information invariably comes from sources with their own motives to leak such information. One man’s vested interest is always another man’s story. So you know it’s a valid story but you are getting it to peddle somebody’s agenda.
That is a valid concern. That is why, at the Express, we established a principle which was never broken. This was that no story was ever published until the other guy was given a chance to rebut. Secondly, my message to every journalist has always been to never pursue a story with a closed mind.

I and especially my soul-mates Raj [Kamal Jha] and Unni [Rajen Shanker] for 20 years – they institutionally drummed it into every mind that until you are very sure of a story, be prepared to say there is no story. Don’t fall so much in love with a story that you publish it even if it is only 95% accurate. That is the toughest judgement call.

At the Express and similarly in most newsrooms, there is a very strong code of ethics for journalists, which we make them sign. The marketing and sales people at Express also had to sign an undertaking that they would do nothing to undermine the journalistic code of ethics of the paper.

The Express is an editor-driven paper. That affects even the paper’s new reporting on a range of issues, such as the nuclear liability law or the Bhopal gas tragedy or the Lokpal movement. Isn’t there a problem when news reportage is coloured by the editor’s beliefs?
The Express is a paper that has always been allowed to express the personality of its editors. That’s why it’s the best paper to work for. And it doesn’t harm that it compensates its editors very well! But I’d work for the Express even for free. It is the paper to edit. Much bigger people have occupied that chair: Frank Moraes, Arun Shourie, S Mulgaonkar, S Nihal Singh, BG Verghese – look at the panoply of editors there.

Secondly, what was the principle? The principle was facts. Let’s take the Bhopal story. We had a very good reporter who felt strongly about Bhopal. We sent her to Bhopal for ten days but she could not find any evidence of the increase in the number of deformities. You need evidence for a story. You can’t do it on folklore.

Editors are now faced with the pressure of proving their credentials to other people by not letting facts come in the way. That is the pressure I learnt to deal with. For example, we never said there is no scam in 2G. We said there is a scam, but it can’t be worth 1,76,000 crore. The value of this much spectrum can’t be equivalent to 4.41% of India’s GDP or 2 billion dollars more than twice as much as India’s defence budget. Think! But in that environment, the moment you said that, you were marked out because you weren’t joining the herd.

Look at Gujarat. Nobody did more damaging stories on Gujarat than us. But what we didn’t do was we didn’t call Modi Hitler, Idi Amin or Milosevic. We didn't call it Holocaust or ethnic cleansing. The moment you start putting labels on people and issues, you start going away from facts. You close your mind.

Part 2: 'The media is willing to crawl when nobody is even asking it to bend'