Media Matters

Shekhar Gupta: 'The media is willing to crawl when nobody is even asking it to bend'

'The media has stopped seeing shades of grey, and everything is polarising.'

In this second of a two-part interview, senior journalist Shekhar Gupta discusses his plans, why he changed his mind about social media, the controversial C-story and his role in the Satanic Verses controversy. The first part of this interview can be read here.

You are planning to become an independent media entrepreneur now. You are one of those editors who was also CEO.
Yes, for 13 years, not one or two years. And an editor and a CEO with more unfettered freedom in both roles than anybody ever, for which I thank Viveck Goenka. 

What do you think of the idea that journalists should stick to journalism and not be entrepreneurs?
May be it worked at a time. But if you look at great papers of the world such as the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, before [Rupert] Murdoch took over, it is not a new thing.

One top media owner once told me a story. He said there was a time of great editors who used to object if they were summoned to the proprietors’ room. Today, he said, journalists are upset if they are not summoned!

We always hated the fact that media owners, managers and sales people who did not understand news ran our lives. Yet, when we get the opportunity to do it ourselves, media journalists start self-flagellation.

Can journalists make good entrepreneurs?
Some have, some haven’t. Look at TN Ninan at the Business Standard. He’s a journalist who rebuilt a successful paper.

The era of news organisations driven and dominated by one editor, such as Vinod Mehta or MJ Akbar or yourself, is said to be over…
It is in trouble…

Some would say it’s a good thing it’s in trouble. It comes in the way of diversity in a news outlet. The Times of India does it differently.
That argument is possible. But just as there’s a place for The Times of India, there’s a place for The Indian Express or The Hindu. We need diversity. I will have a problem when you have only Pravda and Izvestia, each one was headed by an editor in Russia. One means truth and the other means news, and it was said that there’s no news in the truth and no truth in the news.

India has so much diversity. There was Blitz of Karanjia. At the time I did a story in India Today, which even today I consider my bravest story, about Indian intelligence training LTTE in India. The Daily, owned by Blitz, said on front page that India Today was actually Lanka Today and said that I did the story for a bottle of Scotch whisky. These days people at least say you must have taken crores to do this story, back then it was just a bottle of Scotch whisky. I told Aroon [Purie] let’s sue him, but Aroon said send them a funny note instead. I wrote them a letter saying be careful, if reporters of India Today can be bought for a bottle of Scotch whiskey, your reporters will not even get a pack of tharra!

What do you think is the reason why the editor-as-institution is in trouble?  
I think that Indian editorial succession missed one generation. The generation before me had names such as Suman Dubey, TN Ninan, Arun Shourie, MJ Akbar. My generation included Raj Chengappa, Chaitanya Kalbag, Sanjoy Narayan, Prabhu Chawla. We were all reporters in India Today. After that there is a missed generation of editors. I think this happened because they moved to TV. One such example was that of Rajdeep [Sardesai]. A wonderful writer and journalist, he would have made a great editor of a conventional editorial product. TV is not a conventional editorial product.

Is there not the issue here of assertive media owners? Was that not the reason why you left The Indian Express?
Not at all. I can look you in the eye and say that till the last day, there was no difference between how I saw the paper and how the owners saw it. Even today I pick up the Express first thing in the morning. Viveck [Goenka] knew I was leaving, and even then I dedicated my book to him. I got a 19-year reign. I was turning to my late fifties. I wanted a new challenge, I wanted to do something different on my own.

I thought whatever had to be done, had been done here. The paper’s balance sheet was fine, its credibility had been restored, it had a great team, and the paper’s corporate strategy was also set, and the owner agreed with it. The idea was that the paper would have a smaller, classy readership and then monetise it. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave but it was thought through. If you don’t get a new challenge in your fifties, you fear growing old very soon.

My life can’t be in cruise control. I like the chaos of the journalistic life. I thought I could be a public intellectual like Fareed Zakaria. I thought I could write in one place, do TV in another. Fareed said you must do one substantive book every three years. But I’m a more restless animal. So I’m trying to set up something of my own, but not taking money from anyone to do so yet.

Why did you step down from the editorship of India Today and your role there as the group vice chairman?
Again, I felt I had moved from one comfort zone to another. 

Around the time you were leaving The Indian Express, you said that you wouldn’t be on social media. Like every other journalist, you were complaining about online abuse. Yet you joined Twitter soon thereafter.
Let me quote Maynard Keynes to you. I changed my mind as facts changed. What do you do, sir?

If I did not join Twitter, I’d be ideological. I’d be frozen in time. I’d be a Luddite. Change happens. We have to embrace it. What to do?

My younger friend Fareed Zakaria lives in a different environment. He said to me, the time has come for all of us to accept that we don’t know what platform our work will be viewed, seen, heard on tomorrow. To which I added, yes, Steve Jobs will decide that. Fareed said that given this reality, we must all learn to carry our audience with us. He told me to not be afraid of social media, it’s not a wild dog, but keep your composure. I follow the same principle. I almost never get into a fight with anybody and almost never block anybody.

In 2012, you published in The Indian Express a story about how the Manmohan Singh government got spooked by some army movement around Delhi. This came to be known as the C-story because it said “nobody is using the C-word yet…” You have said you are proud of the story but looking back, would you perhaps have done it differently?
No. We knew it was going to lead to a lot of criticism. We also knew it was going to lead to a lot of pressure. Contrary to whatever anybody thinks, nobody knew better than us that the government didn’t want it. What does the story do? The story exposed the government of the day, and nothing else. What kind of a government gets scared by a troop movement?

So the facts of the story are indisputable. Every fact has been proven.

Then the question is, what was the motive behind the troop movement? We don’t know. If we knew it, we would have said it. Fact is, in 2012 the Indian government can get so spooked a day after Army Day and ten days before Republic Day, it is a very big story. The defence secretary going at night, summoning the DGMO [Director General of Military Operations]… it is a very big story.

What surprised me was where the sharper reaction came from.

The sharpest reaction came from the then army chief General VK Singh. You sent a legal notice to some journalists who criticised the story but not to Singh.
We sent one to Open magazine because it was a question of principle. If they had said the Indian Express or Shekhar Gupta is out of his mind, it would have been okay. If they had said this was a non-story, there was no need to play it up, it would have been okay. Or even if they had said Shekhar is a gadha [donkey], it would have been okay. You can call me gadha, it is not insulting to love animals as we do.

But to say the story was wrong, that it was deliberately planted, that the plant was deliberately fake… The truth is, you don’t know whether the story is right or wrong. If you say it is wrong, come and prove it. Then I would be responsible for the honour of my colleagues and my paper.

That’s why we sent a legal notice, not out of any vindictiveness. And it wasn’t a notice from me but from The Indian Express’ lawyers. It wasn’t a shot fired in anger. I worked for an institution. I wasn’t Shekhar at Shekhar Gupta Dot Com. I was Shekhar at the Indian Express and I was responsible for the institution.

Once the magazine settled it, we didn’t pursue it.

Open magazine retracted it much later, when there was a change of editorial guard.
Doesn’t matter. They did it. We have no issue with individuals, the argument was with the publication, the institution which agreed to be fair and the matter is over.

Vinod Mehta never retracted what he had said.
That’s his problem. But since I know him well, I wonder what he thinks now that more evidence and facts establishing the story have surfaced.

You don’t hold it against him?
I don’t. I just wish he had called me up and asked me about the story if he was so angry, before going public with his views. We have known each other for a long time. We haven’t always agreed on everything but that’s fine.

Many on social media were also angry at the story. They saw it as a politically motivated attack against a nationalist institution like the Indian Army.
The way the political environment is evolving, anything sharp is polarising. Today even if you argue about whether the Reserve Bank of India should cut rates, even that is polarising. Anything is polarising. If you say don’t carry out mass slaughter against animals in Nepal, some will ask you why you aren’t stopping Bakri-Eid. To which my answer is that in every faith, correction must come from within. If Muslims start telling Hindus not to burst crackers in Diwali, nobody will listen. Hindus have to start saying we should not burst crackers. Similarly, in any faith it is from within that there should be voices against sacrificial slaughter.

So today, anything is polarising.

And why is the political environment in India so polarising today?
I think that is how the entire world is today. If I remember correctly, Obama is only the second two-term president in America’s history to have more than 50% votes. And he still can’t get much done because the environment is so polarised. A majority of Republican voters still don’t believe he is American!

Isn’t the media, particularly the noise of news TV, responsible for such polarisation?
Oh definitely. The media has stopped seeing shades of grey… I’m sorry shades of grey has acquired a funny meaning these days but in the conventional sense the media has stopped seeing shades of grey. Nobody has to be corrupt to be called corrupt, and on news TV "allegedly corrupt" has also stopped. Now they say so-and-so is ‘congenitally corrupt’. Now is there a DNA test that can establish there is a corruption gene?

This is a new phase, in many ways shaping popular discourse. 

There is increasingly the public impression that the media isn’t merely a mirror but an actor in the power games between business and politics.
The media definitely has to do a lot of introspection. I have been writing about this. Back in 2010, I wrote an article saying the media is getting too big for its boots. That happened because the government was too weak. So everybody was moving into that space, including the judiciary and NGOs. I said that all three will get it in the neck.

The NGOs got it in the neck and so did the judiciary, soon after the new government came to power. A parliament that cannot pass any law, passed a major constitutional amendment without discussion. The entire political class got together against the judiciary. And there was no public protest. If Indira Gandhi had passed such a law in the '70s, we would all have been at the pickets. But nothing happened in 2014. Nobody seemed to rise to the defence of the judiciary.

Some similar things are happening to the media. LK Advani said of the press in the Emergency, when asked to bend, they crawled. Today sometimes you get the sense that people are willing to crawl when nobody is bothering to ask us to even bend.

And that has happened since the election?
It started a few months before the elections. 

Do you get a lot of abuse on Twitter?
Often with the C-word. Often followed by an H…. but not O, in case you start getting ideas!

Does the abuse affect you? Does it ruin your day?
Not at all! We had a great old manager at the Express. Whenever our unions got angry, they knew what is the best time to make an impact. They would choose the Friday evening when I wrote my column. They would come to the compound behind my window and start shouting Murdabad! Murdabad! (Death to you! Death to you!) The old manager said, don’t worry sir, every time they say Murdabad, one more day is added to your life.

Abuse doesn’t bother me. I have been around. I have some protection just by virtue of having been around. I have strength. I have a thick skin. What I worry about is this. Any journalist, actor, business man – anyone in the public domain – anybody is just pilloried like this for having a view that is not the same as yours. A lot of people will get scared. Here I see the rise of an Indian fascism. I wrote a column some time ago saying that nationalism was growing stronger than patriotism. Fortunately I found a reference from George Orwell.

Today – and I know I have to put this very carefully because it will get me abuse – but if something is happening in Chumar in Ladakh, then without even going there why is everybody immediately accepting that the Chinese have infiltrated? Nobody waits to check. You raise visions of 1962 being repeated, which is so silly.

That area is such that sometimes even the Chinese might not know they have infiltrated!
Exactly. So I tell such people, why don’t you take a rifle and go over there. Go sort it out and come back.

I am always with my nation. But if you disagree with me, you will start calling me corrupt, you will say I have been paid off. Second, you will call me anti-national. Third, you will say I need to get my head examined. The third one is the least damaging. You can say that. But to impute motives to everybody you  disagree with is a bad thing.

Not just social media, TV news also does that.
Yes, and that’s a very bad thing. 

After Salman Rushdie published his autobiography, your former colleague Madhu Jain wrote an article saying that it was her then immediate editor who chose the sensational excerpts that got Rushdie in trouble. And that was you?
In my first few months in an editorial role in India Today, I was a features editor. So in a way it was my first editorial decision in a newsroom, of having to take a call on something. It was a big story. It had 14 or 18 bylines. Many people who contributed to that story have remained my lifelong friends.

As the editor of those pages, I was responsible for what was published. It doesn’t matter whether I chose the excerpts or not.

The only thing I would point out to you is that after Madhu Jain’s article defending herself and blaming me came out, I recorded a Walk the Talk with Salman Rushdie. Look at his answer when I asked him if he bought Madhu Jain’s defence or my culpability. [In the interview, Rushdie replies, "So it's your fault? Usually the default setting is, blame me."]

As editors we have to be broad-shouldered enough to take responsibility. But at the same time, if I did choose those excerpts, I must have had a very good news sense at age 31!

So who chose the excerpts?
Frankly, I have zero recollection. But I am very happy to take responsibility. I’ll check that box on my CV. If somebody is giving me credit, I’ll take it! I only wish Madhu had named me and given me the full credit!

Was it not irresponsible to sensationalise the book?
It wasn’t done to invite a ban. Fact is, it was one of the most newsy things at the time. I didn’t choose the excerpts. The truth is that I am very bad at reading a full book! And magic realism I am not designed to appreciate, I am afraid.

Part 1: Why shouldn't journalists get rich? asks Shekhar Gupta

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