When one Indian newspaper handed over its big scoop to a rival

A graphic showing newspapers The Hindu, The Indian Express and President APJ Abdul Kalam
Illustration by PealiDezine

It was the only way to ensure the story wasn’t killed. And Spielberg’s latest, The Post, brings it back to me.

Besides politics, this is a week marked by talk of The Post, the film about how The Washington Post and its great Editor-Publisher (as Americans call the newspaper proprietor) duo of Benjamin Bradlee and Katharine Graham made history, and set new standards in courageous journalism. The story has been told many times before, in books (both Graham and Bradlee have written stellar autobiographies, and then indeed, All The President’s Men). You can never have enough of hearing, reading and seeing it. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers remain the gold standard globally for journalistic courage. Generations of journalists have drawn inspiration from them.

Since enough time has passed, I can now talk in some detail about how the Pentagon Papers became an inspiration for something unusual we did at The Indian Express in the winter of 2006. Or, even at the risk of giving some suspense away, what was done between The Indian Express and The Hindu, together. The two papers were not direct rivals in either’s important markets, but competed furiously in the realm of ideas and philosophies, particularly economic and strategic policies.

Comparisons with The Post-NYT situation would be pompous, so we won’t go there. We’d just limit ourselves to saying that philosophical, ideological and therefore editorial worldview of the two papers was quite contrary, unlike The Post and NYT, both rooted in the same American liberal space. The Hindu, under N. Ram’s editorship, was inclined to the Left on economic and strategic issues, and we, to the Right. Both were socially liberal.

In today’s over-simplified if not idiot-proofed discourse, you’d call The Hindu then Left-liberal and us, at the Express, in search of a non-hyphenated liberal utopia: liberal on society, liberal on the economy, but very impatient to break out of old Cold War foreign and strategic policies and burdens.

It is important to understand these facts underlying the drama that is about to unfold. In fact, it only makes it more dramatic—and I’d say for Ram and The Hindu, enormously more creditable. Let me also give some more suspense away: this story also involved one institution making so much news this week, the Supreme Court Collegium.

In the weeks leading up to November 2006, Ritu Sarin, who owns the chief investigative reporter’s hallowed spot not just in The Indian Express but the entire Indian media, broke two brief stories on our page one. These were about President APJ Abdul Kalam objecting to the elevation of Delhi High Court’s Justice Vijender Jain as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court because of some collegium members’ reservations. Each time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked him to consult the Chief Justice of India, Y.K. Sabharwal, who insisted that the appointment should go through.

Kalam was persistent. He returned the file for the third time. This time, he did something no president had as yet done—and I am not sure has done subsequently. He wrote, in two succinct paras his reservations. He said, in the consultative process, three senior judges had raised doubts on the appointment. Further, that to still push it through, the size of the collegium had been increased by a judge, which was against the procedure. Quite inevitably, Ritu landed in the newsroom, “scoop” painted all over her face, with a copy of Kalam’s note.

There was the usual buzz as we got down to processing it, and questions were asked from the relevant high offices. We were all set to publish, and then catastrophe struck.

This, Delhi-walas would recall, was the year of large-scale demolitions and sealing of illegal, irregular or unlicenced constructions all over Delhi by an empowered high court committee set up by the bench headed by Justice Jain. Our offices were located in two buildings on the southern edge of the city in what is called Qutub Institutional Area. These lands had been allotted cheap to charities and trusts for institutional purposes but many had been sold, over-built or had rented more than they were permitted to. The committee’s enforcers arrived that 18 November afternoon, sealed seven buildings where ownership had been changed, and added the two where we were located. We were suddenly homeless.

Worse, however, was the realisation that we could no longer publish the story with Kalam’s note. How could a paper ever publish a story “against” the judge whose orders had just locked it out of its newsrooms? We consulted every top lawyer in the country. They all figured the issue, but had the same advice: you can’t publish. It will be seen as vengeful and be a possible case of contempt. So here we were, working literally from the pavement and our homes, with that never-before wrench: having a story we couldn’t publish.

I keep a closet filled with the copies of the paperback edition of Benjamin Bradlee’s ‘A Good Life’ to use as a gift for fellow—especially younger—journalists. Flipping through a copy absent-mindedly I stopped at the mention of the Pentagon Papers. My colleagues and I thought we had found a way out. Not to get back to our old newsrooms, but to get that story out.

I called N. Ram in Chennai and, after pleasantries, asked if he remembered what happened when a judge injuncted The New York Times from publishing Neil Sheehan’s scoops on the Pentagon Papers? Of course, he said, the papers were then given to The Washington Post, which started publishing because it hadn’t been injuncted. I said we had a similar situation. We readily became complicit in ensuring this story would not remain unpublished. Never mind our arguments.

Ram said he and I might conclude this at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s daughter Yamini’s wedding lunch-reception in Delhi for which he was coming. We met on the lawns of Aiyar’s bungalow. I pulled out a rolled printout from my jacket and handed it to him. In the cut-throat world of journalism, this was like high treason. But letting a story be killed because you can’t publish it is a bigger crime than passing it to the competition.

The story was the front-page flier in next morning’s The Hindu. Its reporter had added much value to it, also by talking to a key collegium judge quoted anonymously in the story. The CJI still insisted on going through with Justice Jain’s appointment as chief of Punjab and Haryana High Court. But that was between him and Kalam. It was never our objective to block the appointment. Nor do we know if that story in The Hindu had any impact on the choices the collegium made for the Supreme Court subsequently.

We were only obsessed with a most important and factual story that had “Must Publish” written on it. That it was published is a tribute to the large-heartedness of The Hindu and N. Ram. The inspiration—if not instigation—had come from the Pentagon Papers.

Reporter’s luck: Dainik Jagran was the first Indian media group to bring FDI. Its first investor was the company owning the Irish Independent. In early 2007, it threw a party in Delhi to introduce the board of its investors. I found two familiar faces. The first looked just like, and was, Sean Connery. He was on the board of the Irish Independent. I walked up to the second, a very distinguished-looking old man, and told him he looked just like Benjamin Bradlee. “I am Bradlee, young man,” he said. He was also a board member. I told him the Express-Hindu story and how it had been inspired by his exploits and got him to agree for an interview on NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’ the next morning. It is a conversation to cherish even if so non-TRP friendly.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Well , Mr. Shekhar Gupta’s story , as he claims here , may not be the first of its kind . If he recalls correctly , Mr.Arun Shourie ( Shekhar’s mentor ) when he was Editor in Chief of the then ” The Indian Express ” , in a similar , if not identical , situation got his secretly taped and damning conversations relating to late Prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her comic Cabinet colleagues with the then Karnataka Chief Minister Mr. Gundu Rao in his official chamber in Bangalore , published through the Cochin based weekly The Week . The ostensible reason widely believed then was that the then owner of The Indian Express Mr. Ramnath Goenka did not permit his EIC Arun Shourie to publish those ” unauthorised ” transcripts in his paper . But the The Week risked its neck and took head-on the all too powerful Indira Gandhi and her coterie and boldly published them on the cover page to the shock and horror of the Congressmen and to the titillating senses of the readers nation wide !

    • Thanks for sharing this amazing story. I recall that we couldn’t visit IE that year with our students coz you told me, ” we have no office!”
      I share a number of IE exploits with my students during my Reporting classes and today the students shared your tweet with me in class!
      Feel blessed to have such smart students and alumni we can all look up to!

  2. Wonderful collaboration, Shekhar and Ram ! Journalistic ethics at its pinnacle, and an example for todays oppurtunistic lot. No wonder, one is saakshaat Shankar and other Purushottam, in contemporary journalese. By the way, can I be lucky enough to get a copy of The Good Life by Bradlee from your stock ! Its exhorbitant on Amazon, by the way.

  3. Hi, we do agree with the late Ramnath ji stating that it was private dinner for which Arun the then editor was one of the invitee. It was not a scheduled interview. Gundu Rao has jovial in passing coments on every leader & reteriated his loyalty to Indira ghandi. So he refused to publish it stating it is not ethical though he was stanch opponent to Indira Ghandi’s Govt. But later Arun shourie without informing the Ramanath ji has got published in India Post in a Interview format.
    But this one is entirely a different one & rather killing the story he offered Ram to publish who obliged & thereby upheld the respect & honour of the media….Tx.
    Nagesh Rao

  4. A very nice and inspiring piece for all journalists to emulate , if possible,depending on facts and circumstances of individual case.- Adv. R.S.Agrawal, NAGPUR.

  5. Thanks Shekhar. You are really brilliant and reminded me of old Arun Shourie. We look forward to more of such stories

  6. That is a great inspiring narration, Shekharji, in the current state of affairs at media regime. Many citizens like me feel indeed reassured about the positive power of journalism as demonstrated here. All the budding and aspiring journalists will do well to hold such stories as a bench-mark.
    Looking forward to more of such stuff. Sincere compliments…

  7. When the truth has to be out, it has to be. Fount from which it comes is secondary. Rivalry quite often comes in the way of good work. It is not unknown in the world of intelligence. You did not let your judgement be clouded by competitiveness. Kudos.

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