Same Old News

History repeating at 
Shobhana Bhartia’s Hindustan Times

01 December 2018
Hindustan Times House, in the heart of Delhi, houses the capital’s most-read English-language daily.
ALAMY PHOTO
Hindustan Times House, in the heart of Delhi, houses the capital’s most-read English-language daily.
ALAMY PHOTO

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SHOBHANA BHARTIA CULTIVATES an image of herself in the mould of Katharine Graham. She has brought up her connection to Graham in multiple interviews and public appearances—at an event in 2015, she spoke of “a very deep engagement and a personal bond with Mrs Graham”—and reporters inclined towards stenography have played up the parallels between the two. Bhartia, as the chairperson and editorial director of HT Media, is the publisher of the Hindustan Times—the third most-read English-language newspaper in India, and the most-read one in the country’s capital. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, in the US capital, in the 1960s and 1970s. Both inherited control of their newspapers from their families—Graham from her husband; Bhartia from her father, the industrialist KK Birla. As women in positions of power, both count as pioneers in societies and media industries dominated by men, and both had to struggle hard to establish themselves. Graham was a stellar networker, on close terms with much of the political elite of the United States in her day. Bhartia, similarly skilled, is deeply embedded in the parallel constituency in present-day India.

Graham took decisions to publish stories that are now monuments of journalism, including the Washington Post’s exposés on the Pentagon Papers, which detailed official lies about the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, and the paper’s revelations about the Watergate investigation, which cut short the presidency of Richard Nixon. Both stories came at great cost to Graham’s personal relationships with her country’s political elite. The Hindustan Times has published nothing remotely comparable under Bhartia.

A former executive at the Hindustan Times who worked closely with Bhartia pointed to how Graham is depicted in the 2017 movie The Post, a behind-the-scenes account of how the Washington Post came to cover the Pentagon Papers. In the first half of the movie, the former executive said, Graham “is much like Shobhana—the parties, the hesitation to take on the government, the moral dilemma.” Forced to choose between making a journalistic stand by publishing and appeasing her powerful friends by remaining silent, Graham takes the former option. “That final switch does not happen in the HT story, unfortunately.”

THE TYCOON VIJAY MALLYA, fighting extradition from the United Kingdom to India on charges that include fraud, appeared for a hearing before a London court this September. On his way in, he told reporters that before he fled India, in March 2016, he had approached Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, to propose a deal to settle his debts. The court declared that it would deliver a verdict in Mallya’s case on 10 December, but for most of the media that became a mere aside in the story of a man with outstanding dues of some Rs 9,000 crore—over $1.2 billion—being allowed to abscond soon after a chat with the finance minister.

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan. He can be reached at atul.caravan@gmail.com.

Keywords: BJP Hindustan Times Shobhana Bhartia Priyavrat Bhartia Shyam Sundar Bhartia media newspaper kk bIRLA journalism Narendra Modi GD Birla Arun Jaitley Times of India Vijay Mallya Indira Gandhi Samir Jain Emergency BG Verghese Jubilant Vir Sanghvi Lala Lajpat Rai MK Gandhi Madan Mohan Malviya Bobby Ghosh Fincances Prem Shankar Jha Shishir Gupta Congress
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