Same Old News

History repeating at Shobhana Bhartia’s Hindustan Times

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
01 December, 2018


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.

The following morning, The Telegraph dedicated half of its front page to Mallya’s revelation, under the headline “The Jaitlag” and a subheading that read, “Mallya cures govt amnesia on how he ran into Jaitley.” The front page of the Indian Express carried the headline, “Mallya claims he met Jaitley before leaving and offered to settle, FM says false, I snubbed him.” In the Hindustan Times, a front-page headline proclaimed, “Mallya extradition case to be decided on Dec 10.” The story beneath it never quoted Mallya’s comment outside the court, and only briefly paraphrased his statement about the meeting as part of the lead paragraph. Almost all of the next four paragraphs were dedicated to Jaitley’s response: that there had been no formal meeting, that Mallya had accosted him unawares at the Rajya Sabha—where Mallya then was and Jaitley still is a member—and that he had refused to speak to the businessman. The story then quoted Mallya dismissing the “unnecessary controversy” just hours after his comments at the courthouse.

Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, figures prominently in Shobhana Bhartia’s personal circle. The marketing man Suhel Seth described Jaitley as one of his and Bhartia’s “common friends.” KAMAL SINGH/ PTI

It is unclear exactly how the story in the Hindustan Times came to take the form it did. But if it passed through the layers of the paper’s top editorial hierarchy, it must have come to the attention of several key individuals. One of them would have been Shishir Gupta—the executive editor of the Hindustan Times, and, according to several reporters and editors of the newspaper, the most powerful person in the newsroom since the unceremonious departure last September of Bobby Ghosh, the paper’s editor-in-chief.

Gupta built his career covering national security, a beat notoriously in thrall to official sources. According to another journalist on the beat, Gupta has for decades been close to Ajit Doval—the current national security advisor, and, along with Jaitley, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s innermost circles. Last year, the magazine Frontline published an email that Gupta sent in 2015 to two senior figures in the prime minister’s office. One of them was Modi’s top lieutenant and the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah. Gupta reported the “buzz in Delhi Govt,” listing nine “example[s] of violations” by Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister and a vocal rival of Modi and the BJP. He warned that “Kejriwal is on course to abrogate all powers of the Centre” in the National Capital Region. Though the email did not contain a single question, Gupta told Frontline that it was meant as an invitation for comment for a story he had meant to write. In 2016, he was reported to have exchanged 478 calls with Sanjay Bhandari, a shadowy arms dealer currently under investigation for suspected violations of the Official Secrets Act.

The Mallya story would also have been scrutinised by Sukumar Ranganathan, Ghosh’s successor as the editor-in-chief, and Prashant Jha, then the paper’s political editor. Ranganathan moved to the Hindustan Times last year after almost a decade as the editor of Mint, HT Media’s financial paper. He technically ranks above Gupta in the editorial hierarchy, though not in practice. Jha stepped down as the political editor in October, after being accused of sending sexually suggestive text messages to a former colleague. Before then, Jha’s main utility in the newsroom was how he “looked on, sitting silent, doing nothing,” while Gupta gave “direct orders to the political bureau,” an editor who was at several of the bureau’s meetings told me.

Jha wrote to me, in response to an emailed questionnaire, that the impression that Gupta commanded meetings of the political bureau and overrode his decisions was incorrect. “The bureau reported to me and I reported to the editor-in-chief,” he stated. Jha clarified that, since stepping down, he no longer has any managerial responsibilities, although he remains associated with the paper.

There is another tier of editorial authority above Gupta, Ranganathan and Jha in the Hindustan Times hierarchy—occupied by Bhartia, the editorial director. By custom, Bhartia is briefed over the phone at around eight in the evening about the stories going into the next day’s paper—particularly those destined for the front and editorial pages. Her editors have learnt, from the examples of a long line of departed colleagues, that Bhartia expects the Hindustan Times not to sully the good names of her friends—Arun Jaitley among them—or irk the powers of the day.

“That 8 pm call? What are the stories she is concerned about?” an editor who worked with Bhartia for around a decade told me. “The stories involving the people she will run into at parties. That’s it.” The Hindustan Times exists, the editor said, so that Bhartia can “rub shoulders with the who’s who of Delhi.”

“What an editor has to understand at HT is that he is just keeping the chair warm,” a former editor with a leading role in the Hindustan Times newsroom told me. “The real editor sits upstairs, on the second floor.”

FOR MUCH OF THE TIME that Shobhna Bhartia has occupied her second-floor office at Hindustan Times House in the heart of the national capital—and also long before then—the newspaper was almost synonymous with the Congress party. The paper’s own literature boasts that Mohandas Gandhi presided over its launch in 1924, and the longest-serving editor in its history was Gandhi’s son Devdas. During the Emergency, KK Birla sacked the editor of the paper, who had dared to criticise the regime of Indira Gandhi. Birla was so devoted to Indira Gandhi that he had to flee the country afterwards, once she had relinquished her power as prime minister, in fear of arrest for his role in abetting her assault on democracy. In 1984, having returned home, he became a member of the Congress, and was elected to the Rajya Sabha. Bhartia has been a member of the Rajya Sabha as well, nominated by a Congress-led government.

The paper’s transition to alignment with the Modi government may seem remarkable at first, but a close examination of its inner workings, both past and present, makes it appear less so. Whatever has happened at the Hindustan Times since the change of government in 2014 has repeated patterns ingrained in the paper’s history.

KK Birla used the paper in an abortive attempt to launch a political career. Reputable editors such as S Mulgaonkar and BG Verghese had to go after the Hindustan Times offended Indira Gandhi. Khushwant Singh was appointed as editor on Indira Gandhi’s personal recommendation. In the later years of Rajiv Gandhi’s rule, Prem Shankar Jha was stripped of the editorship for refusing to play his part in a campaign to sabotage VP Singh, the Congress’s bitter rival.

Bhartia was a young executive at the Hindustan Times by the time of Prem Shankar Jha’s departure, in the late 1980s. She has since carried on the family tradition of sacrificing editors who offend the ruling powers, with Ghosh the latest lamb. His departure was preceded by a meeting between Bhartia and Narendra Modi at the prime minister’s office. The details of that meeting are not public, and the prime minister’s principal secretary has denied that it had any connection to Ghosh. But, the former executive who worked closely with Bhartia told me, in the run-up to the meeting there was a rising frequency of calls to the publisher from Amit Shah and Modi’s principal secretary to complain about the paper’s coverage of the government.

The stated reason Bhartia met Modi before Ghosh’s departure was to invite the prime minister to the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. The main draws of this annual extravaganza—with big-name sponsors that have included Facebook, Hyundai, Yes Bank and more—are appearances from sports and entertainment celebrities, as well as top government officials and politicians—the same people the Hindustan Times is supposed to hold to account. Only months earlier, Modi and Shah had derailed a similar event by the Times Group, which publishes the Times of India and the Economic Times, by announcing a last-minute boycott. This was widely understood as a show of displeasure with the coverage of the government by the Times Group’s newspapers. Modi appeared on stage with a beaming Bhartia at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit a couple of months after Ghosh’s departure was announced.

The summit, which has been running for over a decade and a half, is not the only area where Bhartia’s business interests depend on the patronage of the government in power. The Hindustan Times draws a major share of its revenue from government spending on advertisements. That money comes in from the central government’s Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, the publicity directorates of individual state governments, and the myriad government-run corporations and institutions across the country. The same is true for Hindustan, Bhartia’s Hindi daily, which has massive circulation in the northern states.

Between the time that Bhartia personally invited Narendra Modi to the 2017 Hindustan Times Leadership Summit and the time that the prime minister appeared at the event, the editor of the Hindustan Times suddenly departed. GURINDER OSAN/ HINDUSTAN TIMES/ GETTY IMAGES

Bhartia has ably managed the Hindustan Times’s commercial health. Under her ownership, the paper has weathered a challenge from the Times of India to retain primacy in Delhi, its traditional home. It has also expanded beyond the capital to become a national newspaper, and brought in consistent and impressive profits, even if the Times of India has achieved a massive advantage on the national scale. Beyond Bhartia’s media holdings, her family also has a diversified portfolio of other interests. Her husband, Shyam Sunder Bhartia, and his brother, Hari, are the founders of the Jubilant Bhartia Group. The conglomerate’s businesses include pharmaceutical factories, fast-food restaurants, luxury-car dealerships and more, collectively worth billions of dollars. The Jubilant Bhartia Group also controlled a now insolvent offshore-drilling venture that defaulted on loans worth Rs 1,340 crore from government-run banks.

The realities of Indian business and bureaucracy mean that each area the conglomerate operates in requires it to nurture a certain set of friends in politics and government, and gives the government certain avenues to hurt it if ever required. “Media owners with other business interests have expanded their businesses, while using the media as a tool for gaining political currency,” the editor who spent several years in the editorial leadership told me. He added that where previous governments had used inducement to restrain the media, this one preferred to use fear, setting the investigative agencies and tax authorities after offending parties. “Earlier, the owners were not living under the constant fear of being raided,” he explained. “They are now.”

Money-spinning summits, dependence on government advertising, owners nurturing non-journalistic and often political interests—all of these are common themes across India’s mainstream newspapers. The Hindustan Times is distinguished by the pretence that it can be a shining journalistic light despite these compromising factors. Where Vineet Jain, the managing director of the Times Group, unabashedly told a journalist in 2012 that “we are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business,” Bhartia, whose paper has for years tried to emulate the Times of India’s commercial success, persists with her fond allusions to Katharine Graham.

The editors of the Hindustan Times step into the chasm between what its owners like to think the paper is and what it is in actuality. A big-name editor is brought in every once in a while to bolster journalistic esteem, while everything else remains as is. Before long, the new man—it has always been a man—finds that his ideas about how to run a newspaper do not sit well with the owners or the government. The tension simmers for a bit, then the editor is cut loose and the owners find a more pliant replacement. And then history repeats itself.

ON TOP OF social, political and financial capital, there is at least one fringe benefit Bhartia expects her newspaper to deliver—travel solutions.

When the publisher gets stuck in Delhi traffic, her reflex is to call the metro editor of the newspaper. “The expectation is that a call will go from the metro editor to a city reporter,” a former supervising editor with knowledge of such calls told me, “who would happen to know someone in the traffic police, which will transmit a message to the spot where Mrs B’s Audi is stuck and … I don’t know. I don’t know what she thinks is going to come out of that call.”

Among the things the metro editor is somehow expected to do, the former supervising editor continued, “is to untangle the mess that is the Ashram junction in Delhi,” because Bhartia “gets caught in that jam very often on the way to her home.”

The former executive who worked closely with “Mrs B,” as many of her employees know her, told me that aviation reporters have received calls to make the private jet she is in jump the queue on the tarmac for take-off. They are expected to know the visibility at the airport at Bhartia’s scheduled time of arrival, so her plans can be adjusted beforehand in case of possible delay. “Winters are a tough time,” one former aviation reporter said. “Fog prediction is difficult to get right.”


“I AM DEEPLY DISAPPOINTED to share the news that Bobby Ghosh will be returning to New York, for personal reasons,” Bhartia wrote to staff at the Hindustan Times on 11 September 2017. The same day, Ghosh posted Bhartia’s note on his Facebook page. He did not add anything about his reasons for leaving just 14 months after he was appointed editor, in July 2016.

Ghosh had arrived from New York, where he had been the managing editor of the news website Quartz. He had made a name for himself as a correspondent and editor for Time magazine, and was well connected in international journalistic circles.

The Hindustan Times had a few highlights in its coverage of the Modi government before his arrival. When a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched near the Uttar Pradesh town of Dadri in September 2015, after a false rumour that he was hiding beef in his home, “it was on the front page with all the details,” the former executive said. “We did not dilute anything in our Dadri coverage.” A few months later, the paper also had thorough coverage of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad, and the ensuing fury at his treatment by government administrators and BJP politicians. But things changed by September 2016, when the government was trumpeting its disputed “surgical strikes” against targets in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. That, the former executive said, was when Bhartia began receiving calls from the prime minister’s office and Amit Shah.

Amid the speculation as to why Ghosh had to go, attention turned to the Hate Tracker, a crowd-sourced database on the Hindustan Times website that recorded “acts of violence, threats of violence, and incitements to violence based on religion, caste, race, ethnicity, region of origin, gender identity and sexual orientation.” Launched in mid 2017, the Hate Tracker proposed to log incidents going back as far as the month of the Dadri lynching. Murder by cow vigilantes, and other forms of communal violence, had become a regular part of national news since then, much as the Modi government denied the spread of bigotry since it assumed power.

“But Hate Tracker may not have been the only factor,” the former editor with a leading newsroom role told me. “Ministers did not like Bobby very much, and half the job of the editor of the Hindustan Times is to court ministers. He upset people like Smriti Irani”—the minister of information and broadcasting at the time—“and these ministers were complaining to the PMO”—the prime minister’s office.

“While the other regimes asked for reasonable restraint, this regime asks for absolute restraint,” the editor who spent years in the editorial leadership said.

The Hate Tracker, a crowd-sourced database of hate crimes under the Modi government, disappeared from the Hindustan Times website without explanation.

“He was the kind of editor who would fight for your story,” a reporter who worked under Ghosh for almost his entire stint at the Hindustan Times told me. “But he did not understand Indian politics. He had a surface-level understanding of how things are, and he did not take great pains to go deeper.”

Ghosh’s departure marked the end of an experiment to remake the newsroom. As the editor, he inherited and continued what was called the Butterfly Project—a move to orient the Hindustan Times primarily towards digital content, and away from its traditional mainstay of print. The first floor of Hindustan Times House was revamped, with new workstations and a new content-management system. “It was about changing the whole culture of the place,” Nicholas Dawes, the chief editorial officer at the paper until September 2016, told me. “There would be no offices, and the senior editors would discuss and take editorial calls in open meetings that anyone could join.” Ghosh brought in fresh hires as part of the effort, including multimedia journalists and a new national affairs team.

These moves generated excitement in Delhi, but in the paper’s offices elsewhere in the country the mood was dark. HT Media had brought in a consulting firm, the Boston Consulting Group, to point out ways to trim expenses—though the company continued to post robust profits. Multiple bureaus and city editions were shuttered around the start of 2017 amid a binge of layoffs. A circular from the management cited the “move towards an accelerated digital trajectory,” and the “creation of an ultra modern and Hi-tech newsroom in Delhi.”

“See, no decision of that kind would be taken without the approval of Shobhana,” an editor who was working closely with Bhartia at the time said. “But I felt that this was mostly the brainchild of Rajiv and Priyavrat.” Rajiv Verma was the CEO of HT Media until earlier this year. Priyavrat, the older of Bhartia’s two sons, is a director of the company.

“Nobody from the editorial side was interested in dealing with those guys,” the editor continued. “So what happened was that people from the business side, who understood very little about how a newsroom works, sat around a table with people from the BCG and decided to let go of entire bureaus.”

Ghosh, as the head of the editorial staff, did not stand in the way as at least fifty journalists were fired, curtailing the paper’s coverage. Nor did Rajesh Mahapatra, the chief content officer. The actual number of jobs cut in the exercise is difficult to know. Two editors who recently left the paper said that more than a hundred staffers have either quit or been asked to leave since the beginning of this year.

After Ghosh departed, the digital-first strategy—which had cost close to Rs 100 crore, or roughly $15 million—was completely abandoned.

Ghosh could not have been entirely surprised by his fate. When he was offered the editor’s job, he went about Delhi meeting friends and former Hindustan Times journalists, asking whether he should take it. “I have heard some horror stories,” one of the people he met remembered him saying. He was told that if he had Bhartia on his side, there was no reason to worry.

“It has always been possible to go and meet Shobhana to talk about a story and convince her of its merits,” an editor who spent around half a decade working with Bhartia told me. “But it is not a certainty. She might listen, or she might throw a tantrum. It depends upon her mood, and the social capital of the person she is talking to.” Ghosh, with his global credentials, had plenty of the latter. But it only got him so far.

“THE FIRST EDITORIAL DECISION Sukumar took after Bobby’s exit was to disband Hate Tracker,” a desk editor who worked under both men told me. “You know, they could have just stopped updating it,” the editor said. “But no. They had to take it off the website.”

Two days after Ghosh’s exit, an email to the staff on behalf of Rajesh Mahapatra told them not to re-tweet “any hate tracker related tweets till further notice.” As Ghosh’s number two, Mahapatra had been in charge of day-to-day operations in the newsroom and, by many accounts, was one of the main architects of the attempted digital reorientation, along with Nicholas Dawes.

Mahapatra did not outlast Ghosh for long. Sukumar Ranganathan, a few days into the job as the new editor, instructed his desk editors to call Mahapatra and tell him “we don’t need his columns anymore,” according to an editor who was in the newsroom. His office was soon reassigned to Kunal Pradhan, elevated from Delhi editor to executive editor, and Mahapatra was designated “editor-at-large.” He later left the Hindustan Times entirely.

“The most important thing that Ghosh and Mahapatra did was to sideline Shishir Gupta,” a reporter who worked in the newsroom through this period told me. Even so, Gupta continued to sit on the second floor, where Bhartia has her office. It was during this time that the news broke of Gupta serving as a private eye for the prime minister’s office and Amit Shah. He remained on the rolls of the Hindustan Times regardless.

With Ghosh and Mahapatra gone, Gupta has had more freedom than ever before to exercise his talents. Two reporters who have worked under him recounted witnessing Gupta tell a Muslim reporter that if he were to really speak his mind the reporter would, in Gupta’s words, “run to the UN Security Council.”

Last year, Gupta came to the aid of a former journalist turned BJP politician, after the politician’s son was involved in a car accident and detained by the police in Gurugram. Gupta instructed one of his reporters to ring up the local commissioner of police and tell him who the detained man’s father is. “Commissioner ko ja ke batao ki behenchod iska baap kaun hai,” the reporter recalled Gupta yelling over the phone. As soon as the reporter mentioned Gupta’s name, everything was taken care of. The police persuaded the injured party not to file a complaint, and a constable dropped the politician’s son home in a police jeep.

Shishir Gupta is now the most powerful figure in the newsroom. A leaked email shows that, in 2015, he briefed the prime minister’s office on the “buzz in Delhi Govt.” Though the email did not contain a single question, Gupta said he had meant it as an invitation for comment. DHRUBA DUTTA FOR THE CARAVAN

Despite Gupta’s effective position above him, Ranganathan strode into the Hindustan Times with unhampered confidence. “In his first editorial meeting with the staff, he said that as of yet the newspaper is shit,” an editor who was at the meeting told me. But Ranganathan said he was going to change that, the editor recalled, because, by his own estimation, he is “the best editor in the country.” Ranganathan said in another meeting that watching him edit “is like watching Beethoven compose music,” the editor added, and that, before long, “the paper will have the quality of the New York Times.”

The newsroom has been mired in internal conflict since Ranganathan took over. Many of Ghosh’s hires have left the paper. Ranganathan declared at a meeting with the paper’s staff that the editors of the editorial page are “the Brahmins of the newsroom,” but his journalistic caste system has not allowed them much freedom. Across the paper, he reserved editorial calls during everyday production for a team of himself, Pradhan, Soumya Bhattacharya, who serves as managing editor, and, until his resignation as political editor, Prashant Jha.

This caused consternation, including over the fact that the team is entirely male. One of the only women in a senior editorial position at the Hindustan Times is Lalita Panicker, in charge of the editorial page. There were no more women leaders around in Ghosh’s time either, the editor who worked under both him and Ranganathan said, “but, back then, Lalita had a lot of freedom to do her work.”

As last year’s Leadership Summit approached, the same editor said, the paper could not “even criticise policy, except in very broad terms.” The editor added that “you couldn’t mention demonetisation”—Modi’s disastrous decision to invalidate all but a fraction of the country’s cash in 2016—“even as a keyword.” As for calling individual ministers out on their policies, “don’t even go there.”

“The main job of the political editor at HT is to get politicians to come for the Leadership Summit,” the former editor with a leading newsroom role told me. One former political editor, he added, “got a dressing down from Mrs B when some of the bigwigs skipped the dinner party she hosts on one of the nights of the summit.”

On 2 August this year, the Hindustan Times reported on its front page that the government was planning to appoint two new judges to the Supreme Court, but stall on the appointment of a third, KM Joseph, even though all three had been recommended for elevation together. As the chief justice of the Uttarakhand High Court, Joseph had angered the Modi government by quashing an attempt to impose president’s rule in the state. The collegium of the most senior Supreme Court judges, which recommends all higher judicial appointments, had first proposed his elevation to the government in January. The government returned the proposal for reconsideration, as the system of appointments allows it to. The collegium reiterated its recommendation, at which point the government was, by convention, bound to accept it. For the government to rebuff a recommended judge for a second time would have been unprecedented, and risked setting off a constitutional crisis. The story, by the reporter Jatin Gandhi, cited a “top government functionary,” and stated that the information had been confirmed by a second official. (Gandhi had already asked to quit the paper when the story came out, he told me, and was serving out his notice period. He left the job after the period was up.)

The following day, other newspapers reported that the government had cleared the appointment of all three judges. In the newsroom, Gandhi was “told that we have got this completely wrong,” he recalled. “I told them that what has actually happened is that Joseph’s elevation was a last-minute decision.”

Two news organisations, the Press Trust of India and The Print, “later reported that two separate files have been sent by the government to clear three names,” Gandhi added. The PTI report stated that the files “were cleared in two batches on Wednesday and Thursday.” Gandhi’s story had appeared on Thursday morning, and was based only on developments until Wednesday evening. The reasons why the government changed course later that day were never made clear.

“I said that we should do another story, reconstructing this whole chain of events and countering the government’s claim,” Gandhi told me. But the political editor, Prashant Jha, “was not interested. He said that we don’t want a confrontation with the government.” Gandhi recalled that Jha later asked him, “What if Ravi Shankar Prasad”—the law minister—“does not show up for the Leadership Summit?”

Jha, over email, told me that it is “absolutely incorrect” that the main function of the political editor at the paper is to get politicians to come to the leadership summit. In the role, he explained, he and his predecessors “had a range of responsibilities,” and only one of these, expected of all “members of the team,” was to “reach out to political leaders—from the government as well as the Opposition—and invite them as well” to the summit.

Responding to Gandhi’s account of why the proposed follow-up story on KM Joseph’s appointment was not taken up, Jha called it inaccurate, and said that there “was no external factor that influenced the decision.”

A remarkable number of the stories on the Hindustan Times front page in recent months have appeared under the byline HT Correspondent. “See, some of them are just plants—you know, published at the behest of this minister or that,” a reporter hired during Ghosh’s tenure explained. “The others are stories you filed that Shishir has added a quote to from his own sources, and you know that is a plant so you don’t want your name on it either.” So Ranganathan “rewrites the whole thing,” the reporter said, “and labels it ‘HT Correspondent.’” Among the staff, Ranganathan has been nicknamed the “sub-editor-in-chief.”

Bhartia, Ranganathan and Gupta had not responded to interview requests, or to subsequent emailed questionnaires, by the time this piece went to press.

“A lot of stories just do not get filed,” a reporter who recently left the paper said. “Reporters know that you do not cross the government.” The desk editor who worked under Ghosh and Ranganathan said that all reporters and editors know that they have to be “very, very, very cautious,” particularly when dealing with the finance ministry, headed by Arun Jaitley.

“I still get the paper, so I read it,” an editor who had worked at the Hindustan Times in the 2000s told me. “With the placement, the headline, the quotes, I keep trying to guess what the story is trying to conceal.”


THE HINDUSTAN TIMES WAS STARTED in September 1924, with Mohandas Gandhi in attendance, as part of the Akali movement. The Akalis, as part of their struggle to reform Sikhism, challenged the control of gurdwaras by government-appointed custodians. This aligned them against the British administration and with the Congress—as did a shared bitterness over colonial atrocities and injustice. The Akalis decided that they needed an English-language newspaper to help bring their movement to the fore. In an official history of the Hindustan Times published in 1999, Prem Shankar Jha writes that most of the money to start a publication came from sympathetic Sikhs in Canada.

The newspaper was soon in financial trouble, and the Akalis went looking for buyers. There was interest from two future icons of the nationalist movement: Motilal Nehru, the father of Jawaharlal Nehru; and Madan Mohan Malaviya, a Congress man and one of the founders of the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist party. The Akalis sold to the latter.

With the help of Lala Lajpat Rai, a co-founder of the Mahasabha, Malaviya took out a bank loan of a considerable Rs 40,000 to finance the paper. Gandhi chose a new editor, KM Panikkar. By 1928, though, money was running out once again. The industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla—widely known as “GD”—agreed to underwrite expenses, and eventually took over ownership.

GD’s father was one of the four gaddidars, collectively referred to as the Bade Chaurasiya, who made enormous fortunes in the nineteenth-century opium trade. Such was their hold on opium exports that the British monopolised the entire trade to keep them out. The Birla patriarch shifted his business to linseed and silver instead. After the Great Plague in Bombay, in the late nineteenth century, the Birla family moved from that city to Calcutta.

GD Birla stepped in to finance the paper at a time when the Hindu Mahasabha co-founders Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai were struggling to keep it going. Margaret Bourke White/ The Life- Picture Collection/ Getty Images

The Congress of the 1920s was riven with internal strife—between conservatives and revolutionaries, traditionalists and progressives. Differences surfaced at the Hindustan Times too. JN Sahni, who had replaced Panikkar as the editor, and KD Kohli, the manager, were in their early thirties, and, like young people across the country, were drawn to the socialist ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru and the radical methods of Subhash Chandra Bose.

Malaviya, the chairman of the paper, sided with the Congress’s Gandhian faction. GD was also a Gandhi loyalist—he financed Gandhi’s periodicals, his ashram and sundry other pursuits—and had little love for Nehru’s socialist vision. Sahni and Kohli had to go.

The next editor, Pothan Joseph, served for six years before resigning, in 1937. He left, Jha writes, “over differences with the management on an administrative matter.” Gandhi’s youngest son, Devdas, took over.

With that, Jha writes, “the paper steered clear of the internal debates” of the Congress, and “firmly toed the Gandhian line”—non-violence, a readiness for dialogue with the British and a rejection of ideas of class conflict. Jha quotes Sham Lal, who joined the Hindustan Times in 1934, recalling that “one could get by quite comfortably with supporting the Congress, demanding protection for Indian industry and railing against the deplorable condition of third-class travel on railways.”

Devdas served as the editor through the transition to Independence under the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. He stayed in the post for 20 years, until his death in 1957. His replacement was the paper’s star correspondent, Durga Das—who broke stories on Jawaharlal Nehru’s relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the last British viceroy, and his preference for his daughter, Indira, as his political successor in place of VK Krishna Menon, Nehru’s long-time number two. Das lasted barely a year.

Devdas Gandhi (right), the youngest son of Mohandas Gandhi, was the longest-serving editor in the history of the Hindustan Times. Margaret Bourke White/ The Life- Picture Collection/ Getty Images

Next came S Mulgaonkar, who was brought in from the Times of India. He set about jazzing up the news coverage—under him, the Hindustan Times ran the first photo essays in the history of Indian newspapers. He also kept the paper at a further remove from the Congress. That was especially clear in his editorials attacking VK Krishna Menon, Nehru’s defence minister, after the disgrace of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. When Menon resigned, Mulgaonkar wrote, “There passes today from India’s public life a man who brought to it little except disgrace.”

Nehru died in 1964. Indira Gandhi became the prime minister a couple of years later, while the Congress seemed to be crumbling under the weight of factionalism. At the Hindustan Times, GD had retired, and his son KK Birla—“KK” to everyone—had taken control.

Mulgaonkar left after a new supplement, the Weekend Review, ran into problems with the government. Two new editors came and went in rapid succession. That opened the way to BG Verghese, who had been Gandhi’s media advisor for three years and written her speeches.

It was around this time, in the early 1970s, that KK fought his first election, as a candidate for the Lok Sabha from Rajasthan. After the Congress refused him a ticket, he stood as a member of the Swatantra Party, and lost. He rationalises the defeat in his memoirs.

I discovered that a man has to prostrate himself before the voters in order to win votes. Leaving aside the giants among political leaders … all others (even some of the ministers) virtually had to beg the voters to vote for them. This went completely against my grain. … Humility, which I value, is one thing; humiliating oneself quite another. I do not believe in begging for favours.

Indira Gandhi was not pleased with KK for contesting against the Congress. When he tried to meet her in Delhi, she refused to give him an appointment at her residence, on Safdarjung Road. Instead, Birla was told to come to the prime minister’s office at 1 Akbar Road, “the dewan-e-aam of Indira-ji,” and queue for an audience with the commoners. “It was clear that this was meant as a snub to me,” Birla deduces, but “beggars, in any case, cannot be choosers.”

KK hoped that the Congress would put him in the Rajya Sabha in 1974, but the party failed to deliver. After that defeat, he writes, Sanjay, the prime minister’s younger son, “was anxious to see me elected to Rajya Sabha at the first possible opportunity,” but in 1976, again, “there was no safe seat for me.”

As the 1970s progressed, Verghese, despite his past at Gandhi’s side, became critical of the prime minister amid her autocratic drift. Among the things the Hindustan Times found fault with were India’s moves to annex Sikkim, and Sanjay’s pet project to manufacture the Maruti, a low-cost car, helped along by undue government favours to his fledgling company. Verghese recounts in his memoirs that, in 1974, he wrote to KK in good faith to suggest that “I step down and let someone else from HT take over, while I devoted more of my time to writing and field reporting” for the paper. He suggested his deputy as a successor. Birla replied that he did not think the deputy editor would be suitable, Verghese writes, “and then referred to the opinion expressed by ‘MPs, ministers, politicians and others’ that no one should continue as editor beyond five years, a proposition thereafter converted into a six month’s dismissal notice on 8 August.”

Next, “I wrote back to Birla that since my proposal for internal change without causing disruption had proved stillborn, it might be considered a closed chapter as I had never intended to leave the paper.” The dispute led to hearings at the Press Council of India, a body meant to guide the conduct of the print media, and an appeal to the courts by the Hindustan Times management to stay those proceedings.

Meanwhile, KK was summoned before the press council, Verghese recounts, and failed to explain “the basis or merits of his stand against evidence brought forward to show that his companies had invested heavily in Maruti shares.” KK “named some ministers, MPs and others who had advised him to change the HT editor—several of them since deceased—but could not explain their interest in the matter.” Amid this, “Mrs Gandhi personally denied press reports that she had instigated my ouster.”

The Emergency was declared late on the night of 25 June 1975. Verghese was awoken in the very early hours of the next day to hear of it, he recalls, and rushed to the newsroom to prepare a morning supplement with whatever news could be gathered. Newspapers elsewhere in Delhi had had their electricity cut off, but “someone had forgotten to order a similar blackout at the HT and The Statesman in Connaught Circus. We were still in business.”

The morning supplement was sent to the paper’s press, and printing began. But by then “the management was astir and had summoned the watch and ward to bar us from entry to the press, and shut it off.”

The front page of the Hindustan Times on 28 June carried an article, dated to the previous day, headlined, “Mrs Gandhi believes in press freedom.”

In September, the courts dismissed the management’s appeal for a stay on the PCI proceedings. “Within hours,” Verghese writes, “and before the Press Council could intervene further, the HT management served me notice of termination of services ... as I was descending the stairs at the office. I walked away, asking that my personal papers be sent to my residence.”

Years later, Bishan Tandon, a joint secretary in the prime minister’s office during these events, published his diaries. An entry from January 1975 notes that NK Seshan, Gandhi’s personal secretary, had some months ago “sent a small note to PM which I had seen. He had written in the note, ‘I have spoken to K.K. Birla. He has given notice to Verghese.’ It does look as if the PM had taken some interest in the matter.”

For the duration of the Emergency, under the editorship of Hiranmay Karlekar—whom no one had heard of before KK plucked him from The Statesman in Calcutta—the Hindustan Times published unfiltered government propaganda.

KK, in his autobiography, writes that Gandhi “was not happy,” but “was left with no other choice” except to seize absolute power. He adds that Sanjay was, “no doubt, sorry” when he heard about a family that fell apart because of his Emergency-era sterilisation drive.

After the Emergency, KK says, Atal Bihari Vajpayee—the future prime minister, then a member of the newly elected anti-Congress coalition—tipped him off about his impending arrest and advised him to leave the country. KK writes that he thought of Arjun in the Mahabharata, who never fled the battleground. But after “deep thought,” he concluded that fleeing from political persecution “could not be regarded as cowardice; it was a strategy.” KK flew to Europe, and then to the United States.

KK writes that he was scheduled to meet Sanjay in 1980 to talk about a Rajya Sabha nomination, but the Congress scion died in a plane crash just hours before it. KK had no luck in 1982 either. It took two more years before he was granted his wish. He remained in the Rajya Sabha until 2002, six years before his death.

Sanjay, before he died, had asked KK to appoint his wife, Maneka Gandhi, as the editor of the Hindustan Times. (Maneka Gandhi is today the minister of women and child development in Modi’s cabinet.) That was too much, even for KK. “I was taken aback,” he writes. Among the reasons he gave Sanjay for refusing the request was that Maneka “was impulsive and not mature enough to be the editor.”

KK Birla, in his autobiography, writes that Indira Gandhi “was not happy,” but “was left with no other choice” except to seize absolute power. BCCL

Instead, KK obeyed Indira Gandhi’s recommendation to install the writer and journalist Khushwant Singh. He was the editor from 1980 to 1983. According to a former editor of the Hindustan Times, Singh understood the limitations of the paper well, and found ample time during his tenure to keep doing his own writing at home.

Singh had a short-lived and unremarkable successor, before KK decided, again, that what the newspaper needed was an editor who could bring prestige to the newsroom. He settled on Prem Shankar Jha, whom he brought over from the Times of India. Jha told me he was tempted by the chance less because of anything that the Hindustan Times could offer, and more because his previous paper had fallen into the hands of Samir Jain—the primary force behind the Times of India’s reorientation from the newspaper business to the advertising business.


“SHOBHANA DEEPLY ADMIRED HER FATHER, to the point that she wanted to be just like him,” a former employee of the Hindustan Times told me. “So you have to understand her through the prism of her father’s life.” (I spoke to six former employees of the paper who worked directly with Bhartia in various periods and capacities, as well as dozens of reporters and editors with experience at the Hindustan Times.) “I don’t think KK gave a damn about the concept of press freedom—it just didn’t matter to him,” the former employee added. “So,” he said, then paused and shrugged. “Well.”

KK kept hold of the Hindustan Times after his father’s death, in 1983. He put his daughter on the newspaper’s board, and in an office in Hindustan Times House, a few years later.

As Bhartia told it, in an interview in 2015, she first spent a couple of years working informally with the newspaper’s Sunday magazine, as a way of easing her way in. After “getting into the newspaper and finding my feet, I thought I would want to benchmark the paper, or learn from the best.” Still in her late twenties, she flew out to Washington DC, and got an appointment with Katharine Graham.

“She was extremely endearing as a person,” Bhartia recalled. “She put me in different departments, trying to understand marketing, because it was a concept that was very new for India. We had just a strict dividing line—so it was circulation and advertisement, there was nothing called marketing.” Bhartia also “spent time then with the editorial there, because that’s where my passion was.” The editor of the Washington Post at the time was Ben Bradlee, famed for spearheading the paper’s work on the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. “Mrs Graham told me, ‘Okay, you’ll go and sit in every evening meeting, but mum’s the word, you’re not going to go out and talk about anything that you’ve heard,” because the discussions in those meetings, headed by Bradlee, “would get translated into Page 1 the next day.”

Bhartia “spent about a week, ten days, in different departments trying to understand best practices.” It was the start of “a very long and a very fruitful relationship,” Bhartia said, as she and Graham “constantly kept in touch.”

One lesson Bhartia drew from the experience was of the need “to institutionalise the working at HT, from being very ad hoc to being more process-led.” The Hindustan Times had “editors who were larger than life, and the entire profile of the newspaper only depended on an individual,” and “that was scary to me,” she said. “At the end of the day, a brand couldn’t be hostage to just an individual.”

As Bhartia recalled it, she “spent about a week, ten days, in different departments of the Washington Post trying to understand best practices.” She sat in on meetings led by the paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee, and established “a very long and a very fruitful relationship” with its publisher, Katharine Graham. AP

Back in Delhi, any dreams of emulating the Washington Post had to wait. Bhartia did not yet have much say in how things were run, and the management was sticking to old habits. But she gradually imposed her authority over the newspaper.

“The Birlas have always run their businesses through deputies, people they can trust, their viceroys,” the former employee of the Hindustan Times told me. “KK’s viceroy at the paper was a man called Naresh Mohan.”

Prem Shankar Jha joined as the editor in early 1986, with separatist militancy raging in Punjab. “My position,” he told me, “was that you can’t deal with this without help from the Akalis—and, if it is not dealt with properly, this is fraught ground for Pakistan to intervene.” This view, contrary to the government’s approach, was summarised in an editorial.

“The next morning, there was a scream on the telephone to KK Birla from a man called Makhan Lal Fotedar,” Jha said. Fotedar was the political secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, then the prime minister. “So the next day, down came the general manager”—Naresh Mohan—“saying, ‘What have you written Jha saab?’” Jha told Mohan that he was happy to resign, but until he did he would run the paper the way he wished.

Jha kept publishing editorials contrary to the government’s present position. Fotedar kept ringing up KK, who kept sending Mohan to talk to Jha, who kept shooing him away. Jha criticised Operation Brasstacks, a giant, provocative military exercise near the Pakistan border, and called for cooler heads to prevail. He also found fault with Rajiv Gandhi’s handling of rising unrest in Kashmir. Jha was pestered to play up some visits by the minister of industries, which he refused to do. It went on like this for months.

Then came the plants about VP Singh—Rajiv’s rebellious defence minister at the time, who was creating panic with the possibility that he might be investigating kickbacks in military purchases. For four straight days, Jha told me, Mohan came to him with what he said was information about Singh from state intelligence.

Jha said that he was able to shoot down the first three plants. But the fourth one was difficult to disprove. Singh was alleged to have inherited a lot of land in Dehradun through family connections to the local royal family, and to have concealed this property. Jha put a reporter on the story to try and confirm it.

KK Birla was not in the country, and Jha was summoned to Bhartia’s office. “Prem, I love what you are doing with the paper,” Jha said she told him. “But on this issue, just publish this as it is.” He explained that he could not.

By the next day, the reporter had found nothing to implicate Singh, and Jha instructed him to file a story on this. Jha edited it for the next day’s paper, and went to a party at a friend’s house. The story never appeared.

KK was back in Delhi a few days later, and called the editor in for a meeting. “I am sorry, but we have come to a parting of ways,” Jha recalled KK saying. Jha had not even lasted a year at his post.

Naresh Mohan, also present, told him, “Jha-ji, aap bahut achcha likhte hain, par aap politics nahi samajhte”—You write very well, but you don’t understand politics. “I had been proven right with every decision we made”—Rajiv Gandhi eventually met with the Akalis, for instance—“so I said to him, ‘How can you say that?’” Mohan replied, “Aap baat hi nahi samjhe”—You’re missing the point.

“He was talking about the politics between the Hindustan Times and the Congress,” Jha told me, laughing. “It didn’t strike me. Bloody fool I was.”

HK Dua, a senior editor under Jha, was promoted to take his place. An editor who worked with Dua told me that the paper never overstepped expected limits during his tenure. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi’s administration was battling to shield itself from a scandal over corruption in the procurement of Bofors guns. The government proposed an “anti-defamation” bill that, if passed into law, would have muffled coverage of the affair. Several newspapers carried editorials condemning the bill, and journalists marched in protest. The Hindustan Times stayed silent. The government abandoned the idea a few days later, and suddenly the Hindustan Times found its voice. Dua carried a signed editorial on the front page, a former editor of the paper recalled, “going hammer and tongs against the bill.”

“IN THE EIGHTIES, when I actually got involved with the newspaper, we used to all say that the more we circulate the more we lose,” Bhartia recalled in the 2015 interview. Then, as now, the paper’s main source of revenue was advertising, and the amounts available were limited in the staid, pre-liberalisation market. Newspapers’ sale prices did not so much as cover the overheads. “You want to draw a line and say, okay, we’re not going to take the circulation above half a million,” Bhartia explained. “And we stuck at half a million for the longest time, because we thought we didn’t want to lose more money.”

Another fact of the market was that “there was no concept about brand loyalty, because you didn’t need brand loyalty. There was no competition, and therefore every brand had their own position.” These were the days before country-wide distribution became routine, and every newspaper was, at best, a regional one. The Hindustan Times was essentially restricted to Delhi, but in that bastion it was unchallenged.

Samir Jain changed that. “He took over territory like fucking Genghis Khan,” a person who has been close to Jain and Bhartia recalled. Jain also had no compunction about looking on editors and reporters as expendable, or about tailoring content to crude tastes—both great boons to his bottom line. The Times of India had launched its Delhi edition by the mid 1980s—as part of a wave of new editions beyond its home in Bombay. By the time liberalisation sent circulation numbers and advertising spends shooting up, the Hindustan Times faced a fight to just hold its ground.

As a young woman, Bhartia did not have much say in how things were run at the Hindustan Times. But she gradually imposed her authority over the newspaper. PUSHPAKARNA PRAMOD/ THE INDIA TODAY GROUP/ GETTY IMAGES

To gain an edge, the Times of India brought in city supplements—a novelty at the time. It also slashed its cover price, from Rs 2 to Rs 1.50, forcing the Hindustan Times to do the same. By 1994, the Times of India was selling one copy in Delhi for every two that the Hindustan Times was.

A battle was on inside the Hindustan Times as well. Bhartia had acquired a close circle of friends in the capital. “Among these people—not to mention the people she would run into at other parties—she wanted to be known as the whole and soul of the Hindustan Times,” the former employee told me. “And Naresh Mohan stood in her way of becoming that.”

Among Bhartia’s circle was the Congress politician Madhavrao Scindia, whom she had known since her college days in London, and Arun Jaitley, whom Scindia introduced to her. Also included were the lawyer Raian Karanjawala, who still has an office in Hindustan Times House, and a rotating cast of courtiers such as Amar Singh, Suresh Kalmadi and the marketing man Suhel Seth. Seth told me over email that he had met Bhartia “through common friends like Raian Karanjawala and Arun Jaitley.”

“Dua was Naresh Mohan’s man,” the former employee said. His run as editor ended in 1994.

As the Times of India ate into the Hindustan Times’s profits, the former employee remembered, KK became impatient with Mohan, once even shouting at him in the middle of the newsroom. Mohan was called in for a meeting by KK and Bhartia, and cut loose. Around that time, in the late 1990s, the Times of India’s circulation in the capital matched that of its rival.

Also towards the end of the millennium, VN Narayanan, who had arrived from The Tribune to replace Dua, was found to have plagiarised almost the whole of one of his columns from a piece in a UK paper. He went out too.


MOHAN’S FIEFDOM WAS OVERTHROWN. KK, approaching his final years, was gradually withdrawing. Bhartia had her newspaper. But in the time it had taken her to achieve this, Samir Jain had conquered the newspaper industry.

“During the nineties, every newspaper and every publisher was losing,” an editor who spent about a decade with the Hindustan Times told me. “The only person who was winning was Samir Jain. He was the one with a plan. Everyone else was just reacting.”

Bhartia now tried taking the fight to Jain. In 1999, she dropped her paper’s cover price to Rs 1, on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary. The Times of India did the same, barely bothering with a pretext. “We made this offer on the auspicious Ramnavmi day,” a Times Group executive told a reporter at the time.

But Jain was playing a bigger game. With editions of the Times of India all over the country, and controlling an unmatched national audience, he had started selling new advertising schemes. Buy an ad in the Delhi edition, say, and you could publish the same ad at a discount in the paper’s prized Mumbai edition as well. His competitors either tried to copy him, or risked being pushed out of the market.

Taking the Hindustan Times beyond Delhi became a necessity for Bhartia. In 2000, she did so, with new editions in Ranchi, Bhopal, Jaipur and Chandigarh. More cities were to follow, and the number of city editions across the country later peaked at over a dozen. But it took Bhartia until the middle of the decade to confront the Times of India in its home—Bombay, by then renamed Mumbai, where Jain’s paper did not have a single competitor to speak of.

Before that, she set about getting the house in order in Delhi. Hindustan Times Limited, the holding company of the Hindustan Times, had been incorporated in 1927, and was owned by members of the Birla family. After GD’s death, it was understood that KK had control of the paper, but the holding company remained a part of the Birla empire. Bhartia now incorporated HT Media Private Limited, and acquired all the printing and publishing undertakings of Hindustan Times Limited. She then took the new company public, bringing in outside investment but retaining majority control.

The newspaper’s printing operations in Delhi were shifted to a new facility in 2004. Around 360 workers from the typesetting and printing staff were sacked en masse. They appealed to the courts, and in 2012 an industrial tribunal described the sacking as “illegal and unjustified.” But the tribunal did not direct the management to pay them back wages, and fresh appeals are now pending before the Delhi High Court. Javed Faridi, a former general secretary of the workers’ union at the Hindustan Times, told me that Arun Jaitley represented HT Media in court in some of the proceedings.

Dozens of the workers have died in the interim. In October 2017, the body of one of them, Ravinder Singh, was found in a small tent outside Hindustan Times House, where he had been protesting ever since his dismissal.

Bhartia launched her paper’s Mumbai edition in 2005. Instead of trying to overtake the Times of India in the city, an editor involved in the launch told me, the Hindustan Times decided to reconcile itself to second spot, but to target readers in central and south Mumbai, the city’s wealthiest zones. But two other media groups, Zee and Dainik Bhaskar Group, came together to also start an English-language daily in Mumbai, named DNA. If the Hindustan Times focussed only on a specialised audience, it risked falling into third position, which would hurt prestige and balance sheets alike. The management decided to try for mass appeal.

Jain launched a new city paper of his own, Mumbai Mirror, and started giving it away for free with the Times of India. This meant, according to an editor who worked on the Mumbai edition, that the only households that even considered DNA and the Hindustan Times were ones that wanted three different newspapers, “and there weren’t many of those.” Jain also raised the cover price of his flagship publication to Rs 4, compared to Rs 2 for DNA and Rs 2.50 for the Hindustan Times.

From there, both DNA and the Hindustan Times kept claiming to be the number-two English-language paper in Mumbai—citing whichever circulation figures suited them best. But Mumbai Mirror, after being made a stand-alone product separate from the Times of India, has sold and earned more than either of its upstart rivals, meaning Jain came out of the battle with the two leading papers in the city, where he earlier had just one. In 2009, advertising rates in Mumbai for the Times of India were reportedly twice as high as those for the Hindustan Times.

The Mumbai edition struggled editorially too. “Bombay means BBC—Bollywood, business, cricket,” the editor who worked at the Hindustan Times for almost a decade told me. “And we had no face, no insiders, in BBC.”

Two editors who worked on the Mumbai edition said that it took close to a decade for the new offering to break even. An editor with over ten years of experience at the Hindustan Times said that its circulation figures for Mumbai were inflated, and a large share of the copies it claimed to be circulating in the city were going straight to scrap collectors.

Amid the battle in Mumbai, in 2006, Bhartia was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, to serve a full six-year term. The previous year, the Congress-led government had awarded her the Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour.

NATIONALLY, AS IN MUMBAI, Bhartia has not been able to best Jain. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, a vital reference in the publishing and advertising industries, show a daily circulation of over 2.8 million copies for the Times of India, compared to just over a million for the Hindustan Times. But Bhartia’s paper’s top-three status among English-language papers is secure—its closest competitor is The Hindu, with a circulation of around 1.4 million—and it has managed to stay ahead of the Times of India in the lucrative market of the national capital.

This has given HT Media consistent and impressive profits, as reflected in corporate filings. The company was making over Rs 150 crore each year at the start of the current decade, according to regulatory filings compiled by, a business-intelligence service. In the run-up to the 2014 general election, helped along by political parties splurging on electoral advertising, the figure crossed Rs 200 crore—over $30 million at the time. Profits were still above that mark in the 2016-2017 financial year, which saw the wave of layoffs as bureaus and editions were shut down.

By HT Media’s own reports, advertising accounts for at least two-thirds of its revenue—Rs 1,000 crore of Rs 1,400 crore last year. The company does not disclose how much of that comes from government sources, and the government puts out no consolidated data on how much of its advertising spending goes to individual publications. Within the publishing industry, estimates of the proportion of advertising revenues originating from government sources range from 15 to 50 percent.

On 7 November this year—the day before Diwali, when private advertising is in peak season—private advertisements covered an area totalling less than two full pages of the 24 pages of the prized main paper of the Hindustan Times in Delhi. Government advertisements spread across more than five. There were notices from the public-works department in Mumbai, the electricity board in Meerut, the Punjab School Education Board, a government medical institute in Shillong and the Chhattisgarh State Agriculture Marketing Board. There was also a half-page advertisement from the central government tied to National Cancer Awareness Day, and more.

The Directorate for Advertising and Visual Publicity sets advertising rates for individual publications at the start of each year, with separate rates for separate editions where applicable. These rates are pegged to circulation, with higher circulation translating to higher rates. The rates also provide for additional premiums for advertising space on a publication’s most visible pages. State publicity directorates similarly calibrate their prices. The DAVP’s base rate for the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times for 2018 is Rs 345 per square centimetre.

Around 360 workers were sacked in 2004 as the paper moved printing operations in Delhi to a new facility. In 2012, an industrial tribunal described the workers’ sacking as “illegal and unjustified,” but did not direct the management to pay them back wages. ROBERT NICKELSBERG/ GETTY IMAGES

An advertising executive for the paper informed me that the base rate for private advertising in the main paper of the Hindustan Times in Delhi as of November 2018 was approximately Rs 5,000 per square centimetre. This, the executive added, is routinely discounted by 50 percent or more.

By a very rough calculation—assuming for simplicity that there are five pages of government advertisements all sold at the DAVP rate and two pages of private ones sold at a 50-percent discount on the private rate—government advertisements would have accounted for a quarter of the advertising revenue brought in by the Delhi issue for 7 November.

This limited math does not account for any of the Hindustan Times’s supplements. Still, it is clear that government advertising is a large source of revenue for the newspaper. On any given day, the main paper of the Hindustan Times is likely to be carrying more government advertisement than private ones.

In response to a Right to Information application, the DAVP informed me that it has bought advertising worth Rs 260 crore in all the editions of the Hindustan Times since 2010. The total for all editions of the Times of India in this decade is Rs 335 crore. The Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times has received at least Rs 30 crore from the DAVP in each year since 2013. Just how much has come to the paper from the myriad potential official sources—the central government, state governments, municipal corporation, public banks and universities, government-run corporations and more—nobody outside HT Media would know.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 on a petition by the NGO Common Cause seeking restrictions on the use of public advertising funds to promote specific government officials or political parties. The court left any action to the wisdom of the executive, but in its judgement—authored by the current Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi—it observed,

A connected facet of the matter which cannot be ignored is the power of the Government to give/award advertisements to selected media houses and the concomitant issue of freedom of press. Award of advertisements, naturally, brings financial benefit to the particular media house/newspaper group. Patronization of any particular media house(s) must be avoided and award of advertisements must be on an equal basis to all newspapers who may, however, be categorized depending upon their circulation. The D.A.V.P. guidelines do not deal with the said aspect of the matter and hence the necessity of incorporating the same in the present directions to ensure the independence, impartiality and the neutrality of the fourth estate which is vital to the growth and sustenance of democracy will have to be weighed and considered by us.

Earlier, the court had appointed a committee to study the issue. The Indian Languages Newspapers’ Association, or ILNA, a trade group of over eight hundred publishers working outside the English language, submitted a memorandum to the committee. (Disclosure: Paresh Nath, the association’s president, is also the chairman of Delhi Press, the publisher of The Caravan.) The document stated that the ILNA “is of the firm belief that the government departments are very partisan and the advertisements are released either at the [insistence] of political bosses or for some unexplained reason to select few newspapers only.” The group complained that many state governments and the central government had policies to publish even tender notices—a large component in government advertising, and often of very localised interest—only in English-language newspapers, and across their scattered editions.

The memorandum presented the case that the preferential treatment was unfairly tilting the market. The reason “thick newspapers are available at only Rs 3 or 4,” it said, was that the government was effectively subsidising them, allowing them to deflate cover prices to levels that unfavoured publications could not sustain. Lower cover prices boosted circulation, which meant higher DAVP rates and so an even larger subsidy. The winners kept winning.

The Hindustan Times is now priced at Rs 5. Bhartia said on the 2015 interview that the business model of the paper “is very skewed in favour of ads” instead of readers, “because it’s a very heavily subsidised product.”

Hindustan, Bhartia’s Hindi paper, costs Rs 4.50. It has overtaken the Hindustan Times in circulation, and accounts for a growing share of her media profits. It showed a profit of Rs 171 crore in the last financial year. Bhartia said in 2015 that “we are seeing far greater growth happening in the vernacular space,” and in Hindi publishing in particular.

But “Bhartia does not give two shits about what runs in the Hindi paper,” the editor who worked with her for around a decade told me, “because her friends in Delhi do not read it.” Hindustan has been edited since 2009 by Shashi Shekhar, who spent the 1980s editing a daily called Aaj and, by his own description on his LinkedIn profile, “spearheaded” its expansion into Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The Press Council of India, in 1991, found the daily “guilty of gross irresponsibility … promoting mass hysteria on this basis of rumour and speculation, through exaggeration and distortion, all of this proclaimed under screaming, banner headlines.” One example of such headlines came in 9 November 1990, at a time when the BJP, with LK Advani at the forefront, was fanning communal tensions with the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. It reads, “Hathiyaron se lais ho kar hi Ayodhya ayen, VP, Mulayam ko kutton se nuchvayen, Advani mughalte me na rahen ki Musalman kamzor ya buzdil hain”—Make sure you’re armed when you come to Ayodhya, get dogs to claw at VP and Mulayam (VP Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav opposed the movement), Advani should not delude himself that Muslims are weak or cowardly.

Samir Jain’s Times of India beat the Hindustan Times to the top as the most-circulated English-language newspaper in the country. Bhartia’s paper had to fight hard to hold on to primacy in its home, in Delhi. NARENDRA BISHT/ THE INDIA TODAY GROUP/ GETTY IMAGES

Bhartia controls HT Media via three layers of subsidiaries, each with multiple shareholders. The controlling stake in the publicly traded holding company is held by Hindustan Times Limited, which is majority owned by Earthstone Holding (Two) Private Limited, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of SB Trusteeship Private Limited. Bhartia owns all shares of SB Trusteeship except for one, which is held by her son, Priyavrat.

This three-tier structure violates rules set by the ministry of corporate affairs, in a notification dated 20 September 2017, that no company may have more than two layers of subsidiaries. A chartered accountant who reviewed the corporate filings of these companies told me that “layers of subsidiaries and crossholding in several companies are usually a sign of tax avoidance.” He offered an example of how this might work. Hindustan Times Limited, which owns Hindustan Times House, “will show that it has leased a given building to HT Media. So that expense is being shown as a loss in the annual returns of HT Media, but it is actually just going to another company held by the same owners.” Last year, Hindustan Times Limited reported a turnover of Rs 91 crore, over two-thirds of it from “real estate with leased property” and the rest from “housekeeping and maintenance.”

Shyam Sunder Bhartia heads the Jubilant Bhartia Group, alongside his brother Hari. The Bhartia brothers’ combined net worth is estimated at $2 billion, putting them among the country’s hundred richest people. AJAY AGGARWAL/ HINDUSTAN TIMES/ GETTY IMAGES

In 2009, Bhartia shifted the ownership of Hindustan from HT Media to Hindustan Media Ventures, a new subsidiary. HMV is majority owned by HT Media—meaning Bhartia’s chain of control of her Hindi paper also breaks the rules on the maximum number of subsidiaries, this time with yet another extra layer.

The editor who worked with Bhartia for around a decade told me that, of late, a large number of the Hindustan Times’s employees are not on the rolls of HT Media, but of HT Digital Streams, a company registered in 2015 with an address in Patna. He said they include desk editors, website managers and some reporters, and estimated that they account for around two-thirds of the staff. “These employees are not technically hired as journalists,” the editor said, so “the management can circumvent the Majithia Wage Board recommendations,” which lay down employment conditions for journalists. HT Digital Streams is owned primarily by HT Media—again violating the limit on subsidiary layers—and partly by Hindustan Media Ventures.

In 2017, the Indian Express reported that leaked documents from a Bermuda-based law firm linked Hindustan Times Limited to an offshore entity named (Bermuda) Limited. Bhartia and Priyavrat were listed as directors of the entity, and Hindustan Times Limited had listed it as a subsidiary in its filings for the 2003-04 financial year, thought not in subsequent years.

Hindustan Times Limited responded to the Indian Express with a statement denying any wrongdoing. The company said it did not “have any direct shareholding in (Bermuda) Ltd.,” that it had disclosed “all required details” in its annual reports, and that (Bermuda) was “wound up” at an unspecified date, ending any obligation Hindustan Times Limited had to report the offshore entity in its regulatory filings. It added that “incorporating a company overseas, including in Bermuda, is perfectly legitimate and permissible in Indian law and as per the regulatory regime.”

Arun Jaitley, in his capacity as the finance minister, has repeatedly promised that the government will investigate all Indian firms and citizens known to have had links to offshore entities in known tax havens.

BHARTIA’S COMPANIES HAVE FUNNELLED some of their profits into numerous projects beyond newspaper publishing. HT Media’s current holdings include the job site, the Fever FM radio channels and a mobile-marketing service. Past ventures include a failed attempt in the mid 1990s to start a general-entertainment channel, Home TV, and an ill-fated foray into digital media a few years later. HT Media’s other online ventures include the education portal HTCampus, and DesiMartini, an early social network that devolved into a movie-review site after it was bought by HT Media.

Her husband’s interests are more far-ranging, and span numerous industries in India and beyond. The Jubilant Bhartia Group’s website boasts of a global pharmaceutical business with customers in over a hundred countries, partnerships in aviation sales and maintenance, and Indian dealership rights for Audi, Maserati and Porsche. The group operates all Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts outlets in the country, has a food-services division, and manufactures fertilisers, adhesives and more. It also offers support services to offshore-drilling companies.

The group’s profits have propelled the net worth of Shyam and Hari Bhartia to $2 billion, by the reckoning of Forbes magazine, ranking them among India’s 100 richest people. The Bhartias are related by marriage to other prominent business clans. In 2013, Shyam and Shobhana Bhartia’s younger son, Shamit, was married to Nayantara Kothari. Nayantara is the daughter of the Chennai industrialist Shyam Kothari and his wife Nina, the sister of Mukesh and Anil Ambani.

In 2004, the Bhartias, via an offshore subsidiary of the Jubilant Bhartia Group, incorporated a limited-liability company called Jubilant Offshore Drilling. In 2013, Jubilant Offshore Drilling took out loans totalling Rs 1,340 crore—then close to $225 million—from nine government-run banks: the State Bank of India, Indian Bank, the Export Import Bank of India, Bank of India, Corporation Bank, Punjab National Bank, United Bank of India, Allahabad Bank and Bank of Baroda. The company defaulted on all these loans three years later, and, after filing for bankruptcy, was declared insolvent in March 2017. Though the Jubilant Bhartia Group’s other companies have no formal liability for the loans, the default is worth considering in light of the health of the Bhartias’ other holdings. The market value of just Jubilant Foodworks Limited, which controls the franchise for all Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin’ Donuts outlets in the country, is over Rs 16,000 crores.

Documents from 2005 show both Bhartia brothers, as well as Shobhana and Priyavrat Bhartia, as shareholders of Jubilant Offshore Drilling. By 2013, when the company took out the loans, and 2016, when the company filed for bankruptcy, none of their names appear in annual reports. Before the company defaulted, its name had been changed, to JODPL Private Limited. This has kept the Bhartias’ signature “Jubilant” tag from being connected to the burgeoning crisis of massive corporate defaults on loans from public banks.

While JODPL admitted during insolvency proceedings to having defaulted on Rs 1,340 crore of public loans, the company’s last filing to the ministry of corporate affairs, in the 2016-2017 financial year, showed an even higher sum of unpaid loans—Rs 2,290 crores, all from government-run banks.


VIR SANGHVI WAS APPOINTED the editor of the Hindustan Times in 1999, soon after Shobhana Bhartia won her war with Naresh Mohan. In the memory of those who worked at the paper at the turn of the century, Sanghvi appears with a halo around his head. “He really was gifted,” an editor much older than Sanghvi, who worked with him, said. “Few people have that kind of sharpness.” Three other editors who worked with Sanghvi told me of how he could write an entire column in his head before dictating it to his secretary in one go.

“You people are stuck in the eighties,” Sanghvi told a staff meeting soon after he took up his post, according to an editor who was there. “Your audience is a 50-year-old in Punjabi Bagh whose son probably looks at the Times of India.” As part of his measures to freshen things up, he started a new city edition in Delhi and a new Sunday magazine. The wave of new editions beyond Delhi also came early on in his tenure. According to an editor who knows him well, Sanghvi maintains that, from the start, he had wanted to focus on the launch of the Mumbai edition.

Sanghvi had been having lunches with KK Birla since the mid 1980s, when he edited Sunday, an influential magazine published out of Calcutta. By the late 1990s, he was a familiar face on television, and had access to the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his inner circle. A former columnist for the Hindustan Times said, “it was possible for him to call up Brajesh Mishra”—Vajpayee’s principal secretary and national security advisor—“and find out what was going on. So, in a way, he could bypass both KK and Shobhana, and take his own calls.”

This was not taken well. “Vir thought that his and Shobhana’s was a relationship of equals,” a person who has known both for decades told me. “It’s a mistake many people make in this city.”

An editor who joined the Hindustan Times shortly after Sanghvi told me that, once, the newspaper was to run a full-page reproduction of an interview Sanghvi had done for television. It was pulled at the last minute on Bhartia’s orders. “We do not need to cover the things Vir does on TV,” the editor remembered Bhartia saying.

Sanghvi stepped down as editor in 2003, but the move was mostly about appearances. He was immediately designated an editorial director, and, according to several people who worked under him, continued to largely run the paper. The next editor was Shekhar Bhatia.

After Vajpayee’s BJP-led government gave way to a Congress-led coalition, the Hindustan Times carried on as it always had, with just the occasional slip. In 2006, after a series of bomb explosions on local trains in Mumbai killed over 200 people, the Sunday editor, Aditya Sinha, filed a story blaming the security lapse on MK Narayanan, the national security advisor. When the paper’s coverage of the event was prepared for publishing, an editor involved in the production work said, “there was one whole page about the tragedy and the victims—and on one page there was Aditya’s story, with a sketch of Narayanan and ‘failure’ prominently featured in the headline.”

Shekhar Bhatia “saw the spread, and he said, ‘Okay,’ and went home,” the editor hired shortly after Sanghvi recalled. Perhaps because it was not on the front page, the story also apparently went unnoticed by Bhartia during her 8 pm call, and went to print.

“Back then you did not call people out in banner headlines,” the former columnist told me, “and certainly not in the Hindustan Times.” The editor involved in the production work on the story said that Sinha, the Sunday editor, was instructed to “cool his heels” for a couple of months after Bhartia told him that he could not write “stories like that about the third most powerful man in the country.”

An editor who spoke to Bhartia after the story was published remembered her saying that she had to personally apologise to Narayanan. Forced to explain to the national security advisor how the story had made it into print, Bhartia “told Narayanan that it was a system failure.”

Bhatia’s contract was not renewed when it ran out. HT Media employed an international headhunting firm to find his replacement. “Don’t ask me why, but suddenly a new phrase came up—‘best practices,’” an editor who worked in the newsroom at the time told me. “They wanted someone trained in the best practices of journalism, to come and elevate the standards.”

Chaitanya Kalbag, who had spent a decade and a half at Reuters, was hired as the editor in 2006. Many of the paper’s old-timers, who had worked their way up from being city reporters, resented this. “They brought in editors who did not know the difference between Akbar Road and Ashoka Road,” one of the old-timers told me.

Even by the standards of the Hindustan Times, Kalbag’s tenure was very short. An employee hired during Kalbag’s time recalled that the editor once pulled a column from the edit page, finding it unworthy of print. “The columnist rang up Mrs B,” the employee said. “She called Chaitanya. Kalbag said, ‘I am the editor.’ And Shobhana told him that she is the editorial director. A few days later, Kalbag left.”

Pankaj Paul, who had worked primarily as a graphic and art director at several regional newspapers in the United States, came on board as the managing editor during Kalbag’s time. He was given the editorship, but did not last long either.

In 2008, after two failures with international editors, Bhartia turned to Samar Halarnkar, the editor of the fledgling Mumbai edition, and appointed him the managing editor of the Hindustan Times. With the editor’s post left vacant, he led the newsroom.

Halarnkar agreed to the move after he was assured a free hand. Raju Narisetti, whom he knew, had earlier been brought in to start a new business paper for HT Media—Mint. “So I was told that your friend is doing great things for this new paper,” Halarnkar said, “and you could come and elevate the standards at HT. We want to take it to the standards of the New York Times.”

Halarnkar only lasted until the following year. His main reason for stepping down, he told me, besides wanting more time for his family and his own journalism, “was the interference from the business side in the decisions I made as an editor.” He continued with the Hindustan Times as a writer and editor-at-large for a few more years.

“See, of course there are people there who are compromised,” Halarnkar said. “But there were some fantastic reporters across the country. With good editing and supervision from seniors, they could produce fantastic reportage.”

“But the problem with HT,” an editor who worked with Halarnkar said, “is that the really big stories that could shake up the government, they would never get published.”

The Radia tapes featured Vir Sanghvi (centre) having his column dictated to him by a lobbyist on behalf of Mukesh Ambani. He claimed—in the Hindustan Times— that the tapes were doctored. BCCL

The paper’s journalism was also limited by the business interests of Bhartia’s relatives. “Hari Bhartia has business in Gujarat, which meant that you could not write critically about Narendra Modi’s government there,” the editor said. In 2008, the Supreme Court reopened nine cases linked to the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat a few months into Modi’s rule as the state’s chief minister. The newspaper’s editors sent reporters back to areas that had seen violence. “We had planned nine stories, but after three stories came out in the paper, Mr Modi complained to the family, and the rest of the stories never made it to the newspaper,” the editor said. “Some bureaucrats later told one of the reporters that the chief minister had reminded the family of their business interests.”

To add to that, “the sugar industry in Uttar Pradesh is not something you could write about,” the editor told me, because the wider Birla family “has stakes in that business.”

Over at Mint, Raju Narisetti, who helped launch the paper in 2007, also departed in the interim. Speculation linked this to an op-ed in the paper by an anonymous government bureaucrat in 2008, who accused the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, of having “failed on all counts as a leader.” The opposition had used the piece to attack the government in the parliament. Narisetti told me in an email that the speculation was just that—speculation—and that he had never faced any interference from the management. Neither Rajiv Verma, HT Media’s CEO, nor Bhartia “were told ahead of time about my decision … to run that editorial,” Narisetti wrote. “I didn’t have a single conversation with Mrs B after it ran either.”

Instead, Mint hit back at P Chidambaram, a minister in Singh’s cabinet, for questioning the op-ed’s authenticity. If the management was uncomfortable, Narisetti continued, “you would think they would have clamped down on going after Chidambaram post publication of that op-ed, right?”

Narisetti pointed out that his tenure also saw Mint publish “a scathing food review of a pineapple pizza, a major launch on which their food franchise business spent a lot of marketing money and effort.” He “heard after the fact that some senior executives in that business were annoyed,” and got “an angry note from one of their executives,” but “neither Mrs Bhartia or Shyam or their sons—who I spent a lot of time with every week in HT leadership meetings—ever raised it with me.”

Narisetti drew a distinction between his professional position vis-à-vis Bhartia and that of editors at the Hindustan Times. “As editorial director of HT, she is the ranking name on the Hindustan Times masthead and anyone who chooses to work in that newsroom must be willing to acknowledge and accept that,” he wrote. “I don’t quite understand why her choosing to be active in both play and placement decisions or in major stories of the day is surprising to those at that newspaper, given she is the top editorial person in addition to being the owner at Hindustan Times, unlike just being the owner at Mint or Hindustan.”

The next editor after Halarnkar was Sanjoy Narayan, hired from Business Today. “Sanjoy had great amounts of contempt for everyone—journalists and politicians alike,” a close friend of his told me. “He liked his music and riding bikes. He was most happy on his Triumph motorcycle.” Narayan’s column in the paper, titled “Download Central,” focussed on contemporary music. He lasted eight years as the editor—the longest of anyone since Devdas Gandhi—until he made way for Bobby Ghosh.

On the eve of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in 2009, Open magazine published leaked telephone conversations between the lobbyist Niira Radia and a variety of politicians, business tycoons and journalists. Vir Sanghvi was by then in an advisory role at the Hindustan Times, and still the most recognised name in the paper’s editorial pages. The man famed for dictating ready columns to his secretary was now heard having his column dictated to him by Radia, on behalf of Mukesh Ambani.

Mukesh had recently lost a case in the Bombay High Court against his brother, Anil, and faced the unpleasant prospect of having to supply his brother with discounted natural gas. The case moved to the Supreme Court. Radia could be heard persuading Sanghvi to echo arguments against the high court’s verdict. “What kind of story do you want?” Sanghvi asked. When Radia raised the possibility of Mukesh himself speaking out, Sanghvi agreed that “it has to be fully scripted. I have to come in and do a run-through with him before.”

Sanghvi reproduced points dictated to him in a column published the day after this conversation took place.

Another recording featured Radia and Barkha Dutt, at the time a primetime anchor for NDTV and a columnist for the Hindustan Times. In it, Dutt took instructions on what to say to members of the Congress to try and influence the appointment of the minister of communications—a point of great interest to some of Radia’s clients, who had stakes in telecommunication.

“The initial response was just to avoid it,” the former employee of the Hindustan Times told me. “But the next day, it was also on the cover of Outlook.” The Hindustan Times was joined by almost all other major publications and news channels in a blackout of the Radia tapes. Bhartia personally made a call to at least one of the magazines that published the tapes to say, in effect, that it could say whatever it had to about Sanghvi or Dutt, but to leave the Hindustan Times out of it.

Dutt later said she never told the Congress what she heard from Radia, and had only been trying to extract information. If that is true, she could have broken the news of a corporate lobbyist trying to influence a cabinet appointment, which she never did. She continued her column in the Hindustan Times.

Sanghvi eventually claimed—in the Hindustan Times—that the tapes were doctored. He is fighting a defamation case against Outlook. Still, he stopped writing his weekly column, though he remained an official advisor to the paper. HT Media’s last annual report still shows him on the company’s rolls.

The Hindustan Times never felt the need to address the scandal before its readers.


SHOBHANA BHARTIA “sometimes talks very seriously about improving the editorial side of the paper,” the editor who worked at the Hindustan Times for around a decade told me. Several people said that she periodically complains about the coverage of an issue that has caught her attention, and sometimes tells her editors to hire more investigative reporters.

But, the former executive who worked with Bhartia said, “when you point out to her that editorial quality is not just a matter of technical adjustments but a matter of mission, and how her interventions on the editorial side can come in the way of that, she just says that people are making excuses.”

“She likes and enjoys the idea of being this big publisher,” an editor who used to be close to Bhartia told me. “But can you imagine how long an editor like Ben Bradlee”—the storied editor of the Washington Post—“is going to last in the Hindustan Times?”

The New Yorker carried an essay on Katharine Graham after the publication of her autobiography, in 1997, a few years before her death. David Remnick, a staff writer at the magazine and soon to become its editor, noted,

Katharine Graham is now seventy-nine, and the Post is in the hands of her son Donald, who is fifty-one. His temperament, his interests, and his style are quite different from his mother’s. … As a publisher, Don Graham may never face a pair of crises as critical as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. But, if he does, the decisions should not be as hard for him as they were for Katharine Graham. He does not have to invent himself, nor does he have to invent a set of principles. He has an example to follow.

Shobhana Bhartia is now 61 years old. Priyavrat, her son, is 42. Four former employees of the Hindustan Times who worked with Priyavrat told me that he is closely involved in the paper’s business decisions. Two of the former employees said Priyavrat does not have much interest in what he calls the “content side” of things. “He has political views,” one former employee said. “But they are mostly informed by his business interests.”

Priyavrat has been a director of HT Media for a decade and a half now—he was put in the position when the company was incorporated—and he has stood by his mother as she has guided the paper’s course. If the Hindustan Times ever comes to Priyavrat and throws up any editorial difficulties, he, too, has an example to follow.


Due to an editorial oversight, an earlier version of this story online failed to display the following paragraph:

… 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.

The following morning, The Telegraph dedicated half of its front page …

The print version of this story omitted the word “offended” from the following sentence:

Reputable editors such as S Mulgaonkar and BG Verghese had to go after the Hindustan Times offended Indira Gandhi.

It also omitted “2.50” from the following sentence:

Jain also raised the cover price of his flagship publication to Rs 4, compared to Rs 2 for DNA and Rs 2.50 for the Hindustan Times.

The Caravan regrets the errors.