For the second time in 18 months, the northern edition of Viveck Goenka‘s Indian Express (sold in the south as The National Standard) has been drawn into a blazing row between the Congress-led UPA government and the then (and now retired) chief of the Army staff, General V.K. Singh.
In April 2012, the Express put out a front-page, full-page, eight-column, triple-decker banner-headlined story that on the day Gen Singh’s petition before the Supreme Court on his date of birth was coming up on January 16, 2012, two units of the Indian Army had moved towards Delhi
In effect, that Express story—bylined “by Shekhar Gupta, Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dhal Samanta, with Ajmer Singh“—was making the thinly disguised insinuation that the general had tried to stage a coup in the national capital but without using the dreaded “C” word.
The Express story was denied by defence minister A.K. Antony, and most newspapers punched holes in the Express story, but the paper stuck to its guns.
Last Friday, September 20—five days after Gen Singh had shared the dais with the BJP’s “prime ministerial candidate” Narendra Damodardas Modi—the Express front-paged an eight-column, double-decker, half-page story, by Ritu Sarin, that a unit set up by Gen Singh had, among other things, tried to topple the Jammu & Kashmir government headed by Omar Abdullah.
In effect, a “C” minor.
But unlike the first occasion, when the General was still in his uniform and constrained from speaking out on its veracity, this time he has let loose a volley of personal criticism on Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, who has a demonstrated record of top-flight reporting on defence matters, both at Express and his previous port of call, India Today magazine.
First, on Twitter, General Singh called Shekhar Gupta a “UPA stooge” and gave oxygen to a number of unsubstantiated charges on his assets and income-tax returns, even drawing Gupta’s spouse, Neelam Jolly, into the picture.
Then, on the 9 pm news on television, after he had filed an application under the right to information seeking the Army report on which Express said it had based its story, General Singh went for the jugular, both against Express and its editor.
In an interview with Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now, Gen Singh said:
“This paper first accuses me of trying to topple the government in Delhi, now it accuses me of trying to topple the government in J&K…. How did Indian Express know about it? If there is a leak (of the Army report) to a paper, why can’t it be made available to me?
“I don’t consider Indian Express a newspaper which can be believed. Sorry. A paper which can dub a movement of two units on simple mobilization as a ‘coup’ should be thrown out into the wastepaper basket.”
Express reported the latter criticism in its editions today, quoting Times Now, but conveniently excised the middle portion, which questioned the veracity of its April 2012 “C” report.
Then, in an interview Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, Gen Singh answered a few questions:
Who is behind this ‘motivated report’?
When I say motivated, I am only going by what the Indian Express has reported. With my previous experience of their putting out a ‘coup’ story, I feel it is highly motivated…. If a newspaper can have this report or parts of this report, I think I as a person directly affected must have a copy.
Sir, you have also today on social media made comments about the editor of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta.
I don’t know if it is a personal battle for him. If a person comes to my house, has a meal, understands the situation, then goes and does a banner headline on spooking the government, and a coup, based on two units that moved, what was the agenda?
In an interview with Nitin A. Gokhale, NDTV‘s defence editor, 17 days before the Express report, Gen Singh said:
(M)isunderstandings are created deliberately by people who hobnob with certain journalists, who seem to be having an axe to grind and there are some of them very prominent ones. Why the axe is there to grind, whether it is because they have been bought over or something else I really can’t comment on. But it appears quite obvious.
In this particular instance there was, you know, banner headlines. Army is spying, Army is bugging, Army is doing A, B and C…
I have tried to clarify it once earlier. But I find same reports keep coming up. In fact this great paper called Indian Express had done the same report with just a minor variation of figure by the same reporter couple of months back. He has brought it up again, same thing no change in it, just a minor variation. So much for the journalistic talent that this paper has….
For a paper to say Rs 8 crore is missing, have they seen the logbooks? Have they gone through the details? They haven’t. No, I think lot of things that this paper has been doing is totally wrong.
While the rest of mainstream media stayed silent on the Twitter war between Gen Singh and Shekhar Gupta, it briefly popped up as a news item on NewsX, the news channel.
But, on social media, as the paper’s reputation was taking a pounding, the Indian Express scion Anant Goenka felt it fit to enter the debate (here, here).
“#”To the haters: you can allege a variety of vested interests but our history shows we take up issues that no one else has the courage….
#”Fact is that Express is and has always been feared because we don’t care who hates us…I think our readers expect nothing less from us.”
Update: NewsX, which put out a news report on V.K. Singh’s allegations against Shekhar Gupta, issued a clarification on 14 October 2013:
“News X would like to clarify that its report of September 23 in no capacity an endorsement of the claim or reflects the editorial view held by the channel with regard to Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekha Gupta. News X was only reporting the Tweets as put out by the General on his individual account.”
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