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Coomi Kapoor says nothing has changed at The Indian Express after Shekhar Gupta quit as the editor-in-chief

By Somi Das

Coomi Kapoor, 67, began her career with The Indian Express. She went on to work with top publications like India Today, Sunday Mail and The Illustrated Weekly. But it was only a matter of time before she returned to The Indian Express. Currently, she is associated with the newspaper as a contributing editor. Her official bio on the paper’s website describes her as someone who has “witnessed the shifting power equations in the capital—from Indira Gandhi’s regime to the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party.” Kapoor was with The Indian Express at a time when the publication became the sole voice of dissent against Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975. Her husband, Virendra Kapoor, who was also working with The Indian Express at that time, was put under arrest.
Currently, she is occupied with writing a book on the Emergency, which she expects to finish by next year. A political commentator par excellence, she has stayed away from being part of the “experts” bandwagon on television debates. She prefers playing a game of bridge occasionally at the Women’s Press Club in her free time.She may call herself “semi-retired”, but she continues to spice up our Sundays with her weekly column Inside Track with all the juicy tidbits from around Lutyen’s Delhi and inside information that sometimes surprises us.

Kapoor spoke to Views On News about press censorship during the Emergency, her reluctance to be on TV and social media, her opinion on the “talk-show” format of TV journalism, and much  more. Excerpts:

How has the media as an industry and journalism as a profession changed during the years you have been in the profession?
It has changed radically. It has really been a revolution. When I started as a reporter, there were less than half-a-dozen newspapers in Delhi. And there was Doordarshan, which hardly had anything to offer. Today, you have hundreds of TV channels to choose from. You have social media. So, communication has changed totally.  I have been so long in the media that things had to change. There is far more choice today. It’s much more difficult to try and black out news. In the old days, it was much easier because there were very few publications.

Speaking of blacking out news, how did The Indian Express deal with censorship during the Emergency?
Censorship on the press continued till elections were declared. But after that censorship was eased. Once that happened, The Indian Express went full throttle doing extensive stories against the Emergency excesses.

Were there any repercussions that your organization faced? Were other publications as vocal in their criticism of the Emergency?
There were many repercussions. The government tried to cut off electricity, stop all bank loans, discontinue Samachar News Service and attempted to declare a lockout on the Delhi office. We were saved each time, thanks to the intervention of the courts. Apart for The Indian Express, only The Statesman spoke against the Emergency. The rest of the media was more or less quiet.

Express has always been known for its journalism of courage. Do you sense any in the functioning of the newspaper after Shekhar Gupta left as the editor-in-chief?
The Indian Express is still doing pretty good. There is a great deal of continuity because the number two and number three in Shekhar’s time, are now number one and number two. There is a continuation in terms of policies. I don’t think most readers would be aware of the difference unless they are told that there has been a change at the top editorial position.

You are known for political commentary. Yet you have stayed away from participating in TV debates. Why?
I used to come occasionally but I have given it up. I still get calls but I don’t go now. I am not very good at it. So I thought that it’s better not to go.

Do you watch news on television? What in your opinion is the current state of TV journalism in India?
I don’t see too much television. I just skim through prime time shows. I think we have overdone the talk show format. It was okay while the elections were going on but now they are beginning to fall a little flat.
We have overdone the acerbic style of news reading, hitting out all the time. Anchors have made an overkill of it.

While many journalists of your generation are quite active on Twitter, you don’t tweet at all. Any particular reason for steering clear of the micro-blogging site?
Technically, I am on Twitter but I have never sent out a tweet. I am not very tech-savvy. I have been meaning to read updates on Twitter much more than I do, but temperamentally, I am not a person who would send out tweets. But at the same time, I realize that a media owner would expect a journalist of today to be on Twitter.

But Twitter has also made journalists vulnerable to abuse and name-calling. Have you faced any harsh reaction from your readers?
See, earlier there was no medium for instant reaction. The only way of communicating with a journalist was by way of a “letter to the editor”. I have had some harsh letters from readers. But we really didn’t fear abusive letters. What journalists dreaded the most were letters of denials from authorities on whom a certain story had been done. Most of these denials are fudged but you have no other way but to respond to them.

During general elections we saw many journalists joining politics. What is your opinion on that? Do they cease to be journalists once they join politics?
Not really. There are plenty of examples of journalists who are also in politics. If you make a clear statement saying which party you belong to, that should be fine.

Shouldn’t the same rule apply to corporates who are funding a news organization?
Yes, if the financer of the publication has a particular interest, he should state it. I say this particularly for TV news.
I am told that they do film reviews and puff stories on films which have been sponsored by the financers of the news organization.

Which stories of yours do you rate among the best?
I did a story on unpublished private letters between Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay. A source handed them over to me. Another would be the Samba spy case (involving the Indian and Pakistan armies) of 1979. Apart from that, an analysis of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination inquiry report and stories on emergency excesses are also significant.