The Network Effect
By RAHUL BHATIA | December 1, 2013
GURINDER OSAN / AP PHOTO
AS DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE FOOD SECURITY BILL played on displays around the room, Rajdeep Sardesai took a seat at the centre of a simmering news pit in Mumbai, looking like he could use a break. Just ten days earlier, on 16 August, CNN-IBN and IBN7, the channels he oversees as editor-in-chief of the IBN Network, had witnessed the sudden layoffs of approximately 300 producers, cameramen, and reporters. Sardesai’s base of operations, at the channels’ headquarters in Noida, had been the worst affected by the forced departures; there, reporters and anchors on air had completed their broadcast and stepped off to find they no longer had a job. The layoffs were part of a large restructuring exercise recommended by Mercer and Ernst & Young for TV18, which was part of the gargantuan Network18 group. The group’s employees were told that management wanted to integrate the processes of its expansive media empire, which included CNBC-TV18, the IBN channels,Forbes India magazine, the website Firstpost, and a host of other channels and outlets across television, print and the internet.
The night before the layoffs, I met a senior CNN-IBN employee at a dimly lit coffee shop in Bandra, Mumbai. This person was washed out by the retrenchments to come. Between phone calls, over cups of coffee not quite large enough, the employee laid out the stark operational plan for the next 24 hours. “HR plans to finish by tomorrow evening. They want to finish it in a day.”
The employee was reconciled to the job cuts, but wished they had been handled in a better way; Network18’s HR personnel had met in conference rooms to discuss these cuts in full view of the staff outside. “Tomorrow the HR person is going to tell them that the company is restructuring, and there’s going to be an integration of newsrooms,” the senior employee told me. To minimise the chances of backlash, the layoffs would all be communicated at one go. Over the course of our conversation, the person’s phone rang twice. Both callers wanted the same thing: information that would help them understand what was about to happen the next day. The group had been uncommunicative with most of its workforce (and would continue to be so for months afterward). The senior employee told me that a list of employees to be fired had been shown to editors; it was an indicative draft, but the heads of various departments began to quietly inform the people listed on it on their own. There seemed to be no recognisable pattern to the names. The company had marked for dismissal inexperienced rookies and old hands alike. Well-regarded reporters who had been with the group for some years were going, as was at least one person from the camera department on a salary below Rs. 10,000. “Reporters from IBN7 stopped coming to work because they were interviewing for other jobs,” the senior employee said.
Sardesai had last visited the Mumbai bureau in July, by which time the rumours were flying so thick they were impossible to ignore. “Rajdeep said that we had to be prepared for a restructuring,” a former producer recalled. But he also told them that good workers had no reason to worry. Elsewhere in the building, Ritu Kapur, the History TV18 programming head, who is married to Raghav Bahl, the founder and managing director of Network18, told the entertainment team that their concerns about impending layoffs were unwarranted. “Ritu said, ‘No, no! What are you saying?’” a person present recalled.
The deceptions grated on reporters, who felt they were owed the truth. Over the last eight years, Sardesai had fostered an atmosphere of openness; his employees had always been comfortable expressing strong opinions that differed from his. But in contrast with the company line—and her own —Kapur informed Rajeev Masand and Vanita Singh, two IBN editors, that over two-thirds of their reporters were going to be made redundant. “They were asked to say what each person brings to the table,” the senior employee said. Masand “spent hours on heated calls” to protect his team from being culled, the producer told me. Smitha Nair, the sharp, quick-talking Mumbai bureau chief, was “walking around red-eyed, in tears”, according to the producer. Among themselves, reporters began to call the coming day, 16 August, Black Friday.
A clamour grew within and outside the studios that Friday; staff leaked details of the resignations online, in real time. Across Network18, approximately 350 people were asked to resign in one day. Several programmes on CNBC were scrapped with immediate effect. In Mumbai, CNN-IBN’s bureau of five news reporters, already stretched thin, was reduced to three. At the end of the day, Sardesai wrote on his Twitter feed—otherwise a mix of programme previews and observations from his morning walks—“Hurt and pain can be lonely. You must grieve in solitude. Gnight.”
The layoffs at Network18 came at a time of enormous stress for Indian media. The exigencies of the market have caused advertisers to withdraw. Earlier this year, regulators proposed that each hour of television should contain only 12 minutes of advertising. There are prohibitive carriage fees made by television broadcasters to cable networks. Network18, for instance, paid Rs. 584 crore for distribution and marketing in 2012–13. “The weakening rupee has made dollar payments more expensive; for a group like Network18, with 15 foreign subsidiaries and a number of licensing agreements, fluctuating exchange rates can prove worrisome. In July, the Outlook Group decided to close three magazines, and laid off over 100 staff. Years of large losses at NDTV’s general, business, and lifestyle channels—reversed only this year—have resulted in a steady stream of retrenchments over the past four years.
Network18’s unique approach to brand-building made it especially vulnerable. The group presently has a market value of approximately $1.1 billion (as of 24 November this year), making it India’s third-biggest publicly listed media conglomerate. Tens of millions watch the group’s 27 national and regional television channels in at least 11 languages. A joint movie studio venture makes tentpoles—films whose success hold up several other ventures—as well as more realistic fare. It owns a large online retail company, event and sports management concerns, specialty magazines, news websites and a newswire, and produces, exhibits, and distributes its own content. It has—to state it mildly—considerable reach. But its biggest news properties were built on tie-ups with global giants: CNN, CNBC, Viacom, A+E Networks, Forbes, and Entrepreneur, among others. It had built its stellar reputation on aggressive and expensive strategies, such as the lavish campaigns that had helped launch the television channel Colors in 2008. It was the most glamorous possible proposition for anyone who had the spare change to buy into a media company of its size and stature—and this was in spite of the fact that its stability was precarious.
In January 2012, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), India’s second-largest publicly listed company, had announced it would invest a substantial sum in Network18. At the time, they looked like saviours: over two days, Network18 stock jumped 27 percent. The movement indicated a kind of euphoria, given that Network18’s share price had, at the time, fallen almost 95 percent from its 2007 highs. It had incurred over Rs. 800 crore in accumulated losses in 2011–2012—while the company said its losses were Rs. 191 crore ($30.45 million), had it not used a convenient accounting standard, its losses would have been Rs. 835 crore ($133.12 million). But Reliance’s investment was also disconcerting. A company with strong links to government and extraordinary interests in petrochemicals, refining, and telecommunications, had helped ease mounting debt at an influential news organisation that owned two business channels, a business website, and published the business magazine Forbes India. “I don’t think the group saw how it was going to be perceived,” a senior editor at Firstpost told me this October.
Thanks to Reliance’s investment, a rapidly expanding group deeply in debt and prone to frequent cost-cutting measures now had the one thing that had been in perennially short supply: security. For some employees down the chain, the investment seemed like a boon. “We felt a little good about a reliable company buying a stake,” a reporter who was later laid off told me. “We thought it would become more stable.” When I met Tushar Pania, a spokesperson for Reliance, at the company’s office in south Mumbai this September, he claimed that they had very little role in the retrenchments. “It’s not our intent to run the business,” he said. “We don’t know the media business. If we wanted to run Network18, we would have run it.”
Taking his place in the Mumbai newsroom that day in August, Sardesai bared his feelings to the people who remained. “I want to apologise,” he told them. “We feel bad about it. It’s heartbreaking.” Almost immediately, someone responded angrily. “A month ago we asked you about it. Why did you lie to us? Are you saying that you didn’t know a month ago?” Sardesai reasoned with her, saying, “Panic would have spread.” She disagreed: “No, instead people would have quit and looked for jobs.” Editors, reporters, and producers told me they were disturbed by the manner in which the sackings were conducted. In CNN-IBN’s camera department, “people were fired by the heads based on their friendship,” a producer said to me. “The camera heads told camera guys they were being fired based on reporter feedback. But forget reporters, they did not take any feedback even from the bureau chief.” Sardesai seemed to know of the mismanagement in this department, according to the producer, and was upset by it. Looking to his left, where the camera division staff were clustered, he pointed out, “If it was done unfairly, and there are slackers here, they will be pulled up for it.”
Even as Sardesai strove to mend fences, an observer said, he “looked defeated”. The decision to fire people had not been his to make, and yet, because the channel responded to his leadership, the episode had undermined him. Still, he did what he could, a senior editor told me. “Some people got six months’ salary.” The company eventually made severance payments amounting to Rs. 10.27 crore.
Nearly every person I spoke with was sympathetic to Sardesai. “At some level he hasn’t taken it well,” one employee present that day said to me later. Sardesai wrote them apologetic text messages that a couple of employees I met said they ignored.
In the newsroom, perhaps under strain, or perhaps in a moment of weakness, he disarmed the bureau with a confession of his helplessness. He told them that he would leave if he “was to face this again”. Sardesai explained to everyone in the newsroom that he had resisted pressure from management to reduce the channels’ payroll four years ago, when rising costs had induced similar layoffs elsewhere in the group. “This time we couldn’t resist, Sardesai said to the newsroom. “The business model had become too cumbersome.” He was asked why the channel had continued to hire for four years if they had been under pressure. “I agree,” the producer recalled him conceding. “We thought things would stabilise. It was poor management.”
“There’s some kind of obfuscation,” the senior employee told me. “I don’t know why someone didn’t just say, ‘we’re not doing well.’ The perception is that the company is doing well. It’s acquiring properties left, right and centre, so why are you firing what you know is a lean team? This is going to affect news gathering. A compromise on quantity is a compromise on quality.”
The changes taking place across the group’s publications had other, less visible consequences. Over three meetings at a coffee shop in central Mumbai in January this year, R Jagannathan, the editor-in-chief for web and print at Network18, and Indrajit Gupta, then editor-in-chief of Forbes India, discussed a possible integration between Forbes India and Firstpost, the network’s opinion site. Jagannathan believed that the 40-strong Forbes India team, which produced a fortnightly magazine, a quarterly, and also handled ForbesIndia.com, should produce less local content and instead help build the Firstpost brand. Gupta thought this would change the character of Forbes India, whose circulation, company press releases claimed, had reached 75,000 copies. In less than five years, the magazine had attained Rs. 25 crore in revenues on the back of in-depth Indian business reporting. At the end of each meeting, the two editors parted uneasily; multiple members of the Forbes Indiastaff told me that it became clear that unpleasant changes were on the way.
The next month, Jagannathan began to attend Forbes India’s edit meetings. During one such meeting at the end of February, he dismissed several ideas from the staff, and told the Forbes India team that they were “screwing up”, according to a person present there. Glancing at a sheet of paper he had arrived with, he yelled at the room, “You’re doing it wrong. Forbes is about the wealthy. It’s about right-wing politics. You guys are writing about development and poverty. If you guys don’t get it, I’m going to make sure that you do.” His hands shook as he read the prepared note. The person present there told me, “He was under so much pressure. It was clear he had arrived with a brief from someone. I suspect it was from Raghav.” Jagannathan did not respond to messages for comment.
ON 3 JANUARY 2012, TV18, the television arm of Network18, announced that its board, led by Bahl, had approved a sum of up to Rs. 2,100 crore to acquire the stake held by Reliance in Eenadu Television Network (ETV). ETV had regional muscle; the network was started in 1995 by Ramoji Rao, the influential Hyderabad tycoon whose media empire had expanded to include 12 popular entertainment and news channels in over seven states. If ETV’s regional reach was combined with the national reach of TV18, they would together command over 25 national and regional channels across news and general entertainment.
In a press release announcing the deal, Network18 was unrelenting in its optimism that the group had finally turned around. It insisted that authority would reside solely in the hands of Bahl and his management team. In addition, the board said that TV18 and Network18, which had a combined net worth of Rs. 1,643crore, would together raise Rs. 5,400 crore from the market, and use the gains to pay off all debt. If they weren’t able to raise enough, Bahl would buy up the shares that remained through his own private companies that controlled both Network18 and TV18, which are publicly listed firms. To do this, Bahl would receive funding from a body called Independent Media Trust. This trust had been set up for Reliance’s benefit.
Bahl brimmed with positivity in an earnings call with analysts later that day, telling everyone that he maintained “full undiluted control” over the Network18 group. The message was reasserted in stories that the group’s channels ran. CNN-IBN stated emphatically that, “Management and editorial control will continue to be held by TV18 promoters.” On the call, when analysts pressed him for details, Bahl turned them down. At the end, he dispatched them with a bright but vague message. The deal was “a landmark transaction” that gave the company a chance to begin afresh, and build on the limitless opportunities before it.
According to Reliance’s press statements, the partnership with Network18 would ensure a ready supply of content to the company when their ambitious plans for 4G network services finally took off. Bahl said Reliance saw it purely as an investment. He chose not to disclose that the investment had left his control over the business in a far more perilous state than at any time in its 18-year history. In exchange for its funding, Network18’s promoter companies would issue convertible debentures—put simply, financial instruments backed by company assets that could be exchanged for regular shares—to Reliance. Effectively, this would make the group Reliance’s to control. This was explained lucidly in a Competition Commission of India order that approved the deal in May 2012, which pointed out that the acquisition of debentures had “the ultimate intended effect of RIL acquiring control over Network18 group”.
Over the next month, Bahl met the group’s editors in individual meetings to discuss the group’s benefactor. Indrajit Gupta told me Bahl asked for his opinion on handling stories about Reliance and media in Forbes India. “My feedback was very simple. We should continue to do stories on Reliance and media. He asked, ‘Do we really need to?’”
Reliance’s name provokes a certain kind of reaction among the media in India. The reaction, more often than not, is to proceed with caution. This prudence applies to stories about the company and its interests, as well as to its controlling family, the Ambanis, regarding whom every word that makes it into print is treated with unparalleled care. In early November, when a writer at the Economic Timesmistakenly captioned a photograph of Mukesh Ambani’s wife, Nita, with the name of his brother’s wife, Tina, the paper’s editors, in the words of a reporter present, “went crazy”.
In the early 1990s, long before Mukesh and Anil Ambani split their father’s legacy and went their separate ways in 2003, Dhirubhai Ambani’s Reliance had put out the Business and Political Observer,and its weekend companion, the Sunday Observer. The company’s relations with the press in the preceding years had not always been tranquil; in the 1980s, the Indian Express had doggedly pursued stories of the company’s irregularities and its mutually beneficial relationship with Indira Gandhi’s government. The Observer was “intended to put across their own point of view,” according to a former senior editor who worked there. “They would do slanted editorials, or slanted stories—part of it would be fact, and part of it would be puffed up.”
The Observer had a brief life, but Reliance’s shadow over the media grew long in the years to come. In a 2008 New York Times piece on Mukesh Ambani, the writer Anand Giridhardas wrote, “A prominent Indian editor, formerly of the Times of India, who requested anonymity because of concerns about upsetting Ambani, says Reliance maintains good relationships with newspaper owners; editors, in turn, fear investigating it too closely. ‘I don’t think anyone else comes close to it,’ the editor said of Reliance’s sway. ‘I don’t think anyone is able to work the system as they can’.”
In recent years, the company has begun to quietly acquire media outlets. As the Competition Commission order confirmed in plain terms, it had gained effective control of both Network18 and ETV without appearing to own the networks. In November, the journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta revealed on the media news and criticism website, The Hoot, that the Serious Fraud Investigation Office, an organisation under the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, had accused Reliance of “having engineered a series of allegedly illegal transactions to control a company that controlled the NewsX television channel”. Big business has always been well-disposed to the idea of proactively controlling the message, but Reliance’s recent approach—that of controlling the medium—is a rather more elaborate precaution than Indian corporations have taken before. The spokesperson of a rival company, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed, “They now own the platforms where public opinion is.”
“You have to take a nuanced view,” Thakurta told me during an interview. “The vehicles of the Network18 group have reported news that has gone against Reliance. Will they break stories against them? I doubt it. Will they conduct investigations that work against the interests of Mukesh Ambani and the corporate conglomerate he heads? I doubt it. But then, that is to be expected.”
IN 2005, Bahl wrote a piece for an Outlook special issue titled ‘India Rising’. “The story of India’s television news,” he said, “is largely the story of three extraordinary companies, two super-skilled professional entrepreneurs, and an apprentice. The companies are NDTV, TV Today and TV18. The two super-men are Aroon Purie and Prannoy Roy. The apprentice is yours truly.”
Fifty-one year-old Raghav Bahl is a former management consultant who entered the media industry when he became a correspondent for Doordarshan in the 1980s, while he was still in his twenties. Soon, he was anchoring Newstrack, the monthly television newsmagazine made by Purie’s sister, Madhu Trehan. “He was a really dynamic young anchor then,” CB Arun Kumar, who met Bahl on theNewstrack sets in 1989, said. “He was full of good ideas. People were more into politics and general news, but he was into business.”
In 1991, Bahl joined Business India, a publishing house, to create a business version of Newstrack for television. The programme was called The Business India Show. They had produced exactly one edition when, on 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. “You have to imagine how the whole country was in turmoil. It made a lot of business people very jittery. We put the programme on hold because we wanted to wait and see what would happen,” Arun Kumar said.
Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri, one of Network18’s founders, described the ensuing upheaval in an essay he wrote for Mint. “There followed a frustrating time when we were drawing salaries and doing no work. We were young, hungry, ambitious, impatient and at the prime of our working lives. The Gulf War had already shown us the future. The satellite revolution was at our doorstep.” In the meantime, Bahl, Chaudhuri, and Arun Kumar started a new production company, Television Eighteen, in Delhi. (Chaudhuri is now executive director in the Network18 group; Arun is the academic director of a film school in Mumbai.)
With nothing happening, Bahl pitched for work everywhere. “The mood was depressing at the time,” Arun Kumar said. He lucked out when the BBC saw the work Television Eighteen had done. They signed Bahl up to produce and anchor a show called India Business Report. To train the staff, the BBC sent down a retired veteran who went out on shoots with Television Eighteen’s young staff for a few months. His mandate was to bring them up to the BBC’s standards. This wasn’t difficult. Bahl’s video editors and cameramen were graduates of Jamia Millia Islamia, whose mass communications programme produced skilled technicians. Their methods seeped through the organisation, as did the experience of Television Eighteen’s founders.
Between 1993 and the following year, Ashok Advani, the founder of Business India, decided to start a television channel called Business India TV (BITV). He told Bahl that the channel would be transmitted off a Russian satellite. Transmission fees cost $1.5 million, far below than the $5 million cost of using the satellite that broadcast the Star Network and Zee into Indian homes. Advani believed that the money they saved could be used to improve production values. Bahl disagreed on two vital counts. He told Advani it was premature to start a channel, Arun Kumar said. He also thought the Russian satellite was a mistake. For Bahl, “being seen was more important than transmission fees,” Arun Kumar told me. “If your programming is being seen, the quality isn’t important.” Around August 2004, he left BITV, taking a number of his colleagues with him.
Arun Kumar decided to stay back, but Bahl tried convincing him to leave. “He said, ‘Look, we’ll start our channel in due course. This one’s never going to work.’ He was right.” Cable operators decided very quickly that recalibrating their receivers regularly to pick up a beam from a Russian satellite was too much work. Eventually BITV switched to the Star satellite, but it was too late. “They ran out of money, and other channels had traction by then,” Arun Kumar said. “It was a classic business strategy mistake. It brought Advani’s empire tumbling down. They saved money on the satellite, but they lost the whole thing. Raghav knew it was a mistake. He knew all along.”
Meanwhile, Bahl found an opportunity to exploit. Indian television had little business journalism. This presented an allied problem—there were no television business journalists either. He decided to contact reporters and editors at the Economic Times and India Today, and won them over, if not with the promise of a brand new medium, then with offers to double their pay cheques. “After the economic reforms, journalists began to get better salaries across the board, but he was offering raises of 100 percent,” S Srinivasan, whom Bahl hired as an editor in the 1990s, and who now runs the Tamil channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, told me.
Previously, Bahl had produced India Business Report for the BBC and a lifestyle programme, the Amul India Show, for Star TV. The BBC’s methods seeped through the organisation, as did the experience of Television Eighteen’s founders. When Bahl hired journalists to make three programmes that would run on the channel Asia Business News (ABN)—a joint venture between Dow Jones, and the Hinduja family—the new hires were made to learn those ways.
His modus operandi with ABN carried all the hallmarks of his ambition. He hired more than 60 people for one programme alone. “His entire objective was to get the best editorial team,” Srinivasan said. “When he’s on a high, I don’t think he looks at money.” Between themselves, reporters jockeyed to have their stories chosen to fill limited slots. Many of Bahl’s former editors told me that his insistence on good production values set him apart from others in the field.
He shaped their own appreciation for well-produced stories, over long hours in editing rooms, and also by issuing frequent debriefs—voluminous documents critiquing particular programmes and stories, and containing, some former employees said, hidden criticisms of reporters. It was an expensive way to work, but the money from ABN was generous—the company paid Television Eighteen $2,000 (approximately R70,000 in 1996) for each two-minute story.
Bahl told his senior editors that he wanted to sustain quality, even as he was spending more and more time growing the business. Hardev Sanotra, whom Bahl had lured from India Today, was one of those editors. He watched the company’s editorial philosophy form as it produced (and Bahl anchored) India Business Report and the Amul India Show, as well as its daily 90 minutes of programming for ABN. Sanotra told me, “He said, ‘We’ll do ethical journalism, we must do quality journalism, and we’ll pay well.’” Bahl was true to his word. He resisted pressure to drop inconvenient stories. In one particular instance, an interview with the industrialist BK Modi took an unexpected turn when he “said lots of things against the Hindujas,” Sanotra said. “Somehow the Hindujas came to know the interview was running that evening.” He said he received calls from Bombay and London, where the Hindujas were based, but none from Bahl. The story ran untouched.
Soon there were unforeseen troubles, not helped along by the fact that a large chunk of the business’s funds came from overseas. “Whatever money came in had to come through the Reserve Bank of India. In 9–10 months the money began to be delayed,” Sanotra, now with the soon-to-be-launched television channel New Generation (Puthiya Thalaimurai’s English counterpart), recalled. Salaries and allowances were constantly deferred, and even though people were eventually paid their due, the delays “started having an impact on morale”. In 1997, Bahl shut down the programme for which he had hired so extravagantly, because it consumed large resources. “Almost 60–70 people were asked to leave,” Srinivasan said. “It was surprising, because even as he was laying them off, he said it was a temporary blip, and that he would start a channel. It was clear to him. But to me, it looked too far away.”
But Bahl saw no hurdles, only opportunities. He brought the international channel CNBC to India in 2000, producing eight hours of programming a day for the new channel CNBC-TV18. Govindraj Ethiraj, now the editor of Indiaspend.com, a popular data journalism website, joined the team for the new channel in 1999. “He was like, ‘define your own job’,” Ethiraj remembered. As managing editor of CNBC-TV18, Bahl advised his hires to think quickly. “He would say that you should do your planning, but not ad nauseum. ‘Get it off the ground and then correct it’.” I asked Ethiraj what he remembered most fondly about his time there. He didn’t take very long to respond. “He makes you feel like you’re in it together,” he said. “He was very inspired by Narayana Murthy [co-founder of Infosys].” In that spirit, Bahl’s was among the first Indian media companies to offer employee stock options.
Bahl teamed up with a new CEO, Haresh Chawla—a veteran of Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd and Times Music—and took the company public in a 1999 IPO that was oversubscribed by over 50 times. “The company has collected close to Rs. 2511 crore,” the Indian Express reported in December 1999. Chawla and Bahl began a website called Rupeecontrol.com in the wake of the success of the financial portal Moneycontrol.com. When Moneycontrol itself ran into trouble at the end of the dotcom boom, the pair were able to buy it out for a song. (For a brief while Chawla considered renaming his new acquisition Rupeecontrol, but then dropped the idea.) In 2000, Bahl told investors that the company was about to grow even more rapidly. He said he had plans to enter the online brokerage business, and bolster his teams of anchors at CNBC with experts to polish the coverage to a high sheen, because it had an “immediate impact on the stock market”.
Chawla, if anything, was even more keen to get a move on than Bahl. “Raghav didn’t think he could take on a Prannoy Roy,” a former editor there said. “He didn’t think he could take on NDTV. Haresh was more ambitious.” Within five years, Chawla convinced Sardesai to leave NDTV to start a general news channel and take ownership of it. Sardesai held 2.25 percent of the new endeavour. Within months of its launch in December 2005, thanks to its clever distribution strategies and, I was told, Sardesai’s star power, CNN-IBN’s ratings overtook NDTV’s. Within ten years, the group had licensing arrangements with Viacom and Forbes, Hindi and Marathi channels, a printing press, a healthy publishing business, a home shopping network, and a movie studio.
It burned through cash. Bahl described his approach to the business in an essay he wrote for the media website MxMIndia.com earlier this year about launching Colors, the network’s popular general entertainment channel. “Yes, it would cost hundreds of crores, but we were clear that we would rather burn hundreds of crores in a high voltage launch and win or flame out, as against die a slow and painful death with a hundred small cuts, struggling every day in the Number 4 or 5 position, draining away cash and energy, shoulders drooping, simply waiting for the inevitable closure. We were sure that we had to enter with the mind-set of a leader.”
It is a mindset that has served Bahl well over the course of a career whose post-liberalisation narrative—a first-generation businessman building a veritable media empire in under two decades—has a near-fabulous quality to it. Vivian Fernandes, who worked with Bahl for 18 years and is the co-writer of Superpower?, Bahl’s book about competition between China and India, said to me: “His story is a proxy for India’s economic reform.” In a CNBC interview with Anuradha Sengupta during the network’s publicity blitz for the book, Bahl twinkled when Sengupta opened the discussion by asking him why he had chosen not to write about his own story. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
“He knew what he wanted,” Srinivasan said. “He knew very early. He could be ruthless. He didn’t flinch once a decision was taken.” I asked him how he would describe the company’s growth. “They grow, they shrink, they grow.” This was a description I heard often. “Indian entrepreneurs lack a strategic vision,” Srinivasan said, speaking in general. “Have you heard of a five-year plan? Or a ten-year plan? In media you don’t know what’s happening six months later.” Srinivasan, saying this in 2013, had the benefit of hindsight. For most of the past decade, the Network18 group had ridden on markets flush with money, and eager investors who bought the story Bahl sold. But while the group grew, it began to morph into something that bewildered its investors and staff.
IN 2007, Network18 floated the Indian Film Company (IFC) on London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM), a small exchange with few regulatory hurdles. The IFC was a film fund created to finance the production and distribution of feature films, a new area of interest for a group that had, so far, been content to operate only on television and the internet. “I invested money on the face value of Raghav Bahl, that’s it,” Deepak Gupta, a large investor in the Indian Film Company, told me. “I had heard a lot of stories about him. I had great faith in the guy.”
Bahl sold his investors the proposition of a disciplined Indian film industry. He wasn’t alone in this. The middle of the previous decade saw the rise of marketing and finance professionals—“soap sellers”, the politician Amar Singh called them—in Indian films. They populated marketing and distribution departments, ran studios, and set up investment opportunities. Bahl was among the first of these to solicit foreign investment in an organised way, promising change in what was a sexy, if deeply feudal, business.
Gupta says he bought into the message, and the messenger, for reasons he couldn’t fully explain. Bahl wove visions of growth and dazzling returns in a promising industry—a mine waiting to be tapped by professionals. “It will enable high quality international investors to reap the benefits of the structural changes and growth opportunities being thrown up by the Indian film industry,” he proclaimed at the time. The IFC aimed to produce or acquire an improbable 40 to 50 films for release each year. And generating returns for his shareholders was among Bahl’s first priorities, he said. He would bring investors an annual return of 20 percent, “if you manage the capital efficiently.”
“My intention was not to stay there for very long,” Gupta said on a phone call from Dubai, where he lives. Gupta was a “fund manager kind of guy”, he told me—an early investor who typically sold high quickly, preferably for a five or ten percent gain. He invested £3.6 million in the IFC, he told me, and waited for the fund to list. He told other investors that he hoped to cash in within a couple of months. The fund opened on the morning of 18 June 2007 at 99 pence, and it traded only a percentage higher for the rest of that day. Not unreasonably, Gupta had expected the fund to rise dramatically, in keeping with volcanic IPOs everywhere before the crash of 2008. Instead, the fund soon began a rapid descent: within months, the stock lost almost 20 percent of its value.
As the stock crashed, IFC’s management, led by Bahl, declared it remained optimistic. It had turned a profit with the success of Jab We Met and Welcome in its first ten months, and claimed, in its annual report of 2008, that it would benefit from “the effect of a number of positive dynamics” within India’s various film industries. As the promoter and managing director of Network18, which held 18.18 percent of IFC, a stake worth Rs. 80 crore, Bahl, backed by management, told shareholders in Network18’s own annual report that year that although the value of their investment was down, IFC was profitable and had a “positive net worth”. Therefore, “no provision for diminution in value … is considered necessary in the accounts”.
But Bahl reserved his optimism for his publicly listed companies. In private, he stated otherwise. On the 2008 balance sheet of an unlisted Mauritius company, BK Media Mauritius Private Limited, which held IFC stock, he said he expected the value of the investment in IFC to fall. “Considering the current economic scenario and a conservative accounting policy,” he wrote, “provision for impairment has been made against these investments as per management’s estimates…”
IFC’s independent shareholders grew restless with the growing chasm between the fund’s performance and the management’s continuing assertion that it was faring well. By 2008, they began to demand more detailed numbers, and asked questions about how the company’s chief asset, its movie portfolio, was valued.
“They refused to give us numbers,” an investor named Atul Setia said to me. “As investors we saw hit film after hit film, and nine months later we would expect the numbers to be pretty good, but they never were very good. It was a frustration investors had, and they couldn’t understand what was going on in the company.” Finally, in late 2008, Setia travelled to Mumbai with Deepak Gupta to persuade Bahl and the board to bring about change. Their meeting with the board was a disaster; Setia and Gupta left with the distinct feeling that no one was interested in their proposition. Soon after, in a highly publicised manoeuvre in January 2009, Gupta and others came together to form the Indian Film Company Requisition Group—a pressure tactic to acquire representation on the IFC’s five-member board of directors, which included Bahl, Shyam Benegal, and Lord Meghnad Desai. By now, IFC stock was trading at around 25 pence, down by 75 percent from its listed price. Reports depicted the episode as a campaign to have Bahl evicted from the company, but Gupta denied this emphatically to me. “We did not want a hostile takeover,” he said. “Who among us had the experience to run this business? Were we ready to kill our own money?”
As a result of the agitation, Gupta and Setia both won positions on the board, giving them the authority to look into the heart of the company’s financials. Gupta discovered that the fund’s CEO, Sandeep Bhargava, was not only responsible for buying movies, but also for valuing them—disparate responsibilities that together constituted a conflict of interest, Gupta believed. He urged management to get an independent evaluator, given that “60 to 70 percent” of the company’s valuation was based on its stockpile of movies.
In July 2009, out of the blue, Network18 Holdings, a Cayman Islands subsidiary of Network18, made an offer to buy back IFC’s shares. Shareholders were offered 40 pence a share. “But here’s the real catch,” Gupta said. “The stock was trading at 26 pence, but in its books, the company valued its assets at 113 pence a share. They wanted to buy back at 40p.”
For the two years during which the fund had lost value, Gupta had tried with increasing desperation to sell his stake, but couldn’t find a purchaser. By the time I called him, six years after his initial investment, distance had given him perspective. Gupta admitted he had not researched the market, and had instead been led by a tempting growth story. He hadn’t heard closely the fund manager’s utterances before the IFC listed (“… the perception of greater liquidity has made [the Alternative Investment Market] an attractive destination for a lot of companies”). The fund’s price hadn’t risen because, until the buyback offer, there had been simply no demand for its shares on the AIM. “It’s a sucker’s market,” Gupta said about the exchange. “There’s just no liquidity there.” This was true. Over one 30 trading-day span in 2009, the fund’s shares changed hands on only five days. For the other 25, there were no buyers.
Gupta, Setia, and the others decided to sell. By 7 September 2009, Network18 Holdings had purchased nearly 60 percent of IFC. In total, the Network18 group ended up possessing over 80 percent.
But there were more convolutions to come, and this time Network18’s shareholders would be affected. In October 2010, Gupta and Setia learnt that a Cyprus-based company named Roptonal had offered to purchase Network18’s IFC shares for 115.56 pence each. Roptonal was a subsidiary of Viacom18, in which TV18 held a 50 per cent stake. At the time, Chawla was the group CEO of Network18, as well as the CEO of Viacom18—which put him in charge of both buyer and seller. In effect, Network18’s Bahl and Chawla had undervalued IFC’s shares at first, and then, in doing a deal with Viacom18, which they held sway over, acquired a seemingly high value for themselves. IFC’s former shareholders weren’t entirely surprised. “We knew that one of the options [Bahl had] was to buy the company back at a very low price,” Setia said.
Roptonal’s offer to IFC’s shareholders valued the stock at 15 percent over its original listing price circa 2007. But Network18’s Rs. 80.78 crore investment in the fund had grown less than a percent in more than three years, due to a drastically changed exchange rate. It was a reality far removed from Bahl’s glittering initial promise of 20 percent annual returns to IFC’s investors.
However, matters turned out somewhat differently for the Network18 subsidiary based in the Cayman Islands, Network18 Holdings. It had purchased shares from minority shareholders at the 2009 buyback offer of 40 pence, and sold these on to Roptonal in 2010 at 115.56 pence. For the Cayman subsidiary, that transaction represented a gain of 188 percent in one year.
But Network18’s shareholders only realised the real cost of their investment in IFC in 2013. It turned out that when Roptonal purchased IFC from Network18 Holdings in 2010, it was on the condition that any shortfall in expected income from its newly acquired film library would be covered by Network18 Holdings. But Roptonal also demanded, and received assurance, that Network18 would pay up if Network18 Holdings could not. Roptonal expected to earn Rs. 322 crore over a four-year period that ends next year. Network18 has not explained why its Cayman subsidiary cannot make the payment, and has made a provision of Rs. 237 crore to bridge the shortfall (a figure which would have constituted 80 percent of its revenues last year).
Setia told me that Bahl was the epitome of a certain sort of entrepreneur. “He’s a very intelligent, articulate Indian promoter,” Setia said about him. I asked him what he meant by “Indian promoter”. “They look after their own interests,” he said. “The Indian market is typified by illiquid companies with large promoter shareholdings where there’s a lot of manipulation for the financial benefit of the promoter.”
Analysts realised how difficult it was becoming to decipher the group’s numbers during its 2010 restructuring, a major operation that involved merging and demerging ten of the group’s companies. When one analyst, Nikhil Vora, asked Bahl for clarity on the earnings call following this restructuring in May 2010, he received an elaborate evasion for an answer. Vora, the head of research at the finance firm IDFC, asked Bahl, “I am not asking specifics but want to understand the broad objective of this entire restructuring. Is it to get all your news assets into a single entity? What is the broad thought process which is being deployed apart from making it shareholder friendly…?” In response, Bahl talked for two full minutes about investors who believed the company structure was too complicated. He said he hoped to sort out the confusion after putting “our best efforts and our best thoughts into the various possibilities … However, the minute we are absolutely ready with it, we will come back to our shareholders.” Decoded, this appeared to be an acknowledgment of the fact that shareholders had concerns, and the company would address them when it had a solution. But at no point did Bahl actually say why the restructuring had happened.
When I contacted Network18 with questions about some of its numbers, the company responded tersely that its “transactions have been made in accordance with the regulatory requirements”. Some of these transactions, analysts point out, are questionable. In 2010, Porinju Veliyath, the founder of Equity Intelligence, an investment firm, sent out an angry email with the subject line, “Raghav Bahl doing Daylight Robbery on TV-18 shareholders!” Veliyath’s investors owned a small stake in TV18, and he was aggrieved by what seemed like blatant stock price manipulation in the months before the crucial 2010 restructuring (which Vora had asked about on the earnings call). He also calculated that after the restructuring, assets transferred from TV18 to Network18 were undervalued by over Rs. 900 crore. “Can this merger of TV18 be stopped by minority shareholders?” he asked in his email. He wrote that he would begin legal proceedings against TV18 in this matter, but it isn’t clear if he followed through on the threat. Veliyath declined to be interviewed for this piece.
“From a finance perspective, it’s a company built to pull wool over shareholders’ eyes,” Deepak Shenoy, who runs the financial website Capital Mind, told me on a phone call from Bangalore. Shenoy posts regular dissections of company finances on Capital Mind, and has kept a running tab on Network18’s numbers, which he says indicate that it’s a company that “keeps hiding stuff under the carpet”.
In 2011, he discovered a befuddling note in the company’s annual report. Network18’s management took a Rs. 255-crore loan, but the money wasn’t for the company. It was for a confusingly named trust called ‘Network18 Group Senior Professional Welfare Trust’, over which Bahl, his wife, and his sister, Vandana Malik, exercised significant influence. The trust was provided this money even though Network18’s management knew it was unlikely that any “economic benefit will flow to the company from the trust,” according to the Network18 company’s 2011 annual report. The report also showed that the trust repaid Rs. 202 crore to Network18 that year, but still owed it nearly Rs. 150 crore. “Why the heck should a company give Rs. 255 crore of its own investments, as security against a loan to a promoter entity?” Shenoy asked. He observed that the trust controlled by the Bahls had used loans to purchase shares directly from the market in September and October 2011. “Effectively, the company’s money was used to help the promoters buy more shares from someone else,” Shenoy wrote. “This is brazen. I don’t know if it’s illegal, but it sure as hell should be.”
Network18’s annual reports and balance sheets do not always make easy reading for its shareholders. Indeed, for a company its size, Network18’s complex financial dealings tend to attract very little scrutiny. “The group is a serious wealth destroyer. It’s not funny how much wealth has been decimated,” a former head of one of the group’s several companies told me. “The strange thing is the lack of action against them from regulators.” I asked him why analysts weren’t more vocal about their concerns, and he replied, “If they do that, they won’t be invited to CNBC again.”
Not all regulators were quiet. In February 2008, M Damodaran, who was coming to the end of his tenure as chief of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), was interviewed by Shekhar Gupta for his television programme Walk the Talk. Damodaran spoke of having received a letter from an investor soon after the Reliance Power (an Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group business) IPO, which had taken place the previous month. The investor claimed that CNBC-TV18’s coverage of the IPO had been unusual. “The investor asked, ‘I saw you guys saying everything was good about a particular [IPO] till it listed below the issue price. And now I find you saying everything is wrong and talking it down. What happened to you guys?’ I think there’s considerable merit in it [the letter],” Damodaran said. “How is it that suddenly on listing, all the virtues that you thought resided in some particular issue disappeared? I think the media has a very large role to play and I am afraid that that role is not being played to the best of its ability.” (For all his dissatisfaction, Damodaran was in the audience two years later when Bahl launched his book Superpower? at the Taj Palace in Delhi, at an event compered by Shereen Bhan, a popular CNBC anchor.)
Over his career, Bahl has demonstrated a talent for smoothing over complex relationships, both human and financial. He is also gifted at making simple things complicated. His group valued the acquisition of Reliance’s stake in ETV at Rs. 1,925crore. Network18’s public filings from 2012 later revealed that the acquisition price was founded on an Ernst & Young report that itself was based on findings from unaudited information, given to it by TV18 and ETV. To seal the matter, Network18’s management declared in the 2012 filings that their ETV acquisition, the biggest purchase in their history, was based on the conclusions of the report—but they could not guarantee if the numbers were correct.
By 2011, the company began to slip out of Bahl’s grasp. After years of optimistic projections, it had arrived at the edge of a financial abyss, and several of Bahl’s former employees were convinced he had simply overreached. “He’s very aggressive,” Sanotra told me, “but when you expand too quickly, markets don’t support you.”
As his once-buoyant enterprise began to falter, Bahl sought assistance from Reliance—reluctantly, according to a senior editor of a Network18 website. “He was in a bind about entering a pact with the devil.” Pania, the Reliance spokesperson, explained to me that “the promoters were looking for finance. They were looking to reduce debt.”
Chawla, Bahl’s CEO, wanted no part of it. In November 2011, two months before the Reliance deal was announced, he resigned from Network18. “From a small single-channel operation with revenues of just Rs. 15 crore, we grew to become a Rs. 3,000-crore conglomerate with a presence in almost every branch of media,” Chawla told Businessworld in April 2013. Dealing with Reliance was another matter. He told the magazine that quitting “was not a complex decision. It was one of those things you do when you wake up. I just felt I did not want to engage with [the Ambanis].” He declined to be interviewed for this story, and said he had been misquoted in the Businessworld story, but then unintentionally let slip during a brief but heated conversation weeks later—in which he once again declined—that his last days there “were an unpleasant situation. Now it’s over.”
Reporters are aware of how the arrangement might affect them. “They are using our credibility,” a top editor at one of the group’s channels told me. “I am worried about that. One day people will ask us questions.”
ONLY A DECADE AGO, Bahl had believed that competition would serve him well. He reasoned that competition deepened the market, and it could only be to his benefit. In time, as he grappled with the complexities of his sprawling organisation and a quickly changing marketplace, his solutions to commercial problems appeared to come in conflict with his journalistic ideals.
The effect of Bahl’s growing pragmatism began to be felt at CNN-IBN some years after its launch. He was troubled by the increasing popularity of Times Now, which began operations in 2006 and thrived on the allure of its combative editor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami. During primetime, Sardesai’s calm and reasoned demeanour proved no match for Goswami’s corybantic style. By 2008, Times Now’s ratings overtook those of CNN-IBN, which irritated Bahl. “Raghav was very unhappy when Arnab started winning,” a former senior CNN-IBN editor told me. “Rajdeep used to say that Raghav would tell him, ‘Arnab must be doing something right.’” The editor felt that, as a result, there was “tremendous tension between them.”
To counter Goswami, the channel began to funnel resources towards its primetime talk shows, privileging them over news and reportage. Reporters also noticed that Sardesai began to anchor whenever big stories were breaking, a practice usually associated with Goswami. “They’ve been cutting down on news. It’s about chasing the day’s big story,” a reporter said.
Current and former employees say that CNN-IBN began to change palpably in 2010. “The way we played news, the way we functioned. You could get a story right, but unless Times Now played it up, we wouldn’t either. That was frustrating,” a former reporter said. And if Times Now had footage, CNN-IBN’s editors wanted it too. When Times Now once ran a clip of Rajesh Khanna waving to fans on loop, editors at CNN-IBN assigned their threadbare staff to acquire the same footage. On his visits to Mumbai, Sardesai echoed Bahl’s feelings to his staff: “Times Now is doing something right.”
Once Reliance invested in the group, editors approached stories about their benefactor gingerly. In one instance in 2012, a possible story containing a reference about Reliance and TV18 bidding for Indian cricket rights was discussed by the channel’s core editors for two days. “People were saying, ‘Yeah, let’s play it up,’” a person involved in the story’s production told me. But the reference worried them, and they asked the reporter to confirm once more that Reliance had placed a bid. This was confirmed, but the story that ran contained only the names of other bidders. “There was an editorial call to keep Reliance out of stories,” the person said. Other editors suggested this too. The editor at Firstpost told me, “We don’t talk too much about Reliance. Neither pro, nor con. I’m uncomfortable with the compromises we’ve made.”
In a 2008 interview with Businessworld, Bahl had talked about the group’s existing commercial arrangements with companies they covered. “We do not compromise editorial. If you want to compromise content, you don’t need … a private treaty to do it. It need not show on your books either. We do have a policy of private treaties, but what is wrong with a business plan that monetises our media reach? What difference does it make if we pay for a stake in a company in cash or kind? It is true that the companies we invest in get access. It is also true they may try and influence us, but that is the occupational hazard every journalist faces.”
Over the years, as the balance Bahl was required to maintain between his twin roles as businessman and journalist shifted, the chances that his reporters would face the “occupational hazard” of outside influence began to increase. As a result, journalists found themselves in uncomfortable situations. Last year, Vivian Fernandes, who co-wrote Bahl’s book, was dispatched to Gujarat to interview the chief minister, Narendra Modi. A person involved with the production of the interview recalled that Fernandes asked Modi a difficult question about water conservation in Gujarat. Modi’s organisers had asked to see the questions before the interview, and demanded the water conservation question’s removal. When Fernandes sprung it on him anyway, Modi broke away from the camera and glared at a public relations executive in the room. “Why is he talking like this?” the person recalled Modi saying. “Are we not paying for this interview?” The production crew realised that the interview was part of a promotion for Modi. When Bahl heard about the curtailed interview, he reportedly told Fernandes, “We should have a clear line between marketing and editorial.”
The line, I discovered, was crossed cavalierly some weeks ago. In late October, a finished story on Micromax scheduled for a Forbes India issue was suddenly held back for the future—a decision that threw the editorial department. In the mean time, Gurmeet Singh, the CEO of Forbes India, called one of the co-founders of Micromax to talk while the story was on hold. Singh was an irrepressible salesman, several current and former Forbes India editorial staff told me. The call by the CEO to the subject of the profile concerned them. “You suspect the worst,” a reporter said. “It raises questions about conflict of interest. You have to put it in context.” The context, in this case, was that earlier that month, Sai Kumar, the group CEO of Network18, had met Forbes India employees in a town hall meeting, and told them that the group would no longer judge ad sales in the traditional way (that is, quarter to quarter). Instead, the company wanted “strategic partnerships” with advertisers, Kumar told the room. “In the long run, we want dealmakers,” an employee who was present recalled Kumar saying. The story finally ran in mid-November, but a disillusioned employee told me, “The job has changed, because the management has taken a different focus.” In May 2013, after the acrimonious departure of Indrajit Gupta and three editors, Jagannathan took over Forbes India. He told MxMIndia in May, “Forbes … is not meant to be an NGO. It is not meant to be anti-capitalism.” With recent cover lines such as “Leaders for all seasons”, “Winners in the making”, “How to think uber rich”, Forbes India can hardly be accused of being critical of Indian business. “The very focus of the magazine makes me uncomfortable as a journalist,” the employee said. “It’s all some special issue or the other.” As a result of these changes, of five reporters in the magazine’s Bangalore bureau, two have quit, and two more are about to resign.
In the last months of 2010, the former economy and policy editor at Forbes India, Dinesh Narayanan, heard about a finance ministry file related to an extension of term for the then SEBI chairman, Chandrasekhar Bhave. Narayanan filed a right to information request to view the file, and was allowed to do so in January 2011. He discovered that a September 2009 ministry request to extend Bhave’s stint was filled with strong endorsements from, among others, the finance secretary Ashok Chawla, and the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee. Bhave had, in only three years, markedly improved the quality of SEBI’s investigations, and cleared a backlog of cases through consent orders (documents through which SEBI settles administrative or civil proceedings). “The most famous consent order was against billionaire Anil Ambani and two companies of his group and their officials on charges of diverting funds raised abroad,” Narayanan wrote in a story he filed in the first week of February 2011. “Insider accounts say that Anil Ambani met Bhave and argued his group had done nothing wrong. But that did not help the businessman avoid the outcomes altogether. He had to agree to pay a penalty of Rs. 50 crore and go on a self-imposed exile from the secondary market for a year.”
The file showed that Mukherjee had approved of an extension for Bhave. But one day in November 2009, two months after the file was opened, the finance minister’s adviser, Omita Paul, asked for the file. “[S]he added a comment in her own handwriting,” Narayanan wrote. “She asked the minister to take note of the composition of the SEBI board and the present tenures of the chairman and members.” A day later, Mukherjee “ordered that no further action be taken on the extension of Bhave and the whole-time members of SEBI.” The smooth progress of Bhave’s extension orders seemed to grind to a puzzling halt here—around the same time, the draft of Narayanan’s story suggested, that SEBI was investigating charges against Anil Ambani’s group. In addition, Narayanan wrote that “Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest and arguably the most influential businessman, is facing the heat too. SEBI is doggedly pursuing insider trading charges against the group.”
The magazine staff knew they had an explosive story on their hands, a former staff writer said. The issue was due to appear at the end of February, around budget time, and only three days before Bhave left his post. Indrajit Gupta, the editor, told Narayanan to get the ministry’s side of the story. Gupta says he was passing on orders from Bahl, who told Gupta that Mukherjee had rang. “Raghav said it was the first time that Pranab Mukherjee had phoned. There was enormous pressure to pull the story,” Gupta said. “Raghav and Senthil [Chengalvarayan, then the managing editor at CNBC-TV18] were insistent that we shouldn’t carry it. He got Senthil to put a fair amount of pressure.” For a week after Mukherjee called, Narayanan made four attempts to talk and meet with ministry officials, but they didn’t respond. On the night the Forbes India staff signed off on the final draft, closed the issue and went out for a beer, the injunction came from the management to drop the story, and a story about Rajasthan cricket went on the cover instead.
Later, in a review meeting with the staff, Bahl took responsibility for the inadequate replacement cover, but did not explain why the Bhave story wasn’t carried. While he confided to Gupta that the finance minister had called, Bahl did not disclose that Network18 and Reliance—which had been mentioned in the story for its troubles with SEBI—were very likely in talks that February about a Network18 bailout. (According to company filings, Digital Content Private Limited, the trustee for Independent Media Trust—which invested in Network18—was formed on 5 April. Its constitution was written on 24 March, barely a month after the story was withdrawn.)
AS THE 2014 ELECTIONS COME INTO VIEW, Bahl’s network has begun to tilt noticeably rightward—a deliberate movement that has left his journalists uneasy about their ability to exercise editorial discretion. In the weeks leading up to the group’s first Think India conference in April, Bahl told his management that he wanted to start a foundation called Think Right (the conference would spring from the foundation). Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose, the deputy editor at CNN-IBN, objected to the name, believing that it was certain to be misinterpreted. “They believed that ‘right’ would come to mean Hindutva, you know?” a person involved in the discussions said. The foundation’s name, everyone agreed, should be Think India.
For the first lecture of the Think India Foundation, Bahl asked Sanjay Pugalia, the editor-in-chief of CNBC Awaaz, to invite Narenda Modi. Sardesai was aware of how the exercise would appear. “Rajdeep said that we were a media organisation and, even if we didn’t mean it, by providing a platform across all our channels for Modi, people would get the impression that we were leaning towards one party,” the person said. (As a result, the group attempted to persuade Rahul Gandhi, J Jayalalithaa, and Nitish Kumar to attend later editions of the conference, a former reporter there said.)
A small group was created to work on the conference and solicit coverage from Network18’s and TV18’s properties. “There was a concerted effort to drive a large visible campaign to prop up Modi in the run up to the Think India platform,” Gupta told me. Each channel, publication, and website had to carry promotional material of some kind. “They wanted a Modi cover story from Forbes India.” He says that Jagannathan broached the subject with him, and didn’t seem to mind that the magazine had carried Modi on the cover the previous year. “Jaggi said he wanted the cover to be a macroeconomic story on Modi, and said we should speak to [the economist] Bibek Debroy.” Gupta pushed back, and Jagannathan finally relented.
On 8 April, Modi arrived at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi for the first Think India conference. A healthy audience had filled the room to listen to Modi talk about the need for smaller government. But two-thirds of them were the group’s staff who had been rushed in to make up for guests who had refused to turn up, according to a former reporter. “The number of guests anticipated were not there.” An editor present there said, “Lots of BJP functionaries turned up, but no corporate guys turned up.” Bahl, who had angled for Modi to be the first guest, interviewed the chief minister himself.
The annual getaway for senior management took place this year in early 2013, in Macau. Its unofficial agenda was ‘profit’, an editor who went to the retreat said. “In Macau, Raghav said we need profits. No more losses. There would be no new channels,” the editor told me. From what he could make out, as slide after slide of the group’s 60-odd companies’ revenues were displayed, it was clear that the group was struggling. Network18, the parent company, had scraped through with a Rs. 14-crore profit that quarter, but only because it had cashed in an investment.
They also touched upon politics in a way the editors present there were unlikely to forget. At a panel discussion featuring Sardesai and Jagdish Chandra, the CEO of ETV Rajasthan, Chandra talked about how all his shows ran on government money. “I remember him saying, ‘Our channel is profitable in Rajasthan. I keep Vasundhara Raje happy, and I also keep Ashok Gehlot happy. Both parties happy,’” the editor said. The other editors there, including Ashutosh of IBN7, and Nikhil Wagle of the Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat, protested vociferously. The editors’ mood sank further when Bahl let the large gathering know he favoured Modi as India’s next prime minister. Bahl’s political preference seemed to have dismayed the editor I spoke to. Between the Macau conference and September, when we met, the editor became convinced that Bahl’s preferences had influenced the network. “Until last year, Rajdeep was the most important person here. Now after Mr Ambani, Mr Modi is the most important person.”
I spoke to this editor again in the middle of November. “It’s serious. They have started supporting Modi directly. They have started putting indirect pressure on [editors] to not criticise Narendra Modi,” the editor said. “Every time big issues have to be decided, they’re done on mail, and everyone’s opinions are sought. But this Narendra Modi thing was never discussed. I think [Think India] was created to promote him.”
Network18 is not alone in its rightward swing, but as Modi’s value in the attention economy continues to rise, no one in English-language broadcasting has traded more on his appeal than CNN-IBN. For four days in October and November, the Centre for Media Studies, an independent think tank in Delhi, monitored the primetime political coverage of some major English news channels. Of the five they surveyed, CNN-IBN covered Modi for over 72 minutes, a greater duration than anyone else. At the same time, it covered Rahul Gandhi, seen as Modi’s rival in the upcoming elections, for approximately 18 minutes. All five channels had spent more time covering Modi, but no other channel’s coverage was as disproportionate.
Early on 9 November, a Saturday, Sardesai travelled to Nagpur to meet Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Two senior editors in touch with Sardesai independently confirmed that Bahl had pressed him to meet Bhagwat and other RSS leaders. “Raghav is keen on promoting right-of-centre policies. He believes [Indians] have enterprise in our blood,” the person involved in the decision over the Think India foundation’s naming said. This view raises the question of what Bahl, who has interfered with editorial decisions, is willing to overlook. Before he interviewed Modi, he told a Firstpost interviewer that he believed “that whatever be other attributes of his, or the commentary around him, when it comes to advocating small government, he’s perhaps the only leader of that stature [who is doing so], whether a chief minister, a cabinet minister, or a prime minister.”
In October, I asked a senior editor at CNN-IBN if the channel had been under any overt pressure to change its political stances. “There’s no pressure,” the editor assured me. “Raghav’s centre-right. He’s of that view, and makes no bones about it.” But for all these years, this had not prevented CNN-IBN’s views from being shaped by the outlook of its editorial team—many of whom, including Sardesai and Ghose, are considered prime suspects in a liberal conspiracy against the BJP, Hindu nationalism, the Gujarat model and Narendra Modi by some of the supporters of these institutions.
Bahl himself displayed no particular animus for the UPA government in public. In a 2010 interview about Superpower? with CNBC’s Anuradha Sengupta, Bahl, in his clipped, management-guru tones, seemed optimistic about the “pro-incumbency” wave that had led voters to return the mandate to political representatives who were “even half-delivering”.
But things are different now. “The UPA government makes people angry,” the CNN-IBN editor I was speaking to told me. “For the first 50 years, the Left had a hegemony over public discourse. The Hindu view was seen as loony, fringe, way out there. But what was the voice of dissent has become dominant.” Sensing my scepticism about this reply, this editor added, “You can’t impose views, because you have to show people everything.”
“It’s no secret that the newsroom is the battleground for ideas,” the editor said. “What would be worrisome if there was one dominant view pushed on us. That has not been the case.”
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