It’s been more than a month since industrial giant Reliance Industries took over Network18 Group, which runs a suite of television channels including the CNN and CNBC affiliates in India. Everyone has wondered if the company owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani would interfere in the news-gathering operations of its new properties.
The answer appears to be yes.
Last week, a day after founding editor Rajdeep Sardesai emailed his resignation to the staff, a small group of executives from Reliance (RIL) held a town hall in the suburban New Delhi offices of CNN IBN, the English news channel. Journalists from sister channels, such as CNBC TV18, Hindi news channel IBN7 and the Marathi version IBN Lokmat, were also present, according to at least two accounts of that meeting.
Until that day—the meeting was held on July 7 around 5:30pm—RIL’s takeover had been notable for a transition that was unremarkable, very much business as usual. Now, employees gathered to hear the new management’s vision.
When the floor opened to questions, a few journalists raised their hands, according to the two attendees. One question from a CNBC reporter was about how they were expected to cover new owner RIL, a vast industrial conglomerate with interests in energy, materials, defence, retail, telecom, and media. Rohit Bansal, an RIL official now named non-executive director at Network18, answered. He said staff would be expected to cover the new owner in the same manner that the channel used to cover the previous owner Raghav Bahl and the company Network18. The company’s channels typically carried very little coverage about its owners.
The next question was from CNN IBN anchor and journalist Karma Paljor. He asked the group how the channel was expected to cover the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the independent political movement devoted to India’s ”common man.” Paljor declined to comment for this story.
It’s important to understand the context of this question in order to understand the answer. Reliance Industries and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party have something of a contentious relationship. Kejriwal, who became Delhi chief minister riding an anti-corruption wave, has publicly made allegations against RIL and Ambani. When he was Delhi chief minister, Kejriwal asked the state’s anti-corruption bureau to register cases against Ambani as well as serving and former petroleum ministers for allegedly colluding to raise gas prices to benefit Reliance. The company, in turn, has slapped legal notices on television channels that broadcast the footage of press conferences in which Kejriwal raised these allegations.
With Delhi set to go to elections once again, Kejriwal would be back in the news. That is why the CNN IBN journalist wanted to know the expectations from the new owner, RIL.
In his response, Bansal made three key points.
- First, just because somebody has been given a microphone, does not mean that the broadcaster has no responsibility for what he says under India’s Telegraph Act and under the norms for broadcast licences.
- Second, 96% of AAP’s candidates had lost their deposit in the general elections. Why should CNN IBN give any importance to a party that has been rejected by the people of India?
- Third, if the channel doesn’t have sufficient content, it should not just run clips from a press conference on loop several times a day.
Besides Bansal, the town hall was addressed by Prabir Jha, group HR head of RIL; Umesh Upadhyay, media director at RIL; and Alok Agarwal, who was named Network18 group COO after RIL took control.
An RIL spokesperson did not respond to an email requesting comment.
According to staffers, Bansal’s response has sparked some disquiet within the newsroom. Some see it as a clear message that AAP should be ignored. “Surely the Telegraph Act doesn’t just apply to Kejriwal. Our politicians are all always making allegations against each other. Does this mean we won’t cover any of them?” one journalist who asked not to be named told Quartz.
Indeed, since the time RIL took over in May, there have been no stories on Kejriwal or the AAP, according to one journalist. AAP leaders are no longer invited to panel discussions on the channel. When banker Meera Sanyal, an AAP candidate who lost elections from South Mumbai, appeared on CNN IBN on a panel discussion on the budget day, the channel made no mention of her links with the AAP. Many Indian media outlets are owned by large conglomerates with diverse business interests, making Reliance hardly the first to grapple with such coverage issues.
Bansal, the executive who answered the question about AAP, joined RIL in recent months, as the company has stepped up efforts to communicate its version in the complex debate over gas pricing. Bansal, a former journalist, and three other journalists who work with him have been active on Twitter, countering charges against RIL. The other three are RIL media director Umesh Upadhyay, news and communications director B.V. Rao and new media director Gautam Chikermane. On the company’s YouTube channel, the Flame of Truth, the media team has been putting up video statements countering allegations, and panel discussions on the company’s results. The statements are presented by Upadhyay in Hindi and Rao in English. The company recently published a 56-page e-book, explaining the gas pricing debate.
Sardesai denied access to office
In recent days, subsequent to the town hall, RIL’s Upadhyay has started working out of CNN IBN’s Noida newsroom. He has now been designated president, news, at Network18, and sits in an office previously occupied by Sardesai. According to an RIL executive who asked not to be named, Upadhyay is working on integrating operations of the regional channels of ETV, now part of the Network18 fold, with the company’s own channels.
Journalists at CNN IBN say that they have received instructions in recent days from the channel’s editors, who have attributed those decisions to Upadhyay.
Most notable of these instances is one pertaining to July 9, when Amit Shah was named president of the BJP. According to two newsroom staffers with knowledge of developments, CNN IBN’s bulletin at night as well as the graphics on air, were edited to remove references to the criminal charges faced by Shah. One journalist said this was done on instructions of managing editor Vinay Tewari, who said that is how Upadhyay wanted it. Tewari declined to comment.
As apprehensions and hearsay about the new management swirled about in the newsroom, Sardesai, who founded the channel with TV18 promoter Raghav Bahl and former NDTV executive Sameer Manchanda in 2005 and remained its high-profile face for nine years, was scheduled to do a farewell meeting at the CNN IBN office in Mumbai. Video clips from a similar meeting in the Delhi newsroom and his farewell speech had found its way into social media. After the meeting in Mumbai, Sardesai was scheduled to return to Delhi for a farewell party at QBA restaurant in Delhi on July 12.
But Sardesai was denied access to the Mumbai newsroom and he could not address the staff. Subsequently, as ties between the former editor and some of his former colleagues became strained over this episode, the farewell party, for which contributions at Rs1,300 ($22) per person were being collected, was canceled. Sardesai declined to comment.