The Reliance takeover of Network18 — the biggest media guzzle — has sparked disquiet in its newsrooms where many are asking if Mukesh Ambani, the richest of all Indians, will stifle free speech. The debate has been largely triggered by the resignation of Rajdeep Sardesai, India's genial television anchor, who, along with his wife, Sagarika, left the channel they set up because of similar fears.
On paper, Sardesai, however, has played safe like all Indian editors. He, like TV18 chairman Raghav Bahl, said his exit had nothing to do with the takeover. He has even remained silent about media reports that claimed he was not allowed access to the newsroom once he resigned and that a farewell party was cancelled.
Was it being done by Reliance, India's largest privately owned company, which has interests in oil and gas, retail and telecom?
Journalists, great suckers for such juicy conversations, have triggered a flurry of messages on their handsets and penned editorials, arguing why corporatisation of media is nightmarish for press freedom. Strangely, such arguments never surfaced when similar acquisitions — both majority and minority — happened in Indian media outlets. The debate has continued, mostly in the Indian capital, where former editors have continued to stoke the fire, arguing that journalists' independence, probably the only non-negotiable asset, would now be put to a price in Network18. They were not ready to hear that in India, many media outlets are owned by large conglomerates with diverse business interests, making Reliance hardly the first to grapple with such coverage issues.
Frankly, this is a bit of mistimed speculation. As of now, there is nothing to prove the Reliance takeover would spell doom for the Network18 staff. The conglomerate's first brush with the media was in the Nineties when it acquired and redesigned Sunday Observer from Jaico Publishing and bought a Bombay weekly called Commerce and turned it into the daily Business & Political Observer (BPO).
Some of the best editors were hired by the Ambanis with salaries that triggered a veritable change in the pay packets of the rest. Salaries of journalists, for the first time, saw a rapid, upward movement.
BPO, moderately designed, could have still pushed a landmark change but it did not happen because a disgruntled manager walked across to the Jains, the smartest family in India's media business, and helped turned Economic Times, their business daily, from white to pink in a flash, tagging it The Pink Edge. For the Ambanis, the first battle was lost.
What is interesting is that the Ambanis, contrary to the current belief, rarely used the publications to settle political scores. They had Balu, or V Balasubramanian, devotee and key confidant of the Shankaracharya of Kamakoti Peetam, who had the clout to accumulate half a Parliament at a drop of hat. They did not need the papers for lobbying their cause.
If at all, the publications were side flicks for the legendary Dhirubhai.
Observer reporters did some fantabulous reporting and were often egged on to fetch the scoops by the infallible Anthony "Tony" Jesudasan, the publisher, now fondly called The Holy Father. The next morning, when friends — Vijay Mallya, Hinduja brothers, to name a few — would call up Dhirubhai at his Sea Wind residence near Colaba to complain, the patriarch would only laugh and request the publisher to exercise calm. Nothing more happened, only this much was expected.
Eventually, the publications, which ran at an annual loss of Rs15 crore, downed shutters after a bitter rivalry broke out between top members of the management. The publisher favoured closure, others preferred a Rs25 crore infusion (we are talking of 1997-98). Eventually, the closure happened. But nowhere, did journalists complain of being stifled by corporate pressure.
In India, dignity and grace have hardly found space in standoffs between management and editors, ostensibly because the latter preferred to think like newsmen and value voice, teeth, bite and such fading journalistic grails. And eventually, take the ignominious cuts. Sackings have also happened because their political engagements have often cast shadows on their journalism.
But the owner-journalist slugfest continues in India's troubled newsroom.
Editors hate sackings but they rarely remember those they sacked when in power. Even Bahl ruthlessly pushed out many from Asian Business News India and Channel7 which he acquired from the Guptas of Dainik Jagran. So, no one should fret because Ambani has triggered resignations.
The whys and wherefores and the inevitable shrapnel — what lies in store for those he hired and left behind, what lies in store for him — is surely not uppermost on any Sardesai's mind. A seasoned journalist, he has already signed up with a top publisher to write a tome on Indian politics, based on his ground-level experiences of the 2014 national elections. And he is too hot an asset to be ignored by media barons in India.
Probably, many editors are worried about the fate and triumph of free speech when faced with corporate-style newsroom functioning. They are taking their hint from a recent interaction between the new Reliance bosses of Network18 and its staffers that was highly unremarkable because orders came even before the takeover-transition had sunk in.
The employees, who had gathered to hear the new management's vision, did not like the lessons in journalism offered by the new bosses. After all, a reporter's life is stirred up when forced to work with new bosses. The Network18 employees had — probably — expected Ambani himself to visit them and offer his vision on the road ahead. But that did not happen.
There lies the biggest trigger for both gossip and speculation. Sardesai embraced openness in a free newsroom. Like in Observer, Ambani's men must allow total freedom to journalists to bury the anger, panic and pandemonium that exist in the newsroom. If that happens, there will be space for smaller voices, differing voices and dissenting voices.
India's richest man must ensure that the media under him remains an adversary, not a playmate of the government, and allow Network18 reporters to bite, not swallow pride. After all, reporters, not editors, are the last bastion of journalism.
The writer is the India Editor for Central European News