The fall of NDTV, caught between God and Mammon

Will the new board serve the ruling party or will it tread a bipartisan path?

61-Prannoy-and-Radhika-Roy Lost cause: Prannoy and Radhika Roy | Sanjay Ahlawat

Is it curtains for indepe ndent television, with the exit of Prannoy and Radhika Roy from the NDTV promoters’ board? Is it also the end of civilised television debate?

Prannoy Roy, the founder of NDTV, was the epitome of grace and courteousness. He had a natural charm and was always cool and composed. He was unruffled even amidst a heated and polarising debate. Uncouth aggressive guests calmed down in his presence because he was not condescending. He never talked down to his guests and panelists as if they were idiots.

Can we say the same about the rest of our anchors on various channels, most of whom seem to be on steroids? Instead of eliciting opinions from all guests so that their audience can make up their mind on the contested issues, most of these anchors browbeat the speakers and shout them down if their opinions are at variance with their own. Even the junior anchors of Prannoy Roy often crossed swords with various BJP spokespersons, causing walkouts. They did not learn from him the fine art of moderating and moderation while remaining dispassionate.

NDTV anchors were known to question the BJP government. Ravish Kumar, who anchored its Hindi channel and was a harsh critic of the party, has almost a cult following in the Hindi heartland. A free press should be a watchdog against those who exercise power―irrespective of the party or individual in power.

There are those who think that NDTV and Prannoy were blatantly anti-Modi and pro-Congress. Like Caesar’s wife, a journalist should be above suspicion. A journalist walks on the razor edge. The moment he attacks the ruling party he is in danger of being perceived as serving the interest of the opposition. NDTV, however, may not be able to shake off charges that it was soft on the Congress during the United Progressive Alliance years.

Notwithstanding those accusations, Prannoy Roy strode like a colossus and pioneered television news reporting and election forecasting. He was a beacon in the science and art of opinion polling and became an icon for millions.

Gautam Adani acquired the pledged shares of the Roys’ holding company from an entity owned by Reliance Industries, which originally had lent the funds for a seemingly generous ten years, interest free. That entity had the option to convert the debt if it remained unpaid―a sting in the tail overlooked by the Roys who were over-leveraged. Or their back was against the wall.

Adani exercised the option to convert the unpaid debt into equity of roughly 26 per cent and took control of the company by buying more shares through an open offer. It is intriguing: If shares have merely passed hands from one major corporate to another―that is, from Mukesh Ambani to Gautam Adani―why all this hue and cry? Why this mourning by liberals who worship a free press?

Reliance could have converted the pledged shares into equity and taken over NDTV, but did not. Why would anyone be so magnanimous in the ruthless corporate world and lend huge sums without interest and not demand repayment or choose the option to convert the debt into equity even after ten years? Is there more to it than meets the eye?

Reliance already owned CNN-IBN, English and Hindi, CNBC, the entire group of ETV channels and Money Control, and a clutch of other media assets. They are avowedly pro-right and pro-government. Now if Reliance does not demand its money back, but allows NDTV to be totally independent and gives a free hand to Prannoy Roy to run his channel as he always did―attack BJP and go soft on opposition―one plausible speculation which doesn’t seem far-fetched could be that it was a very astute long-term strategy for a mighty corporate. It is future insurance when the opposition comes to power some day. The twin wheels of Time and Fortune forever roll, and power changes hands. “Fortune is a right whore,” said the dramatist John Webster [d. 1632]. She is fickle.

Large business houses in India have generally played their cards safe. They bet on more than one horse. In the end their loyalty is to their empire and not to any party or any individual in power. They come and they go. The empire is for ever.

An Adani-appointed board has now taken over the affairs of the channel. Will the new board serve the ruling party like many other channels or will it tread a bipartisan path―neither right nor left but a centrist path―and serve the people and show fealty to the Constitution and not to any party or individual? Is that a utopian wish? Can a corporate house serve both God and Mammon? Time will tell.

A free press paradoxically serves both those in power and those in opposition. It is a self-evident truth but those who ascend the throne are blinded by power and think they will rule for ever.

But when they lose power sooner or later and sit in opposition, which is inevitable, free press is what they will pray for―it is their best armour and ally to regain power.

How do entrepreneurs who―fired by the fervour of upholding press freedom―start a media venture save it from financial collapse or prevent acquisition by business houses? Saving a venture from corporate predators may not be enough. Television channels and print and online ventures have mushroomed and, barring very few, they are toadies of the party in power. They will change their ideological robes and shift camps when power changes hands. They are a bigger threat to survival for bipartisan media companies and individuals.

Courage and patriotism do not suffice to survive in the treacherous world. At one plane, as in any venture, a media enterprise must manage its people and its finances well, by providing visionary leadership and ensuring that its revenues are higher than its expenditures. It must learn to manage its cash flows and debt by having sound finance professionals.

A media venture that swears by objectivity and speaks fearlessly against injustice will always be in danger not faced by normal ventures. It will instantly find itself in the crosshairs of the government and incur the wrath of those who wield power. Such a noble calling will always be facing many kinds of threats from the government to silence it or drive it out of existence―raids, harassment, violence and withdrawal of advertisements, etc.

There are two main streams of revenues for a media company: advertisements and paid subscriptions. Building a credible brand for objective reporting, excellence in coverage of diverse topics, contending with new technology, continuous innovation and running a tight ship are key to success. It is not easy by any stretch of imagination. Credibility for fearless reporting, free from bias, may in fact be the USP to attract viewers and readers, and thus ensure higher revenue. The success of The New York Times, which returned to profitability by courageous reporting during the turbulent Trump era, and a small clutch of media houses in India is a case in point.

This is a calling fraught with many risks; it is a perilous voyage on high seas. But those who serve truth through the media are worthy warriors of that noble calling and deserve all praise, honour and support from society which it defends.

It is not easy to educate the public about the immeasurable values of impartial journalism, the dangers of fake news and the necessity to separate fact from fiction, and the distinction between jingoism and patriotism.

Mark Twain’s words may serve us well: “Loyalty to the country always, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.”