Ranjona Banerji: When journalists turn media barons

03 Dec,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Caravan magazine’s long and detailed story into the running of Network18 had remarkable similarities with the various stories doing the rounds of Tehelka. Raghav Bahl of Network18 and Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka have been portrayed as very ambitious journalists with grand ideas, some enormous success but both seem to carry the taint of questionable financial sources and dodgy financial practices when it came to their empires.

 

There are differences too. Tehelka is much smaller than Network18 for one. And, as has been suggested by Caravan and in these columns earlier, Bahl has tilted to the political right while Tehelka and Tejpal are often accused by the BJP’s sympathisers as being Congress stooges.

 

But this is not about politics. It is about what happens when journalists become media barons. Network18 has been in the news for cutting down on its staff with over 300 people losing their jobs. Media gossip says that these terminations were not done in a humane way – much of it was last-minute and many were not given enough of a safety net in terms of severance pay. An employee with another TV channel, which also cut back on staff but not to this extent, told me that his company made sure that people got at least a year’s pay in severance money, not just one month’s notice.

 

Only a year before these terminations, Network18 was on a hiring spree and employees were told that the company was doing well. This turned out to be false and the company had to sell stake to Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries to survive. After the terminations, senior management went off to Macau for meeting with each other or whatever they call that corporate rubbish which sounds like a junket. A bit reminiscent of the behaviour of US bankers after they caused the global financial crash of 2008 or is that an unfair comparison?

 

Tehelka’s finances were also a mess. Allegations have surfaced that while the Tejpal family were enjoying a holiday in London which included a fund-raising art auction, salary cheques bounced back in India. Also, the share ownership pattern of Tehelka appears to have been a merry tangle. Yet those who know Tejpal also say that he was exceedingly generous to his staff and his friends, often from his own pocket. Long before this scandal broke, a close associate had told me that Tejpal lived big when he had money, sharing it with friends and staff.

 

Many journalists tired of the corporate or “malik” (owner) strangleholds on their profession dream of starting something by themselves so that they can pursue the stories they want and uphold the ideals that brought them here. Is there a morality tale in these two examples? From personal experience, I can safely say that most journalists I know are absolutely useless with money. Present company not excepted.

 

**

 

Tarun Tejpal and Tehelka have received any amount of flak from fellow journalists and other commentators. Veteran journalist BG Verghese has written this finely nuanced piece in The Indian Express on where the media went too far and how introspection is needed: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/a-gotcha-trial-by-media/1202488/

 

**

 

Calls to control the media or for the media to control itself continue unabated, especially the Talwar murder case. Somewhere hidden in Tuesday’s newspapers is the story of the Supreme Court issuing a notice to all states about media restraint and how an investigating officer should brief the media.

 

Sometimes popular opinion also echoes this point of view. However while there is no doubt that sometimes the media can go too far or some within the media go too far, government intervention is not and cannot ever be the answer. Self-regulation for the media is the only way forward in a democracy.

 

As for the Talwar case, I am intrigued by articles in the media saying that the media skewed public opinion against the Talwars, now held guilty by a special CBI court in the murders of their daughter Aarushi and domestic help, Hemraj. I can myself only remember scores of articles and columns insisting that the Talwars are innocent. Thus, perhaps it all evens out in the end.

 

The media, in case it needs reminding, is not one cohesive body. It is a disparate collection of competing journals, channels and now websites.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator based in Mumbai. She is also Contributing Editor, MxMIndia. She can be reached via Twitter at @ranjona. The views here are her own

 

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2 responses to “Ranjona Banerji: When journalists turn media barons”

  1. Elixertom says:

    I think Raghv Bahl’s brand of journalism is more harmful to the nation than Teheka’s. TV 18 is totally BJP and Modi and its owner’s voice rather His Master’s Voice. Media men becoming entrepreneur is good if they understand the journalists and their economical positions and help them but its dangerous if the news is manipulated to suit BJP or AAP conveniently and totally run down Congress. This is bad for media. I am for regulation of such media networks and perhaps make it governmental and I am sure government will get more income.

  2. Guest says:

    If a journalist wishes to become an entrepreneur or even a tycoon, wonderful. People who invested in Tehelka had their agendas and knew what they were getting into, before Goa happened. However, the Caravan story paints the TV 18 group in darker hues. A lot of investors who came in purely for economic returns got badly ripped off, both by the business model proving to be unworkable – much as ABCL’s was – and by the promoters feeding off the carcasses. That is not done.

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