By now media sackings have become regular news for us. If it’s not NDTV Group laying off people or TV Today sacking people on one day, it’s Outlook Group guillotining some others, and now TV 18 has jumped into the fray. The last week was full of murmurs of mass terminations by TV 18. Murmurs which were soon verified by those sacked – whose supporters then took to free media a.k.a. Twitter and facebook to voice their grouses. Not wanting to depend on Twitter and facebook outrage as our news source, we spoke to several employees, ex-employees and journalists at TV 18 to confirm the details of the mass sackings which had taken place.
Understandably, none of those we spoke to were willing to be named.
On Friday, August 16, 2013, CNN IBN and IBN 7 employees faced a series of firings. Around 300 people were handed pink slips. A number of technical people were laid off. Nine camera persons from the Mumbai office. At CNBC Delhi,almost 20 people were fired in the PCR department and from the Assignments desk. Two reporters among 10 and 7 camerapersons were fired from CNBC Mumbai on Friday. Two morning producers were also fired. The CNBC Hyderabad bureau has been shut down.
More than the magnitude of the sackings what struck the employees (whom we spoke to) most was the manner in which they were informed of their sudden unemployment. They were called in by the Human Resource department and executives of the Independent Media Trust – through which Reliance Industries has made a major investment in the TV 18 group – handed termination letters and asked to leave in 10 minutes.
We were told that while severance was being offered, there was no clarity of how many months’ salary or whether the compensation was only taking into account the basic pay of employees. A cameraperson from IBN 7 tells us that he thinks that he could be given between Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 but nothing has been promised yet. The ambiguity on compensation and severance is one of the key reasons why employees seemed hesitant to speak against the company. This is also because the terms of contract increasingly are one-sided, in favour of the company. There is an increasing trend to keep people on contract with terms which makes it easier for companies to lay them off. And even if terms of contracts are violated in case of a junior or young employee it’s unlikely he or she will have the confidence, time or money to wage a legal battle for breach of contract.
Also, it’s not the weakest of the coop who have been culled. Those right at the top too felt the tremors. Managing Editor of IBN 7, Ashutosh too had been supposedly asked to leave. We learn that he has refused to do so. When Newslaundry contacted him he said he is not authorised to speak on the matter. Editor of IBN Lokmat, Nikhil Wagle was also on the chopping block. Again there’s no confirmation. Similarly, Karan Thapar too had been allegedly asked to leave. Insiders tell us that Thapar refused to step down and threatened to take legal action (as he has a pretty water tight contract) against the company and has managed to stay. However, on being contacted while he was prompt to respond, he neither confirmed nor denied the reports. The team of CNN IBN’s Citizen Journalist anchored by Anubha Bhonsle remains intact and she remains on the rolls. As of now, CNN IBN Editor-in-Chief Rajdeep Sardesai, who has a stake in the company remains secure, but Sagarika Ghose’s salary has been slashed.
Sardesai, who has been criticised vociferously on Twitter for not protecting his team, tweeted his sorrow (more for himself than others).
Sardesai’s sorrow aside, it seems the writing on the wall was supposedly clear when Udayan Mukherjee stepped down as CNBC TV 18’s Managing Editor a month back. It is believed that when in 2010 another spate of sackings were undertaken as part of the restructuring process of Network 18, Mukherjeee had taken a tough stance opposing the sackings. However, this time around he was the one who was at the receiving end. While in an interview to moneycontrol.com he had said that it was due to lack of motivation that he was stepping down, it is believed that he had become too big for his shoes and was not as pliant to management demands as desired. His co-anchor Mitali Mukherjee too followed. We contacted Udayan Mukherjee but got no response from him.
The mass terminations were supposedly decided in a Macau offsite earlier this year where Managing Director Raghav Bahl had told his marketing team that they do not need any specialist journalists. In fact, owing to the same formula of no-need-of-specialists CNN IBN’s Special Investigation team headed by V K Shashikumar was packed up a year earlier. Similarly, Bahar Dutt and her environmental reporting team have also been asked to leave.
This is not the end of the terminations. The ovens have just been heated up and the chimneys are billowing smoke. We learn that another bout of firings is in the pipeline – timed for just after the general elections. The downsizing is believed to have an adverse impact on some of Network 18’s online ventures and Moneycontrol.com is the next in queue. Its operations are being streamlined and the office is shifting to Parel from Matunga. The downsizing is believed to be because the website’s traffic has plummeted substantially. Forbes, which saw the rather ugly exit of its four editors a few months back, might be shut down permanently.
There is also no clarity on what prompted this massive downsizing by Network 18. There are several theories doing the rounds. First, that most employees receiving salaries more than Rs 50,000 per month have become redundant to the company. Second, that the media house’s main focus would be the digital medium and not the broadcast and that their new strategy is to cost-rationalise. And that they were now looking to keep bilingual employees on the roles.
It is true that the company has registered losses. Network 18 Media & Investments reported a net loss of Rs 6.83 crore in the June 2013 quarter. In the current scenario though, no media house, other than Zee Group– whether broadcast or print – is making profits. As we had mentioned in our article on the termination of employment of employees of the Outlook Group, if a business is not profitable, for a proprietors to keep running at losses is unviable. The manner in which this happens will always be up for scrutiny.
The recent spate of layoffs across media houses, also brings into focus whether media houses being run as businesses makes for more efficient use of resources or compromises the spirit of journalism and public interest it is meant to serve.
Earlier, whether it was Indian Express, The Times of India or Hindustan Times– all were founded or owned by industrialists and philanthropists as an altruistic venture and not as a money-minting opportunity. While not necessarily loss-making, the enterprise wasn’t only about “share value” or returns on investment.
At newspaper groups such as Ananda Bazar Patrika and Hindustan Times, artists, poets, novelists were put on the rolls to ensure they had a steady inflow of funds while pursuing their art. There was even a standing joke at ABP Group that certain decrepit employees who you would see struggling to walk up the stairs were on the payrolls under the S.T.D. quota – Service Till Death. These and other newspapers were founded to create social capital and not as investments. And maybe it is this shift in attitude on the proprietor’s part that makes all the difference. But this is the reality of Capitalism, which we have been celebrating.
The immediate outrage at TV 18 is against Raghav Bahl, Mukesh Ambani and Rajdeep Sardesai. A protest under the banner of ‘Journalist Solidarity Forum’- a loosely formed group of young journalists – was organised outside IBN 7 office on August 20, 2013. We went for the protest and were informed that the protest had been postponed to the next day because of rakhi and the rains!
The next day, while the march was touted as a protest by IBN 7 employees, there were only a few employees present from IBN 7. None of whom agreed to speak to us or appear on camera. Some of them blamed Ashutosh in their sloganeering, although it’s not clear what they expect from him since he has no vote or stake in the company and might probably have no job by the end of it.Journalists Solidarity Forum protesters who we spoke to are in favour of some sort of union for journalists. While there is much we refer to the west for, what stands out for us is that when BBC employees went on strike and protested outside their offices, the BBC carried that as a story on their channel. Now, if and when Indian news channels can do that, we will give them a standing ovation. Until then there’s always Clothesline.
Clarification: We had incorrectly reported that the Citizen Journalist team had been folded up. This is not true. We apologise for the mistake.
This is an updated version of the original story.