With Atideb Sarkar, ABP group gives India her youngest media baron

Atideb was already at the helm of the group’s affairs in TV. As new chief editor and publisher, what does this mean for the group’s other properties?

With Atideb Sarkar, ABP group gives India her youngest media baron
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The ABP group has got a new chief editor and publisher, Atideb Sarkar. This is the formal handing over of the baton to the next generation of the Sarkar family that owns the ABP group, which is celebrating its centenary year.

In his mid-30s, Atideb has been serving as the executive director of the flagship company since November 2015 and was seen gradually taking up increasing responsibilities.

Over the years, Bengal’s largest media conglomerate has also emerged as one of India’s leading media conglomerates. Apart from Anandabazar Patrika, the ABP group owns English daily Telegraph; TV news channels ABP News (Hindi), ABP Ananda (Bengali), ABP Majha (Marathi), ABP Ashmita (Gujarati), ABP Sanjha (Punjabi) and ABP Ganga (Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand); besides Bengali magazines Desh, Sananda, Anandalok and Anandamela; and news websites in Hindi, Marathi, Bangla, Gujarati and Punjabi. On July 30, the company launched its latest venture, Telugu news website ABP Desam.

In a notice issued on July 28, ABP Private Limited, which was incorporated on May 17, 1922 and is the group’s flagship company, announced Atideb as the new chief editor and publisher, while his father Arup Sarkar will take on the new role of “nestor.”

ABP Private Limited owns the group’s print publications and 100 percent share of ABP News Network, the television wing of the group, which also owns news websites in regional languages.

Atideb’s uncle Aveek Sarkar, who headed the group as editor-in-chief for over three decades till 2016, is at present the vice-chairman and “editor emeritus”. Aveek also serves as the chairman of the PTI’s trustee board. He is now 76 and his brother Arup is two years younger.

“Atideb was already at the helm of affairs related to television. For so long, the print was being looked after by his father. Now, he comes at the helm of print, too,” said an ABP group employee who did not want to be named. “However, Atideb was already involved in the decision-making process for the print publications.”

This change has created mixed reactions among the group’s print publication employees. Some of them, especially those nearing 50 or older, are a little apprehensive that the formal handing over of the baton to the new generation could imply an increased thrust of the company to young blood. However, many others felt the decision was the culmination of a process that started in the group in 2016.

“The change is more of a formality. Atideb was already in the thick of things related to the print business, even though the TV channels had been his primary focus. However, I did expect his father to continue for a little longer before formally handing over the baton,” said another senior employee of the group, requesting anonymity.

Employees who have seen the owners from close quarters do not believe that Arup Sarkar, who has been heading the group since 2016, will now distance himself from the publication’s activities. “He has been designated as nestor,” one of them pointed out. “I think he will continue to come to the office.”

The group entered the television world in 2003, with ABP News in Hindi (then known as Star News). Two years later, it launched its Bengali 24-hour news channel.

Comparing Aveek, Arup and Atideb, a senior journalist who worked with the group for many years said, “To Aveek Sarkar, editorial excellence was paramount. He could often risk incurring losses to maintain his editorial pride. But under Arup and Atideb, business has been of paramount importance, for the sake of which editorial interests might be compromised.”

Asked how he thought this decision could impact the group, Dipankar Das Purkayastha, who served in the company for about four decades and retired in April as managing director and chief executive officer, refused to comment.

Dhruba Mukherjee, the present CEO of ABP Pvt Ltd, said, “We have no further comment to add at this moment over and above what has been announced.”

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Profile of a young media baron

Atideb is probably the youngest helmsman among India’s large media conglomerates.

After graduating from the University of Warwick, UK, he obtained his master’s degree in economics from the University College London. He then interned at Financial Times in London for two months in 2008, during which he also earned a byline in a piece on the victims of the 9/11 attack. He then interned for eight months on the news desk of the family-owned Telegraph.

Since then, however, Atideb has mostly remained involved with the company’s business affairs, staying true to his educational background. At the ABP group, he started as a manager (finance) in 2012 and then served as a general manager (strategy) and associate vice-president (strategy), before being appointed executive director in November 2015.

His involvement in the group’s editorial activities increased after his uncle handed over the baton to his father in June 2016.

“Since his entry in the decision-making process, the group’s expansion focus has shifted from print to broadcast and digital,” said a senior employee of the group. “While it closed down the Guwahati, Ranchi, Patna and Bhubaneswar editions of the Telegraph and retrenched more than 300 employees from various responsibilities in the print business, including editorial, several new ventures were launched in the TV and digital news sector.”

In ABP Pvt Ltd, the shares are divided among four members of the Sarkar family: 19.5 percent is held each by Aveek Sarkar, his younger brother Arup, Arup’s wife Shithi, and their son Atideb. The remaining 21.9 percent shares are held by ABP Holdings Pvt Ltd, whose shares are again equally divided among the four.

According to a family tradition, daughters are not involved in the family’s business. Since Aveek and his wife Rakhi have two daughters, Baku and Chiki, the three were never part of the ABP management. Rakhi Sarkar founded and heads the CIMA art gallery, while Chiki and Baku carved out their own identities, the former as a publisher (she founded Juggernaut Books in 2015) and the latter as a photographer.

Arup has two daughters, one of whom is Bihani Sarkar, associate faculty member and tutor in Sanskrit at the Oriental Institute of Oxford University.

Atideb is Arup’s younger son, the elder being Aritra, who had taken some interest in the media business several years ago and served as a vice-president (strategy) till 2012. A marketing professional by qualification, Aritra played a key role in the Telegraph’s expansion beyond Bengal. However, he was never made a director. He left the ABP group in 2012 and thereafter authored a novel and tried his hands at entrepreneurship with start-ups in the field of software.

With Arup Sarkar’s elder son’s exit, Atideb entered the scene.

The Sarkars of Calcutta

Anandabazar was launched as an evening daily on March 13, 1922 by Surech Chandra Majumdar and Prafulla Kumar Sakar, Atideb’s great-grandfather. Prafulla Kumar was its editor in the early days and later again from 1941 until his death in 1946. For 13 years since then, eminent journalists like Chapalakanta Bhattacharya served as its editor until Prafulla Kumar’s son Asoke took charge in 1959. Majumdar was unmarried and had no heir, and Asoke continued till his death in 1983.

Since then, Asoke’s elder son Aveek served as the face of the group until he stepped down as editor-in-chief in 2016, a move that he described as being part of a “succession plan”. In 1989, Aveek also became the editor of the Telegraph – which was being edited by MJ Akbar since its launch in 1982 – following Akbar’s decision to quit journalism and enter politics.

Aveek Sarkar was about Atideb’s age when he became the editor of Anandabazar but that was the outcome of an accident: on February 17, following the unexpected death of his father in the afternoon, someone’s name had to be selected by that night to go on the printer’s line as the editor. According to several Anandabazar old-timers, Arup instantly proposed the name of Aveek when the matter was discussed.

But Atideb has ascended to the position following a planned path.

“In all senses, Aveek Sarkar was a man of editorial while his brother was a man of business and so is Atideb,” said an ABP group veteran. While Aveek had trained in editorial work at the Sunday Times, London, in the late 1960s, Arup is a qualified chartered accountant.

Till 2016, the two brothers worked in coordination very well without one interfering in the role of the other. Aveek looked after the editorial issues and enjoyed his involvement in the making of the product: planning coverage and page layouts, choosing photographs, and giving headlines, at least those on the front page. Arup looked after the finances and management, including editorial of some magazines. After Aveek stepped down, Arup decided to entrust professionals in the role of editors of Anandabazar and the Telegraph.

It was in 2016 that Anandabazar, for the first time since 1959, got an editor in Anirban Chattopadhyay who was not part of the Sarkar family. Chattopadhyay resigned in 2020 to pursue personal interests. The current editor is Ishani Datta Ray, also outside the family. In 2016, the Telegraph too got another editor outside the family after M J Akbar when R Rajagopal, who continues till date, replaced Aveek.

“Under Aveek Sarkar, those who were considered talented became a separate class by themselves. There was a category of reporters and editors who were more equal than others, for whom exceptions could be made,” said a senior employee of the group, on the condition of anonymity. “Arup Sarkar and Atideb do not seem to believe in those hallowed people who required or expected special treatment.”

Some journalists, who had themselves become institutions of a kind, largely thanks to Aveek Sarkar’s patronage, were asked to leave the group in the new regime.

Also, in 2017, the group that had so long enjoyed the reputation of being a benevolent employer undertook a downsizing initiative and retrenched at least 300 people from various print publication related jobs.

Balancing business

When Aveek went overboard against the TMC government ahead of the 2016 assembly election, he used all his might – Anandabazar Patrika, the Telegraph and ABP Ananda – to launch an all-out attack on the state government and the governing party.

“It was not a business decision to support any of Mamata’s rivals in particular. Actually, the company suffered financially because the state government stopped all advertisements and even clearing of dues. But to him, editorial pride was often of greater value than business calculations,” said columnist Suman Bhattacharya, a former Anandabazar Patrika journalist who had covered the Kargil war for the daily.

According to many former and present ABP employees, Aveek’s decision to take on Mamata Banerjee, followed by the subsequent impact on business, was one of the issues that escalated his stepping down and his younger brother taking charge just a month after Banerjee returned to power for a third term. Aveek’s attack had also earned criticism from other media observers, as reflected in this opinion piece, headlined: “When Aveek Sarkar became a prisoner of biases letting objectivity down.” The Mamata Banerjee-Aveek Sarkar duel produced several other media headlines (such as this, this and this).

It was not the first time that Aveek’s media outlets went full-blooded in favour of or against a party or a government. During Jyoti Basu’s rule in the late 1990s, they highlighted Mamata Banerjee with eulogising coverage and popularised the term “agni kanya” (woman of fire). In 2006-07, the group went all out in support of the CPIM-led Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government on the question of the government’s industrial drive at Singur and Nandigram in the face of the Mamata Banerjee-led agitations. Later, around 2009-10, Anandabazar, Telegraph and ABP Ananda turned overwhelmingly pro-TMC.

However, it was perhaps his battle with the firebrand TMC chief in 2016 that escalated the process of the senior Sarkar’s exit, many former and present employees of the group believe. They pointed out that the group started getting state government advertisements again following the regime change.

“In contrast, at present, Anandabazar, ABP Ananda and the Telegraph can be called more pro-Mamata and anti-BJP, while ABP News, the Hindi news channel, toes a discernible pro-BJP line. They don’t want to take those in power head-on,” Suman Bhattacharya added.

Notably, Atideb’s name featured in several media reports (here, here and here) in 2019 in the aftermath of the back-to-back resignations of ABP News managing editor Milind Khandekar and journalist Punya Prasun Bajpai after a show by Abhisar Sharma and Bajpai’s alleged fact-checking of prime minister Modi’s statements earned the group the ire of the BJP top brass. It was alleged that Atideb took offense to the way Modi was attacked during the shows of those journalists.

A senior journalist at ABP News told this reporter, requesting anonymity, that since then, the channel avoids airing any story that could be directly critical of Modi or home minister Amit Shah.

Nevertheless, the group’s reporting in Bengali has kept the BJP brass dissatisfied, as was evident from Amit Shah’s comment to an ABP Ananda reporter during the 2021 Bengal assembly election campaign: “ABP too is now with Mamata Banerjee but will be with us after the election.”

Even after the elections, the BJP in Bengal has run a “boycott ABP” campaign.

Now, after Atideb’s ascent to the helm of print affairs, one question has struck several media observers: “Will the Telegraph keep producing the bold front pages that often go viral on social media?” After all, this has been the case in recent years, with the newspaper taking sharp digs at the Modi government.

A senior editorial staffer at the English daily, however, ruled out such a possibility.

“Neither have we got any instruction to tone down nor are we expecting any. It would be foolish to believe what the Telegraph has been doing was without his [Atideb’s] consent,” the employee said. “TV might have been his preoccupation but he was very much involved in the major decisions of print publications.”

Another senior member of management pointed out, “They have ABP News, ABP Ashmita and ABP Ganga to balance for the deeds of the Telegraph.”

Veteran journalist Jayanta Ghosal, who worked at Anandabazar Patrika for about two decades before retiring as its editor, Delhi, said that in his personal understanding, the decision to formally hand over the baton was an appropriate one.

“As an outsider at present who had the opportunity to work with the owners in different roles, I think it’s a good decision,” Ghosal said. “Arup Sarkar believes that one needs to be pushed into the waters for her or him to learn swimming. I also think the generation change happened earlier than expected because Aveek and Arup have a thin age difference. I, however, believe that Arup Sarkar is not going to get aloof anytime soon.”

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