Asianet And The ‘Independence’ Of Rajeev Chandrasekhar

A leaked email from Jupiter Capital COO says ‘editorial talent’ should be aligned to the media baron-MP’s ‘ideology’

WrittenBy:Manisha Pande
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“All Editorial talent to be hired with a summary of bio to be sent to CXO office for views and guidance.

The candidate should be;

–  right of centre in his / her editorial tonality
– Pro-India, Pro-Military,
– aligned to Chairman’s ideology,
– views and should be aware of his governance reforms;
– well familiarised with his thoughts on nationalism and governance

Offers being rolled out shall be summarised and shared with Chairman’s office as regards the credentials (only) and the hiring managers have to ensure that the above has been ticked appropriately.”

This is not another internal email leaked from the hallowed precincts of New Delhi Television (NDTV). That would not have been surprising, though, given NDTV’s new-found love for the country.

This is, in fact, an email sent from Jupiter Capital Chief Operating Officer Amit Gupta to editorial heads of media outlets owned by the Bengaluru-based investment company. Chiefly, these include Malayalam news channel Asianet News, Kannada news channel Suvarna News, web portal Newsable and newspaper Kannada Prabha. (Newslaundry has received a copy of the email.)

The Chairman, whose ideology journalists are expected to ally themselves to, is Independent Member of Parliament, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who founded Jupiter Capital in 2005.

The tag of ‘Independent Member’, though, is only a technicality. Chandrasekhar was appointed as vice-chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in Kerala on September 26, 2016. In fact, he actively campaigned for the NDA during the Kerala state elections in May 2016.

The email was sent on September 21, 2016 — a week before the Indian Army announced it had carried out surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Gupta sent the directive with the subject as “Editorial Hirings” and it was meant to serve as a  “guideline” to look up while recruiting fresh talent.

Curiously, the next day, Gupta sent another email asking editors to overlook the missive. It read: “I would request for this mail [on editorial hiring] to be ignored. Excuse the incov caused.”

Newslaundry was informed that the second email was prompted by a pushback from senior editors in the group who were annoyed with the decree to adhere to the “Chairman’s ideology”.

Earlier, suggestions to toe the line were subtle. “There were no blanket diktats,” said a source who wishes to stay anonymous. “But we were given to understand that there were some holy cows, and certain people and stories that should be promoted.”

Another source stated that there have been cases where a story that went against the Narendra Modi government was discouraged.

These testimonies are in stark contrast to the reputation that Jupiter Capital’s media outlets enjoy. Asianet News, for example, is far from being the Zee TV of Kerala. The channel is the top player in the Malayalam TV news space and widely trusted as a centrist news network. In fact, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, 2014, the BJP had boycotted the channel because it felt Asianet News was airing “negative” views about the party and its leaders.

K Surendran, general secretary of BJP in Kerala, had stated back then that it was employing people with a “CPIM background”. This neutrality is also true of Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha in Karnataka.

Jacob George, a prominent TV commentator in Thiruvananthapuram, said Asianet has had a “secular and progressive stance” since the time of its inception. (George also runs a branding consultancy called ImageQ.) He said the current editorial leadership at the news channel is not easily malleable and has immense credibility. “Chandrasekhar, on his part, has been trying to make a dent in Kerala politics but he has not succeeded yet,” said George. “If at all the management at Jupiter Capital tries to change the workings at Asianet to suit his political ambitions, it will not happen overnight.”

Could reorienting these news platforms be the very reason that the management at Jupiter sent out a directive on “editorial hirings” and not editorial content? Indeed an insistence on ensuring that new recruits are “aligned to Chairman’s ideology” saves the trouble of exerting control on what gets published or aired on a daily basis.   

Newslaundry reached out to Gupta with the following questions:

a) Could you clearly explain what the chairman’s ideology is?

b) Who in his view is a pro-India, pro-military journalist? Consequently, how would you define an anti-India, anti-military journalist?

c) Do you think it augurs well for journalism for owners to expect only a certain type of ideology of its employees?

Gupta’s office got back to us stating that his email network has been hacked by a “disgruntled” element: “Jupiter Capital has already initiated action to investigate the breach. We would therefore request you to completely ignore and dis-regard this fraudulent and baseless communication.”

This explanation is in contrast to what Newslaundry was told — that Gupta had to retract the email because of editorial pushback. There’s also the minor curiosity that the COO’s reaction to such a major hacking resulted in a casual, two-line email asking his colleagues, to “Excuse the incov caused”.

Newslaundry also sent a mail to some of the editors marked on Gupta’s email. MG Radhakrishnan, editor-in-chief of Asianet, told us he was not aware of the email and that he had never faced pressure of any kind from the management. No one else responded.

Profit or patriotism?

Much of Chandrasekhar’s public activism is centred on the Armed Forces. His website lists some of the focus areas — One Rank One Pension, creation of war memorials, e-voting provisions for those serving in field areas and military modernisation and reform.

Expecting potential editors to, then, have a “pro-military” approach — whatever that means — is particularly relevant to Chandrasekhar’s campaigns. The validity of these issues is not the point, but rather the independence that media must have in order to investigate and report on issues without pressure from internal and external influences.

Take a look at Jupiter Capitals’s other business interests. The company has assets in the defence sector. It is the holding company of Axiscades Engineering Technology Limited, which provides “technology solutions” to “Aerospace, Defense, Heavy Engineering, Automotive and Industrial Production sectors”.

Along with its affiliates, Tayana Digital (44.66 per cent) and Indian Aero Ventures (13.59 per cent), Jupiter Capital has substantial shares in Axiscades. It lists the company as one of its subsidiaries in the last annual report (2013-14) submitted to the Ministry of Corporate Affairs.

According to Axiscades’ annual report (2015-16), its revenue from operations on a consolidated basis increased from Rs 3,175 million to Rs 3,754 million, a growth of 18 per cent over the 2015 financial year.

The report notes that in March this year, it “won and signed a contract with Ministry of Defence, GOI for supply of 88 ARTS (Aircraft Recognition Training Systems) to the Army and Indian Air Force over 18 months and subsequent multiyear Annual Maintenance Contract”. Public Sector company Bharat Electronics was among the bidders.

Axiscades Chairman Vivek Mansingh says in the report: “We hope to expand our presence in the defence sector, going from being a trusted offset partner to a direct bidder for Indian Air Force contracts through AXISCADES Aerospace & Technologies Private Limited.” Emphasising on the government’s Make In India project, he adds, “That is promising for AXISCADES, a company that has already crossed the entry barrier for a highly regulated sector like aerospace and made a name for itself there. That reputation will bolster our efforts to enter other highly regulated sectors.”

In a direct conflict of interest, Chandrasekhar has been on the Parliamentary Committee of Defence and also on the Consultative Committee for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) since the Modi government came to power.

These committees are key in moulding policy that influence the sector – including defence procurement procedures. In December 2015, for example, the Consultative Committee met to discuss new guidelines on how India would buy defence weapons and equipment.

The policy thrust over the past two years has been on opening up defence  — whether it is Modi promising a greater role for the private sector or Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stating that he would take steps to encourage private players. While these policies may not be harmful per se, the fact that someone with a business interest in the same sector has a role in shaping them should raise alarm bells.

Remember how Bharatiya Janata Party leader and beedi baron Shyam Charan Gupta tried to influence pictorial warnings on packaging for tobacco products? Or the fuss around Vijay Mallya’s membership on the committee of civil aviation? It is with good reason the PM had said a few months back that he did not want MPs with conflict of interest as members of parliamentary committees.

If Axiscades stock prices are anything to by, the company seems to have noticeably benefitted since 2014.

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Source: Moneycontrol

Newslaundry contacted Chandrasekhar for his comments on the directive on editorial hiring and the issue of conflict of interest. Below is his statement in full:

Jupiter Capital is an investor in various companies in media and technology. It has a track record of successful investments in entertainment, technology and media including NDTV, Asianet News etc. 

These companies are managed by their board’s and independent managements. The question of directing companies doesn’t arise. I am not member of any of these boards or managements. 

You have referred to two particular companies where Jupiter Capital has investments. 

Asianet News is a media company in which Jupiter Capital has invested and has a well-earned reputation for its fierce independent coverage of news. It’s the market leader because of that. Its sister brands are SuvarnaNews24x7, Kannada Prabha and AsianetNewsable. Jupiter Capital has invested in other media companies as well. 

AxisCades is one of many technology companies that Jupiter Capital has investments in. It is a publicly listed company that focuses and is market leader in Aerospace, automotive, Industrial engineering and Strategic design and technologies. 

Emails of the kind you refer to are not possible to originate from me. Specific questions about the companies may be referred to them directly. 

When probed further about his role in Axiscades being in conflict with his membership of parliamentary committees, his office sent us another statement:

As concerned to the Conflict of Interest point: Mr Rajeev Chandrasekhar has been holding the Office of a Member of Parliament for 10 Years now and has an impeccable record of service & integrity. He does not have any and ensures that no conflict of Interest arises with any of his roles in any committees that he is currently serving on or has served in the past. As required by Parliament he has disclosed all his interests whatsoever in this regard.

Chandrasekhar does not mention his relationship with Axiscades either on his or on the Rajya Sabha website.

Let’s be clear: Jupiter Capital is not the only case of big business interfering with editorial freedom. Neither is it the first case of journalists being asked to toe a certain line. If anything, it’s reflective of a larger trend: Network18, Hindustan Times, NDTV, Times of India, The Hindu, DNA…the list could go on. But by virtue of these being ‘national’ media and headquartered in metro cities, there is at least some amount of scrutiny on their actions. Far from the mainstream glare, stories of censorship — crude and subtle — in the regional media seem to escape our attention.


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