Its coverage hasn’t seen the u-turn that was predicted, but it might be heading there.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, something very unusual happened.
Irani sat down with NDTV’s editorial director Sonia Singh to talk about how the “India story was setting Davos on fire”, our triumph in “gender justice”, and why the Congress was “still hurt” that she had defeated Rahul Gandhi in Amethi in 2019.
It was what one might describe as a ‘soft’ interview – except for five questions Singh asked on issues like India’s growth being hyped, “super censorship”, and Modi’s remarks on minority outreach.
One of the questions came 10 minutes into the conversation, when Singh suggested that Irani – who used to be a “vocal advocate” for women’s rights – has gone silent on these issues after becoming a minister.
Irani dismissed these allegations, and then said, “I haven’t spoken to NDTV.” After a pause, she added, “But I believe there’s a regime change here now.”
She burst out laughing. Singh smiled tightly and said, “We haven’t changed. There’s a lakshman rekha.”
Irani is not the only one making noises about NDTV’s “regime change”, referring to its shift in ownership from Prannoy and Radhika Roy to Gautam Adani, India’s foremost billionaire with close ties to Narendra Modi.
Six months after Adani’s NDTV takeover, much has changed at India’s first 24x7 news channel even as much remains the same.
The most obvious changes are interviews with BJP ministers like Irani, which had all but stopped after Nidhi Razdan had an on-air spat with party spokesperson Sambit Patra in 2017.
Importantly, a constellation of NDTV’s star anchors departed the channel after the takeover, including senior executive editor Ravish Kumar, executive editor Nidhi Razdan, group editor Sreenivasan Jain, and senior editor Sarah Jacob.
Members of the top management left too: the Roys, group president Suparna Singh, chief strategy officer Arijit Chattejee, chief technology and product officer Kawaljit Singh Bedi, and senior managing editor Chetan Bhattacharya.
Top names who departed NDTV after the takeover.
The change in content, while not overt, did happen too, with the airing of a nine-part documentary series venerating Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But bigger, more tangible changes are in store this year too. NDTV’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai are moving to new locations in the city and there are plans afoot to start nine new regional channels. Four of them are starting in states that have assembly elections this year.
Newslaundry spoke to past and present employees of NDTV to trace all that has changed at Adani’s NDTV.
A new flavour of Modi reportage
News channels in India aren’t known to ask the governing party uncomfortable questions. For this reason alone, NDTV stood out ever since the BJP came to power in 2014. As many other news channels became government mouthpieces, NDTV was hailed for refraining to cave in.
So, expectedly, Adani’s NDTV has seen a change in the last six months in how it reports on Modi and his government. The change is subtle but evident, not just for viewers but for its employees too.
“There was a phase where we were in denial,” said a former NDTV journalist. “We tried our best to play a balancing act to keep the integrity of our work alive. But after a point, there was nothing we could do, really. So we just watched the company crumble.”
In May, Sarah Jacob resigned a day after she anchored a news bulletin on how Modi “shows respect towards women”. Jacob, who had been with the channel for over 20 years, was visibly uncomfortable during the segment.
Then there’s the office WhatsApp group, where news items are shared and discussed by the NDTV reporters and editors. At least three members of this group said information related to the Prime Minister’s Office is “shared more frequently” after the Adani takeover.
“The same information that was earlier shared by just one person – usually the PMO or BJP beat reporter – is now being shared by five people, that too at the same time,” said a reporter.
Initially, only Akhilesh Sharma covered the BJP beat for NDTV. In March, Megha Prasad joined NDTV from Times Now to cover the PMO.
Newslaundry learned there were also indirect instructions to “prioritise” stories on Modi “either as the lead or at least in the top five stories”. At the same time, they were instructed to “never take a story without both sides”. “The copies need to be balanced, no matter what.”
A senior reporter with an outstation bureau said that so far, the management has not “stopped me from doing any particular story”. “But things change little by little, not overnight.”
Echoing this sentiment, another reporter predicted that more overt changes were likely to materialise before or around the Lok Sabha elections next year.
“Nothing has changed in terms of our reportage yet, but it is definitely going to happen. Adani isn’t here to be the torchbearer of journalism. The change will happen, but it will not be overnight,” said the reporter. “The 2024 elections will be the litmus test.”
Newslaundry learnt that some of the reporters had aired their concerns to the management about not wanting to do “Hindu-Muslim” dog-whistle stories, and had been assured they wouldn’t have to.
Irani’s return to NDTV marked the end of the BJP’s boycott of NDTV, which started six years when Razdan kicked Patra off her show for alleging NDTV had “an agenda” for asking him questions. Razdan replied, “You are most welcome to go on the other channels, which are glorified versions of Doordarshan.”
But now, Newslaundry was told, ministers and leaders are engaging with the channel again and spokespersons are back on debates. This means better “accessibility” for NDTV reporters too, opening doors that were previously shut under the Roys. In April, Megha Prasad had an exclusive interview with former union minister Prakash Javadekar, who is now BJP’s Kerala in-charge.
In June, NDTV’s Uttar Pradesh conclave was attended by a plethora of politicians including deputy chief minister Keshav Maurya and union minister of state Anupriya Patel, as well as opposition leaders as Akhilesh Yadav.
Additionally, for President Droupadi Murmu’s birthday on June 20, NDTV got exclusive permission and access to do a programme on her life at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Since April or so, the UP government’s ads were spotted on the channel – this after NDTV found no mention in the UP government’s data on ad expenditure on TV news channels between April 2020 and March 2021.
Modi’s visit to France this week was marketed as “360 degree coverage of PM’s France visit,” and “NDTV’s extensive coverage.” The text included “Bonjour Modi”, “Deals, dosti, & dialogue” and “2-day power-packed visit.”
In one segment, an enthusiastic Vishnu Som in Paris asked a crowd of Indian diaspora, waiting to see Modi, if his visit was like a “festival” for them. As the crowd shouted “Modi, Modi”, Som told a young girl, “You should join also.” The crowd shouted “Modi hai toh mumkin hai” and Som told the camera, “There you have it. That’s the spirit over here in Paris.”
Over on NDTV India, there was a discussion on how “we would not pay much attention” to Indian prime ministers of yore who had visited France. But now, when Modi visits, he specifically meets the Indian community which creates new “confidence” in him.
Similarly, Modi’s trip to the United States in June was marketed on NDTV as “100 hours of non-stop” coverage. This is familiar for viewers of Republic or Times Now, but seemed a marked shift in NDTV’s approach. It was in stark contrast to its coverage of the 2019 Howdy Modi event in Texas, which was far more subdued.
This visit’s coverage included a “big story” where anchor Namrata Brar visited a New Jersey restaurant to sample “the famous and revolutionary Modiji thali”. She interrogated the owner, chef and customers on the thali – even though it wasn’t being served yet – and discussed a drink inspired by external affairs minister S Jaishankar. NDTV also broadcast an ANI video on a New York restaurant that was “inspired” by Modi’s push for millets.
Modi’s visit to the US wasn’t all roses. Protests were held over his human rights record, 75 Democrats wrote to US president Joe Biden about it, several lawmakers boycotted his speech at the US Congress, and the Committee to Protect Journalists took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post on declining press freedom in India.
Former president Barack Obama also spoke out on the protection of the Muslim minority community in Modi’s India. BJP politicians like Nirmala Sitharaman asked why anyone would listen to Obama, whose country had bombed Muslim-majority countries like Syria and Yemen under his presidency.
On June 26, NDTV aired a show on this with the headline “Phas Gaye Re Obama” – “Obama is trapped”. Tickers said things like “After commenting on India, Barack Obama is cornered”, “Nirmala Sitharaman showed Obama the mirror”, and “Obama received a sharp answer in America itself”.
The programme was hosted by Akhilesh Sharma. He talked about Modi visiting a mosque in Egypt soon after the US trip. Modi was also conferred with the Order of the Nile.
“It’s not that this is the first time Modi has visited a mosque in a foreign country,” he told viewers, and then listed all the Muslim countries, including Egypt, that have “honoured” Modi with awards. “What is also special is that even with Muslim countries, India’s friendship has progressed.”
But perhaps NDTV’s most public display of affection came mid-May, when the channel aired a nine-part documentary series on Modi’s nine years in power. Promoted by the BJP from its Twitter account, it looked more like an advertorial than a work of journalism. The tweet went out before the first episode aired, along with graphics.
As an NDTV employee said, “It’s a case of being more loyal than the king itself.”
Each episode of the documentary was “reported” by different journalists: Vishnu Som, Megha Prasad, Uma Shankar, Alok Pandey, Vasudha Venugopal, Nazir Masoodi, Sanket Upadhyay and Priyanshi Sharma. Every episode had a different theme and lasted from between 10 minutes to 28 minutes.
What each episode of The Modi Years is about.
The series featured interviews with cabinet ministers and bureaucrats such as Amitabh Kant, PM’s Economic Advisory Council member Shamika Ravi, and industrialists like Apollo Hospitals joint managing director Sangita Reddy, Sugar Cosmetics cofounder Vineeta Singh. Prasar Bharati’s former CEO Shashi Shekar Vempati, Observer Research Foundation’s Sushant Sareen, and tech journalist Pankaj Mishra appeared too.
Santosh Kumar and Vaishali Sood were credited as “series editors” in all the episodes. Included in the list of “special thanks” were the ministry of defence, Indian Railways, Indian Air Force, and Kashmir tourism board.
In episode one, anchor Vishnu Som, who is among the few old-timers still around, said, “In the eyes of many leaders across the world, India – and Modi – can do no wrong.”
This tone continued through the series.
Episode six had NDTV asking whether a “united opposition” could defeat Modi in 2024. Episode four described how India’s infrastructure is being built at a pace “never seen before”.
Episode five said the abrogation of Article 370 had brought “peace” to Jammu and Kashmir, sending a “loud message that Kashmir is an integral part of the country”. It also led to a boom in tourism, because Modi “asking people to visit Kashmir and enjoy its scenic beauty appears to have had a profound impact”.
It must be noted that the past year and a half saw Kashmiri Pandits protesting against the central government after a series of attacks on their community. Some even fled their villages, fearing for their lives. Also, Kashmir recorded 49 internet disruptions in 2022 due to “political instability and violence”.
None of this was mentioned in the documentary.
Exits and entries
The departures from NDTV after the Adani takeover have left a void for employees and audiences alike. Perhaps the Ravish Kumar-shaped hole is the hardest to fill, not only at NDTV but in the Hindi news ecosystem.
For more than 10 years, Newslaundry has reported on the state of news in India, especially on certain news channels and their primetime shows. Shouting matches and Hindu-Muslim debates get TRPs, and TRPs drive advertisements.
In the Hindi primetime world of Aman Chopra, Sudhir Chaudhary and Deepak Chaurasia, Ravish Kumar stood out. He highlighted public interest issues – gas prices, protests, floods, celebration of rapists – and questioned Modi pointedly on his silence, alleged hypocrisy and policies. In his last 30 primetime shows on NDTV in 2022, he questioned Modi in 16 of them.
For example, on Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut being arrested, Kumar on November 9, 2022 called it “illegal” and demanded that the PM or law minister answer. “Will you still not believe that investigative agencies are being used politically?...They are being used to make the opposition weak, scare them and threaten them.”
On October 20, 2022, a visibly angry Kumar talked about BJP leaders felicitating rape convicts, after Modi had given a speech on why women must be respected. “Did the prime minister forget what he had said this August 15? Did BJP also forget what the prime minister said?”
“When Ravish would use my stories in his show, I knew there was an audience that would be impacted,” said the journalist with the outstation bureau. “Anchors still pick up my stories but the impact is different. It’s not the same without him.”
With Kumar’s departure on November 30, his 9 pm slot has been hosted by Sanket Upadhyay, in whose absence Ankit Tyagi and Sushil Bahuguna deliver the telecast. Sumit Awasthi, formerly with Zee News and ABP News, was roped in by NDTV earlier this month as consulting editor and will host a primetime show too – rumour has it he’ll take over the 9 pm slot.
It is unlikely that Awasthi will go the Ravish way. Analysis by Newslaundry last July showed that of the 20 shows Awasthi had hosted on ABP News that month, 12 had around communal themes, four praised the BJP government, and two questioned the opposition. On a show about cow smuggling around Eid, Awasthi’s opinion poll asked whether the death penalty should be handed to the alleged smugglers and their accomplices.
But for now, NDTV has not gone the Republic way – though it’s still a far cry from matching Ravish’s intensity.
For example, when union minister Anurag Thakur said the wrestlers’ protest was political, anchor Tyagi said, “The person who is an accused here is a BJP MP. Isn’t he a part of politics? Delhi police comes under the union government which is ruled by the BJP. After the Supreme Court said, only then the Delhi police filed an FIR. Isn’t that politics”
On a farmer protest in Haryana, anchor Upadhyay said, “Will the solution be found fast and easily with dialogue? Or will we again see the time when atrocious things are said and then there will be talks to defame the farmers?”
However, NDTV still hasn’t hired big-ticket names to replace those who have gone. If rumours are to be believed, Marya Shakil from CNN-News18 may join NDTV soon too. Otherwise, the major new hires are Megha Prasad from Times Now, Vaishali Sood and Santosh Kumar from the Quint.
The current board of directors comprises non-executive independent director-chairperson Upendra Kumar Sinha; executive directors Sanjay Pugalia and Senthil Sinniah Chengalvarayan; and non-executive independent directors Viral Jagdish Doshi and Dipali Goenka.
Two members of the board, both nominated by the Adani group, had resigned earlier this year. NDTV’s additional non-executive independent director Sunil Kumar, a former Chhattisgarh bureaucrat, resigned in March. In April, Aman Singh, Adani group’s corporate brand custodian and head of corporate affairs, resigned as non-executive director. A former IRS officer, he was facing corruption charges in Chhattisgarh.
But the captain of the ship is, quite evidently, Sanjay Pugalia. The veteran journalist was the CEO of Adani's AMG Media Network at the time of the takeover. Currently, he is the whole-time director of the NDTV board, along with Senthil Sinniah Chengalvarayan.
When NDTV’s senior executives Suparna Singh, Kawaljit Singh Bedi and Arijit Chatterjee had resigned in January, Pugalia had announced that their direct reportees, as well as and all heads of departments, will start reporting to him. NDTV employees described Pugalia as “approachable”.
Vaishali Sood and Santosh Kumar are the channel’s new senior managing editors, running day-to-day operations.
“All departments report to Sanjay and Senthil,” said a senior journalist who left in the six months following the NDTV takeover. “But you need specialists for these departments. There’s a vacuum...It’s all about TV for them. But across digital, there is no decision-making happening.”
A senior reporter from an outstation bureau said the channel “has no leader right now”.
“There isn’t one face that people can identify with,” they said. “Sanjay looks after bigger-picture things. The organisation is headless right now. Earlier, there was a boss and a head who would lead. Now there’s not a lot of input to what we say. The expectation from non-Delhi bureaus seems less.”
The senior journalist who left the channel added, “ComScore data shows that NDTV ratings have dropped but no one is saying how they will fix that.”
ComScore is a cross-platform measurement company that measures engagement online and on television. In October 2022, NDTV ranked eighth in the news/information category, with over 99 million total unique visitors. In the latest ComScore data from May 2023, NDTV fell to tenth place with over 72 million total unique visitors. It’s preceded by the Times group, Network18, HT Media, India Today, ABP, Jagran, Indian Express, Zee Digital, and Dailyhunt.
The channel had opted out of BARC ratings last March, so that data is unavailable.
In the stock market, NDTV shares are part of the Adani group’s stocks but this has not had much impact on the company’s share price so far. NDTV’s share price has hovered between 200 and 245 in June. At its peak, it traded at 426 in November last year.
In a media statement in December, the Adani group said that there were “synergies to be harnessed within the growing AMNL portfolio, like the one between BQ Prime and NDTV Profit.” In January, during the first town hall after the takeover, NDTV’s new management said they wanted to restart NDTV Profit, which went off the air in 2018.
On May 19, a trademark for NDTV BQPrime was registered with the government of India’s intellectual property office.
While there’s been no formal announcement, we’ve spotted BQ Prime reports on NDTV, and vice versa. For example, the majority of the reports on NDTV’s business page on the website redirect to the BQPrime website and are written by BQPrime reporters.
BQPrime reporters were also named in the credits for the Modi documentary series.
Then there’s the plethora of new channels in the offing. For the past decade, NDTV has run only four channels: NDTV 24x7, NDTV India, NDTV Profit and Good Times. Two months ago, it announced that it would be seeking permission from the I&B ministry to launch nine news channels in different English languages.
Documents accessed by Newslaundry show that the channel has applied for trademarks for the following channels: NDTV Malayalam, NDTV Rajasthan, NDTV MP/Chhattisgarh, NDTV Bangla, NDTV Marathi, NDTV Gujarati, NDTV Kannada, NDTV Telugu and NDTV Tamil. All nine trademarks were filed between May 17 and May 23.
So, NDTV will finally have a pan-India presence, something that competitors like Zee and News18 established decades ago. NDTV has also registered trademarks for NDTV 24x7 and NDTV India in HD, indicating that the transmission is likely soon.
Coverage of Adani
Towards the end of last year, as it became clear that the Adani takeover was inevitable, sources told Newslaundry that the previous management held back from making some key decisions – such as office space – since it was likely the new management would have different plans.
The takeover, itself, started with a crash.
On January 24, US-based short seller Hindenburg Research accused the Adani group of pulling the “largest con in corporate history” by engaging in “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud” over the course of two decades. The report was the result of two years of investigations comprising interviews with dozens of people, reviewing thousands of documents, and conducting diligence visits in almost half a dozen countries.
Adani group’s listed companies lost a combined amount of $48 billion in the days following the report. Five months later, the group’s market value is still down more than $100 billion. The median decline in 10 Adani stocks over a four-month period stands at 23 percent.
NDTV did not report on the controversy for the first two days. On the afternoon of January 27, it published two PTI reports about the subject.
In May, when the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee observed that there was “no coherent pattern of abusive trading” by the Adani group and that some of the charges were “still under investigation”, the channel marked the occasion with some interesting reportage.
NDTV celebrated with tickers such as “Adani truth is out, agenda exposed,” and “Hit and run agenda totally exposed” and “Will the agenda brigade apologise?” On primetime, Som said that public sentiment had been affected, shareholder wealth as well as the wealth of several groups had gone down, and India’s international reputation has been affected only because political parties couldn't wait for a legal process.
A former employee wondered if Hindenburg was a roadblock to the Adanification of NDTV, which is perhaps why the channel hasn’t completely changed yet.
“Reportage has survived in the previous regime,” said an NDTV staffer. “It will survive now as well, although it seems like some bhaktgiri will also be there.”
But in Gautam Adani’s own words, the NDTV acquisition is a duty, not a business opportunity.
As he told Financial Times in November, “Independence means if government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong. But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.”
And that’s certainly what NDTV has been doing so far.
Research assistance by Mohammad Sarim.
Graphics by Gobindh VB.
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