Raghav Bahl: felled by his own philosophy?

BY VIVIAN FERNANDES| IN Media Business | 31/05/2014
That he did not expect Mukesh Ambani to formalise control is evident from the Think India Foundation set up last year and his plans for it.
VIVIAN FERNANDES looks back at the trajectory of the company Bahl built. PIX: Mukesh Ambani (L) and Raghav Bahl

The acquisition of Network 18 Group’s news-and-entertainment broadcast and digital media properties by a trust of Mukesh Ambani and Reliance Industries, marks the end of an entrepreneurially-driven intrepid first-gen business that was a proxy for the animal spirits unleashed by India’s economic reforms in 1991.

Manoj Modi, a confidante of Mukesh Ambani, has apparently assured Rajdeep Sardesai, CNN-IBN’s editor-in-chief, that he will have a free hand. Sceptics will say these are feel-good platitudes that are uttered in the afterglow of a successful hunt. There is the danger of editorial freedom being whittled down in homeopathic doses. If Rajdeep stays on he will also have to fight the perception that independent journalism and the Ambanis do not go together.

(The author has subsequently sent the following:  " While the conversation did happen, I would like to clarify that Modi urging Rajdeep to carry on does not suggest a guarantee of editorial freedom.”)

The Ambanis’ earlier foray into newspaper publishing in the late 1980s had an unhappy ending. They were under relentless attack by the Indian Express Group in their feud with Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing during V P Singh’s tenure as the prime minister, when they launched the Business and Political Observer. They  introduced good HR practices like tax planning for journalists - a novelty - which meant that for the first time journalists were being paid salaries that attracted tax. But they also brought in editors who were fixers and power grabbers and the organisation degenerated into feuding factions. 

The present media venture is also happening under similar circumstances. Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance Group have been the targets of the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal’s rants against crony capitalism and their proximity to Narendra Modi, during the recent election campaign. Even former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi said quite unexpectedly in an address to the Central Bureau of Investigation that Reliance was a parallel state. The venting of these allegations by CNN-IBN and CNBC-TV18 – channels he had a beneficial interest in (now he has control as well) - is said to have hurt Mukesh Ambani and may have triggered the conversion of the debt he had given Raghav Bahl into equity. That was a transaction that happened in 2012 when Bahl approached Ambani to bail his group out. It had no political overtones then and was seen as mutually beneficial, since Reliance was getting into high speed data telecommunications, for which he would need news and entertainment content.

It is quite possible that the Ambanis do not want to repeat past mistakes and are keen on building a new media business that can measure up to the standards of BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. With assured financial backing, and the habits of running a tight ship imbibed from the previous management, Rajdeep can be ambitious (if he decides to stay on). He should invest in reportage and bolster the bureaus so that viewers get to know what is happening around the country and their underlying causes. (I am talking of the stuff that helps the audience make informed decisions and not just things that grab their eyeballs). The channels under his charge should be news arbiters and not platforms for thinly-researched debates or sound bite exchanges.

Lingering doubts about the rope editors will be given stem from Reliance’s diversified business interests and its lovelock with power. Will the firewalls between the management and the editorial collapse in a crunch situation? Will the news editors be allowed to remain filters (who pass even unwelcome news through if it meets the test of integrity) and not become censors?

Under Raghav Bahl these firewalls held. There were occasional breaches like the withdrawal of a Forbes India story about C B Bhave’s nixed second term as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India under pressure from then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s office. There were also differences over coverage of Narendra Modi’s election campaign. Raghav believes that Modi is, like him, a champion of an open economy and a necessary corrective to the previous government’s profligate entitlement philosophy. There was a buzz that he had gone soft on Hindutva. But I know Raghav is a liberal. When I assisted him with his book on China and India, in which I wrote a chapter on Gujarat under my name, he allowed me to write about the 2002 riots so long as I had facts in support. My sense is that he disapproves of the ‘secularism’ of the Leftists, which indulges Muslim communalism while being intolerant of the Hindu variety.

Journalism was Raghav’s second love. When we started with India Business Report (I joined in January, 1994, the second journalist to be part of his team, and quit in June 2012), he used to anchor the Sunday show by the same name. He had won the contract from BBC World but did not have the wherewithal to execute it. So he partnered with Business India TV or BiTV. The alliance did not last long. He split in a few months.  BiTV was setting up a channel and wanted Raghav’s TV18 to be the exclusive programme supplier. But Raghav did not want to be tied to one company; he wanted to diversify the risk. Most of us went with Raghav even though financially Business India was a better bet. Raghav thought TV18 would be a software supplier to various channels. He quickly realised it was  low-margin job work.

Raghav was particular about quality. We used to haggle over scripts into the night. The exercise was consensual; he would try to convince and not over-ride. His weekly de-briefs were awaited with trepidation. We also went to ridiculous lengths. I remember getting the central AC of Kailash Building (I think) in Connaught Place switched off while interviewing Dhruv Sawhney of Triveni Sugars for BBC’s India Business Report to cut out the hiss!

With business development occupying him, Raghav had little time for hands-on journalism. But he did not give up trying. His Saturday show on CNBC-TV18, 55 minutes, used to be so exacting on us editors, we would start fretting about it from mid-week. We were relieved when he could not keep up with it! Many years later he tried doing a daily nightly news wrap up on CNBC-TV18 called Business At Ten but had to give it up after a couple of days. After coming to grips with the fallout of the financial meltdown in 2007-08, he wrote a book on China and India, which was published in the English-speaking world by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, for which he collaborated with me. And after striking the deal with Mukesh Ambani he set up Think India Foundation to promote pro-market thinking in a country that was firmly left of centre. He also anchored a series of policy-related shows under the Think India banner.

Raghav’s first love was entrepreneurship. Being at the acme of wealth creating effort it brought together diverse talents: people skills, ability with finance, deep domain knowledge, street smartness, a sunny disposition, self-discipline and determination. Without these attributes a first-gen entrepreneur will burn out after the initial burst of energy. Though his father was an IAS officer, I have never seen Raghav use his connections. I remember him waiting in the ante-room of the director general of Doordarshan, in connection with a programme called Business AM, a daily, weekdays-only, business show on Doordarshan, which was broadcast at 6 in the morning! It was Doordarshan’s first wholly business news show, and it was outsourced. The timing was rather perplexing.

When a start-up venture grows into one of India’s biggest news and entertainment networks within the span of a decade and a half, without the backing of a business group, it will be frequently short of cash. TV18 was always in and out of the woods. It suffered a near death blow in the mid-1990s, when ABNi (a Singapore-based business news channel), for which it was the sole supplier in India, merged with CNBC, because advertising in the East Asian economies could not sustain two business channels due to the Asian financial contagion. This led to a bloodbath in TV18. A large number of people were sacked. At that time TV18 was run like a family. Most of the sacked persons were very good at their jobs and had least expected to be culled. But they were also the best paid and the company could not afford to keep them on the rolls. Those who faced the axe were murderously angry; the exercise was merciless. They were all very young and into their first jobs. Raghav had no option but he was coldly surgical perhaps to prove to himself that he could be tough.

There were other tests, this time from the elements. At one time, the TV18 office and studios in Kalkaji (Delhi) were flooded. Then there was a fire which gutted the office but happened fortunately in the early hours of the day, so no life was lost and no one was put to harm. Some of TV18’s highly motivated staff, including Senthil Chengalvarayan, who built up CNBC-TV18 with his people skills, resumed operations from Singapore. The rest worked out of portable cabins from Noida, which is on the outskirts of Delhi. Sector 16A or Film City is a hive of television news activity but at that time it was quite a desolate enclave.

TV18 recovered from the blow inflicted by the closure of ABNi. In Group CEO Haresh Chawla, Raghav found a good fit. An alumnus of IIT and IIM, he had an analytical mind and skill in finance. I do not think he cared for jazz about journalism being the infrastructure of democracy. Being from the Bennet Coleman group, he was into marketing. So the 9 pm news was made ‘light-hearted’ with the last five minutes of the one-hour programme featuring Vir Das’s dreadful humour. It turned out to be an exercise in light-headedness. Chawla was an ace negotiator. Both Raghav and Haresh were made for each other and their ambition soared. They tied up with marquee media brands like CNBC-TV18 and CNN. Eyeing CNBC-TV18 juicy profitability (operating margin in excess of 50 percent), Prannoy Roy of NDTV launched Profit. But he was too much of a socialist to make it a success. Raghav and Haresh struck back by doing the equivalent of Prithiviraj and Samyukta; they poached Rajdeep Sardesai from NDTV and set up CNN-IBN!

But the true test of their mettle was Colors, a Viacom brand, which became one of the top three general entertainment channels within a very short time. This genre is a graveyard of many channels. Real launched by Turner is an example.

The liquidity unleashed by the global economic boom and generous private equity funding, allowed the group to expand furiously beyond the means to sustain the new businesses. Some of this was a compulsion; a bouquet of channels yields clout with advertisers and cable networks. But some of the acquisitions like yellow pages made little sense. Such was the ambition that a serious effort was even mounted to publish the Financial Times in India. That was when the financial crisis happened and inexpensive funding dried up. Employees again took it in the chin. Two instalments of sackings happened. People were offered generous compensation in the first round. I think the compensation was not good in the second round (though I cannot be certain).

Haresh Chawla apparently wanted to raise money by selling cash-intensive channels like Colors. On hindsight that was perhaps a better option. But Raghav believed that the time was inopportune; he wanted to avoid a distress sale. On this issue he and Chawla parted company. Money was raised from Mukesh Ambani on conditions which virtually delivered the group to him. Raghav thought he would be able to pay back the debt. He never expected it to unravel the way it did, especially when  Network 18 and TV18 had come out of the red. The terms on which he has been bought out gives him ample fuel for new ambitions. But it will leave a lingering sense of loss.

That Raghav did not expect Mukesh Ambani to formalise control is evident from the Think India Foundation set up last year and his plans for it. For amplification of views he would have needed the news channels. He had also latterly invested in a large and elegant office for himself.

This is how big fish behave. Raghav is feeling the cold edge of the philosophy he espouses.

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