The Network Effect

Reliance and right-wing politics gain a foothold in Raghav Bahl's media empire

Raghav Bahl and Mukesh Ambani in a CNBC-TV18 programme from 2007. GURINDER OSAN / AP PHOTO
01 December, 2013


AS DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE FOOD SECURITY BILL played on displays around the room, Rajdeep Sardesai took a seat at the centre of a simmering news pit in Mumbai, looking like he could use a break. Just ten days earlier, on 16 August, CNN-IBN and IBN7, the channels he oversees as editor-in-chief of the IBN Network, had witnessed the sudden layoffs of approximately 300 producers, cameramen, and reporters. Sardesai’s base of operations, at the channels’ headquarters in Noida, had been the worst affected by the forced departures; there, reporters and anchors on air had completed their broadcast and stepped off to find they no longer had a job. The layoffs were part of a large restructuring exercise recommended by Mercer and Ernst & Young for TV18, which was part of the gargantuan Network18 group. The group’s employees were told that management wanted to integrate the processes of its expansive media empire, which included CNBC-TV18, the IBN channels, Forbes India magazine, the website Firstpost, and a host of other channels and outlets across television, print and the internet.

The night before the layoffs, I met a senior CNN-IBN employee at a dimly lit coffee shop in Bandra, Mumbai. This person was washed out by the retrenchments to come. Between phone calls, over cups of coffee not quite large enough, the employee laid out the stark operational plan for the next 24 hours. “HR plans to finish by tomorrow evening. They want to finish it in a day.”

The employee was reconciled to the job cuts, but wished they had been handled in a better way; Network18’s HR personnel had met in conference rooms to discuss these cuts in full view of the staff outside. “Tomorrow the HR person is going to tell them that the company is restructuring, and there’s going to be an integration of newsrooms,” the senior employee told me. To minimise the chances of backlash, the layoffs would all be communicated at one go. Over the course of our conversation, the person’s phone rang twice. Both callers wanted the same thing: information that would help them understand what was about to happen the next day. The group had been uncommunicative with most of its workforce (and would continue to be so for months afterward). The senior employee told me that a list of employees to be fired had been shown to editors; it was an indicative draft, but the heads of various departments began to quietly inform the people listed on it on their own. There seemed to be no recognisable pattern to the names. The company had marked for dismissal inexperienced rookies and old hands alike. Well-regarded reporters who had been with the group for some years were going, as was at least one person from the camera department on a salary below Rs 10,000. “Reporters from IBN7 stopped coming to work because they were interviewing for other jobs,” the senior employee said.