The Tempest

Have Radhika and Prannoy Roy undermined NDTV?

Prannoy and Radhika Roy set up NDTV in 1988, at a time when the government held a monopoly over television news in India. BCCL
Prannoy and Radhika Roy set up NDTV in 1988, at a time when the government held a monopoly over television news in India. BCCL
01 December, 2015


YOU HAVE TO BE A VERY IMPORTANT PERSON to celebrate a business milestone at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. But considering that Radhika and Prannoy Roy launched their 24-hour news channel, more than 15 years ago, at the prime minister’s official residence, it seemed apt that, in 2013, the programme to mark the twenty-fifth year of its parent company, New Delhi Television Private Limited, was held at the president’s.

The Roys organised a glittering event on a December evening that year, attended by some of India’s most famous and powerful people, many of whom the network was felicitating as the country’s “greatest global living legends.” In attendance were titans of industry (Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata, Indra Nooyi, NR Narayana Murthy), sporting legends (Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Leander Paes) and film stars (Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Waheeda Rahman, Shah Rukh Khan). Once this galaxy of guests was seated, Prannoy Roy, dressed in a sleek black bandhgala, stepped up to a lectern.

“Couple of days ago, I asked Radhika, the founder of NDTV, what’s kept NDTV going for 25 years,” Prannoy began in his relaxed drawl, a slight smile flickering across his face. Though he is probably the channel’s most recognisable personality, he regularly makes it a point to remind people that the company was founded by his wife, and that he joined her after. “She just said one word: trust,” Prannoy continued. “Your trust. And I am here tonight on behalf of everybody at NDTV to thank every single one of you for your trust in us.”

Two years later, on the evening of 8 November this year, Prannoy called on the audience’s trust again, seated behind his anchor’s desk at NDTV’s studio in south Delhi.

This time, he was distinctly less at ease. “Let me start with an explanation and an apology,” he said.

His channel had made two mistakes. First, its exit poll had forecast a victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in the Bihar legislative elections, which went on to be won by the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United)-Congress combine. “There are statistical errors that shouldn’t make them be taken too seriously,” Prannoy said, jabbing the air awkwardly as he spoke, his words tripping over each other. “You get it right, you get it wrong sometimes. That’s the life of a pollster.” This was true. Though exit polls are ostensibly more accurate than pre-election surveys, they can, nevertheless, be skewed for a number of reasons, including sampling errors and dishonest responses from voters.

The second error was far more grave. At around half past nine that morning, as the counting of votes had just begun, Prannoy declared that the BJP-led coalition had already won, with a majority tally of more than 140 seats. He then proceeded to moderate a discussion with his panellists, analysing the reasons for this supposedly decisive victory. An hour later, it became clear that he was utterly wrong. The misstep was particularly embarrassing given that Prannoy’s first forays into journalism, in the 1980s, had been as an election analyst; Dorab Sopariwala, a colleague from those days, was one of his guests on the show. Prannoy and his panellists had the unenviable task of reversing all the explanations they had conjured up.

On air that evening, Prannoy attempted to explain why things had gone so wrong. “On every counting day, all news channels get data from one agency,” he said. “Again, a very globally respected agency. This morning, the first data that came in to all the news channels was completely wrong.”

Although this sounded reasonable, it was, in fact, misleading. The agency in question, Nielsen, subsequently disputed Prannoy’s claim. Numbers may have initially shown a lead for the BJP, but, as an elections expert, Prannoy had to know well that a trend can shift, especially early in the counting process. Other channels, such as CNN-IBN, and even the usually overzealous Times Now, had been more cautious before declaring a winner. Prannoy later won plaudits on social media for his apology, but he had not even acknowledged his blunder.

“For NDTV, and for me,” Prannoy said, rounding off his remarks, “our aim is to try to bring you the most objective and accurate news as quickly as possible. So thank you for trusting us, and staying with us.”

Prannoy wasn’t exaggerating NDTV’s reputation as a reliable broadcaster. Launched in the 1980s, it was India’s first independent news network, entering the field at a time when the government-run Doordarshan had a monopoly over television content. Beginning with one show on that channel, NDTV expanded the range of Indian television news, introducing international standards in reportage and presentation. In the process, it gained an early lead in viewership ratings, and dominated the advertising market. NDTV passed on its success to shareholders after the company went public in 2004. As the company grew over the years, from producing one show to launching multiple channels, the Roys groomed a set of reporters and anchors who are today among the country’s most acclaimed and best known television journalists.

But even as it adhered by and large to its core editorial principles—rigorous reportage, measured presentation, the absence of overt bias—threats to NDTV’s editorial dominance soon emerged from within its own ranks. Rival channels, some of them led by former staffers, began to overtake the network in the race for ratings, and hoovered up precious advertising revenue.

While the network fought a losing battle to retain primacy, it plunged into acute financial distress. In 2008, as the media industry reeled from the global recession, NDTV found itself haemorrhaging money. Towards the end of the decade, the network fired hundreds of staffers in an effort to cut costs.

But even deeper layers of trouble in the network have gone unnoticed until recently. A series of financial transactions that the Roys have carried out from the mid 2000s onwards have been under close investigation by government agencies. If the agencies’ allegations are proven true, they could severely undermine NDTV’s hard-won reputation, and the trust Prannoy has been so keen to earn and retain. At least one of these chains of transactions casts doubt over whether the Roys are still in complete control of the network they founded and built.

In January this year, a stockbroker named Sanjay Dutt filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court against the enforcement directorate, or the ED, and the directorate general of income tax investigation. Both are law enforcement agencies: the former is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes related to foreign funds and money laundering, and the latter deals with violations of tax laws.

Dutt, the director of a financial-services firm named Quantum Securities, owned around 125,000 shares in NDTV, representing a 0.2 percent stake. In 2013, he had filed complaints with these agencies, and other government bodies, alleging that NDTV and its promoters had violated a number of laws. In this year’s writ petition—a request for intervention from a court—he alleged that both agencies failed to act on his complaints.

Along with the government bodies, Radhika and Prannoy Roy are also named as respondents in Dutt’s petition. So is Radhika Roy Prannoy Roy Holdings Private Limited, or RRPR, an entity that the Roys set up in 2005, and in which they placed shares of the company beginning in mid 2008. This company proved to be central to a convoluted maze of transactions that the Roys carried out from 2008 onward.

The affidavits that the two agencies filed in response to Dutt’s petition make for remarkable reading. Both told the court that investigations into NDTV and its promoters have been underway since 2011, in response to a complaint by the BJP parliamentarian Yashwant Sinha. The documents reveal that the Roys are being probed for contraventions of tax laws and laws involving foreign money.

NDTV has not been charged for any of the violations identified in the documents. Nevertheless, these investigations raise the question of whether, despite its reputation as a reliable company, NDTV’s financial core may be rotting.


WHEN PRANNOY ROY WAS A YOUNG BOY, his grandfather bestowed on him the nickname “Tempest.” It seems a curious choice of moniker in hindsight, given Prannoy’s famously unflappable anchoring style.

That self-assured manner was well in evidence when Prannoy appeared on Indian television screens in 1988 to introduce viewers to a new show, produced by the company he and Radhika had set up that same year. “We hope in this show to bring you an analysis of the main world news events of the week,” Prannoy began. “A glimpse of the personalities involved, and, of course, the best of sports.” He wore a grey suit and a shiny tie, and sat in front of a wall of television screens. This was the future of Indian television news.

The news magazine programme, called The World This Week, had been commissioned by the director general of Doordarshan, Bhaskar Ghose. The journalist Nalin Mehta wrote in his 2008 book India on Television that Ghose had been handpicked by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi “to turn things around for an Indian television glasnost”—by infusing the public broadcaster with fresh talent and ideas. Ghose signed up the Roys, paying them Rs 2 lakh per episode.

The Roys, both from Kolkata, met as school students in Dehradun in the 1960s—she at Welham Girls, he at the Doon School. They moved to London to study further, married, and then settled in Delhi to make their careers. Radhika worked on the desk for the Indian Express and India Today. Prannoy, meanwhile, obtained a doctorate in economics, taught at the Delhi School of Economics, and then turned to election analysis, along with his fellow economist Ashok Lahiri, and the market researchers KMS Ahluwalia and Dorab Sopariwala.

After taking up Ghose’s offer, the Roys plunged into the media business, albeit with a limited sense of what the future held. The government was still wary of allowing private players in domestic news broadcasting, so only allowed The World This Week to cover international events. “They were terribly clear that you couldn’t do anything in India, or anything close to it,” Mehta quoted Prannoy as saying.

Radhika Roy, who founded NDTV, began her career as a journalist with the Indian Express and India Today. MANOJ VERMA/HINDUSTAN TIMES

Despite this restriction, the show was a “phenomenal success,” Mehta wrote. Until then, he pointed out, viewers had only seen Doordarshan bulletins, which “consisted solely of stiff news readers reading out the news in highly bureaucratised English or Hindi. When pictures were used it was only for a few seconds, and often even these were still pictures.” The Roys “exposed Indian audiences for the first time to international news television practices,” with Prannoy “introducing each story in an easy conversational style, followed by a pre-packaged story using the best pictures with a voice-over to match the visuals.”

In December 1989, the year after the company was founded, Prannoy presented an election results show, a precursor to the kind of wall-to-wall coverage that is the norm today. In it, he tracked the defeat of the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi by the National Front coalition, led by the Janata Dal’s VP Singh. Until then, results had been limited to official announcements through the news. This was different—it conveyed the very mood of the nation to viewers.

Indian audiences had never seen the kind of dazzling technology on display here. An India Today report from that year noted that the producers had set up “97 hot-lines” to link the studio to “state capitals, chief election officers and key constituencies, allowing ‘hot switching’ to 15 outdoor broadcast vans with reporters across the country.” The show cost Doordarshan Rs 2.5 crore, including the Rs 16 lakh it paid NDTV.

That year also marked a shift in the Roys’ agreement with Doordarshan. Instead of the channel paying NDTV for each show it produced, the company became a producer in its own right, paying Doordarshan a fee and selling advertising directly. This boosted the Roys’ profile: from being hired talent, they became media entrepreneurs.

But it also led to the Roys’ first run-in with the law. In 1997, a parliamentary committee examined Doordarshan’s finances and found “irregularities” in its dealings with NDTV—specifically, with regard to the access the company was given to the channel’s technology, and the advertising rates it had been allowed to charge. In 1998, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a first information report against Prannoy and officials of Doordarshan, including Rathikant Basu, who was the channel’s director general from 1993 to 1996. In 2013, however, the CBI filed a closure report in a court, which accepted it and quashed all charges in the case.

Vikram Chandra, currently NDTV's CEO and executive director, is one of the well connected "Roys' boys," and has been with the company since its early days. GRAHAM CROUCH/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

NDTV produced The World This Week until 1995, when another opportunity presented itself. The government had launched a new channel, which was to carry a mix of programming including feature films and documentaries. NDTV was signed on to produce a daily news bulletin called News Tonight. The Roys broadcast their first show live, but Prannoy recounted in a speech earlier this year that “someone in the PM’s office heard the word ‘live’ and reacted to it like a four-letter word.” Orders flew between government offices, he said, to “stop this private news from being live.” Subsequently, NDTV began recording the show ten minutes ahead of the scheduled broadcast.

When India’s media market opened up in the 1990s, NDTV found a foreign investor, signing up with Rupert Murdoch’s Star network to produce programmes for the channel Star Plus. Two years later, NDTV and Star signed a five-year deal to launch and run the 24-hour news channel Star News. It was inaugurated in February 1998, just ahead of a general election, by Inder Kumar Gujral, then the prime minister of India. An India Today report from that year noted that “a beaming Gujral threw open the doors of 7 Race Course Road,” his official residence, for the event.

Indian regulations, even today, dictate that a foreign company can only be a minority partner in a news channel in India. This gave NDTV, then the country’s most prominent private news entity, a powerful bargaining chip with Star, which was then headed in India by Rathikant Basu. In a 2002 piece, the journalist Sucheta Dalal described the Roys’ arrangement with the network as a “sweetheart deal,” in which NDTV was paid “a whopping $20 million a year,” and retained “total control over editorial content and copyright over programming even though Star pays a big chunk of the cost.”

This was NDTV’s heyday. Star’s money gave the Roys an advantage over other channels, such as Aaj Tak and Zee. It allowed them to buy better equipment, produce slicker graphics, and, most importantly, hire the best talent. The Roys’ team by now included many of the journalists who would go on to form the core of NDTV—among them were Sonia Verma (now Sonia Singh), Vikram Chandra, Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sreenivasan Jain, Vishnu Som, and Maya Mirchandani. Former NDTV staffers told me the Roys described their company as a “family.” They did not have a human resources department, and made all the hires themselves.

These early employees were collectively called the “Roys’ boys”—even the women. Most belonged to families long familiar with, if not enmeshed in, Delhi’s circles of power. Many of the two dozen former and current NDTV employees I spoke to for this piece told me the Roys used the term “people like us” to describe their team; some of my interviewees also used the term unselfconsciously themselves.

Vikram Chandra is the son of Yogesh Chandra, a former director general of civil aviation, himself the son-in-law of Govind Narain, a former home and defence secretary and governor of Karnataka. One of the NDTV’s top business heads, KVL Narayana Rao, is the son of KV Krishna Rao, a former army general who also served as governor of Jammu and Kashmir and other states. Rajdeep Sardesai is the son of the cricketer Dilip Sardesai, and the son-in-law of Doordarshan’s Bhaskar Ghose. Barkha Dutt’s mother, Prabha Dutt, was a senior journalist. Arnab Goswami is the son of Manoranjan Goswami, an army officer and BJP member; Manoranjan’s brother Dinesh was a union law minister in the VP Singh government. Sreenivasan Jain is the son of the economist Devaki Jain, and LC Jain, a well-known activist, who served as a member of the Planning Commission and as India’s high commissioner to South Africa. Another early hire, Nidhi Razdan, is the daughter of MK Razdan, who has been the editor-in-chief of the Press Trust of India. Vishnu Som is the son of Himachal Som, a former senior diplomat. Chetan Bhattacharji, a managing editor, is the grandson of Nirmal Mukarji, a former cabinet secretary and a governor of Punjab.

Sandeep Bhushan, who worked with NDTV for almost a decade, told me it seemed more than a mere coincidence that the channel should hire so many “babalog”—people with bureaucratic connections. Bhushan said that he applied to work with the channel around the year 2000, and gave a “damn good interview,” in spite of which he was rejected. “The next time, I went with clout,” he said. Armed with a reference from a bureaucrat, he reapplied for the same post soon after. He was hired.

The channel played a part in shaping the politics of the day. A senior journalist who was a crucial part of the Roys’ newsroom for nearly 15 years told me that after launching a 24-hour channel, NDTV would often get complaints from politicians who were not invited to its panels. Everyone wanted to be seen on the channel, he said, and there would be fights among party leaders over who would appear on NDTV’s shows.

In an essay for the book Television in India, Mehta wrote that since the medium required a face for every story, some leaders began to be seen as “credible representatives of their parties or governments, irrespective of their actual place within the hierarchy.” Appearing on television “often helps political careers,” he wrote. “It helps to be seen by cadres and to be seen by senior party leaders.”

Sonia Singh has been with NDTV since 1992. Currently the editorial director, she has managed the newsroom since Rajdeep Sardesai's departure in 2005. JITENDER GUPTA/OUTLOOK

Mehta quoted Prannoy’s description to him of how important NDTV had become for politicians. According to Prannoy, a senior minister once told him of an unwritten rule among politicians that “if you are in politics, you have to appear on NDTV once a month. You can appear on Doordarshan any number of times. But NDTV once a month.” This meant that the channel did have an actual impact, Prannoy suggested, “because they wouldn’t waste their time otherwise.” He recounted to Mehta that one politician was even upset at not being made fun of on the channel’s satirical puppet show. “So he said why haven’t you made me into a puppet,” Prannoy recalled. “I will come and do my own voice-over also.”

In his essay, Mehta wrote that “a good example of this new kind of politician,” who recognised the power of the medium and used it, was “the BJP general secretary, Arun Jaitley.” During the 1998 general election, when he was “still a relatively lightweight leader,” Jaitley was “booked by NDTV to represent the BJP for seven straight hours of live broadcasting,” while votes were counted. Jaitley told Mehta that he was chosen for his ability to produce “short, crisp soundbites.” Prannoy had told Jaitley that other politicians tended to give longwinded answers. “I want a three sentence reply,” Jaitley recalled Prannoy telling him. “I don’t want an 18 sentence reply.”

The senior NDTV journalist recalled an anecdote from the late 1990s that showed how upcoming politicians could use television to make their presence felt. It was a practice, he said, that guests who appeared on the 9 pm English show “Star Week,” hosted by Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, usually stayed back in the studio to appear on the Hindi show “Ravivar,” hosted by Pankaj Pachauri and Rupali Tewari. Ahead of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic bus ride to Lahore, in February 1999, Jaitley visited the studio to speak on behalf of the party.

After Sardesai’s show, Jaitley prepared to leave. An anxious Pachauri caught up with him, and reminded him that he had to appear on the Hindi programme. The senior journalist said Jaitley told Pachauri, “Yaar main tumhe Hindi mein ek bahaut achha aadmi bhejta hoon”—I will send you a very good man for Hindi. Pachauri protested that it was too late to change the plan. Jaitley told him not to worry, and to send a car to the BJP’s headquarters.

“Then Narendra Modi came for the first time,” the senior journalist told me. Modi appeared undaunted by the task he had been assigned, of presenting a party view that diverged from that of its popular prime minister. The host said, “Atali-ji ne yeh bola hai, Atal-ji ne woh bola hai” (Atal-ji said this, Atal-ji said that), the journalist recounted. Modi replied, “‘Atal-ji toh bolte rehte hain’”—Atal-ji keeps saying things. Modi “lambasted” Vajpayee for the upcoming trip, the journalist recalled. “He was very good,” the journalist said, adding that he thought after the show, “this person will go far.”

Sreenivasan Jain, one of the Roys' early hires, is now the managing editor of NDTV 24x7.

Despite the political jockeying for spots on its shows, NDTV occasionally bore the brunt of the establishment’s ire, too. Its coverage of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom prompted one such instance. Mehta wrote in his book that after the violence broke out, channels largely refrained from identifying the community to which most victims belonged—a practice inherited from print journalism. NDTV, then under Star News, took the decision to state that the victims were Muslims. Barkha Dutt, who covered the violence, later made a powerful defence of this decision, saying that naming the “community under siege” was not just important to the story, “it was in fact the story, revealing as it did a prejudiced administrative and political system that was happy to stand by and watch.”

In response to the channel’s coverage, the BJP government in Gujarat, under Narendra Modi, blacked it out in the state. Mehta contrasted NDTV’s bold stance to that of Zee, which on 1 March 2002 aired an interview with Jaitley, then the union law minister, in which “the anchor ... assured the minister of his network’s support.” In his account of the interview in the magazine Seminar, Rajdeep Sardesai left the network unnamed, but wrote that “one channel openly ‘celebrated’ on air the state government’s decision to censor or blackout channels, with the anchor virtually justifying the line that the media was responsible for inflaming passions.”

BY 2002, ITS DEAL WITH STAR was coming to an end, NDTV fell out with the channel over negotiations for a new contract. The Roys broke away to launch their own 24-hour news channels over the next two years: NDTV 24x7 in English, and NDTV India in Hindi. (Its Hindi journalists were also stars, among them Vinod Dua, Pankaj Pachauri, Dibang, Rupali Tewari, Naghma Sahar and Ravish Kumar.)

The senior journalist told me that these moves were funded, in large part, by the money NDTV had earned over the years, while investors, such as Morgan Stanley, also put in funds. The broadcast media industry was then a “sunshine sector,” the journalist said, and NDTV was a big brand. Investors were willing to bet on the network’s future.

At its heyday, NDTV's employees enjoyed generous perks, including meals and transport from and to their homes. JITENDER GUPTA/OUTLOOK

Flush with money, NDTV pampered its employees. They were provided with transport from and to their homes, and fed well at the office. (Many former staffers remembered breakfasts of croissants and muffins served by waiters wearing white gloves.) The company offered health insurance, and generous parental leave. The office even had a crèche. The top employees were given sedans, and sent on foreign vacations. Critically, in an industry dominated by men, NDTV’s female employees were provided an unusually supportive environment—and many responded by outperforming their male colleagues.

The network was generous with funds for newsgathering, too. It had 20 bureaus across India in 2004, more than any of its competitors at the time. It acquired a helicopter, painted red and white, and branded with its logo. (According to the senior journalist, it didn’t get air traffic control’s clearance to fly over Delhi, and was discarded a few years later.) Bhushan remembered that reporters would “fly down to places” on assignments and “stay in a five- or four-star hotel, which was unheard of.”

The Roys promoted a culture of journalistic excellence. “Stories could be dropped,” even after money and time had been spent on them, the senior journalist explained, if it was felt that they were not up to the standard NDTV had set for itself. Almost everyone I spoke to told me that the Roys believed in getting stories right, not necessarily first. A staffer who was one of the Roys’ boys recounted a maxim that the Roys often repeated: that their journalism should “make a blind man see.”


THROUGHOUT NDTV'S EXISTENCE, the Roys have exerted complete control over the network’s editorial vision and its business strategy. But a chain of transactions, beginning in 2007, which is mentioned in the recent Delhi High Court affidavits, suggest that their influence may have waned considerably.

That year, Radhika and Prannoy Roy decided to buy back a 7.73-percent stake held by another shareholding entity, GA Global Investments. Promoters may have different reasons for buying back shares, such as if they anticipate that their price will rise, or want to further consolidate their holding in the company. Often, as it was in this case, the deal is struck at a price higher than the market rate—NDTV’s stock was hovering at around Rs 400 at the time, but the Roys bought shares back at Rs 439.

As per Indian stock market regulations, this triggered an “open offer,” which allows other shareholders to sell stake—up to a prescribed limit—to the promoters at the same price. These regulations are meant to ensure that when a large shareholder strengthens her ownership, minority shareholders are given the option to exit if they feel their investment will be affected.

(Even while the open offer was on, the Roys entered into another deal, in March 2008, which possibly violated capital markets regulations. They signed an agreement with Goldman Sachs to sell the investment bank up to 14.99 percent of the NDTV stake they held. The deal also gave Goldman Sachs special rights in the company, including the right to nominate a director on the board. This deal was not declared to any of the authorities or shareholders, and the transactions, which eventually resulted in Goldman Sachs gaining 14.6 percent of NDTV’s stock, were presented as open-market sales. Oddly, one director that Goldman Sachs nominated said in a letter—responding to a letter from the stockbroker Sanjay Dutt—that he was a “nominee of certain funds managed by Goldman Sachs which were invested in the Company.” Whose money had come through the bank remains unclear.)

As they prepared to buy back stock, the Roys found themselves short of money. To plug the shortfall, in July 2008, the Roys borrowed Rs 501 crore from India Bulls Financial Services. The loan marked the beginning of a chain of borrowing that haunts the Roys’ account books to this day.

The chief cause for the troubles that ensued was bad timing. As the Roys were carrying out the open offer, the housing loan crisis hit the United States and triggered collapses across global markets. NDTV’s stock took a beating, like those of many other companies, globally and in India. From Rs 400 at the end of July 2008, the share price crashed to less than Rs 100 by the end of October. The Roys watched the value of the shares they had just bought nosedive. It was like the floor had collapsed even as they tried to build a house.

To repay the India Bulls loan, the Roys took a loan from ICICI, of Rs 375 crore, at an annual interest rate of 19 percent. To obtain this loan they offered as collateral their entire personal shareholding, as well as that of RRPR, a total of 61.45 percent of NDTV’s stock.

A December 2010 report in the newspaper Sunday Guardian, co-authored by the journalist Prayaag Akbar—the son of MJ Akbar, who owned the weekly along with the senior advocate and BJP member Ram Jethmalani—described the workings of this ICICI loan as “financial chicanery,” and said the company had “indulged in financial misdemeanours and malpractices in connivances with ICICI.” The article claimed that the value of each pledged share was Rs 439, when in fact the price at the time the loan was granted was Rs 99. It alleged that “the worth of the collateral was far less than the amount given” as loan.

In January 2011, NDTV sued MJ Akbar and others for defamation in the Delhi High Court, and demanded Rs 25 crore in damages. The Roys claimed that their collateral was more than the value of the ICICI loan. In December 2011, the court restrained the newspaper from “republishing or recirculating” the article online or in print—it remains unavailable on the paper’s website. The case is currently pending in court. But though NDTV insisted that the story was defamatory, the transaction had come to the notice of authorities. In April 2013, Sanjay Dutt wrote a letter about it to the Reserve Bank of India; the central bank responded the next month saying that the loan “is already receiving our attention.”

The ICICI loan was only one link in the larger chain of borrowing that the Roys were trapped in, which had begun with the India Bulls loan. To repay ICICI, on 21 July 2009, the Roys took another loan, of Rs 350 crore, from an entity named Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Limited, or VCPL. The source of this loan was Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which routed the money to VCPL through a subsidiary. Prannoy and Radhika signed the agreement for RRPR. On behalf of VCPL, the agreement was signed by KR Raja—an employee of Reliance Industries.

The terms of this loan were quite extraordinary. First, the Roys were required to divest a significant chunk of their personal stock in NDTV and transfer it to RRPR, taking its total shareholding from 15 percent to 26 percent of the company. Then, control of RRPR was effectively handed over to VCPL. (Even this transaction, which preceded the loan, raises serious questions of propriety. Radhika and Prannoy sold their shares to RRPR at Rs 4 per share when the market price was more than Rs 130. Had they sold at the market price, they would have made significant “capital gains”—or profit from the sale of an asset. This would, in turn, have attracted taxes. It is possible that selling the shares at a lower price saved the Roys crores in taxes. The Roys have defended their decision in the past, claiming that it was a transfer between promoters, and that they were entitled to sell their stock at any price they chose.)

After the Roys’ shares were handed over to RRPR, NDTV received Rs 350 crore from VCPL, which they used to repay the ICICI loan. On 9 March 2010, the Roys together transferred an additional 3.18-percent stake of NDTV, which they held personally, to RRPR, at Rs 4 per share, taking RRPR’s total shareholding in the company to 29.18 percent. VCPL then paid an additional Rs 53.85 crore to RRPR, taking the total amount it loaned to NDTV up to Rs 403.85 crore.

The agreement gave VCPL the right to convert the loan into 99.99 percent of RRPR’s equity—effectively, complete ownership—not just during the period of the loan but even after—“at any time during the tenure of the Loan or thereafter without requiring any further act or deed on the part of the Lender.” Puzzlingly, this meant that regardless of repayment, VCPL could officially take over RRPR at any time it wanted. For all practical purposes, this was a sale of 29.18 percent of NDTV to VCPL—a greater share than the individual holdings of Radhika and Prannoy Roy.

Under the agreement, RRPR was to have three directors, one of whom was to be appointed by VCPL. NDTV could not sell or raise further equity, file for bankruptcy, or do anything that would affect RRPR’s shareholding, without VCPL’s consent. (Additionally, the Roys were also barred from selling or transferring their own shares in the company.) These conditions ensured the Roys no longer had any control over RRPR, which owned nearly one-third of NDTV’s stock; effectively their control over NDTV itself was seriously weakened. (The loan agreement did contain one token term of relief: that VCPL could not “interfere with the editorial policies of NDTV.” However, in a situation where so much control over the company was handed over, such a safeguard could be almost meaningless.)

From VCPL onwards, the loan trail gets murkier. The company’s documents showed it had no assets, businesses or transactions on its books before the NDTV loan. To lend to RRPR, in the 2010 financial year, VCPL itself borrowed Rs 403.85 crore from Shinano Retail, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Reliance. VCPL forwarded this money to RRPR as an unsecured, interest-free loan. (The links between VCPL and Shinano form an Escherian stairwell that lead to Reliance no matter where you begin. VCPL’s directors, Ashwin Khasgiwala and Kalpana Srinivasan, were both employees of Reliance. VCPL shared the same address as the Reliance subsidiary Shinano, which in turn owned part of VCPL. And VCPL’s second owner was also a Reliance subsidiary.)

In its affidavit to the Delhi High Court, the income tax department was categorical in what it thought of VCPL. Quoting its own earlier report, from June 2011, the affidavit stated that VCPL “has no business activity and is not a genuine concern.” It added that it had forwarded details of its investigations into this “allegedly benami” transaction, to the relevant assessing authorities.

In a related matter, also in the Delhi High Court, the income tax department clearly traced the source of the money that VCPL gave RRPR: “M/s RRPR Holdings Pvt Ltd. had taken a loan of Rs 403 crores approx. from M/s Vishvapradhan Commercial Pvt Ltd., which had taken loan from M/s Shinano Retail Pvt. Ltd. and M/s Shinano Retail Pvt Ltd. had taken loans from Reliance group of companies.”

The fact that Reliance stepped in and helped out a floundering NDTV is borne out by a call recorded at the time, between the senior journalist MK Venu and Reliance’s lobbyist Niira Radia. The recording, made by the income tax department, was leaked the next year as part of the tranche that is now collectively called the “Radia tapes.” On 9 July 2009, Radia told Venu that she and Manoj Modi, a close associate of Mukesh Ambani, were visiting Delhi to meet Prannoy. “We need to support Prannoy, you know,” she said. “We feel it needs to be supported.”

VCPL’s transactions are key to the question of who owns and controls NDTV. Its loan to RRPR meant that Reliance effectively controlled 29.18 percent of NDTV’s shares, while the Roys’ combined share fell to around 32 percent. This much of the trail has been reported before, though not by mainstream media organisations. The media-focused website Newslaundry, in January 2015, used company filings with the ministry of corporate affairs to track the flow of money, and show that Reliance had acquired a substantial stake in NDTV.

But when Newslaundry asked Reliance about this loan, a spokesperson responded: “RIL does not have any direct or indirect interest in NDTV.” This seemed an unlikely assertion given the facts that were known.

However, the company appears to have told Newslaundry the truth. Investigations by the income tax department, and information available with the ministry of corporate affairs, show that the trail took a mysterious turn at this point, which severed the link between Reliance and NDTV. During the 2012 financial year, Shinano Retail—to whom RRPR owed money through VCPL—declared in its annual report that VCPL had repaid its loan of Rs 403.85 crore. But the money did not come from NDTV—RRPR’s records for the same year showed that it still owed VCPL Rs 403.85 crore (the company still owes this money). Thus, the money Reliance lent RRPR had been paid back—but not by RRPR.

How did this happen? The documents throw some light on the question, but still leave a lot unexplained. They show that during the 2012 financial year, VCPL received Rs 50 crore from Eminent Networks, a company owned by Mahendra Nahata, an industrialist, who is also on the board of one Reliance company. The transaction gave Eminent rights over VCPL’s loan to RRPR, worth Rs 403.85 crore. (Earlier this year, however, RRPR sent a reply to some queries raised by the income tax department and said that the “company had no relations with Eminent Networks Pvt. Ltd.”)

But this does not make intuitive sense. The value of a Rs 403.85 crore loan is, of course, Rs 403.85 crore. It does not stand to reason that VCPL would sell that loan to Eminent for a mere Rs 50 crore. Further, Shinano had declared that it received the entire Rs 403.85 crore from VCPL. But VCPL only had Rs 50 crore on its books that year, paid to it by Eminent. Even if it paid that entire amount to Shinano, that still left more than Rs 350 crore unaccounted for that Shinano claimed it had received from the company.

This discrepancy suggests that either Eminent, through VCPL, paid more than the Rs 50 crore it claimed to have paid, or that Shinano received less than the Rs 403.85 crore it claimed to have received. Alternatively, a third party, which is off the books, and still unknown, might have made up the shortfall, and paid Shinano Rs 353.85 crore, helping snip the link between Reliance and NDTV. (The same year, VCPL’s ownership also changed hands, from Reliance companies to entities related to Mahendra Nahata.) If a mystery party is involved, it is perhaps fair to assume that their payment of such a large sum of money would come with rights over the agreement VCPL has with RRPR and the Roys—namely, rights over all of RRPR’s shares, which Mukesh Ambani once held indirectly, and riders on the Roys’ personal stake.

NDTV should have declared the VCPL loan transactions to SEBI, as is mandatory for a publicly traded company when its promoter entity changes (RRPR was declared as a promoter entity, and the deal effectively changed its ownership). In response to a complaint from Sanjay Dutt, the regulator claimed in April 2015 that it was “unable to get its hands” on the loan agreement between VCPL and RRPR. This was odd: SEBI, as the market regulator, should have been able to access the documents of NDTV, a publicly traded company. Further, by this time, the document was already available with another government agency—the income tax department.

NDTV did not inform the ministry of information and broadcasting about these transactions either, although it is mandatory for news companies to declare loans and other agreements to the ministry. (That the deal was effectively a sale further complicates this problem.) What entity currently has indirect control over RRPR is for the moment unknown. It is clear, however, that the Roys’ move to strengthen their hold over NDTV by buying back shares has left them facing the prospect of losing significant control over their company.

Arnab Goswami left NDTV IN 2004. and went on to lead a rival channel, Times Now. His nightly shouting match "Newshour" propelled him to the top of the ratings charts. APOORVA SALKADE/OUTLOOK


EVEN AS THE ROYS STRUGGLED with their account books, their newsroom was facing its own set of problems. In April 2004, just a year after the launch of NDTV 24x7, Arnab Goswami, then the national news editor of the channel, left to launch and head a rival channel, Times Now. A year later, NDTV’s managing editor, Rajdeep Sardesai, left to set up CNN-IBN with the entrepreneur Raghav Bahl. He took with him the company’s chief financial officer, Sameer Manchanda, who had been with the Roys since 1988.

Many former NDTV staffers told me that both Goswami and Sardesai left because they felt they weren’t getting their due at the channel. One account I heard often was that, in 2004, when the salaries of top employees were made public for the first time, Sardesai was hurt to learn that he was seventh on the list, even though he more or less ran the newsroom. One editor, who has worked at NDTV and with Sardesai at CNN-IBN, told me that after a few drinks at a party, Sardesai admitted that he was unhappy at being paid less than Smeeta Chakrabarti, a senior management executive at the network. However, others I spoke to said that he quit simply because Bahl gave him the opportunity to build his own newsroom.

The rupture of the NDTV “family” hit the Roys both personally and professionally. Goswami went on to redefine television news programming in India with “Newshour,” a nightly shouting match on Times Now, where he played heckler-in-chief.  The show propelled Times Now to the lead in the ratings race, even as NDTV stayed with its primetime format of bulletins and reported news, and its relatively calmer debate shows.

Meanwhile, Sardesai’s exit left the newsroom without a clear leader. Most staffers said that Sardesai was far more admired than Sonia Singh, who has managed the newsroom since he left. A journalist whom the Roys hired before the launch of NDTV 24x7 told me that Sardesai worked closely with reporters across shows, whereas other senior staffers, such as Barkha Dutt and Sreenivasan Jain, were like “satraps” and generally treated their own shows as “their little kingdoms.”

Television news requires a hands-on editor, “who is there 24-7,” and Sardesai was just that kind of leader, this journalist said. A former resident editor at a state bureau told me that if a big story was coming up, Sardesai would always call the bureau the previous day to discuss how it should be packaged. One person, who joined the newsroom just as Sardesai was about to quit, said that he was an “integral part of why the journalists did what they did.” Unsurprisingly, others left with him, including Bhupendra Chaubey, a senior political reporter who is now the national affairs editor of CNN-IBN. Any other senior member’s departure from the newsroom wouldn’t have had as great an impact, the journalist said.

The person who had joined the channel before the launch of NDTV 24x7 recalled that the Roys left the office visibly “glum” the day Sardesai told them of his decision. His energy in the newsroom was infectious, this person said, and after he left, morale in the office plummeted.

The former Roys’ boy said that the Roys even tried to disparage Sardesai after his departure, and suggest that he had been running the newsroom unfairly. He recounted them telling employees that “things are going to change now,” and that “decisions will be made on merit.” Around the same time, senior employees received generous offers of stock in the company, which had gone public the previous year. Many others saw their salaries double. Some former members of the newsroom said that these moves stemmed from the Roys’ insecurity about retaining employees—in any event, nobody complained.

But though the anchors’ exits were the most high-profile, the senior journalist who spent nearly 15 years in the newsroom told me that they didn’t cause the most damage. “It was Manchanda that hit us more than Rajdeep,” the journalist said. “We knew we could replicate” Sardesai, he added, but Manchanda’s move to CNN-IBN “was the problem,” since he was privy to a trove of corporate secrets. NDTV was small compared to some other networks, such as Zee, he said, and in such businesses, “your clients are your main thing.” As the head of finance, Manchanda dealt with advertisers, the company’s main source of revenue. He also interacted with investors to manage business expansion, and helped the channel extend its reach by working closely with cable operators. “He knew how much money was paid in advertisements, who are the people, what are the deals,” the senior journalist said.

It didn’t help that the television industry’s business model had by this time been turned on its head. With the advent of digital technology still some years away, channels relied heavily on cable networks to reach viewers. At first, cable operators had charged subscribers a fee, and passed on a share to television channels. But as the market grew more crowded, bandwidth was at a premium. So, operators began to charge channels to carry them. What began as a revenue stream for television channels became a major expense.

This made income from advertising all the more crucial. Some advertisers sought specific kinds of channels on which to buy airtime. But many just followed television rating points closely, and picked channels that attracted the most eyeballs within each genre. Here, NDTV was slipping behind the competition.

Barkha Dutt, one of NDTV's best-known faces, received criticism in 2010 after recordings surfaced of her telling lobbyist Niira Radia that she would courier information between politicians. SANJAY RAWAT/OUTLOOK

Ironically, NDTV’s prior success handicapped its ability to adapt to the changing market and retain viewers. The senior journalist told me that the new channels “were nimble-footed” and carried out experiments to draw in viewers, such as telecasting without any advertising breaks for as many as six hours at a stretch. NDTV had locked in their programming and advertising in advance, and could not adapt to compete. The “prosperity of the channel became the problem,” he said. “We could not manoeuvre because we had already sold the airtime” to advertisers who had once coveted space on the network.

Media networks across the world had resorted to a strategy of subsidising newsgathering expenses with revenue from a general entertainment channel. The Roys sought to do this by launching NDTV Imagine in 2008. They also bet big on “hyperlocal news,” with Metronation, a brand of channels that was to cater to specific cities.

Both these ventures failed. Imagine’s finances took a blow when markets crashed, triggering the recession of 2008, just a few months after the channel was launched. The Roys saw their initial funds, raised through international deals and bonds, quickly burn up, and couldn’t raise additional capital to survive. The channel that was intended to support newsgathering became a drain on the network. Metronation and Imagine were shut down over the next two years. As the pressure on them grew, the Roys resorted to layoffs. Between 2008 and 2009, the network fired approximately 250 people, or 20 percent of its workforce.

This marked the beginning of a downslide from which NDTV hasn’t recovered. Its stock price, which reached a high of Rs 511 in January 2008, tumbled to Rs 25 in 2012, and currently hovers between Rs 80 and Rs 100. Its value by market capitalisation—the share price multiplied by the total number of shares—has dropped from around Rs 3,000 crore in early 2008 to less than Rs 600 crore currently. It last recorded a profit, of Rs 21.9 crore, in March 2005. Its annual losses are now in the tens of crores—Rs 84 crore for the financial year 2014 and Rs 46 crore for the financial year 2015.

Meanwhile, the network’s editorial credibility also suffered a serious blow. In November 2010, the magazines Open and Outlook published the first set of the Radia tapes, which prominently featured NDTV’s group editor, Barkha Dutt. (Disclosure: Hartosh Singh Bal, who was the political editor of Open at the time, is now The Caravan’s political editor.)

In the leaked conversations, Dutt’s conduct appeared to violate norms of editorial probity. In the most glaring such instance, she agreed to courier information from Radia to the Congress on behalf of the party’s coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. In one of the many conversations between the two, from 22 May 2009, Dutt asked Radia, “Tell me, what should I tell them?” Later the same day, Dutt said, “I’ve had a long chat, and they promised me that Azad will speak to him,” referring to Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress, and M Karunanidhi of the DMK. The conversation took place a month before Radia told Venu that she planned to meet Prannoy in Delhi to “support” him; it was two months before the Roys signed the VCPL loan agreement with the Reliance employee KR Raja. (A number of individuals involved in the Roys’ financial dealings have been under investigation for other business matters. The serious fraud investigation office has probed KR Raja and Radia for Reliance’s transactions with INX News Private Limited. And Mahendra Nahata, who bought RRPR’s loan in the 2012 financial year, was recently investigated by the CBI as part of the cases related to the sale of 2G spectrum.)

Rajdeep Sardesai left his position as managing editor at NDTV in 2005, to head CNN-IBN. JITENDER GUPTA/OUTLOOK

Dutt later denied that she had passed any information on to Congress leaders, but the leaked tapes had a serious impact on her credibility and, by extension, on that of NDTV. On 10 November 2010, Dutt defended herself angrily in the NDTV studio to a panel that included the former editor of the Times of India Dileep Padgaonkar, the then editor of Open, Manu Joseph, and the columnist Swapan Dasgupta. She admitted she had made an “inadvertent error of judgement” in her interactions with Radia, but nothing further. She asked if she was being accused of lobbying or power-brokering. “I did not pass, as I have maintained repeatedly, I actually did not pass on any message” to the Congress, she insisted.

Within the NDTV newsroom, however, there was no discussion on the matter. “If you were part of the NDTV newsroom, you did not know it happened,” said Kajori Sen, who was part of the editorial team in 2010, and quit last year. She and several others who were with NDTV at the time told me that, internally, the Radia tapes episode was ignored, with no communication from the top about what the Roys thought of it.

People who were with the channel then heard that an ethics committee had looked into the matter, but were given no details of what went on in its meetings. Eventually, the group decided to back Dutt. Kishalay Bhattacharjee, who was with NDTV from 1996 to 2012, told me he considered it a missed opportunity. “It was a chance to redeem” the brand, he said.

But Dutt was a senior staffer, and a member of what some former staffers described to me as the Roys’ “coterie.” These were the longtime employees, who others felt received preferential treatment from the Roys. Sandeep Bhushan told me that the company had started “mimicking the state” in the way it functioned, protecting and rewarding some and passing others over.

A former anchor who quit recently told she was just one of many people who made this problem “abundantly clear” to the Roys before her departure. “NDTV takes seniority very seriously,” she said. Another staffer who quit recently told me that senior staff were considered “gods on-screen” and “gods off-screen.” But none of them were strong newsroom leaders, this journalist said, adding that the company suffers under “the burden of the stars.” The same people who had built NDTV up now prevented it from recovering the ground it had lost to other networks.


EACH OF THE INVESTIGATIONS into NDTV’s business dealings is like a cocked gun pointed at the company. These, more than newsroom troubles, and even questions of ownership, seem to be the biggest threats looming over the company and the Roys.

Of these investigations, the probes by multiple agencies into NDTV’s web of offshore transactions are perhaps the most critical. The enforcement directorate and income tax department’s affidavits on their investigations into these matters mention that the CBI and the RBI, among other agencies, are also examining these deals.

Some of these transactions were first investigated in the mid 2000s, by an income tax officer named SK Srivastava, whom I met in late September at his office in Noida. A tall man with a toothbrush moustache, Srivastava can rattle off long monologues about NDTV—which he seems to hate passionately—and its finances, without consulting a single document.

He started with investigations into alleged violations in NDTV’s tax assessments. (In an apparent conflict of interest, one tax officer who was involved in the assessment, Sumana Sen, was married to an NDTV journalist named Abhisar Sharma, who is now with ABP News.)

Srivastava—who told me he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—claimed his investigations revealed a deep well of financial misconduct by the company. But the work had taken a personal toll on him, he said—he had been suspended from his job for years, and had to fight charges of sexual harassment that he claimed were politically motivated.

After looking into NDTV’s finances from 2004 to 2006, Srivastava produced an eye-popping list of allegations, none of which have been proven. He received support for his campaign from the lawyer Ram Jethmalani, and the chartered accountant and RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy. Jethmalani and Gurumurthy exchanged a series of letters with the Congress leader and former cabinet minister P Chidambaram and Prannoy Roy, respectively, reiterating Srivastava’s charges and demanding action.

In his letter, sent in December 2013, Jethmalani accused NDTV and Chidambaram of concealing income of around Rs 5,700 crore, laundering money to the tune of Rs 5,500 crore, evading taxes of about Rs 3,500 crore, and embezzling around Rs 1.5 crore of government money. NDTV had floated “altogether 21 bogus subsidiaries” across the world, Jethmalani thundered at Chidambaram, through which “illicit black money was laundered,” and the money in question “belongs to you and your son.”

The minister replied to Jethmalani on 19 December, denying all charges and calling them “outrageous allegations.” He wrote that he had, nevertheless, forwarded the letter and the details to the finance-cum-revenue secretary to “cause an inquiry in a time bound manner and to submit the conclusions of the inquiry in a sealed cover directly to the Hon’ble Prime Minister.” Unconvinced, Jethmalani responded ten days later, saying that he didn’t see how a fair inquiry could be conducted by the minister’s subordinate. He signed off saying, “I regret this matter has to end in the courts of the country or perhaps the Court of the Sovereign People of India.”

A similar exchange took place between Prannoy and Gurumurthy in January 2014. In the email conversation, Prannoy tried to convince Gurumurthy, with the help of documents, that his accusations were baseless. Like Jethmalani, Gurumurthy responded, ten days later, saying that he remained unconvinced.

Early this October, a senior officer with one of the agencies investigating NDTV told me that Srivastava had been on the right track with his accusations. When I read through the investigating agencies’ affidavits, I found that the sums of money that have surfaced in the probes are far lower than those that appeared in Srivastava’s allegations. But the amounts are nevertheless substantial.

Questions over NDTV's ownership, and investigations into the Roys' financial dealings, pose a serious threat to the network's future. RAJ K RAJ/HINDUSTAN TIMES

The income tax department has already, in February 2014, demanded Rs 450 crore from NDTV after reassessing their liabilities just for the financial year 2010. NDTV has challenged this demand in court. The department is also reassessing accounts from subsequent years.

Many of the findings from the current investigations pertain to the question of raising foreign capital for a media business. (Until 11 November, a television news company was allowed a maximum of 26 percent of its equity through foreign direct investment. Recently, the Modi government raised this limit to 49 percent.) The ED affidavit stated that NDTV had set up a number of wholly-owned subsidiaries and joint ventures to raise capital abroad. Some of these, it said, “directly or indirectly through step down subsidiaries made investments in India.” It claimed that, between 2006 and 2011, “NDTV or related companies in India” received Rs 648.81 crore in foreign funds. (At another point, the affidavit cited a foreign direct investment of Rs 1,295 crore in “NDTV related” companies, though it didn’t specify a time frame for this.)

Also citing a CBI inquiry dating to 2011, the affidavit outlined one particularly tangled set of transactions to this end. It begins with a transfer of a sum of Rs 387.62 crore from “NDTV (Media) Mauritius Ltd” to “NDTV Studios Ltd,” an Indian subsidiary of NDTV Limited. “A small portion of these funds were used for investment in 6 new subsidiaries in India in 2009,” the affidavit stated, while a major portion went to a convoluted trail of companies, including some that it describes as subsidiaries of NDTV. “NDTV Studios Ltd and its 6 subsidiaries were thereafter merged with NDTV,” stated the affidavit, “thereby creating doubts about the purpose of their setting up as well as the sources of funds for NDTV (Media) Mauritius Ltd and the need to set up various companies in Mauritius.”

Given Jethmalani’s explosive allegations against Chidambaram, the question arises whether the latest affidavits claimed any link between the company and the minister. As it turns out, the name does appear in the ED affidavit, but in ambiguous phrasing. “It is alleged that around 294 companies with investors/ share holders having surnames like Chidambaram are running from the same premises as NDTV Network PLC”—a London-based subsidiary of NDTV—the affidavit stated. The phrase “it is alleged” leaves unclear whether it is the ED which is alleging this, or whether the agency is referring to another, possibly older, allegation. Further, the documents don’t identify any individuals beyond the phrase “with surnames like Chidambaram,” and don’t identify any precise allegations of violations that link NDTV with the former minister.

The ED affidavit devoted considerable space to the funds raised by the London subsidiary NDTV Network PLC, which filed an application with the Foreign Investment Promotion Board on 4 January 2007 for approval for investment into the “non-news sector in India.” After receiving this approval, the company raised funds from foreign sources to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. This included a sum of $150 million raised from NBC Universal, one of the largest media companies in the United States. The money gave NBCU an indirect stake of 26 percent in NDTV Network PLC.

Before this deal was announced, a string of emails was exchanged between NDTV’s senior-most executives and consultants of the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, in which they discussed the drafting of a press release about the matter. “If asked a question what will the money be used for???” wrote a PwC executive named Vivek Mehra on 21 May 2008. “We need to decide how to answer this question carefully.”

The next day, Prannoy Roy sent out “a first bash” at the press release, in which he wrote that as a result of the NBCU deal, the parent company NDTV Ltd now had funds of $150 million “to use for any opportunities in the future including acquisitions, expansion in the news space, or in the beyond-news space.” The phrase “expansion in the news space” continued to appear in the next few drafts of the release, exchanged over email. However, the final press release, published on the NDTV website, did not claim that the funds would be used for news.

In its affidavit, the ED said that it had taken statements from Navneet Raghuvanshi, NDTV’s company secretary, on 17 August, and 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 and 12 September this year, as part of its probe. The income tax department summoned NDTV’s vice-chairman, KVL Narayana Rao, around the same time. The ED affidavit ended with the line: “Further investigation in this case is in progress.”

On 19 November, the ED stepped up its offensive against NDTV, and issued a show-cause notice to the company. In it, the agency said it had identified contraventions of the foreign exchange management act, or FEMA, by the company. It also listed transactions by the company that the RBI has described as spurious. A “note” from the agency about the show-cause notice claimed that the amount involved was Rs 2,030.05 crore. The note ended, echoing the affidavit: “Further investigation under FEMA is being carried out.”

In mid November, I sent a list of 44 questions to Prannoy and Radhika Roy, including queries about who owned the company, Reliance’s investment, and the various ongoing investigations. Prannoy responded to my email, suggesting a meeting at one of NDTV’s offices, in south Delhi’s Greater Kailash 1. When we met, he said that I was not to quote from our conversation. But at the end of our meeting, he assured me that he would email me official responses to my questions about the investigations into NDTV’s finances. That email never came.

Over the past three months, I also asked current and former employees of NDTV some of these questions. None of them seemed sure of the truth. Many had read Newslaundry’s story on RRPR and Reliance, but some said they didn’t believe it. I got a sense from most of them that they trusted the Roys. One senior NDTV journalist said that if you peeled the layers off any news company, you would find some questionable dealings. In NDTV’s case, he said, the newsroom had always been insulated from the business.

But the sheer number of probes against NDTV, and their depth, is alarming. The figure raised in just the ED’s show-cause notice, Rs 2,030 crore, is more than three times what NDTV is worth today. If the allegations in the investigations are proven, the consequences could be devastating for what was once India’s most successful and respected news network.

The following errors have been corrected online. 1. The surname of NDTV’s managing editor, Chetan Bhattacharji, was misspelt as Bhattacharjee. 2. Indra Nooyi’s first name was misspelt as Indira. 3. Govind Narain was the father-in-law and not the father of Yogesh Chandra, Vikram Chandra's father. 

The Caravan regrets the errors.