How Rajeev Chandrasekhar influenced the editorial policies at Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha

On Independence Day in 2016, Suvarna News aired a debate between two speakers from the political left, and two adherents of Hindutva. The leftist speakers were presented against a dark backdrop showing barbed wire and raised fists. Their counterparts stood before a light one with the colours of the national flag.

On 25 May, the investigative news website Cobrapost released “Operation 136: Part II,” the second part of a sting operation in which the journalist Pushp Sharma, under the cover of a “seasoned pracharak,” met senior members of numerous media houses and offered to pay them large sums of money in exchange for running a Hindutva campaign on their platforms.  The news organisations featuring in the stings included the Kannada news channel Suvarna News and its sister publication, Kannada Prabha. On the day that Cobrapost released the videos of the stings, both organisations, as well as the Dainik Bhaskar Group, secured injunction orders against Cobrapost.

Both Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha are owned by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the media baron and member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Chandrasekhar is also currently the vice chairman of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Kerala. In the cover story of the 2017 media issue, Nikita Saxena and Atul Dev reported on Chandrasekhar’s political ambitions and his vast media empire. In the following excerpt from the story, Saxena and Dev report on the editorial transformation of Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha under Chandrasekhar. According to HS Balram, a former director of Asianet News Network—which is also owned by Chandrasekhar—the media baron “was tilting towards the BJP, even if he didn’t directly say so.” As a result, Balram added, the Kannada Prabha’s “policy was, tilt towards the BJP.”

Suvarna News was launched in March 2008, some nine months before the deal with Star that left Asianet News in Chandrasekhar’s hands. The channel was placed under the umbrella of Asianet News Network, the entity that controls Jupiter Capital’s print and television media entities.

The new channel grew out of a news bulletin on Suvarna, a Kannada general-entertainment channel that Jupiter founded in 2007. Shashidhar Bhat, the founding editor of Suvarna News, recalled that as Suvarna’s news operations expanded, Chandrasekhar told him that he wanted a “people-oriented channel that would not favour any political party.” A Jupiter executive declared that Suvarna News would stand for “transparent and unbiased journalism.”

At the time, the Kannada television news market was sparsely populated. Suvarna News was only the third channel to enter it. The new venture’s main competitor was TV9 Kannada, then, as now, the market leader.

The impression Shashidhar came away with when he first met Chandrasekhar, he told us, was that the businessman was “a nice gentleman.” The editor met with his boss every few weeks. Their conversations were mostly restricted to the channel’s ratings, Shashidhar said, and “content-wise he never interfered.”

Chandrasekhar made good first impressions on all the journalists we spoke to who have worked under him. HS Balram, who was the director of Asianet News Network between 2011 and 2015, told us, “I found Rajeev to be a thorough gentleman, decent guy, who respects editors on a personal level, at least with me.” The former journalist at Suvarna News said, “He is not a very affable sort of person, but he is very businesslike. Not one word more, not one word less—you have to be like that if you’re running an empire of the size that he is.”

The personal courtesy has not always come with professional respect. In the case of Suvarna News, in the nine years that the channel has been in operation, it has seen a long line of editors. Their political inclinations have varied, but in their view of Chandrasekhar many of them agree. “The great Rajeev Chandrasekhar doesn’t have any high regard for journalists, it is clear from his approach,” Shashidhar, who now runs a rival Kannada news channel, told us. Vishweshwar Bhat, a former editor of Suvarna News, wrote in an acerbic column on his former boss that Rajeev Chandrasekhar has had more editors than the English actor Elizabeth Hurley has had boyfriends.

A former business executive at Asianet News told us that there has been a high rate of attrition among the management personnel of Chandrasekhar’s media ventures too. With them, unlike among most journalists, Chandrasekhar has a reputation for flying into rages. “Many of them would tremble at the mention of a meeting with him, especially if they knew there was something he was going to be unhappy about,” Balram said.

Shashidhar—who told us he identifies as “anti-BJP”—lasted at Suvarna News for roughly a year and a half. Tensions flared between him and Chandrasekhar at one point during his tenure, he said, after he received a call from Ananth Kumar. Yeddyurappa had complained to Chandrasekhar about the coverage on Suvarna News, and told him that his editor was “poisonous.” An anxious Chandrasekhar, Shashidhar said, began soliciting opinions on him. One of the people Chandrasekhar conferred with was Kumar, who relayed the conversation to Shashidhar. The editor let Chandrasekhar know his displeasure, and, he said, got an apology.

Towards the end of 2009, Shashidhar received another shock. An executive told him one morning that the management wanted him to leave the channel to become Chandrasekhar’s political advisor. “I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t want to become a political advisor to any politician, I am a journalist,’” Shashidhar recalled. Around noon, the executive told Shashidhar he was being promoted to the director of new ventures for Asianet, and asked Shashidhar to vacate his office. When the editor said he would leave after finishing an afternoon bulletin that he anchored, he was told that he did not have the time. The channel’s new editor was already on his way.

Shashidhar left for Jupiter’s corporate office. He did not last long there either, and went on to join a rival channel. He had had no indication before his removal as editor that the management was so unhappy with him that it was seeking a replacement. Shashidhar realised that though Chandrasekhar “would not say anything directly … his coterie—of CEOs, COOs, CFOs—would try and interfere. He tried to take editorial control through them.”

Other journalists who worked under Chandrasekhar came to the same conclusion. “In private meetings I would find Rajeev very cosmopolitan, but the minute you get out, his CEO or chief of staff—he has a very military kind of structure within the management of his companies—would call and contradict what he had said,” a former editor at one of Chandrasekhar’s outlets told us.

A journalist who worked at Suvarna News said he was convinced that “these deputies did not speak without checking with him when it came to editorial decisions.” Chandrasekhar “is hands-off,” he said, “but there are people who would act as his hands and ears and eyes. I need not steal this mobile phone from you, I can get someone else to do this. My hands are clean. That’s how clean his hands are.”

Shashidhar’s successor was HR Ranganath, until then the editor of the daily Kannada Prabha. The two had started their careers together at the newspaper. Under Ranganath, a journalist who worked with him at Suvarna News said, the channel got “a completely new vision.”

But, a journalist who worked at Suvarna News at that time said, “There was an editorial rift between Rajeev and Ranga,” over Chandrasekhar’s decision “to focus on the BJP and poke his nose in editorial affairs, which Ranga was not okay with.” By April 2011, Hameed Palya, a political editor with the channel, had taken over as the editor. Ranganath soon started a news channel of his own.

While Ranganath was wrestling with Suvarna News, Jupiter secured a 26-percent stake in Kannada Prabha, in 2010. Chandrasekhar had tried to buy into newspapers earlier too, but had failed. Reports surfaced in 2008 that he was looking to invest in The Printers Mysore, which publishes the English-language daily Deccan Herald and the Kannada daily Prajavani. A person aware of the negotiations told us that the deal fell apart after “disagreement over the sale of the real estate”—including Deccan Herald’s offices in a prime location in Bengaluru. (Representatives of The Printers Mysore declined to comment when contacted.) With Kannada Prabha, Chandrasekhar quickly consolidated his hold. In 2011, he raised his stake in the paper to 51 percent, in a valuation that was reported to be close to Rs 300 crore.

Kannada Prabha, established in 1967 by Ramnath Goenka, the founder of the Indian Express, had a history to uphold. It had covered and influenced pivotal movements in Karnataka’s politics, and counted several illustrious intellectuals as its former editors. Shiva Sundar, a veteran Kannada journalist, said that the paper “had a liberal legacy,” and “politically it was centrist.”

In February 2011, Vishweshwar Bhat was appointed Kannada Prabha’s new editor-in-chief. Until the previous year, he had been in charge of another newspaper, Vijay Karnataka. Vishweshwar had also served as an officer on special duty to Ananth Kumar when the BJP leader was a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet.

Vijay Karnataka and the ethos behind it had an impact on Karnataka media in general,” Sundar said. “It introduced saffronisation, corporatisation and monopoly.” A former executive of the Times Group, the media conglomerate that acquired the paper in 2006, told us that “Vishweshwar Bhat, to a great extent, was a right-winger, and an extremist on that point of view.”

Vishweshwar and the team he brought with him “implemented whatever they were implementing in Vijay Karnataka,” Sundar said. “Communal agenda, batting for the BJP openly, hailing the RSS—it was no holds barred.” (On that team was PratapSimha, one of Vishweshwar’s protégés. In 2014, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Mysore on a BJP ticket.)

A reporter who worked at Kannada Prabha with Vishweshwar said that the publication changed drastically under his editorship, and became “a repository of right-wing thought.” Chandrasekhar “was tilting towards the BJP,” Balram said, “even if he didn’t directly say so.” So “the paper’s policy was, tilt towards the BJP.”

Vishweshwar was made the editor of Suvarna News in mid 2011, while continuing as the editor of Kannada Prabha.

In October 2012, a new channel named NaMo TV debuted in Gujarat, two months before an assembly election in the state. It was directed and funded by the Gujarat leadership of the BJP, and dedicated itself to lionising the state’s incumbent chief minister, Narendra Modi, and, to a lesser degree, Amit Shah. A person aware of the project said that ten people from Jupiter’s channels, most of them from Suvarna News, provided technical assistance to NaMo TV. The LinkedIn profile of the chief technology officer of Asianet News Network, CK Vasudeva, states that “while in Suvarna News,” he “created full fledged cable TV news channel for BJP party of Gujatrath named NAMO TV within a short span of 30 days.”

“Plus some editorial guys were involved as well,” the person aware of the project added, though he insisted they “had nothing to do with the content.” He declined to name the journalists who worked on the project, some of whom, he said, are still employed by Asianet News Network. He added that Asianet News Network charged a “nominal fee” for the work, but he was not sure that it even “covered the operational expenditure.”

In a magazine interview in 2012, Parendu Bhagat, a close aide to Modi, admitted to handling the channel’s operations, alongside others from Modi’s team. Bhagat, who usually goes by Kakubhai, said that the channel was “Narendra-ji’s idea,” even down to its name.

In June 2013, the actor turned Congress politician Divya Spandana filed criminal defamation charges against Chandrasekhar and Suvarna News after a story that insinuated that she, among others, acted as a go-between for bookies during that year’s season of the Indian Premier League. Spandana told us that Chandrasekhar asked her if his name could be dropped from the suit, while also telling her that Vishweshwar’s name should “most certainly be there.” The case is ongoing. A former executive at Asianet News Network said that Chandrasekhar spoke often about firing Vishweshwar, but did not want to do it himself.

The journalist who worked at Suvarna News said that Chandrasekhar would “talk big on everything” with the editorial team, but with business and management people “he would put money pressure on them, and they would talk in a way that would destroy everything. He would only talk money with them, not ethics.”

“Every video channel makes money through certain time slots,” a person who worked at Suvarna News said. “Sometimes, this is something visible with a band that says ‘sponsored feature,’ but many of us get away without putting it. It is an industry secret.” The money used to be collected in cash—“sometimes twenty or twenty-five lakh rupees.” The person added, “Maybe I should have stopped it, maybe I should have not taken the money. … But even I was under pressure to generate money.” Chandrasekhar was aware of such business practices by his channel, the person said. He would sometimes ask why no disclosure of the nature of the coverage was carried on air with it. The person said that Chandrasekhar was told that adding such disclosure would mean that no one would buy more slots. Chandrasekhar would, at best, reprimand his staff, and ask for disclosure the next time.

In May 2013, Suvarna News received a new editor, Anantha Chinivar. Vishweshwar retained a designation as the editor-in-chief of the channel, and of Kannada Prabha. By then, the coverage at Suvarna News came with certain omissions. “Tell me, why is there next to nothing about Ananth Kumar on Rajeev’s channel if he is so non-interfering and ethical,” a politician from the Congress told us. The former journalist at Suvarna News told us that the media owner gave top editorial staff the names of people he preferred that the channel not pursue stories on. The list was diverse, the journalist said, in keeping with Chandrasekhar’s wide-ranging affiliations. As of 2013, it included Yeddyurappa, Ananth Kumar and SM Krishna, as well as DK Shivakumar, a Congress politician raided by tax authorities this August.

“You would have to allow these compromises, to an extent,” the journalist said. Things were fine until 2014, but “as the election approached, his everyday interference was there through his people. He would not call directly,” but there were plenty of people “to call on his behalf.”

In early 2014, Chandrasekhar convened an editorial meeting at Suvarna News to discuss “Project Next Level”—an initiative to boost the channel’s ratings and popularity. While also delving into such things as the channel’s visual design, a staff member who was aware of the proceedings told us, Chandrasekhar said that Suvarna News should no longer be seen to be critical of Modi.

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Kannada Prabha also suffered from the inconstant editorial leadership. “If every two years an editor goes away—every paper has a touch of the editor’s pen, their style of stories and working—then so does the credibility,” Balram said. Shashidhar said that Kannada Prabha “lost its original character.” Lankesh told us, “The infamy of razing down to the ground a once reputed and highly respected publication solely goes to Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the ideology he espouses today.”

The newspaper, fourth in the ranks of Kannada dailies by reach, was also hampered by friction over ownership. When Chandrasekhar first bought his stake in Kannada Prabha, and later increased it, the remaining stake was held by Express Publications (Madurai) Limited, the company that owns the New Indian Express. In mid 2013, Business Standard reported a tussle between Chandrasekhar and the owner of EPML, Manoj Sonthalia, as Chandrasekhar tried to gain complete ownership and Sonthalia tried to wrest back control.

After Vishweshwar departed from Kannada Prabha and Suvarna News, SugataSrinivasaraju was brought in to lead both. Before this, Srinivasaraju had replaced Vishweshwar as the editor-in-chief of Vijay Karnataka.

“When Sugata joined Kannada Prabha, we were all surprised,” Lankesh said. “Because Sugata is certainly not SanghParivar, he is certainly not Congress, but he is a secular guy. He can be critical of the Congress and damning of the BJP.”

“The nature of Kannada Prabha changed under Sugata,” Sundar said. “It became openly anti-communal.” While engineering the reorientation, Srinivasaraju, like his predecessors, had to deal with unwelcome attention from the management. A Jupiter executive asked two staffers at Asianet Newsable to translate stories from Kannada Prabha and indicate to him the positions they were taking. (Several journalists with experience in Chandrasekhar’s Kannada companies said that many people on his management staff struggle to understand their outlets’ stances because they, like the owner, cannot read the language.) A journalist who worked under Chandrasekhar said that, in 2016, the Jupiter executive asked some journalists at Asianet Newsable for their reading of Srinivasaraju’s orientation—specifically, if he was anti-Modi or pro-Modi. When the journalists protested, he justified himself by saying that he needed the information for a meeting with Chandrasekhar.

In March 2017, Srinivasaraju left Asianet News Network. It was a few months after this that Amit Gupta, the chief operating officer of Jupiter Capital, wrote to editors at the company’s media ventures, directing them to recruit in alignment with the chairman’s ideology.

Whatever Srinivasaraju did to align the organisations in his charge with his style of journalism, it only went so far. A journalist who worked with Asianet News Network at the time told us that Chandrasekhar stressed the need to go after individuals and not just issues. “‘Put a face to a controversy, don’t make it look like a systemic thing’—that was his idea of journalism,” the journalist said. “Responsible journalism was not really an idea he understood.”

Several journalists who worked under Chandrasekhar said he pointed to the style of Arnab Goswami—belligerent, jingoistic, and at the time generating top ratings for Times Now, the channel where the anchor worked—as something to emulate. Suvarna News often did.

On Independence Day last year, the channel assembled a live panel of two speakers from the political left, one speaker affiliated to the RSS, and a leader of the BJP’s youth wing. The leftist speakers were presented against a dark backdrop showing barbed wire and raised fists. Their counterparts stood before a light one with the colours of the national flag. “The debate had nothing to do with the freedom struggle or independence,” Gauri Lankesh told us. “Instead, they pitched it as these liberals being anti-nationals, versus the ultra-nationals who really loved the country.” The anchor sided against the leftists, who were regularly scoffed at and ridiculed.

When the show was broadcast, it was so heavily edited that it drew protests on social media, Lankesh said. Suvarna News later put out an unedited version of the discussion, “but in the process, it earned a really bad name for itself.”

The former Suvarna News journalist said that with Republic TV in Chandrasekhar’s hands, “I think it is gelling well for Rajeev, because he now has a right-wing channel in the regional space and right-wing channel in the national space. Now there is synergy. He was always talking about that.”

This is an excerpt from Nikita Saxena and Atul Dev's cover story,"No Land's Man," in the December 2017 issue.

Nikita Saxena and Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: media freedom Rajeev Chandrasekhar Kannada Prabha Asianet Suvarna News Cobrapost
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