Not Black Or White: How To Separate The Rights And Wrongs In NDTV Case

R Jagannathan

Jun 06, 2017, 12:37 PM | Updated 12:37 PM IST

NDTV executive co-chairperson Prannoy Roy. (Ana-Bianca Marin/GettyImages)
NDTV executive co-chairperson Prannoy Roy. (Ana-Bianca Marin/GettyImages)
  • Media houses that claim the right to investigate the high and mighty must equally be subject to the same scrutiny that they think powerful people ought to subject themselves to.
  • Media is not above the law. When media becomes unviable, true freedom needs you to check the colour of the money you are receiving.
  • Since few people believe that a “caged parrot” can act on its own, one should surely question the political wisdom of launching a high-profile raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on the premises of Radhika and Prannoy Roy, promoters of the NDTV Group. One wonders if discreet enquiries and private interrogations should not have preceded these “raids”.

    However, one should also doubt NDTV’s claims that “this is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press as sources confirm that, under pressure, the CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV called Sanjay Dutt, who has been making false allegations and filing cases in courts of law with these false allegations.”

    Whether this is indeed an “attack” on press freedom or whether Dutt’s allegations are indeed “false” will be proven only when the investigations are completed, and when the matters land up in court. Till then we only have NDTV’s claims to go by, which too seem to be based on unidentified “sources”. Anonymous sources are not the best way to establish credibility in journalism.

    The problem is neither the CBI nor NDTV may emerge in this case smelling of roses. The main thrust of CBI’s case seems to be that NDTV settled a Rs 375 crore ICICI Bank loan that was originally contracted at 19 per cent at Rs 350 crore. Apparently, the “haircut” in interest rates and principal accepted by ICICI Bank to settle the loan is now being treated as “loss” to the bank a loss quantified as Rs 48 crore. This may not quite stick, for bank loans routinely go bad based on mistimed lending decisions. Most banks accept haircuts based on their own assessments about whether settling now is better than letting the loan accumulate further and facing the possibility of a bigger loss.

    So, the CBI will have to produce other reasons to doubt the validity of this settlement. Unfortunately for NDTV, there are real reasons to doubt the financing was kosher, as documented by Caravan magazine in a late 2015 expose. The article threw light on the use of shell companies and indirect corporate funding that enabled Prannoy and Radhika Roy to buy back a lot of their own shares through an open offer in 2008 (read the full Caravan story here).

    The Roys got into a financial soup by raising too much money from corporate sources at the wrong time. As Swarajya wrote then, based on the Caravan article, “NDTV’s financial problems can be traced to a Rs 501 crore loan raised from Indiabulls Financial Services by its promoters to buy back a 7.7 per cent stake from GA Holdings at a hefty price of Rs 400 a share (in 2007) when the market was about to crash post-Lehman Brothers. To repay this loan, they took another loan of Rs 375 crore, this time from ICICI Bank, by pledging all their personal holdings and the shares held by Radhika Roy Prannoy Roy Holdings Pvt Ltd (RRPR, in which they held about 61 per cent of the total shareholding); to repay the bank, they took another loan of Rs 350 crore from a company called Vishvapradhan Commercial Pvt Ltd (VCPL), which, in turn, had raised money from one of Reliance Industries’ subsidiary companies.”

    An Indian Express report today (6 June) tells us that even though NDTV (or, rather, RRPR) paid off first the Indiabulls loan, and then the ICICI Bank loan, it still owes VCPL Rs 403.85 crore as of date. This gives VCPL, now partly owned by a company linked to Mahendra Nahata, Eminent Networks, the right to convert its loans into RRPR equity. Since RRPR owns 29.18 per cent of NDTV, which is a listed entity, it means Nahata and another company called Nextwave Televentures, which also is co-owner of VCPL, gets to own a large chunk of NDTV at a time of their choosing. Nahata, incidentally, also has a Reliance link. He is a director of Reliance Jio.

    The Nahata-Reliance link goes even deeper. In 2010, Nahata’s son Anant won 22 circles in the broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum auction for Rs 12,848 crore, and Ambani bought control of Anant’s company Infotel Broadband for Rs 4,800 crore within hours of that winning bid. Mukesh Ambani’s re-entry into telecom after first ceding Reliance Communications to brother Anil Ambani during a family division of assets was thus facilitated by Nahata. Nahata is unlikely to have bid so high for BWA spectrum without some understanding with Ambani.

    The question to ask is this: why would businessmen put in big money to bail out a floundering media vessel, where the chances of profitability are low? Was it just out of concern for preserving great journalism? Or for greater control of media narrative? Or to oblige the then powers that be for whom NDTV’s survival was important?

    We cannot know the real answers for sure, but we do know that the UPA period was marked by crony capitalism and huge corruption on everything from spectrum to coal allotments.

    The facts as they stand now are clear: NDTV needed corporate money to bail them out of a spot. They got one benefactor after another, some acting through shell companies. The ultimate benefactor appears to have been Reliance – or a person linked to them, the Nahatas.

    This is why the point about attacks on press freedom wears thin.

    If you are beholden to a corporate behemoth, whether directly or indirectly, whether for a short period or a long time, what is the basis for claiming complete editorial independence?

    Editorial freedom is not just threatened by government pressure, but corporate ownership or dependence on advertising.

    There is one more point to make: while it is quite possible that the Roys were raided for reasons of vendetta or for piling on pressure on a media group that has been hostile to the Bharatiya Janata Party, in the context of the Modi government’s recent crackdown on shell companies, it would equally be possible that the shell companies that helped bail out NDTV may have come under scrutiny. This could be a partial explanation for the question why now?

    Multiple explanations are thus possible. This is not a black-and-white case of pure vendetta and attack on media freedom. Nor is it likely to be just a case of the CBI investigating wrongdoing, and happening to stumble on the NDTV’s money channels.

    Media houses that claim the right to investigate the high and mighty must equally be subject to the same scrutiny that they think powerful people ought to subject themselves to. The media is not exactly a lightweight when it comes to wielding power. Power must be backed by accountability, whether it is government or media or even the judiciary.

    So when NDTV claims in a statement that it is vendetta, and points out that “lakhs and crores of rupees have not been paid by several industrialists and no criminal case has yet been registered against any of them”, it defies logic. The law does not proceed against alleged wrongdoing in a descending order of the size of the wrongdoing. It goes after who it can, and in no particular order. Quite apart from the misstatement that “no criminal case” has been registered against any big businessman (Vijay Mallya being exhibit A to disprove this point, and raids have been conducted against other businessmen, including the son of P Chidambaram), NDTV really needs to focus on clearing its name. Who else is being targeted or not targeted does not lessen its own culpability, assuming it has indeed something wrong.

    Between January 2008, when the NDTV share achieved a peak, and now, when it quotes at Rs 58 a share, the company has destroyed 85 per cent of its value.

    The market value of NDTV today (around Rs 375 crore) is far less than what RRPR owes its biggest creditor, VCPL. Roys are no longer the effective owners of NDTV. It is sad to see true pioneers in India’s TV news industry having to face such ignominy towards the fag end of their careers. But the lesson in it all is humbling. Media is not above the law. When media becomes unviable, true freedom needs you to check the colour of the money you are receiving.

    Perhaps this is what Prannoy and Radhika are coming to rue.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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