Of the over 400 news channels in India the one I most regularly watch is NDTV, or New Delhi Television. Though I am often critical of its content and, occasionally, of its anchoring I am, nonetheless, an admirer of both. So the likelihood that, fairly shortly, Gautam Adani will become NDTV’s majority stakeholder — with the power to significantly change the channel — is a matter of concern. Does this herald the end of NDTV as we have known it?
The FT interview
In an interview to the Financial Times in November, Mr. Adani has spoken about his future plans. As far as I know, it is the only time he has done so. He sees the NDTV acquisition as a “responsibility”, not a business opportunity. Prima facie that sounds reassuring.
But the rest of the interview offers good reasons for raising some questions. They arise out of Mr. Adani’s concept of media independence. “Independence means if government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong.” No one could quarrel with that. However, he adds: “But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to say that.” Which government does the right thing every day? I know of none. And why do you need courage to acknowledge it? The word suggests the wider constituency of journalism is pressuring you to be only adversarial. It is not.
Journalists need to be objective. They need to evaluate each story in terms of its merit, not take sides or even be neutral. Praising a government is actually easy. They like it. Criticising it is more difficult. This is where courage comes in. I am not sure if Mr. Adani’s concept of media independence embraces this.
However, he does have big plans for NDTV. He wants to give it “a global footprint” adding, “India does not have one single [outlet] to compare to [the] Financial Times or Al Jazeera.” This suggests two things: Mr. Adani plans to put a lot of money into NDTV and, presumably, he will protect its credibility because otherwise it cannot aspire to the status of the Financial Times and Al Jazeera.
The dilemmas to sort out
The problem is this laudable ambition clashes with his concept of media independence and, perhaps, places him squarely within a terrible dilemma. Or maybe two.
If NDTV were to praise the Government everyday it could be viewed as a propaganda organ of the Government. That would ensure it never rises to the level of the Financial Times and Al Jazeera. What Mr. Adani has possibly not grasped is that it is objectivity and the courage to be critical that has made the Financial Times a great paper. That is also true of Al Jazeera though, sadly, not when it covers its own government in Qatar.
The other dilemma is, arguably, more likely to present itself sooner. Mr. Adani has the money to make NDTV global. He can put it on satellites that reach every corner of the globe. But if its credibility has been undermined, will anyone want to watch it? Perhaps a section of non-resident Indians, still aching for the land they have left and not fully at home where they are, but not many else.
The essence of the channel in question
There is one other concern which Mr. Adani has not addressed but is, in fact, critical to any success he has in mind for his new channel. NDTV has a distinct character, a loyal audience, and a high reputation. After spending hundreds of crores to buy it — and perhaps thousands of crores to take it global — does it make sense for Mr. Adani to make changes that could damage and undermine its reputation? He, therefore, needs to retain its best anchors and correspondents. Without them, NDTV is just hardware. But will they stay if he tampers with their objectivity and curbs their freedom of speech?
Perhaps this might temper his thinking. New journalists, to replace those who leave, will not be hard to recruit. But good journalists are more difficult to find. And they, probably, already have secure, well-paid jobs. Would they sacrifice them for a venture into the unknown?
Karan Thapar is a television anchor