Billionaire businessmen love media mouthpieces. They do not care media business does not run in their families. Damn corporate synergies and canons of risk-reduction. Jeff Bezos, a storied American online retailer, owns The Washington Post. The Barbey Family, an American textile and apparel major, owns The Reading Eagle and the WEEU radio station. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a Chinese-South African transplant surgeon, controls The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Many others give them elite company. Carlos Slim Helu, the Mexican telecoms billionaire, is the largest single shareholder of The New York Times. Warren Buffet, the famed American investor, owns 30 daily newspapers through his BH Media Group. The Barclay Brothers, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, the British retail and property twins, control The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

Proximity Behind the Storm

The Adani Group, an Indian conglomerate, enters this list with the completion of its hostile takeover of anti-establishment New Delhi Television (NDTV). After the open offer, the Adani Group seals its status as NDTV’s single largest 65-per-cent stakeholder. Though there is nothing odd about this takeover, it is raising the hackles as the Adani Group is said to be proximate to India’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

This proximity is behind the storm, brewing now over the fate of free speech and media freedom in India. The storm has been there even before the NDTV takeover as Indian media was controlled by a few with clear leanings. After the internet’s arrival, the storm intensified, with fake news and clickbaits ruling the roost. Since the BJP’s electoral win in 2014, the storm has been hitting living rooms in India, during prime time.

Disaster for Free Speech

The NDTV takeover is confirming the storm’s devastating landfall. The panic is palpable in NDTV studios. The anxiety will slam the brakes on the freedom to dissent and broadcast, and will spell disaster for Indian television and democracy. In its first step post-takeover, the Adani Group has brought in its Group CEO as one among the three new directors. The entry of the trio marks the beginning of a new chapter in Indian media.

The new chapter will be on how editorial decisions are sure to move to the board rooms of a pro-government non-media player. This portends disaster for free speech. Alarmed, media-watchers in India are viewing this buyout as a pre-mediated move to muzzle the voice of a prominent critic of the Indian government. The NDTV takeover has succeeded where raids and detentions failed to end the channel’s strident rhetoric.

The Perilous Reality

The Adani Group is not accepting these inferences. Gautam Adani, the Adani Group’s founder, stated in a Financial Times interview that the NDTV takeover was a ‘responsibility’ and not a ‘business opportunity’. Yet, the takeover reflects the perilous levels of corporatisation in Indian media. More perilous is the reality creepy corporatisation is happening now with the blessings of powerful political forces in India.

Any unholy nexus between politics and non-serious media players will harm India’s global standing. In 2022, India fell from 142 to its lowest-ever rank of 150 in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index of 180 nations. The nexus will ensure blatant politicisation of media, as seen in the West, becomes the norm in India. When right-wing bigots tighten their hold on free-speak media, democracy will have to decline.

The Oligarchic Capitalism

Worse, rampant corporatisation of media will hasten this decline. Seen in this light, the NDTV takeover is a red flag. The most sullying angle of the takeover is the exit of 47-year-old Ravish Kumar, a senior executive editor with the NDTV Group for 26 years since 1996. This bare-happy critic of ruling establishments is a Magsaysay awardee. With his exit, many nonpartisan mediamen in India fear they are in for a similar fate.

Their fears are justified as neutral media loses in a polarised political scenario. Confirming such fears, neutralists are fast dwindling in the Indian mediaspace. Their breed is facing extinction as Indian media is on the verge of turning into an epitome of oligarchic capitalism, wherein a few rich pro-State non-media titans reign. The Adani Group, along with The Reliance Group of Mukesh Ambani, are at the forefront of this evolving media model.

Coercive Tools Failed

In a shocking display of this model, control for NDTV passed on to the Adani Group through the acquisition of a third-party shell company of the Reliance Group, which held 29 per cent of NDTV. This shell company had lent USD 48.8 million to NDTV in 2009 and the loan had warrants with an option for conversion into equity. The shell company was sold to the Adani Group for USD 13.66 million for a 29 per cent control.

The warrants were converted as other coercive tools such as income-tax raids and money-laundering probes failed to make NDTV owners sell the channel. The sub-par sale, at a huge discount of USD 35.14 million, proves the deal is political, not commercial. Post-sale, the Adani Group garnered additional shares via an open offer to end up with the single-largest stake of 65 per cent in NDTV.

How is this Value Addition

The Adani Group apart, the Reliance Group too owns a media grouping called Network 18. As these two Groups see media and information verticals as gateways to greater profitability in their core activities, they will soon usher in eyeballs-pulling changes in India’s sectarian television media. Indian tele-watchers should not be surprised if they tune in to polarising Fox News-like debates 24X7 tomorrow on NDTV.

Quite possible, the Adani Group has the money muscle. Mr Adani is the third richest man in the world with a net worth of USD 137 billion, behind Tesla’s Elon Musk (USD 251 billion) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (USD 153 billion). However, the question is how NDTV, with a revenue of USD USD 27.78 million and a net profit of USD 7.23 million in FY22, is value for the Adani Group whose group market capitalisation is USD 260 billion.

Takeover Not a Business Deal

This is a weighty question. There are more than 400 news channels in the Indian television market. These channels account for nearly 8 per cent of the media advertising revenues. With this peanut revenue share, divided among 400-plus channels, how can the NDTV acquisition be a profitable business idea? How does NDTV fit into the Adani Group’s infrastructural empire?

The Adani Group-watchers in India have an answer. They contend the NDTV takeover is not a business deal and it is the Adani Group’s way of backing the BJP and its ideology. As the takeover will silence a strident critic of the BJP government, the takeover is seen as a token of gratitude from the Adani Group. Despite the BJP dismissing these theories as specious, they are gaining currency among non-partisan observers in India.

The Urge to Blunt Theories

These observers cite Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index to back their theories. Mr Adani’s net worth rose from USD 7.1 billion in 2014, when the BJP returned to power, to USD 137 billion in 2022. This is a huge 1,830 per cent growth. The Adani Group’s business spans minerals, ports, airports, highways, defence, energy, logistics and agriculture. The Group’s detractors maintain Mr Adani’s wealth is fed non-stop by State contracts.

Perhaps the urge to blunt such theories is one reason why the Adani Group has acquired NDTV. The Group needs a media weapon to kill targeted criticisms and trolls. Plus, the Adani Group needs to ready a network soon to help its political pals fight the next general elections in 2024. Thus, the Adani Group may be helping the BJP now to help itself over the long haul. This makes sense.

In Conclusion

Sense or nonsense, the average Indian is blasé about NDTV’s ultimate fate. Meanwhile, Mr Kumar’s coinage godi media (godi is lap in Hindi and godi media is lapdog media), hinting at the breed of pro-government media and mediamen, continues to gain great currency. The number of such lapdogs is rising in the Indian media. In contrast, the remaining few watchdogs are being silenced. This is a sign of a democracy in a definite decline.