PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: In what is being interpreted as a sharpening of knives before the next round of The Great Indian Print Media Battle, Raghav Bahl‘s Network 18 is said to have summarily rejected a proposal for an informal “no-poaching agreement” floated by the country’s biggest media group, Bennett, Coleman & Co which publishes The Times of India and Economic Times.
Tens of Times journalists have been eyeing Network 18 after the group unveiled plans for an Indian edition of Forbes magazine and the Financial Times. With ToI executive editor Jaideep Bose, aka JoJo, being mentioned as a possible editor of FT, the Times group is understandably apprehensive of a newsroom exodus and an exponential increase in costs to retain talented staff.
(Senior staff at ET have received hefty hikes as high as 50 per cent in recent weeks but it is not proving to be enough for the privately-held Times group despite its deep pockets to keep its flock together. Network 18 is a listed company.)
ToI brand director Rahul Kansal is reported to have sought a meeting with Bahl and Network 18 CEO Haresh Chawla last week to enter into a no-poaching agreement after the exit-JoJo rumours surfaced. With the Times group planning a business television channel to exploit the Economic Times brand image (which could see reverse traffic from CNBC-TV18) Kansal thought he had it all firmly sewn up.
But Network 18, whose print ambitions against the might of the Times group hinges on attracting top-flight business journalism talent, is believed to have nipped the proposal in the bud.
The Times group had entered into a tribal no-poaching pact with the Hindustan Times in an earlier skirmish for the Delhi market. The logic was that both groups would benefit by not trying to poach staff from the other, thus keeping journalists’ salaries in check. The two companies even set up a joint venture to bring out the tabloid Metro Now. But the only winner in the bargain has been the Times group.
Aware of that precedent, the Bahl-Chawla rejected ToI‘s no-poaching overture outright.
“Kansal called and sought a formal meeting with Bahl and Chawla. But knowing what was coming, the two declined even to meet. Let’s meet for a drink if you like, but as far as a no-poaching agreement, it’s a no-no from our side was the signal,” says a Network 18 source in the know.
Meanwhile, as its executive editor’s fate hangs in the balance, the Times group is pulling out all stops to stymie Network 18‘s FT venture. One publisher, who brings out a slew of business magazines, says senior Times functionaries have approached him to join a publishers’ lobby to thwart the entry of foreign titles such Forbes (from Network 18) and Fortune (from Ananda Bazaar Patrika).
“Who are the Times folk fooling by wanting to oppose Forbes or Fortune when they are not even in the magazine space? Their real target is Financial Times,” says the publisher.
The Times group (along with The Hindu) has long been at the forefront of the opposition to the entry of foreign publications and foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Indian media.
It had launched a weekly supplement titled Financial Times in the early 1990s to prevent Pearson from setting foot in India in collaboration with T.N. Ninan‘s Business Standard. After a long court case, when FDI upto 26 per cent was allowed in the print media, FT invested in Business Standard hoping to take the association forward.
But FT pulled out recently and got into a tieup with Network 18, which is what is giving the Times group the heebie-jeebies.
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