READ IN FULL: Behind the scenes at Gupta TV
Rajesh Sundaram, who was headhunted to start ANN7, tells all on what went down behind the scenes
A senior broadcast journalist from India, Rajesh Sundaram, who was headhunted to lead the team that was tasked to launch the latest privately owned 24-hour television news channel in South Africa, has written a book on his experience working with the Gupta family.
He was lured with promises of a unique professional challenge where he would have the chance to empower young black reporters to tell the stories of ordinary South Africans; train technicians in using the world’s best news gathering technology and state-of-the-art broadcast systems; and create a world-class product across the African continent.
But the reality was very different.
Below are chapters 9 & 10, extracted from Indentured: Behind the scenes at Gupta TV.
Taking the channel to launch was full of challenges for me as the editor. We had to complete all hiring before the equipment started arriving and start training the staff and do test runs at least a month before launch.
I wanted a full month of dry runs on the integrated systems with the young team before I would be sufficiently confident to launch ANN7. But this seemed more impossible with every passing day.
The technical team only ordered the critical equipment in the middle of July 2013, and it looked like the delivery could be delayed until well after August 9 2013, the launch date we had set.
Hiring was impeded by the fact that salaries were pegged at levels paid to journalists and technicians in India. It was very difficult to get senior South Africans at those budgets.
Moreover, many senior journalists who came for interviews told us they were apprehensive about working for a television station owned by the infamous Gupta family. They wanted written guarantees that they would not be made to toe the Gupta line on various issues in the newsroom. And, of course, Atul did not want to hire these candidates.
Getting credible presenters for the channel was proving to be a big headache. Nazeem contacted many presenters from rival channels, luring them with huge pay packages and flexible working hours. Not many took the bait.
The ones that did wanted double what was being offered because, in the words of one such presenter, she was “bringing her credibility to the project”.
I was part of all of these meetings and saw first-hand the suspicion and doubt with which many journalists viewed Atul and his team. Most did not want to be part of a news station that would be, in their words, “another New Age”.Atul had a grand plan to overcome the issue with the dozen-odd presenters we needed. He revealed his plan in a review meeting in the last week of June 2013.
“I will ask Aslam to get the modelling agency to send us sexy young models who will present our bulletins. We will not have to deal with these ugly old bitches anymore. I will also get all the past Miss South Africas to come and present shows on our station,” Atul said as he pulled out his phone and dialled New Age creative head Aslam Kamal’s number.
“Aslam, call Sheena and ask her to send 20 to 30 of her girls for an audition. We will not pay them anything right now, but they will have an opportunity to be on air if they are selected and will get a small stipend then. Get her to start tomorrow. Give them a small lunch… order a pizza lunch maybe for their effort from tomorrow.” A model herself, Sheena Deepnarain ran an agency and, the way Atul spoke of Sheena, it sounded like they were old business associates.
I was baffled by this quick decision and execution.
“Models are not journalists. You surely don’t think models will present news shows on your channel? It takes months of training and years of experience before you get a presenter ready for the prime shows,” I said with a sense of outrage.
“Look Rajesh, you are from India, you do not know the South African viewer. Have you seen Russia Today? People do not watch it because it has better news than Al Jazeera or CNN, they watch it because it has hot blondes presenting the news. It will work for us; you will see,” Atul shot back.
“I do not agree with you. We do not have time to train and experiment with 30 models. We need 10 sharp presenters who are journalists to start off with, and that is what we should be looking at. You cannot have greenhorns on prime time and I am clear about that,” I said firmly.
“Okay, we will get journalists for prime time, but we will have models for all the other bands, and that is final. I have taken a decision, and that is final,” Atul said, frowning, his voice raised.I looked at Nazeem. He may not have agreed with the decision, but he kept mum.
Before this meeting Nazeem and I had agreed that we needed to up the salaries budget to bring on board five of the best television presenters in South Africa and quickly train five more from the lot of reporters we had hired or shortlisted.
We had planned to get a team of 10 young students to train with a meteorologist and producer from India to do the complicated weather bulletin.
The plan was also to have the sports, entertainment, Africa and business teams to produce and present their own bulletins. I had suggested the name of a top presenter from Europe to train the presenters and acquaint them with “standard operating procedures” for technical glitches such as a failed teleprompter or play-out.
But all of that planning had been reduced to dust by Atul. His plan saved the company thousands of rands, but it cost the company millions in lost reputation, as we found out post-launch.
“Why do you want to hire a European to train the presenters? We will have a Miss South Africa train them. She has hosted hundreds of shows, and this would be a piece of cake for her. The viewers will have a bombshell every time they tune in to ANN7,” Atul said.
I was in despair, and there was little I could do as a professional manager.
Atul wanted Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon to train the models. Gerry was hired to present the breakfast show, which had been branded Vuka Africa.
The show needed a lot of work and a team of researchers, producers and presenters. They had to work around the clock to produce the three-hour programme that was to air every morning from Monday to Friday.
Gerry had not even been hired yet, let alone the team, when Atul took the decision to ask her to train the models. He wanted each model to memorise a few lines and say those looking into the camera. A hired cameraman was asked to record these, burn them on a CD and send it to him for final approval.
He would select the models with whom he wanted to continue, these models would then be sent to Gerry for training.
Gerry was given a table and chair, a white board and a training room. Some days she had a camera at her disposal. She had no teleprompter, professional monitors or audio equipment in the initial weeks.
Gerry shortlisted and brought with her a bunch of models she thought could be trained to present. Nazeem and Atul also had a list of presenters sent by President Zuma. This included former government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi.Jimmy failed miserably when he did his test interrogation with Atul on the Waterkloof issue. Nazeem, the top editorial team, me and Atul himself knew he was stiff on camera and reluctant to ask tough questions. But despite these shortcomings, he was hired. “We have to hire him; President Zuma will have it no other way. But we do not have to put him on air until he is perfect. We will have someone train him,” Nazeem said after looking at the CD of the pilot he shot with Atul.
Jimmy resisted the idea of training and did not want the editorial team to assist him with research or even fixing guests.
The others recommended by President Zuma, including a radio show presenter who was the daughter of an African National Congress (ANC) leader, declined Nazeem’s offer after coming to the office for several rounds of meetings and interviews.
Many recommended by President Zuma asked for a salary that was well out of the ANN7 salary band fixed by Laxmi.
“Just because they have been recommended to us by President Zuma, they think they can ask for exorbitant salaries. Some of them are not even worthy of being trainees here,” Nazeem told me after interviewing one such candidate.
The models who came to audition were confident young women who wanted to make a career in television news. They waited hours to be auditioned and trained, spending this time in small rooms before their turn came.
All of them were being exposed to television studios, news presentation, teleprompters and cues for the first time. Their lack of familiarity with the medium was evident on screen.However, there was no dearth of young talented students from various media schools who wanted to join ANN7. Many of them had completed internship stints and were brimming with confidence and eagerness. Most of them had never worked with the technology we were proposing to bring in. Many had never worked in a television newsroom before in their lives. But it was encouraging that they were quick learners, and most had a knack for technology.
We had the first major batch of employees – mostly trainees – join the team on July 1 2013. Besides the trainees, there were camera operators and video editors.
One senior appointment we made then was the immensely talented André Oosthuizen, a soft-spoken, patient, humble, technical genius with decades of experience in television post-production. He joined as head of the video editing team.
André’s team was very young and inexperienced but eager to learn from him. André was affectionately called “Daddy” by his team for the way he mentored them and nurtured their talent.
The studio was still far from complete and more of a hazardous, noisy, dusty construction site cluttered with scaffolding, construction workers and building material.
The initial team did not have a functioning newsroom or equipment.
Just a day before they started, 10 camera units purchased from Singapore had arrived, and the IT team had set up about a dozen low-end computer systems on networks loaded with home-video editing software for use until the ordered equipment arrived.
We had asked international news agencies Associated Press Television Network, Agence France Presse TV and Reuters to give us test video feeds, so we could evaluate services before we took a final decision on subscribing to one.
I was very keen for the team to start work from day one and get as much experience as possible before the launch.
The day started early with an editorial meeting. Some of the trainees were assigned to select international stories from the agency feeds. Trainees who came up with good ideas for local news stories would be sent out with a camera team.
The teams would come back, write their scripts and edit their video packages with André’s team on the temporary low-end edit systems. Voice-overs were recorded on cameras in the newsroom.
The sound of the construction in the studio was always part of these recordings. This was a time when the construction work in the studio was at its noisiest … drills, hammers, falling pieces of plaster and wood. The acoustically treated voice-over booths were weeks away from completion.
The temporary servers and computers were too slow for the work that was being done and would crash often. Editing 10 new reports and putting together a half-hour bulletin on a slow home version editing system would take up to 16 hours.
It was frustrating working with unreliable systems. Young producers and reporters would finish editing a story in four hours only to realise that the system had crashed and their work was not recoverable.
But regardless of the difficulties and challenges we faced, we never failed to bring out a bulletin each day. André would spend hours first guiding the young editors and then painstakingly piecing together a bulletin. When I look back, I think not having too many experienced people on board was a blessing in disguise. Many professionals would have just refused to work under these conditions and walked out.Never once did the young team, from all races and backgrounds, appear to feel daunted by the delays and major system flaws. They were always ready to go the extra mile, start again if their first attempt failed, and were always cheerful about learning new skills and techniques.
Many of the young people would come into the office by 7 am and leave only past midnight. This enthusiastic lot worked seven days a week.
Atul allowed the Indian staff to take office cars home after work and drive back in those cars in the morning, but he refused to allow the South African staff the same privilege.
He agreed to have two cars drop the local staff as a temporary measure after I protested against this discriminatory practice. This meant that dozens of young South African journalists who finished their work around midnight had to wait for a few more hours before the cars returned from the previous trip before getting dropped off. I insisted that the management either get a larger vehicle or organise more cars to transport the staff. There was no public transport available at that time of the day. Some of the staff would get home at 3 am and were expected to get back to work by 7 am.
This was clearly abusive.
One night, as I was preparing to leave the office at 1 am, I found about a dozen journalists waiting at reception for a vehicle to take them home. Some of them had been at the office since seven the previous morning and were expected back in six hours’ time. I called up Uday and asked him to provide a car immediately to take them home.
“Atul ji has given strict instructions not to allow more than two cars for the local staff. Your car has been arranged. Why don’t you go home? The car that has gone to drop staff in Pretoria will be back in an hour and will take them then,” Uday said.I was disgusted.
“Uday, I will not leave the building until the last of the South African staff have left. This is inhumane treatment. I will sit on the floor in reception and will leave only when the last of my colleagues have left. I will do this every day until more cars are organised, do you understand?”
I had to do this for three days before transport for the South African staff was streamlined.
I was told Atul was not happy about my sit-in. But he did not confront me because this was the crucial pre-launch phase, and there were a lot of other things to worry about. He did address it later when I met him after a review meeting in his room though.
“The South Africans are a difficult lot. If you give them a lift back home they will seek it as a right. Even those in the morning shift will wait until the evening to make use of the free lift back home. These are leeches that want to suck the organisation dry,” he told me with a straight face.
“But now there are no shifts. Almost everyone is working from morning to midnight because we are on slow temporary systems. There is no public transport available when their work ends. We must provide a few more cars or a couple of buses to drop the staff until we get our professional equipment and work in shifts. Otherwise it will kill the kids,” I said.
“I will ask Sahara Computers to provide us with a bus. Don’t bother yourself with these small issues,” he said.
The bus was never made available.
The dust and the noise from the construction site were adding to the stress levels. We were not offered any protection against the dust and paint fumes we were exposed to at that time.
Atul would shamelessly walk around the site wearing an elaborate mask. The fact that his employees were exposed for many more hours than him did not even seem to cross his mind.
A few protective masks were handed out after a couple of employees had to be rushed to hospital from the office with respiratory distress. But the masks were cheap and offered little protection.The lack of a proper canteen was also a major problem, especially on the weekends, as restaurants and grocery stores nearby were either closed or had limited hours. This was a major issue, as the team did not have time to leave the office complex to eat.
Krishna was cooking free meals for the Indian staff and initially also for the builders who were staying at the site. Atul then reluctantly extended the meals to all Indian staff, saying this would be discontinued after the launch.
However, this benefit was never extended to the South African employees. It was extremely distressing to see the Indian staff sit down for dinner after a long day’s work while the South Africans were not invited to join. Many of the South Africans had to go hungry, as there was no place nearby selling food that was open at that time.
The delay in the construction of the studio and operational area was something that led to more stress between the technical team and Atul, who would now openly abuse YP Singh and berate the team almost every day.
“What the hell is Laxmi Goel doing sitting in India? His incompetent technical team is giving me high blood pressure here and ruining my health. He should come here and see for himself how lousy his technical team is,” Gupta said at a review meeting.
Atul would take a CD of the news bulletin produced during the day back home with him every evening.
He would come back with feedback from the family the next day.
It was mostly criticism from his youngest brother, Tony.
“Tony says the audio on the CD is very poor and the editing is not slick. He says we are nowhere near the quality of CNN or BBC,” Atul said after watching a CD one day.
He had very little understanding of television or the primitive conditions under which the bulletins were being produced.
He also did not believe in incentivising the hard work that the young team were putting in. All the employees officially had a 45-hour work week but were easily putting in over 70 hours without complaining.
Nazeem suggested offering a financial incentive to keep the morale of the young team high ahead of the launch.“Nazeem, just organise some pizza and Coke for these people, and they will be over the moon. Food is all they really want. That is incentive enough. No need to pay them anything,” Atul said.
Things were chaotic in the newsroom but were set to get even worse as we got closer to the launch date. Critical pieces of equipment were still missing, and there was never going to be enough time to fix bugs in the system after these were integrated with the main server. Adding to the chaos would be the nearly two dozen new journalists and technicians Laxmi proposed to bring from India. Most of them had worked only on established news channels and had no experience of trouble-shooting in a new set-up that had not yet stabilised.Chapter 10
The second meeting with President Zuma happened in July.
“He feels good if we give him the feeling that he is moulding the news station. It is always good to have the head of state on your side. He will give us some suggestions. We do not have to follow all his suggestions, but we will make polite noises and we will follow the suggestions that are acceptable to us,” Atul told me before the meeting, reiterating a point his brother and he had made many times before.
Like the previous one, this meeting took place on a Sunday morning. Ashu Chawla came in his car to pick us up from the Midrand office. He was mostly silent during the ride to President Zuma’s residence in Pretoria. He seemed preoccupied and kept checking his phone for messages as he drove.“Have you lived here for long, Mr Chawla?” Arun asked him.
“Yes, 17 years. I have been with Atul ji right through at Sahara Computers,” he said with a rare smile through his moustache.
“So you are a regular South African then?” Arun asked. “Yes,” Ashu replied, curtly.
He then played a CD with raunchy Hindi Bollywood songs referred to in India as “item numbers”.
“So you have a taste for ‘item numbers’, Mr Chawla. Now that’s a facet of your personality that we never knew about,” Arun teased Ashu.
He smiled sheepishly and continued driving. Arun had run out of topics to strike up a conversation, and Ashu was silent throughout the remainder of the journey.
As we reached the security gate at the president’s residence, the security guards recognised him and waved the car in.
We went to the same room we had been waiting in the last time and sat in exactly the same places.
Ashu went to check on the president’s availability.
Nazeem, Moegsien, Atul and Ajay arrived about half an hour later. Ashu sprang to his feet and touched the brothers’ feet. The seating arrangement was identical to that of the last meeting.
“Rajesh, today I will ask President Zuma to give us a broad overview on editorial policy and also some suggestions on who we should hire as presenters. We will hear what he has to say, but we will only do what we think suits our vision,” Ajay Gupta told me. As long as it was just a formality and we were not bound by what he was saying, I was happy to play the game they were playing with the president. I nodded.
The video logo montage or the “channel ID” for ANN7 had been made by a graphics designer in India and had reached us just a few days before the meeting. Atul wanted me to load a copy on my laptop so we could show it to the president.
“Rajesh, we will show it to the president today. We can make a million presentations on paper, but he will know the project is progressing fast only when he sees videos. He is a simple man. I am sure he will be very happy to see it,” Atul said.
“Sir, the president has many visitors from his family today. I have sent a message that you have arrived, and he will join us very shortly,” Ashu told Ajay.The president arrived shortly thereafter.
He was shown the channel ID. He asked to see it again and again.
“Sir, if you like this montage, we will give it the final go-ahead,” Atul said.
“It looks good. It is impressive,” President Zuma said, asking to see it one more time.
He had the copy of the presentation we had given him in the last meeting with him.
“I have a few suggestions. We must not convert this into a publicity channel for the ANC and me. If we do that, we will have no credibility. You must present the views of the opposition and my rivals in the ANC as well. The push in our favour should be subtle. You are a seasoned journalist. You know how that can be done … eNCA only presents the government and me negatively. We need a channel that presents the positives that the government is doing,” Zuma said looking at me.
Despite Atul’s constant reminders that we’d only do what “suits our vision”, President Zuma’s directives on editorial policy puzzled me.
“I will be in Mpumalanga next week, and I will meet people in the local communities and announce measures for their welfare. But I am sure eNCA will not cover that. Their reporter will seek out opposition supporters and do a negative story on how the locals hate me and feel I have done nothing for them,” Zuma said.
“Sir, we will have a reporter and camera operator attached to you at all times. You will have to ensure that they are accommodated in the plane that you travel on. We will do a live telecast of all your engagements. We have outside broadcast vans,” Ajay said, almost cutting in.
“Yes, that can be easily arranged. But your coverage will be shallow if you come with me. Our teams must move in two days ahead of me and do background reports that tell viewers how our policies are helping the people, so that they get the full picture and not the distorted one they get now. Is that possible?” Zuma asked.
“Sir, we will make it possible. We have the technology to go live from anywhere in the country, and we have bureaus in every province. We can send reporters with you, and we will also send reporters in advance. The positives of the government will surely be highlighted,” Ajay answered, with folded hands.
“If newspapers and television news channels show that the people are happy and benefitting from what the government is doing for them, the people will believe it. What is happening now is just the opposite. Show the critics saying that the government is not working, but also show many cases of how the government is changing lives. That way we keep the credibility and we also show the government in a positive light,” Zuma said.
“I am sure you will have the best international standards of production. That is very important. The news bulletins should be slick,” he added.Nazeem then asked him to recommend journalists and presenters. It was at this meeting that Jimmy Manyi’s name first came up. “He will be most suited for your talk shows. If you want, I will speak with him as well,” Zuma offered.
“I am sure there are many presenters available. Just do let me know if there is any high profile journalist you may have selected,” he added.
The conversation was now beginning to sound like an internal HR meeting. He had allocated two hours of his time on a Sunday, while his family was waiting, to ANN7. The intensity of his interest in the project was like that of a full shareholder.
President Zuma was happy to sit for hours getting briefed and giving input on minute aspects of the venture. The time he spent helping out with the “commercial” aspects was most intriguing.
“Sir, the DA has a very effective PR machinery, and they churn out press releases very day, twisting facts and turning them against the government. Most journalists earn a salary by just reproducing DA press releases and news reports. We have to keep such journalists out.” Nazeem said this to immediate nods from President Zuma and the Gupta brothers.
I exited the second meeting the same way I did the first. Ajay asked the TV team to leave, so that the newspaper team could have some alone time with the president.
I later asked Nazeem why President Zuma insisted on lecturing us on editorial and personnel matters.
“Don’t you know? Hasn’t Laxmi ji told you already? He has a big say in this venture. His son Duduzane holds 30% in the company. His involvement is very critical for the first year of our operations. If we are able to get government advertisements, we will be able to break even in the first year,” he told me.If this were true, it would explain a lot, and it felt as though everything was falling into place.
The news channel I was heading would be a pro-ANC, pro-Zuma channel that was promoted and run by not only people close to President Zuma but by President Zuma himself. If Nazeem had his facts straight and Zuma held the shares through his son, he would be projected positively in the news bulletins.
In this scenario I could see how he would use his position as president to ensure government advertising for the station.
It also seemed, if this was the truth, that there was a clear conflict of interest as his son had a stake in not just the Gupta-owned newspaper but also the proposed television news channel.
As a 30% stakeholder, his son would get 30% of the profits earned from the revenues the president was helping them generate.