Readers are warned not to read this one while in a taxi or train. They are likely to miss their destination.. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko/ANA
Readers are warned not to read this one while in a taxi or train. They are likely to miss their destination.. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko/ANA
Indentured – Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV Rajesh Sundaram (Jacana Media)
Indentured – Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV Rajesh Sundaram (Jacana Media)

When ANN7 was launched on August 21, 2013, in Midrand, a new chapter in the history of South African television was written. But what was supposed to have been a proud moment of celebrating the new venture champagne-style turned out to be an embarrassing episode for all those involved – notably the founding editor, Rajesh Sundaram. 

Social media was abuzz with all sorts of jokes following the new channel’s technical glitches when teleprompters went blank and inexperienced presenters froze in front of cameras. The reasons for the chaotic launch have been a mystery since then, but this book opens the lid on behind-the-scenes happenings at the controversial station. 

In an industry where some editors are willing stooges of media moguls and the political establishment, it was refreshing to read about Sundaram’s principled stance as an ethical and courageous newsman who defended editorial integrity and independence. But he went further and entered what is traditionally forbidden territory in journalism. He published a damning and definitely unflattering account of his former media bosses – warts and all. Ordinary mortals would have walked away in silence, as is usually the case. But he reportedly experienced an unjust situation and he was determined to lay it bare to the world. 

'Indentured – Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV' Rajesh Sundaram (Jacana Media)

A firm believer in what he regards as objective journalism, he explains that the publishing of this book was motivated by his desire to expose ANN7 as a propaganda channel, reveal the relationship between the South African government and the Guptas’ crony business, as well as to stimulate critical scrutiny and debate about the channel. 

Recruited from India to launch ANN7 in 2013, Sundaram took a leap of faith, left a comfortable job as executive editor of a newly launched 24-hour Hindi-language news channel to head operations for the opening of another news TV station in South Africa. A respected and seasoned journalist with 24 years of experience, he has pioneered and headed a number of credible television news channels around the world. 

He explains that he took the offer because he was not averse to new challenges, but more importantly, he had utmost respect for his future employer Laxmi Goel, a small-time real estate company owner who was a 30% shareholder in the new venture with the Gupta brothers and, he learnt later, Duduzane Zuma. The latter two parties, a notorious Indian immigrant family and the former president’s son, have given the phrase state capture a face, but in the public sphere their voice is virtually unknown. 

If they were screen actors, it would be apt to describe them as playing starring roles in a low-budget Bollywood suspense thriller, but without a script. Sundaram’s book gives them speaking roles. It also provides readers with an insight into their personalities. We encounter them as real human beings, albeit on the obnoxious side. 

Atul Gupta is undoubtedly in the lead role by virtue of his domineering character and temperamental nature. His short temper and foul language seem to be the trademarks of his behaviour. And indeed, in the presence of subordinates he is said to have behaved like a feudal lord in medieval times, a divisive figure who drove a wedge between Indian and African staff by giving them unequal treatment. 

Ajay Gupta is portrayed as a charming and friendly character, but with a dark and shadowy disposition. 

Former president Jacob Zuma has repeatedly denied a close relationship with the Guptas. The book reveals that he didn’t only enjoy an intimate friendship with the brothers, but he was also actively involved in the establishment of the controversial 24-hour news channel. 

Intimate discussions about how the station would promote his image while vilifying political nemeses like Julius Malema are detailed in a compelling prose that makes it difficult to put this book down. The author recounts a number of owner-and-editor confrontations with Atul, triggered mainly by the latter’s meddling in editorial matters. 

For instance, he thought models were ideal candidates for jobs as news readers. Sundaram believed that the success of the station relied on the hiring of qualified journalists. A disastrous launch eventually proved that the author was right. 

This book is a study on the importance of ethics and professionalism in the media, but it is also a lesson on how not to launch a 24-hour television news channel. Readers are warned not to read this one while in a taxi or train. They are likely to miss their destination.