When the letters “ANI” stare at viewers in virtually every news clip; when the prime minister gives the agency his first “interview” of the year; when an opposition leader calls the interviewer “pliable”, naturally somebody is going to ask how “Advani News International”, as it used to be once derisively called, became the go-to media house in Narendra Modi‘s #NewIndia.
Well, somebody has. Actually, two of them.
In October 2018, the daily webzine The Ken put out a story on “How ANI quietly built a monopoly“. This month, the monthly magazine The Caravan has a cover story on “how India’s biggest television news agency reports the government’s version of truth“.
From the two longform stories (both of which are behind a paywall), we learn:
Asian News International was started by Prem Prakash, who worked in Delhi as a cameraman for the global news agency Visnews even before Doordarshan was launched in 1959. Prem Prakash, now in his 80s, began as a still photographer and has been hailed in the media as the “first private entrepreneur in the field of visual news-gathering”.
In his long career, Prem Prakash reported on the Dalai Lama’s entry into India in 1959; the liberation of Goa in 1961; the war with Pakistan in 1965; the liberation of East Pakistan in 1971. Given his association with a British news agency, he was honoured as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.
I. Rammohan Rao, who was Principal Information Officer (PIO) of the government of India under prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar and P.V. Narasimha Rao writes in his memoirs ‘Conflict Communicator: Chronicles of a Communicator’ that Prem Prakash was one of the “journalists who helped to project a positive image of the armed forces”. ANI’s current editor Smita Prakash, a product of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, is Rammohan Rao’s daughter.
Prem Prakash’s father Ved Prakash had launched a firm called Asian Films, which grew into Asian Films Laboratories, which grew into ANI. Former prime minister I.K. Gujral, who was a close friend of Prem Prakash—Punjabi biradari and all that—virtually inaugurated ANI in 1973 when it was incorporated.
Despite starting ANI, Prem Prakash continued to be India head of Visnews, which provided footage from India to BBC. Reuters bought out Visnews in 1992 and turned it into Reuters TV. The following year, Reuters picked up a stake in ANI, which now stands at 49%. In 2011, 99% of all Reuters from India came from ANI.
The Prakash family owns and operates ANI Media Pvt. Ltd and Asian Films TV Pvt. Ltd. The two firms had revenues of Rs 68.23 crore in 2017-18, and profits of Rs 9.91 crore, much of it coming from ANI Media. A subscription to ANI costs upwards of Rs 6 lakh per month, but a key revenue stream is its archival footage, for which it charges about Rs 1,000 per second.
ANI has a long association with the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s foreign intelligence agency. Smita Prakash’s father I. Rammohan Rao had served four years at R&AW. During the 1971 war, when he was a PRO with the Army, when he couldn’t quickly organise a photo, Rammohan Rao cropped an old picture and released it to the media. His methods met the approval of then R&AW chief R.N. Kao, Rao considered himself a “Kao-Boy”.
Like NDTV, ANI is known for its baba-log culture—hiring the kin of bureaucrats as a favour to get more favours in return. Former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit’s son, former CAG C.G. Somiah’s daughter; former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai’s daughter have all worked for ANI at different times.
L.K. Advani’s daughter Pratibha Advani took an anchor test for BBC’s Hindi bulletin which was being produced at ANI studios, but she did not clear it. She then started anchoring shows for ANI. When NDA was defeated in 2004, an intern was made to call and tell her that her services were no longer required. Many believe the prime land in south Delhi’s R.K. Puram where ANI’s headquarters is located was allotted because of this proximity to the Advani family.
During the 2014 election campaign, ANI was getting paid by BJP to cover and relay Narendra Modi’s speeches. Modi has given ANI the most number of interviews since becoming prime minister: in 2015 and 2018; and on New Year’s Day 2019. Besides Smita Prakash interviewed him during the 2014 election campaign.
Propaganda has been the bread and butter for ANI with successive governments and departments, making programmes for Doordarshan’s Kashmir and Northeast channels, for the home ministry and external affairs ministry, among others. ANI has also made fakes videos using footage it produces and addding logos of Pakistan channels such as Geo TV, ARY and Dunya.
MEA is an important client of ANI. The “India File” on Indian embassy websites around the world has a compilation of “topmost news from India”. It essentially comprises videos produced by ANI that are available for TV channels across the world to download and use, for free.
When Indian journalists had to be airdropped into Maldives after the a coup attempt, Rajiv Gandhi’s media adviser G. Parthasarathy picked them all up from Ashoka Hotel in Delhi, where Smita Prakash was getting married to Sanjiv Prakash, the son of ANI founder Prem Prakash. They have two sons Ishaan Prakash and Sanat Prakash.
Keeping costs low is ANI’s mantra. Although it claims that it has over 50 bureaus across the country, the agency reportedly has just a few big offices: much of the agency runs on the back of a network of stringers—or individual journalists and camerapersons engaged on a part-time basis—scattered across India, with no large offices.
When ANI cameraman Vikram Bisht was injured in the 2001 attack on Parliament, ANI did not extend support to him, although he was severely injured and wheelchair bound. ANI also frowned upon efforts of other employees to help Bisht’s family, calling it “union-baazi”. Bisht died two years later, and on the day of his cremation, his family was given his last month’s salary.
There have been cracks in the ANI family, with founder Prem Prakash, his daughter Seema Kukreja and son-in-law Sunder Kukreja on one side—and Smita Prakash and Ishaan Prakash on the other, over a stake in the company.
In 2014, Prem Prakash was prevented from entering the ANI building ostensibly because he was accompanied by a gunman. The rift in the family took a comical turn when Prem Prakash purchased an Audi A6 sedan as he couldn’t get into his Toyota Fortuner because of bad knees. A compromise has apparently been arrived at.
ANI founder Prem Prakash, his daughter Seema Kukreja and her husband Sunder Kukreja are close to Arun Jaitley, who has represented them as lawyer. During the 2014 elections, Prem Prakash campaigned for Jaitley in Amritsar, which he lost.
Photograph and infographics: courtesy The Ken
Screenshot: courtesy India TV and The Caravan