A growing case against India’s top-rated English news channel now exposes a link to the ratings agency that’s also in the dock.
Leaked WhatsApp messages between India’s most talked-about news anchor and a head of India’s only television ratings council surfaced yesterday, with some revelations that are stunning, yet, many say, not surprising. Arnab Goswami, editor, anchor, and co-owner of Republic TV network, finds himself in a fresh wave of controversy related to an ongoing case involving manipulation of television rating points, or TRPs.
A supplementary charge on January 11 that Mumbai Police built against Goswami includes 200 pages of purported WhatsApp chats between Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, then CEO of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). Dasgupta has been in police custody since December 25 in the case. The police claim Republic TV bribed viewers to keep their television sets switched on to their channel, and that BARC has been complicit in the process.
One of the revelations in those alleged chats that has stirred up a controversy is that Goswami knew about India’s air strikes on Pakistan three days in advance. Goswami’s WhatsApp messages to Dasgupta seem to indicate that he knew about the strikes on February 23, 2019, and that “the government is confident of striking in a way that people will be elated. Exact words used.” Reports after the strikes on February 26 said as many as 40 Indian soldiers were killed in the so-called Pulwama attacks on an Indian army camp and the retaliatiory Balakot strikes. In the chat, Dasgupta responds to say: “It’s good for big man in this season. He will sweep polls then.”
If true, these chats could strengthen the case for the police by providing evidence of a strategic proximity between a channel owner and the head of a ratings agency, It may also provide a twist in the ratings manipulation case, because prior knowledge of an incident yet to happen would enable the channel to break the news as it happens before its competitors can. In a 24×7 live media environment, breaking news is often the biggest differentiator for “eyeballs”—the number of viewers a channel and its online platforms receive, and legal experts will see selective advance information of an impending action as an unfair competition, a non-level playing field.
Owner of fact-check portal AltNews, Pratik Sinha, reacted to the alleged conversation, stating:
Responding to Sinha, well-known lawyer Prashant Bhushan commented: “Not surprised that Modi consulted the Prime Dalal of Dalali Street to plan “something big” on Pakistan that could spin the narrative for the election. National security could go to hell.”
As expected, social media has been abuzz with this information, with the hashtag “Arnabgate” trending. While critics expressed dismay at the idea that “people will be elated” at an attack that killed Indian soldiers, those on the other side of the fence did not see anything wrong with advance information. “As if media having sources in Government is something new,” one response to Sinha’s tweet said.
Meanwhile, Goswami’s chats, widely shared on Twitter, also makes the sensational claim that “All ministers are with us”. Mohammed Zubair, who co-owns AltNews with Sinha, tweeted:
Following the police charge, in October, BARC suspended its weekly publication of ratings for news channels for 90 days since the accusations, but as the 90-day timeline ended yesterday, BARC has not lifted the embargo on the suspension of publication of ratings. Prominent business daily Business Standard reports that it has “reliably learnt” that the suspension may continue for 12 more weeks.
Ever since the founding in 2017 of Republic TV channel, which is co-owned by a Member of Parliament who joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the channel has consistently topped the ratings charts, repeatedly raising suspicions among competitors of fraudulent practice. Rumors have been rife about the channel’s close ties with the Prime Minister’s Office, and of the network obtaining information first. In one of the chats, Goswami allegedly says he will seek help from Prime Minister Modi in the TRP case.
Meanwhile, the government of the state of Maharashtra has told the High Court (equivalent of State Supreme Court) that it will not take any coercive action against Goswami and his team until January 29. The Court had granted a relief to Goswami until yesterday, but has now issued a relief continuing until the 29th.