WhatsApp chats show TV channels manipulating both ratings and access to power

The manipulation for viewership and ratings, as revealed by the chats between BARC officials and Republic TV executives, is also linked to jockeying for proximity to power power

WhatsApp chats show TV channels manipulating both ratings and access to power

Ranjona Banerji

Arnab Goswami to Partho Dasgupta:

“Will bring news 18 down...”

“Am planning to neutralise NBA...”

Partho Dasgupta to Arnab Goswami:

“Have jammed NBA (National Broadcasting Association). Rajat (Sharma) is going after me...”

“Most LCOs (Local Cable Operators) associated with Congress had stopped signal in the night...”

“Can you help by telling AS to tell TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to pipe down on BARC...”

Between the sheer tedium, bombast, anxiety and boasts in the released WhatsApp chats between TV host Arnab Goswami and former Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) chief Partho Dasgupta, there is that amazing spectacle of how the two of them and other officials of BARC worked hard to manipulate ratings to ensure that Republic TV made it to the top of the charts.

Much maybe incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo to those outside the immediate TV industry but even so it is clear that something unsanitary was afoot. There appears to be not just the sharing of privileged information but also collusion between the two.

People in the know will tell you that television rankings business is murky and full of wheeling-dealing. How to get on top, how to stay there, how to pull your competitors down, how to liaise with local cable operators (LCOs) and satellite dish services, how to be the first channel in the list and so on.

Rankings are about money and influence which lead to more money. And, as the Goswami-Dasgupta chats inform us, it’s also about government contacts and how to manipulate them.

For instance, TRAI had banned the practice of placing channels on “landing pages”, the matter is now in the Supreme Court, but from the chats, it still goes on. There are also attempts to withhold data for Times Now, “bring down” News 18, finish TV host Rajat Sharma and his India TV, get ahead of Aaj Tak by any means. There are constant references by Goswami to meetings with the Prime Minister’s Office and as many assurances by Dasgupta that Goswami’s work has been done.

That the business is murky cannot be an excuse for its continuation. Everyone knows that the illicit drugs business is massive and menacing. But law enforcement agencies the world over still work to bring the drug trade down. This scam did not begin with Goswami. It began with complaints that Hansa, a market research agency contracted by BARC to monitor household viewing with “barometers”, not only had commercial interests in some channels but also bribed people to claim they had watched certain channels.

Dasgupta has since apparently told the police that he was paid $12,000 and Rs. 40 lakh by Goswami to push Republic TV and Republic Bharat to the top. Goswami himself appears to have left his base Mumbai, although he does appear on TV and his role as a government propagandist carries on apace.

However, unlike in November 2020 when Goswami was arrested by the Mumbai police in an abetment to suicide case, this time round the entire Narendra Modi government has not jumped up in Goswami’s defence. There is radio silence, even from those vocal ministers whom Goswami and Dasgupta have not called “useless”.

Is this because of Goswami’s incessant boasts about “NM” and “AS”? No government in power likes it to be known that it is easily appealed to or manipulated by vested interests, even if these vested interests are close friends. Whether Goswami really chats with “AS” every other day or whether he was just showing off, it is likely that “AS” may not want this to be public knowledge. Even worse, those in power have no need for blabbermouths. The essence of access is discretion.

Interestingly, perhaps the competition between these channels is not just about viewership but also proximity to power. All the channels that Goswami wanted to bring down are in massive competition with Republic TV to stand out as pro-BJP and pro-Narendra Modi. It is hard to distinguish which is worse and which is a bigger insult to journalism.

All of these TV channels are well-known for their Hindu majoritarianism and pro-government stances. All of them are happy to dump the Constitution, except when they are accused of hate speech which is when they remember Article 19 and freedom of expression. It is not as if people are unaware. The ongoing farmers protest for instance has seen farmer after farmer calling out these channels for being “godi (lapdog) media” and refusing to speak to them.

The competition to make it to the top of the rankings is therefore even more intense because of the sameness. Of all India’s “news” channels, NDTV, Hindi and English, are the only two seen as middle of the road, or able to mildly criticize the government. All the others are in a His Master’s Voice contest. The contempt that Goswami has for his fellow TV anchors is manifest but also understandable. Some are former bosses, some are former subordinates. But all of them are in the territory he thinks of as his. There is something equally intriguing in all this shady wheeling-dealing. It begs the question: without all this manipulation and bribery, how many of these channels would be at the top?

Those of us who have worked in print know that fights over circulation and readership figures are massive. But an older business model has better tested checks and balances. TV is still new in India and viewership can be ephemeral. I go back to the farmers’ protest, where agriculturalists from across India managed to get their point across without the help of mainstream TV. Compare that to the India Against Corruption movement which would have squeaked to a sad end without help from the television media.

Where this particular sordid episode will end is still up in the air. It could be that in spite of discussing the distressing deaths of 40 CRPF personnel in an attack at Pulwama on February 14, 2019, as a sort of victory for his channel and the Modi Government with “this attack we have won like crazy” or seemingly having inside information of the later Balakot attack, Goswami will ride this out unscathed.

The question will be whether he is dispensable or too big to fail. As we have seen, there any number of contenders clamouring to replace him.It could be that Dasgupta and his former colleagues will take the flak and be made the scapegoats.

But as for television and its version of journalism in India, the lament continues. Hopefully someone will rescue it before we all sing its last funeral dirge.

(The writer is a senior media professional. Views are personal)

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