The purported WhatsApp chats between former Broadcast Audience Research Council CEO Partho Dasgupta and Republic Media Network director and editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami has raised several questions about the long-suspected practice of rigging television ratings.
These chats became public after the Mumbai Police filed its chargesheet in the TRP ratings scam. BOOM's reporters went through 512 pages of WhatsApp chats and found several threads of conversations that transgressed ethical and professional boundaries.
Between friendly banters and political gossip, the conversation highlights instances of not just conflict of interest but also bending of rules by Dasgupta to give his friend Goswami an upper hand against his competitors in the closely fought fight for viewer ratings in India.
Getting Union Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore To 'Keep It Aside'
A conversation from 2017 revealed that Goswami had allegedly used his proximity to a Union Minister to potentially save his channel from paying crores of rupees in fine.
Last month, Newslaundry reported that in 2017, Republic News Network along with Zee Media illegally exploited Doordarshan's DTH service DD Free Dish to reach millions of viewers by using Zee-owned Dish TV, without paying the Rs 6.5 crore-fee to state broadcaster Prasar Bharti, and bypassing the auction for broadcast slots. According to the report, this act cost Prasar Bharti at least Rs 52 crore.
A complaint was raised to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in May 2017, with Doordarshan writing to the ministry to inform about Republic TV and Zee Media's illegal actions.
Newslaundry claims to have written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, along with the state broadcaster, to enquire on actions taking against this alleged illegality, but did not receive a response.
A chat from July 2017 reveals that the two had discussed this issue shortly, with Goswami suggesting that he was informed of this beforehand by the then-Union Minister of State of Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who allegedly 'kept this matter aside'.
"Apparently there is some complaint about Republic in ministry – it's yet to be referred to us – one JS [Joint Secretary] told – but I think it will never come," Dasgupta wrote to Goswami on July 7, 2017. Goswami replied, "About the dish fta thing. Rathore told me and said he's keeping it aside." Rathore in this conversation presumably refers to the Union Minister.
Keep Tab On Republic TV's Distribution
Dasgupta's interest in staying abreast of Republic TV's distribution, as revealed in one of the conversations, is in itself quite questionable.
In March 2017, months before the launch of Republic TV, Dasgupta asked Goswami 'to take care of distribution', to which the latter replied, "Very very well covered, much ahead of times (sic)," making a reference to rival channel Times Now where Goswami used to work earlier.
Goswami then says that his 'South is covered fantastic', to which Dasgupta replies "Bole diyo where all (Tell me where all)?"
While the question in-itself reveals a conflict of interest, according to news commentator and columnist Aunindyo Chakravarty such information could have been used by Dasgupta to place rating meters to Republic TV's advantage.
'Great Friend' Smriti Irani And The Landing Page Issue
While many senior journalists boast access to top level politicians and ministers for exclusive information, the leaked conversation reveals that Goswami used his proximity to yet another Union Minister to get favours for his channel, and also influence policy making on behalf of Dasgupta.
According to one of their conversations, in August 11, 2017, Goswami took a flight from Mumbai to Delhi with Union Minister Smriti Irani, who had just been given the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting just months before, and who was described by Goswami as a 'great friend'.
Dasgupta, who is seen urging Goswami to get him introduced to Irani, advised the Republic TV news anchor to persuade the Union Minister to take a stand on the controversial landing page issue, and to rebuke rival channels to not be after Goswami.
Dasgupta also suggested that Goswami speak to Irani, to get her to stop the primary data of television ratings collected by BARC to be made available to broadcasters. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, along with news broadcasters were discussing the possibility of making such data available around that time.
"But if it goes out – the whole industry will suffer coz (sic) of carriage costs and infiltration," he wrote. Goswami replied that they will "meet her separately" on this matter.
Trolling And Shared PR Tactics
The chats reveal how Goswami and Dasgupta worked in tandem for Republic going as far as to leaking news and launching troll armies against rival channels and brainstorming over PR strategies.
In December 2018, Dasgupta asks if Goswami can get an individual trolled on social media. The individual presumably had questioned BARC ratings systems with Dasgupta countering why his "sister channel is trusting on the same ratings from the same system" (sic).
In his chats with Ramgarhia, Dasgupta shares two tweets by India Today anchor Rahul Kanwal and asks Ramgarhia to get an individual named Vikas to troll Kanwal. In their investigation, Newslaundry found that the Vikas in question was Republic Media Network's CEO Vikas Khanchandani.
After Republic TV's launch in 2017, the NBA had urged BARC not to release Republic's ratings. TV Today filed a plea in the Delhi High Court against Republic, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and BARC which was later rejected.
The chats reveal that Dasgupta and Goswami coordinated their strategies against TV Today, a clear conflict of interest as BARC is supposed to be an independent agency.
Dasgupta urged Goswami to leak a letter from India Today asking for dual frequency to the media. The duo then attack media industry news organisations like exchange4media and India Television for not reporting in Republic's favour.
In one chat, they blast an individual named Anurag. Anurag is presumably Anurag Batra, the founder of Exchange4media Group. Dasgupta reveals that BARC has sent Batra a legal notice and urged Goswami to use his position as an advertiser to force Batra to comply.
Dasgupta also offers to help get positive publicity for Republic from MxMIndia via its CEO Pradyuman Maheshwari and BestMedia.
Lobbying For A Job At The PMO
Throughout his chats, Goswami boasts about his connection with the government citing his meetings with Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
After Section 370 was revoked by the government in 2019, Goswami brags that Doval contacted him following Republic's coverage. "Today I was called by NSA and asked how I got the news. Everyone in NSA, PMO hooked to Bharat and Republic. It's complete madness. Doval met me before taking off for Srinagar. They will push this through."
Seeking to use Goswami's alleged proximity with the PMO, Dasgupta asks Goswami to get him a job in the PMO. "If you can please get me a media adviser kind of position with PMO. I am fed up with BARC now and pressure from vested interests."
Mutual Dislike For Rajat Sharma
India TV Editor Rajat Sharma has been a frequent topic of discussion for Goswami and Dasgupta in their chats. Sharma and Goswami helm rival organisations representing news broadcasters. Sharma leads the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) while Goswami leads the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF).
In his chats, Goswami frequently accuses Sharma of manipulating TRPs for his gain. He calls Sharma a "cheat" who gets "away by fudging the BARC system" and a "single channel owner with falling image".
On at least two instances, Dasgupta warns Goswami of Sharma attacking him for his close proximity with Goswami. Goswami replies, "Hes in a mess with jaitley almost gone" (sic) referring to former Union Minister Arun Jaitley. Goswami adds that the founding of NBF has affected Sharma.
In a chat from August 20, 2019, Dasgupta asks Goswami to put in a word with an individual namded Uday before an Indian Broadcasting Foundation meeting. He reveals that Sharma and Uday are planning to remove Dasgupta in the meeting citing his close contact with Goswami. Uday presumably refers to Uday Shankar, the outgoing president of Disney Asia Pacific and a member of the IBF.
Dasgupta also suggests that it would help him immensely if "a word from AS office or ministry to Rajat to shut up" (sic). It is unclear as to who "AS" is or which ministry Dasgupta refers to. In a chat from September 11, 2019, Goswami reveals that Sharma is struggling and has been blocked RSS after a "recent deal attempt in minister of state office". It is unclear as to what the deal was and which minister of state was involved.
In later chats from 2019 after Sourav Ganguly was elected as BCCI president, Goswami reacts by stating that Sharma looks "looks like an utter fool" after announcing that he was was going to be the BCCI president. He adds that Sharma has no clout anymore and also faces inquiries in to corruption during his days as the DDCA head.
"Alter ego" and "Good Friend"
In his chats, Dasgupta frequently offers Goswami advice when it comes to chasing stories and managing his channels. In chats from 2017, Dasgupta tells Goswami to look at a story on West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and a "Muslim" issue in the state saying that many journalists are scared to report the story. Goswami remarks that Dasgupta is his alter-ego since he has been pursuing the story himself.
Stating that the government and PM Narendra Modi are not in favour of landings, Goswami accuses TV18 of rigging landing channels for their benefit and tells Dasgupta not to let the network get away with it. Dasgupta pushes back saying that even though the government is against landing channels, it is not backing him in front of the BARC board. He further calls Goswami his friend and asks him to get the government to act. Goswami says the government will act and asks Dasgupta to not give up before asking him to analyse TV's landing markets.
A landing page is the default channels that shows up when the television is switched off. Several news channels have in the past made deals with network providers to have their channels in the landing page to gain higher TRPs.
Dasgupta then advises him to re-look Republic's ad-break strategy stating that TV18 has a good strategy in place. Dasgupta then says that he has asked BARC COO Romil Ramgarhia to share News18's confidential ad-break data adding that they "don't even talk this level with anyone else"(sic).
Dasgupta, Khanchandani and Ramgarhia have all been arrested in the TRP rigging scam. While Khanchandani is out on bail, Ramgarhia and Dasgupta are in judicial custody. On January 16, Dasgupta was admitted to the JJ Hospital ICU but his condition has since become stable.
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