Last week, Mumbai Police filed a supplementary chargesheet in the case it is making against a number of broadcasters and key personnel at the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). Amongst the channels accused is Republic TV, and its hyper-judgmental anchor, Arnab Goswami. The allegations are serious – Goswami and Partho Dasgupta – the CEO of BARC - colluded to fudge ratings in favour of Republic TV. The police submitted almost 3,500 pages of evidence, including transcripts of WhatsApp chats between Goswami and Dasgupta.
The chats seem to suggest that there was heavy-duty collusion between Goswami and Dasgupta not only to ensure that the news channels of the Republic Group stayed at the number one position, but also the discussion on setting up a number of underhand barriers to ensure that competition fared badly. As if this were not enough, there were conversations about ‘fixing’ bureaucrats; issues dealing with national security – before they took place – and a fair amount of badmouthing of their opponents – everyone else in news broadcasting. And, lastly, there was the lobbying to cover up the alleged defrauding of Doordarshan to the tune of crores of rupees.
Let us look at this story in three parts. The first is the alleged fixing of ratings. A move that would allow any channel to gain advantage of its competitors. In an overcrowded industry - by the last reckoning there are almost 900 TV channels, of which 400 are in the news and current affairs space. They all compete for the same advertising pie, and they are all measured by the same metric ratings. These ratings give a channel the edge in negotiating with advertisers. The higher the ratings, the more you can charge. Therefore, any move to fix the ratings is essentially defrauding and cheating advertisers.
At the second level, the chats reveal allegations of ‘fixing’ opponents – people who head other news channels and the use of political influence to create hurdles for others who are in the same business, to ensure they fared below the Republic. These could be termed as unfair trade practices.
The third is knowing about highly classified military operations three days before these took place. The chat transcripts seem to suggest that Goswami knew about the Balakot strike three days in advance. One could look at the transcripts and say the chats were mere bravado. Or we could, as the right-wing ecosystem is trying to do, say as a good journalist, he would have sussed it out. Or we could ask – was there a leak? If it was leaked to him, who else did it leak to? And what is the implication of this knowledge on the lives of the soldiers at the frontline?
'Fixing' of bureaucrats
And, lastly, there are the highly uncomplimentary descriptions of some ministers – Jaitley and Javadekar in particular – but that is not as worrying as the discussion about the ‘fixing’ of bureaucrats and technocrats – including the head of Doordarshan – who seemed to stand up for what was good for the Indian Republic, as opposed to what was good for Republic TV.
To be fair to Goswami and the Republic Group, they probably aren’t the only ones trying to do this. It is likely that every major business interest in news TV has tried, to a greater or lesser extent, to do all those things that seem to be suggested by the WhatsApp transcripts. We heard it when the first TRP scam broke, we heard it when the second TRP scam broke; we heard it when the Neera Radia scandal took place – and we have seen it countless times in action. There is something very broken about the media, and I am not really sure it can be fixed.
Future of journalism?
The fourth pillar of democracy has been corrupted and corroded and has become a power broker, instead of looking out for the interests of the people. This is the problem of the media not just in India, but across the world. We have seen American media stir up the race pot. The British media stirred up the Brexit situation. One has seen the News International Group hack into phone lines. And one has seen the Indian media, led by Goswami trying to be judge, jury and executioner. When news companies use their power to subvert the process – we need to sit up and pay heed. The nexus between politicians and the media is now so great, it is difficult to know when one group ends, and the other begins.
If the media is corrupt and corroded and cancerous to the societies it operates in – then what is the future of journalism? The answer is even more obvious than it seems. The future of journalism is in individual journalists and their beats. And we, the subscribers, who fund the coverage of these beats. Journalism has to go back to its roots – the individual who wants to uncover what those in power are trying to hide. And the good thing is that the internet still enables this model. We need to enable, empower, and fund individual journalists/groups of journalists and see if they can tell us the truth, without trying to manipulate, control, and herd us into things we don’t want.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.