Arnabgate

Arnab Goswami: Our man in the media

Print edition : February 12, 2021

Arnab Goswami. Photo: AFP

A leaked document of WhatsApp chat transcipts incriminates Arnab Goswami, editor of Republic TV, exposing his nexus with top political leaders and complicity in TRP manipulation.

Arnab Goswami, the editor of Republic TV, has backed himself into a corner and there seems to be little room for him to manoeuvre out of the situation. Damning evidence of his complicity in influencing critical television marketing data as well as his proximity to key Union Ministers has placed the news anchor in a position he usually puts his victims in: on the back foot. Arnab Goswami, however, is crafty, aggressive and has the backing of the top leaders of the country. He may get off lightly but not without damaging the credibility of his news channel and unfortunately, the fourth estate.

The most recent development, the leak of a document running into hundreds of pages recording purported WhatsApp conversations between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, former chief executive officer (CEO) of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), who is under arrest, is expected to be the news anchor’s undoing.

Arnab Goswami has been in hot water ever since July 2020. From being pulled up by the Bombay High Court for starting a vilification campaign against the actor Rhea Chakraborty to Republic TV’s involvement in a television rating point (TRP) scam, and more seriously, being charged with abetting suicide, which landed him behind bars for a few days, the news anchor appears to be on a downward spiral.

Also read: Trial by media flouts principle of fair trial

The document of approximately 1,000 pages is part of the Mumbai Police’s supplementary charge sheet filed in the TRP scam that unravelled in October 2020. A police source said that although the leaked documents were part of an investigation, they seemed to be part of a larger agenda.

It is believed in some quarters that the Shiv Sena is targeting Arnab Goswami, who is apparently close to the power centres in New Delhi, in a bid to get back at the constant needling by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition is losing no opportunity to go after him. His abrasive ways and obvious disregard for anything other than the BJP have earned him several enemies, including the Mumbai Police, whom he criticised over the handling of the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case.

While the WhatsApp chats revealed a clear conflict of interest between a channel editor and a ratings agency executive, which goes against the ethics of the news industry, the more shocking disclosure was the close relationship Arnab Goswami shared with those wielding powers at the Centre.

Among the explosive chats were those that pertained to the news anchor’s prior knowledge of the Balakot surgical strike in 2019, his willingness to act as a mediator for Partho Dasgupta on policy matters, and his speaking to Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor, about Kashmir—hinting that he knew about the abrogation of Article 370 before it was announced. In other scandalous chats, he was dismissive of media bigwigs and gossiped about Bollywood stars.

Also read: Arnab Goswami’s WhatsApp chats with former BARC official reveal conflict of interest and murky closeness to power centres, besides raising questions on journalistic ethics

The Congress party pounced on the chance to berate the government and hold it responsible for compromising the country’s security. At a press conference held on January 20, A.K. Antony, senior Congress leader, said: “Leaking official secrets about a military operation, especially an air strike, is treason…. It is very clear that classified documents…that too classified documents concerning national security and also concerning the most sensitive secret air strikes, are with people who are not expected to know it, who are not authorised to get these documents.”

The Congress demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi come clean and order an inquiry into the matter. The MVA government in Maharashtra has said that it will consider ordering a a probe into the chat transcripts.

Arnab Goswami was silent after the document was leaked. But following the Congress statement, he shot back on Twitter, saying: “Their claim that I have compromised national security is hogwash and heart of heart even their top leaders know it…. I have decided to sue the Congress party, take strong legal action against their lies, and expose them in the courts of law. People of India: Join hands with Republic as we fight this political conspiracy with all our strength. The truth is on our side.”

Pulwama

The most intense reactions came from the families of several soldiers killed in the February 2019 terror attack in Pulwama. (Some 40 Central Reserve Police Force soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on the Jammu-Srinagar highway near Pulwama reportedly by Pakistan-supported terrorists.) Angered and upset by the Balakot disclosure, a family member told a television channel: “We are demanding strict action against Arnab Goswami for compromising national security. He should be ashamed using our tragedy to boost his channel ratings.” Veteran defence personnel also came out in protest, saying that “vulture journalism” cannot be allowed to go on and should be punished. 

The government retaliated by conducting a “surgical air strike” in Balakot, which it said killed approximately 300 terrorists. At the time the situation between the two countries was tense.

Also read: Arnab Goswami sends cease and desist notice to Indian Express following publication of article on TRP scam

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that the leaked document vindicated that country’s long-held position that “the BJP government stages “false flag” operations; maligns Pakistan with terrorism-related allegations; stokes hyper-nationalism in the country; claims to have launched a so-called “surgical strike”; and then deviously manipulates national sentiment in its bid to win elections. The pattern is unmistakable, and has been repeated to suit the RSS-BJP regime’s electoral calculations.”

Frontline reviewed approximately 500 pages of the document leaked on the Internet on January 11. The source of the leak is yet to be identified. Authorities and BARC officials were unwilling to comment on the issue of authenticity of the document. Yet, every paper has a date and signature. Conversations between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta take up just 30 pages of the lengthy transcript. Yet, they are the most incriminating.

While Balakot, Board of Control for Cricket, Information & Broadcasting Ministry, Smriti Irani, Rajdeep Sardesai, Rajat Sharma, and Rahul Joshi, are the words and names that leap out of the transcripts, a closer reading and joining of the dots expose an intricate web of intrigue. Arnab Goswami’s blatant confidence in his connections to top political leaders, including references to meetings with ‘AS’, imply that he is their man, a title given by detractors and a charge he does not deny.

The tone of the conversations between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, who were colleagues during their time at the Times group, clearly indicates that the two know each other well. They seem to meet often, talk about business interests, share jokes, pat each other on the back, make nasty comments about journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai and Rajat Sharma, who Arnab Goswami refers to as “an absolute idiot”, and so on.

However, the discussions that really implicate Goswami are those with references to top Cabinet Ministers and his willingness to help Partho Dasgupta on policy matters. Although it is routine for journalists to meet Ministers on work, in the media it is widely considered unethical for a news professional to lobby the government.

Also read: Arnab’s Republic

For instance, on Page 94 of the document, Partho Dasgupta says: “And because none in the board understands news or cares for it—am fighting a lonely battle.” Arnab Goswami responds: “I’m with you. I will speak to all and galvanise support.” A few lines later, he adds: “I’m speaking to the government.” 

On Page 100, dated August 8, 2019: When Partho Dasgupta asks Arnab Goswami about hearing the news on Kashmir regarding abrogation of Article 370, Arnab Goswami responds: “Sir, I have set platinum standards in breaking and this story is ours.” A few lines later he says: “Meeting NSA and PMO on Monday.”

After the breaking of the news of abrogation of Article 370, Arnab Goswami says: “Everyone in NSA, PMO hooked to Bharat and Republic.” He adds: “It’s complete madness. Doval met me before taking off for Srinagar. They will push this through.”

On August 11, 2017, Arnab Goswami is travelling with Smriti Irani, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting (I&B), who he describes to Partho Dasgupta as “a great friend”. In previous messages, Partho Dasgupta asks Arnab Goswami to bring up the subject of landing pages, which refers to the first screen the viewer sees when the television is switched on. “Since you are travelling with her, suggest you bring up a couple of topics.” Arnab Goswami responds: “Yes”. A line later: “Anything else.” Partho Dasgupta says: “Second, panel infiltration [done by news channels and how we can give BARC the requisite authority to use law enforcement to curb this.” Arnab Goswami responds: “Yes that I will.”

Partho Dasgupta seems to be referring to channels identifying and targeting TRP panel households, which are supposed to be anonymous. The ‘panel’ refers to a box with specific numbers for each member of the household. When a viewer switches on the television, they need to punch in their specific number, which then helps the system record the viewer’s channel choices. Partho Dasgupta says: “And a simple whack to both Times and India Today to not be after you. “You can put it in her head.” Arnab Goswami replies: “Yes that I will.”

The initials ‘AS’, possibly referring to Amit Shah, Home Minister, makes its first appearance on Page 105. Arnab Goswami asks Partho Dasgupta to remember to send him an email on BARC matters, which he needs to discuss in Delhi when he meets the political leaders. On Page 110, Arnab Goswami mentions a meeting with Prakash Javadekar, I&B Minister, in Mumbai. He also makes a reference to Rajyavardhan Rathore, former I&B Minister, saying: “About the dish FTA [free to air] thing, Rathore told me and said he’s keeping it aside.” 

Balakot reference

The Balakot reference appears on page 108, dated February 23, 2019. Arnab Goswami tells Partho Dasgupta: “On another note something big will happen.” 

Partho Dasgupta: “Dawood.”

Arnab Goswami: “No Sir. Pakistan. Something major will be done this time.”

Partho Dasgupta: “Strike? or bigger?”

Arnab Goswami: “Bigger than normal strike.” 

While discussing the controversial actor Kangana Ranaut, Arnab Goswami refers to her as a “rating cruncher”. Following his interview with the actor on the Sushant Singh Rajput case, Partho Dasgupta says: “It was topical and you got it out of her [Kangana], stopped her rambling and made her say things that will get controversial. On SSR case you know the right story to pick up.”

Towards the end of the transcript, Partho Dasgupta gets into a conversation about his job and asks Arnab Goswami to help him land a high-profile job in the government. He says: “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.”

Also read: Peddling myths

With the media deciphering more evidential material from the chats, news channels, particularly Arnab Goswami’s targets such as Times Now and Aaj Tak, have been relentless in their reportage. A former news anchor who once worked with Arnab Goswami said: “Had it been the other way around, Arnab would have gone after the person like a hound. It is just the kind of subject his show would have capitalised upon.”

A veteran political journalist said: “Arnab Goswami’s shenanigans are a poor reflection of the media today. How does a journalist believe he can influence policy or take on the role of a lobbyist? Our work is to be objective and a force that ensures the truth is told. Goswami’s brand of journalism broke every ethical code in reportage and sadly, its popularity changed the way news is reported. Hopefully, he will be penalised and the industry will regain some credibility.”

Although Arnab Goswami was on the radar of the Mumbai Police after he accused them on prime time of poorly investigating the Rajput suicide and Palghar lynching cases, it was in October 2020 that the police got a chance to retaliate.

TRP manipulation

Hansa Research Group, an agency of BARC, which placed Bar-O-Meters (a small measuring device attached to television sets), filed a complaint against Republic TV accusing it of manipulating the devices by paying people to keep their channel on. This would ensure the meter recorded a high viewership for Republic TV. Top BARC executives such as Partho Dasgupta, Romil Ramgarhia and Vikas Khanchandani were arrested, along with 10 others.

TRPs play a critical role for advertisers as the ratings are a key influencer of ad spend preferences. Higher ratings mean more commercials and substantial ad revenues. Since television business revenues are reliant on advertising, it is crucial for channels to attain high TRPs. A senior executive from a major television company said: “The problem is that English news is a niche segment with a low viewership. Even if three homes show they are watching Republic it can tilt the scales in its favour.” She added: “Everything Arnab did, even his disgusting shows, was for TRPs.”

Also read: Nationalism cannot be a TV season

According to the former news anchor, said that Arnab Goswami was always an ambitious and aggressive businessman. He told Frontline: “When he realised his brand of journalism was being lapped up, he milked it. In many aspects he played an instrumental role in the NDA’s [National Democratic Alliance] victory. Obviously, there is a quid pro quo arrangement here. If it gets too hot the present regime will either drop him like a hot potato or tell him to lie low until the issue cools down. After all there are four critical elections this year and he will be needed for that.”

Industry insiders are hopeful the chats will force a clean-up within BARC and the industry.

The former anchor said: “When you manipulate the system, you manipulate people. Republic TV’s ability to survive came from [seemingly] high viewership, which brought in ad revenues. They have done irreparable damage in changing the narrative and influencing people on so many issues. Besides, this is not how journalism should work.”

When Indian television was privatised, viewership was measured by a global company called Nielson Television Audience Measurement (TAM). In 2010, the Indian Broadcasting Federation (IBF) moved to create an Indian entity. With the IBF, the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the Indian Society of Advertisers founded BARC.

Since 2015, BARC has been the sole provider of television rating services on a commercial basis. The rating data are given to subscribers on a weekly basis. It was formed after the I&B Ministry notified the Policy Guidelines for Television Rating Agencies in India in 2014.

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