There is an old Soviet-era joke that comes to mind as India hotly debates the so-called ‘Arnabgate’ affair, in which Republic TV's editor-in-chief and co-founder Arnab Goswami is having extended WhatsApp chats with Partho Dasgupta, CEO of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) on matters of mutual interest, the ‘proximity of the journalist’ to the powers-that-be, and the ugly business of television rating points (TRPs).
The alleged TRP money-for-ratings scam revealed by Mumbai police that has released the transcripts is now taking a distinctly political turn — and that needs to be examined, assuming it is all authentic.
The joke goes that the Russian spy agency KGB got tipped off about a theft in a government-owned factory. Sleuths found a suspicious worker taking out a wheelbarrow and decided to look under and over it and tap it to see if there was a hollow in the middle. They found nothing and reported back to Moscow that the tipoff was false.
Back in his quarters, the worker informed his mate: “Comrade, I stole the wheelbarrow.”
‘Arnabgate’ Scandal: What Is At Stake At A Higher Level?
In the Arnab chat transcripts, like the KGB in the apocryphal tale, we may be missing the woods for the trees. Political activists led by the Congress are quick to slam parts of the chat where Goswami is suggesting he knew in advance something about the Balakot air strikes and that national security has been compromised in the process.
But the real deal may lie not in allegations of army secret violations and leaks by State authorities, but in the ‘transparent violation’ of media ethics, professionalism and the pursuit of business malpractices.
Like the wheelbarrow, this is the obvious factor that may be drowned in the rhetorical din of party politics.
If Goswami says “something big” is going to happen ahead of the Balakot air strikes in Pakistani territory, that may be a hunch, a conjecture, or a broad hint from a government forever threatening the enemy in various smoke signals. Social media supporters of the editor are already suggesting this.
However, what is at stake at a deeper level is the ‘evidence’ of ‘match-fixing in the game called media ratings.
The fact that there are 500 pages of WhatsApp transcripts between Dasgupta and Goswami is as ‘obvious as the Soviet wheelbarrow’. Imagine a cricket match in which the scorer or umpire is having long chats with the captain of one team at the expense of the other in the middle of a game, and the umpire is asking the captain for a favour or two that is recorded by the stump camera. You get the picture.
Indian Media Enjoys No Specific Freedom Of Expression: Why This Is A Problem
The central government has been trying unsuccessfully thus far to regulate the media, the latest being the Information & Broadcasting Ministry's probe into allegations of ‘anti-Hindu’ content in the Amazon Prime web series, Tandav. Government regulation of media content is itself of dubious merit where the media or artists reserve the right to criticise a government. That conflict of interest aside, there is also the fact that the Press Council of India is largely toothless with no punitive powers.
The harsh reality is that under the Indian Constitution, the media enjoys no special freedom of expression other than what is granted to ordinary citizens by the Constitution.
But beyond all this is the business of media in which ethics, rules, and laws matter. Here, there is a clear case for both law enforcement and social conduct in the light of the BARC scam revelations. Should advertisers support a channel whose conduct involves fixing of ratings? Should the government not crack down on such an entity? Should this not be subject to consumer laws under which both viewers and advertisers can claim justice?
Instances Of Attempted Media ‘Match-Fixing’
An instance of attempted ‘match-fixing’ occurs where Dasgupta tells Goswami to ‘influence’ the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) with ‘AS’.
At one point, he asks Goswami: “Can you help by telling AS to tell TRAI to pipe down on BARC?”
There is, according to Mumbai Police, a clear attempt to mislead the government into thinking that TRAI’s digital measurement of viewership would hurt the ruling party politically.
One can understand the dubious gloating over winning TRPs by breaking news on the Pulwama terrorist attack that led to the Balakot strikes, but surely, influencing regulators in collusion with the top audience measurement agency is not what one would expect of a news organisation. Nor would we expect an audience audit company to fix the regulator.
Why The Govt Must Speak Up — Silence Isn’t Always Golden
We shall, for the moment, avoid mentioning the details of gossiping about rivals and movie stars in the Goswami-Dasgupta chats, though one can always read about them on the Internet.
It is time for marketers to wake up to the fact that association with unethical or embarrassingly biased entities undermines the value of the brands they promote.
If Marico pulling out ads for its edible oil featuring cricketer Sourav Ganguly after the Saffola brand ambassador suffered a heart attack is any indication, brands constantly need to maintain their hygiene. Corporate brands that have higher social stakes, such as banks, public sector entities and giant corporations also need to look within.
The government has its own act to clear. Thus far, there has been no significant statement from any in the system to even distance themselves from some of the embarrassing claims in the chat transcripts.
In public life, silence often amounts to acquiescence, not denial.
There is a clear case for media companies hurt by the BARC revelations to collectively take up the matter — whether it is through public interest litigation, damage suits or industry associations. At the very least, they need to take a professional call to decide what to do next.
(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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