When the Mumbai Police went public on 8 October about their investigation into a TRP manipulation scam, it caused a major uproar.
Manipulation of TRPs – television ratings points – has long been alleged in the industry, but now there was an actual criminal investigation into it, involving the accused with connections to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) itself.
The headline allegation by the Mumbai Police was that Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV was among those who had “indulged in such malpractices.” No other mainstream media channel was named by them in the press conference by Commissioner Param Bir Singh or the police’s press note. Which led to rival TV channels like India Today going on the offensive against them over this issue.
However, Republic TV denied the allegations and fought back by saying they were not mentioned in the FIR for this case at all. Over the course of the day, the word went out that it was in fact India Today which had been named as indulging in TRP manipulation in the FIR.
So what does the FIR actually say? Does it really name India Today? And have the Mumbai Police’s claims about Republic TV been disproved already?
WHEN WAS THE FIR FILED AND WHO WAS THE COMPLAINANT?
The FIR was registered at Kandivali police station in Mumbai on 6 October 2020.
The complainant is Nitin Kashinath Deokar, a deputy general manager at Hansa Research Group Private Limited, a research company which installs and maintains the ‘BAR-O-Meters’ used by BARC to measure television audience engagement in India.
BARC is a joint industry company founded and controlled by all its stakeholders: broadcasters, advertisers, and advertising/media agencies. The ‘BAR-O-Meters’ are installed in over 45,000 empanelled households (around 180,000 individuals), and are used to assess TV viewership.
Deokar gave his statement to the police after being asked by them to visit the police station to help them understand a racket for manipulation of TRPs that they had discovered independently. The police came to know of the potential scam after arresting one Vishal Ved Bhandari, a former relationship manager at Hansa Research Group, on the basis of a secret tip-off.
In his statement, Deokar says the police had told him that Bhandari had informed them that “to increase the TRP of India Today and several other channels” he used to instigate and offer money to panel households where BAR-O-Meters had been installed, along with several other people.
WHAT DID THE COMPLAINANT SAY IN HIS STATEMENT?
Deokar explained the role of a relationship manager like Bhandari at Hansa Research Group. They were supposed to not just install and maintain the devices to measure TRPs, they were also supposed to educate the households how to avoid people who tried to approach them to manipulate the ratings, and report any such incidents.
He explained that an increase in TRPs for a channel or programme leads to an increase in their advertising revenue, as the apportioning of advertising budgets is done purely on the basis of BARC’s TRPs. As a result, some channels tried to increase ratings by bribing panel households to watch their particular channel.
The Audit Team’s Findings
Deokar informed the Mumbai Police that Hansa Research Group, in the course of its routine audits in Mumbai, had visited the empanelled household of one Ved Bhandari at 4:45 pm on 11 June 2020 to ask about their viewership pattersns.
It turned out that Bhandari’s son Vishal Ved Bhandari also worked with the Hansa Research Group, and the audit team found another BAR-O-Meter at their home.
Vishal Bhandari went to the BARC office in Mumbai for a meeting with Hansa Research Group’s operations manager and the BARC vigilance team, where he told them about how he had been involved in manipulation of TRPs from November 2019 to May 2020.
Vishal got a call from one ‘Mr Vinay’ in November 2019 to approach five of BARC’s panel homes in Mumbai and get them to watch India Today’s news channel daily for two hours.
Mr Vinay met Vishal at Malad Railway Station, and paid him Rs 5,000 as commission for doing this. He was also given Rs 1,000 to be distributed amongst the households for this purpose.
Vishal continued to do this for seven months, approaching the same five panel homes (including that of his father Ved Bhandari) and asking them to watch a particular channel daily for two hours. Each month, he would get the call about what to do from a different number, and would meet a different person near Malad Railway Station to get the money.
Hansa Research Group’s Audit Team went to one of the other households, Tejal Solanki,’s, where they were informed that Vishal had in fact approached them to watch India Today for two hours everyday.
While the Audit Team was conducting its inquiry, Vishal Ved Bhandari left his job.
WHAT SECTIONS OF THE IPC IS THE FIR UNDER?
The FIR has been registered under Sections 409, 420, 120B and 34 of the Indian Penal Code. Sections 120B and 34 deal with conspiracy and common intention, and have been included because the case involves more than one person.
Section 420 is of course the offence of cheating under the IPC. This has been invoked here since the accused were interfering with the collection of data in a way which would cause financial losses to channels and advertisers. The manipulated ratings were essentially dishonestly inducing advertisers – including the government – to pay money to particular channels. This can lead to losses of hundreds of crores of rupees, according to the police’s press note.
Section 409 deals with criminal breach of trust. Here, employees of Hansa Research Group were visiting panel homes and interfering with the company’s business. Crucially, they were also revealing information about the empanelled households that was supposed to be kept confidential, according to non-disclosure agreements signed between them and the company.
WHAT ACTION HAVE THE POLICE TAKEN?
The Mumbai Police have arrested two persons till now, including Vishal Ved Bhandari. They have been remanded to custody of the Mumbai Police’s Crime Branch till 9 October.
They claim that witnesses have come forward saying they were “induced by the arrested accused persons and their accomplices for a monthly monetary consideration.” People from the empanelled households have allegedly told the police that they would keep their TV sets on with a particular channel running even if they weren’t actually watching.
DOES THIS MEAN THE POLICE’S ACCUSATIONS AGAINST REPUBLIC ARE BOGUS?
At this stage, the fact that the statement that forms the basis of the FIR does not mention Republic TV does not mean that the statements made by the Mumbai Police about the channel being part of the racket are false. It is not uncommon for an FIR to have limited information, and for the police to discover further details about the case in the course of their investigation.
The complainant in this case, for instance, only has the information that his Audit Team discovered, and not information about other relationship managers or employees who were part of the racket. As this case involves several possible accused and multiple households which were being induced to manipulate the ratings, there is nothing inherently wrong with the police having reason to believe Republic TV is also involved.
However, it is very surprising that the police made no mention of India Today in either their press conference or the press note, which does raise questions.
The statement by Deokar, which forms the basis for the FIR, makes it clear that the police had been informed by Vishal Bhandari that he had been manipulating ratings for India Today and others. The findings of the Audit Team, whether through Bhandari’s statements to them or the corroboration of the Solanki household, also expressly refer to India Today.
On the night of 8 October, Joint Commissioner (Crime) Milind Bhambare informed the media that:
"“In the FIR, the name of India Today is mentioned, however, it is not substantiated by any of the accused or witnesses. On the contrary, the accused and witnesses are specifically mentioning the names of Republic TV, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema. Thorough investigations are going on.”"
Sources have told The Quint that a majority of the households the police have approached in the course of their investigation (including 10 revealed to them by BARC on the basis of its own internal inquiry) have said that they were asked to watch Republic TV, including some bribed by Vishal Bhandari. No documents or statements to this effect have been made public so far.
Neither Arnab Goswami nor his wife Samyabrata Ray Goswami, who run the channel, have been summoned for questioning by the Mumbai Police at this time.
. Read more on India by The Quint.‘Republic Gave Us a Bad Name’: How News Debates Covered ‘TRP Scam’What Does TRP Scam FIR Say? Does it Disprove Republic TV’s Role? . Read more on India by The Quint.