A look at how some primetime news debates covered the ‘TRP scam’.
Apart from taking TV news debates to nightly new lows, we suppose Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami can also be credited for acting as Fevikwik for legacy TV media. An industry divided by cut-throat competition and constant one-upmanship, united like never before over the past two days to censure Goswami.
A quick word on the TRP wars, though: This is not the first time that channels have come together to call out and complain about Republic’s alleged tinkering with TRPs. In 2017, the News Broadcasting Association, a private body comprising major news broadcasters like India Today, India TV and Zee News, complained against Republic to the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for “double heading” — the practice of listing yourself on multiple channel numbers across different genres on various cable networks to hike up TRPs. The TV Today Network had even filed a writ petition. More recently, in 2019, soon after Republic Bharat’s launch, Aaj Tak, India TV and TV18 again complained to TRAI.
The latest in this episode of TRP wars, however, played out on primetime TV itself — a definite first.
Two days ago, the Mumbai police announced a “TRP manipulation scam”, where channels purportedly paid people to watch their programmes, thereby falsely boosting their ratings. The owners of two Marathi entertainment channels, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema, have been arrested.
Crucially, Republic TV was named by the police as well. The channel’s chief financial officer S Sundaram was summoned today for questioning, though he moved the Supreme Court challenging the summons.
Ratings are important because that’s how advertisers decide which channel they’ll spend money on. The ratings game in India has always been a sordid affair — it’s plagued by small sample sizes, “panel tampering”, and conflicting interests. News channels constantly try to one-up each other when it comes to who’s winning at TRPs; last year, for example, almost all the major channels claimed they were the bestest, awesomest, most Number 1 channels of all.
But to return to this week’s drudgery, Republic has maintained that the police is lying because they’re rattled by the channel’s cracker investigation into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
For the rest of the lot, this has been an amazing chance to unite and claim moral superiority over Republic.
Here’s the thing: There’s no question that this alleged manipulation of TRPs needs to be investigated. But we can’t paper over the fact that programming on TV news has plumbed the depths for the last few months in channels’ quests to boost ratings. If Republic turns out to be involved, anger is justified, but there’s only so much self-righteousness that its competitors can assume. As this piece in Newslaundry argued back in 2017, viewers and readers of “news” have to choose one among a plethora of amoral businesses whose principal aim is to maximise profits for owners, shareholders and advertisers.
The FIR filed by Hansa, the research company contracted by the Broadcast Audience Research Council, on October 6 named India Today, even as the channel’s reporter demanded that Arnab Goswami come clean on camera.
India Today’s claim is that Goswami “dragged” them into the fight. The police has also said that despite being named, no evidence has been found against India Today in the scam. News director Rahul Kanwal promptly thanked the public for seeing through Republic’s lies, and also issued a statement on the “malicious, unsubstantiated allegations”.
Kanwal was ready to do battle on his show last night, which sported the ticker “Lying to the Nation”.
“Remember, instead of shouting [from] the rooftop and certifying our own honesty and integrity, we would rather...there be a full-fledged probe. Let the Mumbai police see who they find evidence against,” Kanwal said. “Because if you [are] crooked, you need to be worried. If you’re not, you can stay very calm.”
Citing India Today’s 45 years of the “highest standards of journalistic ethics”, Kanwal said: “We don’t need to go crazy because we have done nothing wrong.” His programme’s hashtags included #RepublicCheatsBharat and #RepublicTVFraud.
Rajdeep Sardesai didn’t pull his punches either. “True TRP equals television respect points,” Sardesai said, “which is earned by doing solid fact-based journalism, not by noise, not by rating chori.” (Sidebar: This is a channel whose “sting operation” on madrasas last year misled its viewers.)
“I have to relay this open secret of the industry to you tonight, viewers,” he said. “As a former colleague of the accused, it pains me to stress that truth has a habit of surfacing...It pains me because the accused was a colleague, a close colleague.”
Shivshankar said it “won’t be easy” for the Mumbai police. “The accused is a very influential personality. Expect many twists as the saga unfolds. There has been no action against Republic TV suspects. Think about that, viewers! Ask yourself why.”
It was a moment of catharsis for Shivshankar, who fretted that he “should have spoken earlier” as he had occasionally suspected that “a wrong path has been taken”. “I salute those today who have shown the will to act,” he said. “Friendship should not come in the way of credibility and integrity.”
Newslaundry could not independently verify if Goswami considers Shivshankar a friend.
As if this wasn’t insufferable enough, Navika Kumar lamented that her “dharma” requires her to discuss this story. “Or else you will blame me, that I am not looking into the rot that is in our own industry,” she said piously. Later, she said, “There are times that we have noticed that we break the story, we have the facts first, we put it out there. Yet, at the end of the week, the numbers go elsewhere.”
“Having the facts first” is a bold claim. This is a channel that used #BlackLivesMatter to bash Muslims, which had Shivshankar and Kumar passing off WhatsApp forwards as “facts” on national security. Which, in its quest to paint Rhea Chakraborty as a cross between Pablo Escobar and Charles Sobhraj, told viewers that the text message “imma bounce” is a reference to a cheque bouncing.
It’s just another chapter in the channel’s tendency to distort facts and circulate fake news. Don’t forget, Shivshankar is the “journalist” who passed off WhatsApp forwards on “conversion rate cards” as the handiwork of the “Caliphate” in Kerala.
But we digress.
Sudhir Chaudhary told viewers last night that this is a “stain on journalism”.
“These scams have become so common in India that now, we have become used to it,” he said. “But, for the first time, I have heard of something like the TRP scam.”
"Now TRP is on sale,” Chaudhary continued. “The buyers are buying it and the thieves are stealing it.”
“In this one hour, do not sway your attention for even a second. Watch Aaj Tak and know the truth of how Republic has betrayed India.”
That’s how Anjana Om Kashyap opened her show last night. She minced no words in cutting into Goswami: “See what days have come. During this process of scamming news today, he has himself become a piece of news. This is not only a matter of drama and howling and shouting...it’s beyond that. This is complete chaarso-beesi.”
Speaking of drama, Aaj Tak produced a “caste riot conspiracy” last week on the horrific Hathras rape. It didn’t quite add up, though; see for yourself. Last year, during the encephalitis tragedy in Muzaffarpur that claimed 100 lives, Kashyap barged into a hospital and harangued and heckled doctors treating ill children.
Aaj Tak also had two reporters outside Goswami’s office and house in Mumbai yesterday. Thrilling updates included how Goswami was supposed to go to his office but had stayed home so far. Kashyap said: “302-302 chaiye tha inhe, ab chaarsobeesi aa gayi hai. Ab jab khud ki baari aayi hai, sawaal puchhne ki ghadi aayi hai to sannata chhaa gaya hai upar se neeche tak.”
Meanwhile, what was happening on Republic?
Where to begin?
Goswami rallied his troops with the hashtag #RepublicFightsBack. India Today and the police were the strong targets of headlines like “Exposing the Desperation”, “Exposing the Falsehoods”, and “India Today on Backfoot”.
“We are obstacles for people who want to get sadhus killed and lynched in Palghar and want to be quiet about it,” Goswami thundered. “When we fought for Palghar viewers, they attacked me physically, they sent goons. I sent Param Bir [the Mumbai police commissioner] a WhatsApp message. He closed the case against me. He weakened the prosecution in this case...You want to create bloodshed to achieve an individual political objective. We will not allow you.”
As for India Today, Goswami accused the channel of “exposing” itself while trying to “close down” Republic. “There is no single mention of Republic in any of the FIRs. The evidence against the India Today group mounts. The witnesses named them and are on record. This is all political. They want to take us on because we are putting out the truth on Hathras, in the SSR case.”
Which is our cue to tell you what Goswami’s “truth on Hathras” was: that it wasn’t a case of a rape, and was actually a “manohar kahani”. His truth on the SSR case included his channel passing off a muddle of contradictions as fact in the death of Disha Salian. As for the Palgarh debate on Republic Bharat, it can only be called an unsubstantiated communal tirade that even cost the channel an advertiser.
But this TRP drama is likely to play out for a while as the police continues its investigation. And, of course, on television screens. Yet, as NDTV’s Ravish Kumar pointed out, this TRP scandal is hardly “shocking”. Channels weren’t oblivious, he said, “jaise ye chori na hoti to ye news channels patrakarita kar rahe hote.” Would these news channels be doing journalism if it hadn’t been a case of fraud?
As an aside, NDTV is nowhere near the top when it comes to the race for TRPs.
Kumar continued: “Whether it’s the SSR case, the Tabhlighi Jamaat, the Rafale deal, or the Hathras case, every channel appears the same. All anchors resorted to shouting and howling, so how do we differentiate?” he said. “These news channels have not only murdered democracy, they have tampered the evidence as well and burnt it.”
As one panelist pointed out on Sanket Upadhyay’s debate on NDTV, this is the time to rescue the fourth pillar of democracy — the media.
“If the news media is so compromised because their revenue model is broken, democracy falls flat,” said Newslaundry’s Abhinandan Sekhri. “This is the time to rescue it. When the public pays, the public is served.”
Research by Anna Priyadarshini