‘One must play dirty’: Chats show how Arnab Goswami plotted with BARC CEO

Republic TV chief's Whatsapp chats with Partho Dasgupta, made public by the Mumbai police, paint a grim picture of collusion between the media and the Modi government.

‘One must play dirty’: Chats show how Arnab Goswami plotted with BARC CEO
Anubhooti Gupta
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A supplementary chargesheet filed by the Mumbai police in the TRP scam involving the pro-BJP news channel Republic TV and the television ratings measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council, or BARC, has made public hundreds of pages of purported Whatsapp conversations between Arnab Goswami, the managing director and editor-in-chief of Republic Media Network, and Partho Dasgupta, the former CEO of BARC.

The chats purportedly show Goswami and Dasgupta – erstwhile colleagues at the Times group – discussing politicians, journalists, news networks, and the TRP system.

Newslaundry could not independently authenticate the contents of the chats, which capture at once Goswami’s pushy, anxious and exhilarated moods, and Dasgupta’s earnest entertaining of his friend’s volatile temper and difficult demands at the expense of professional ethics.

Amid a wide spectrum of intrigue, their conversations throw light on what appears to be collusion between Republic TV and BARC to enable Goswami’s channel to access confidential TV viewership data and malign its competitors. It reveals BARC’s lobbying efforts with top ministers in the Narendra Modi government and the possible suppression of complaints against the pro-government channel in the ministry of information and broadcasting.

Newslaundry reviewed hundreds of pages of these conversations. They indicate that Goswami and Dasgupta met regularly, shared jokes about politicians, calculated business interests after major political developments, berated the Times group, and gossiped about journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai (“he is losing his job”), Sagarika Ghose (“she is rotting in Times”), Aroon Purie (“part of a Cong propaganda machine”), Ashok Malik (“such a hypocrite”), Rajat Sharma (an “utter fool” with a “sub standard channel”), Rahul Shivshankar (“an ass”), and business journalists (“all bloody bootlickers”).

The two men go back a long way. “Had you not met me in Delhi,” Goswami tells Dasgupta a day before Republic TV’s launch in 2017. “I would have been languishing in NDTV. Can never say thanks enough.”

“I only want you to succeed,” the then BARC CEO replies.

Newslaundry sent a set of questions to Goswami about the contents of the chats. The story will be updated if we receive a response.

From BARC to Smriti Irani, via Goswami

On August 11, 2017, the purported chats show, Goswami was travelling from Delhi to Mumbai with Smriti Irani, then the minister for information and broadcasting whom he described as a “great friend”. Dasgupta, who has been constantly poking Goswami to meet Irani, asks the anchor to persuade the politician regarding several matters, including the controversial landing page issue, which had then been discussed in the parliament.

A landing page is the channel that starts up first when one switches on the TV. It has been a thorn in India’s TV ratings system, since news channels use it to artificially corner higher TRPs, and as a result, higher advertisement revenues. Dasgupta seemingly wanted to moderate the government’s critical treatment of the practice.

In effect, the executive was using a journalist – who ran a news channel that subscribed to BARC, no less – to lobby with a minister to not only act against his channel’s competitors but to influence government policy as well.

“Since you are travelling with her – suggest you bring up a couple of topics,” Dasgupta tells Goswami. “Landing of course but effect of that is minimal after a week or two.”

“Yes,” Goswami replies. “Anything else.”

Dasgupta goes on: “Second panel infiltration done by news channels and how we can give BARC the requisite authority to use law enforcement to curb this.”

“Yes that I will,” Goswami responds, making a reference to his competitor, Times Now. “Times has in Kerala and Bengal.”

“And a simple whack to both Times and India Today to not be after you,” Dasgupta advises.

The former BARC CEO also asks Goswami to discuss the “raw level data” with Irani, likely meaning the issue of the primary data collected by the ratings agency from 44,000 or so households in India to measure TRPs. At the time, the news broadcasters and the regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or TRAI, were debating whether this data should be made available to broadcasters.

“But if it goes out – the whole industry will suffer coz of carriage costs and infiltration,” Dasgupta writes.

“Raw level I will work with you,” Goswami replies. “And we will meet her separately.”

Dasgupta then moves to BARC’s independence. The chats reveal that the CEO didn’t believe the ratings body was independent and wanted to meet the union minister to discuss the “solution”, since he would “never be able to raise this” in the presence of BARC members Punit Goenka and Sudhanshu Vats.

Dasgupta wanted Goswami to tell Irani that “structurally the biggest customers are on my board [at BARC ] and no such company can be independent”.

“You can put it in her head,” the then BARC CEO tells Goswami, who replies, “Yes that I will.”

Newslaundry sent questions about the purported chats to BARC. The agency replied: “As the matter is a subject of an ongoing investigation by the various law enforcement agencies, we are constrained to respond to your enquiries.”

‘Rathore told me and said he’s keeping it aside’

Last month, Newslaundry reported that soon after Republic TV launched in 2017, the information and broadcasting ministry learnt that the TV channel was “illegally” available for broadcast on state-owned DD Free Dish without having participated in the auction for slots and paying a multi-crore fee. The channel, hand-in-glove with Zee Media and Dish TV, had obtained access to nearly 22 million of Doordarshan’s viewers without paying Rs 6.5 crore to the state broadcaster.

The complaint had reached the ministry in May, and the director general of Doordarshan then sent a stern letter to the ministry pointing out Republic’s misdemeanours with DD Free Dish in June.

It’s likely this complaint that Dasgupta pings Goswami about on July 7, “Apparently there is some complaint about Republic in ministry – it’s yet to be referred to us – one JS [Joint Secretary] told – but I think it will never come.”

“About the dish fta thing,” Goswami admits. “Rathore told me and said he’s keeping it aside.”

Rathore likely refers to Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who was then the union minister of state for information and broadcasting. Separate discussions on the ministry and Irani show that Goswami always referred to the minister as “Rathore”.

Republic and Zee Media’s games with DD Free Dish cost the exchequer over Rs 52 crore. There is little to suggest the Narendra Modi government acted against the two networks for cheating the system. The chats also seemingly show Rathore alerted Goswami to the complaint beforehand, and buried it.

Newslaundry reached out to Rathore and the ministry of information and broadcasting with a set of questions about the Whatsapp chats. The story will be updated if we receive a response.

‘We don’t even talk this level with anyone else’

Dasgupta’s bonhomie with Goswami, by his own admission, is unique. In July 2019, after a Network 18 channel climbs to number two on the BARC ratings chart, a miffed Goswami — frequently anxious about his TRPs — pesters the BARC CEO to do something about it.

Goswami pushes Dasgupta to act against landing pages, which his rivals were allegedly using to get ahead of him. To allay Goswami’s apprehensions, Dasgupta says he will have his colleagues share confidential BARC data with the anchor.

“TV18 as no 2 is bizarre,” Goswami complains on July 18, 2019. “We lost our everything. Industry is divided. Govt distrusts BARC. And only TV18 gains,” adding that he was being “shafted” in English and “screwed” in Hindi.

“No matter what you say – I have seen what people said in Board that day myself – they are not going with your thing,” Dasgupta says. “I am saying all this because I consider you as a friend. I don’t even interact as much with other news guys.”

Goswami even asks Dasgupta to “moderate” the influence that the landing page feature has on the TV18 channel’s ratings.

“One day see the actual numbers of TV18 – you will then decide whether it’s moderated or not,” Dasgupta replies.

Ten minutes later, the BARC CEO tells Goswami he has asked Romil Ramgarhia, then chief operating officer at BARC, “to show you or Vikas what kind of cuts happen on News18.” He adds, “Confidential of course. We don’t even talk this level with anyone else.”

‘One must play dirty’

Goswami’s contempt for his competitors, chiefly Times Now and India Today, is a running theme in his conversations with Dasgupta. On multiple occasions, Goswami — now an accused in the fake TRP scam — complains to the then BARC CEO that these channels spike their ratings through unfair practices.

On June 21, the anchor tells Dasgupta he has “full details of how Times is breaking into your system...on tape”. The executive replies that BARC needs “legally admissible proof” and is carrying out its own investigation.

“I’m only getting stuff to help you get the leads and expose these guys,” Goswami writes. Dasgupta asks the anchor to have the material sent to him through an “unknown ID”.

“First thing people say is competitors have got it done to malign,” Dasgupta tells Goswami, while doing exactly the same.

On another occasion, a couple of weeks after Republic TV was launched, Goswami tells the then BARC CEO that he has a letter of “India Today asking for dual frequency” – a practice that allows a channel to appear more than once on a TV programme menu, consequently obtaining more viewership time and, therefore, TRPs.

“Leak it,” the executive prods the anchor. “One must play dirty.”

“Leaking to press now,” Goswami replies.

This is hypocritical, because elsewhere in their chats Goswami admits that Republic TV, too, runs dual frequency. “We have less dual [frequency] than Times Now,” he tells Dasgupta on May 15, 2017. Newslaundry has reported on this very detail.

‘Get me a media adviser kind of position with PMO’

A set of chats from 2019 shows Goswami and Dasgupta discussing the actor Kangana Ranaut and her usefulness to generate TRPs. Kangana is a massive ratings earner, Goswami says, but her interview with Republic TV hasn’t done well. “Kangana has always delivered high time spent and this time the interview was in the middle of a raging controversy,” he says. “The interview done by Sucharita was noisy. I don't know when Aaj Tak did the same interview but they got the numbers. We ran at 3pm, 8pm, 11pm and a debate at 6 on Kangana ke khilaf kanoon lobby. But we got an average 2.5%.”

They return to discussing Ranaut in 2020 after Goswami interviewed her about the Sushant Singh Rajput death case. "It was topical and you got it out of her, stopped her rambling and made her say things that will get controversial,” Dasgupta praises Goswami. “On SSR case you know the right story to pick up.”

In another conversation on August 5, 2019, Goswami talks about his meeting with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval the previous day. He broke the “biggest story” on Kashmir and the abrogation of the erstwhile state’s special status, Goswami boasts, following which he was called by Doval and asked how he got the information. “Everyone in NSA, PMO hooked to Bharat and Republic,” Goswami writes, meaning his Hindi and English channels, Republic Bharat and Republic TV. “It’s complete madness. Doval met me before taking off for Srinagar. They will push this through.”

On August 16, 2019, Dasgupta complains to Goswami that Rajat Sharma, the head of India TV, is giving him trouble. “Rajat is again raising issues with Punit citing my proximity with you,” he writes, ostensibly referring to BARC member Punit Goenka.

Goswami tells him not to worry. “Rajat is in a mess with Jaitley almost gone,” he replies, referring to the late union finance minister Arun Jaitley.

“Rajat is over...don’t take his bullshit anymore," he adds. Dasgupta replies he doesn’t, but others do.

In several chats, Goswami and Dasgupta refer to a seemingly powerful person in the government whom they only identify as “AS”. And “AS” pops up in their conversation about Rajat Sharma as well. “A word from the AS office or ministry to Rajat to shut up will help immensely. Rajat is planning a major attack, all in your name that I am your friend etc etc," Dasgupta informs Goswami ahead of a meeting of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation in August 2019. “Someone should ask him, unfortunately in IBF everyone is impotent. Someone close to you and me told it will be Rajat vs Arnab tomorrow in IBF and Partho will be collateral damage. This and the next batch meeting is crucial Arnab, you have too many enemies, but I will be your friend whichever rope I am in, but not compromise my values.”

On Rajat Sharma’s appointment as president of the News Broadcasters Association, Dasgupta tells Goswami, “So motabhai influence didn't work here, Rajat was elected as NBA head.” It’s not clear who he’s referring to as “motabhai”.

Since Saurav Ganguly has become president of the BCCI and Jay Shah the secretary, Goswami says, “Rajat looks like an utter fool as he has announced that he will be taking over BCCI. He is a cheat and now even a cheat whom even an MP doesn't give a damn. Single channel owner with a falling image,” he adds.

Another time, Dasgupta asks Goswami to help him land a high-profile job in the government. “If you can please get me a media adviser kind of position with PMO,” he pleads. “I am fed up with BARC now and pressure from vested interests.”

This is the first report in a series on the Whatsapp chats that purportedly show former BARC chief Partho Dasgupta's collusion with Republic TV head Arnab Goswami to manipulate TRPs, political lobbying and influence peddling, and more. Read the other reports in this series.

Also Read : TRP scam: How BARC is shrouded in mystery over data rigging
Also Read : TRP scam: BARC's TV audience measurement system is rotten
Also Read : How Republic TV and Zee Media ‘illegally’ reached millions of viewers
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