Arnab Goswami versus Rajat Sharma: How BARC became a conduit to settle scores

Republic TV chief seemingly plotted with former top brass of BARC to settle scores with Sharma and downgrade the ratings of his India TV.

Arnab Goswami versus Rajat Sharma: How BARC became a conduit to settle scores
Shambhavi Thakur
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Internal politics in BARC and the News Broadcasting Association would put George RR Martin to shame. Just that there are no flying dragons or White Walkers here.

Purported Whatsapp chats between BARC’s former CEO Partho Dasgupta and its former COO Romil Ramgarhia, submitted in court by the Mumbai police as part of its investigation into the TRP scam, tell a story of a TV ratings measurement agency that was acting as a conduit to settle personal scores. One big target was Rajat Sharma’s India TV.

The chats show that Dasgupta & Co were not only manipulating TRPs of India TV, they were gathering evidence of tampering against the Hindi news channel. This is what a ratings agency should actively do, find and collect evidence of tampering by TV channels. What it shouldn’t do is selectively use the evidence against one channel seemingly at the behest of its rival’s owner. For that screams conflict of interest, not least when both channels in question are clients of BARC.

But before we get into that, here’s some background on the functioning of BARC.

What does BARC do?

The Broadcast Audience Research Council, an industry body owned by the country’s top broadcasters and advertisers, is tasked with measuring ratings of TV channels in each genre. The ratings give advertisers a sense of who is watching which channel, helping them decide where to spend their ad money.

This viewership data is collected from a fairly spread out sample of 44,000 households where BARC has installed “bar-o-meters" on TVs. There are problems with its sampling – urban areas have a higher concentration of meters than rural areas, for one – but that is another story. For now, just know that the data collected from these “bar-o-meters”, as they are known in industry jargon, is used to approximate the viewership numbers for the rest of the population.

Want to know more? Watch these explainers on the TRP Scam and How to Rig Ratings.

The data is used to rank channels, which helps advertisers to decide where to put their ads.

Now let’s come to India TV.

‘Let’s reduce India TV’

On April 28, 2019, the chats show, Ramgarhia shares some screenshots with Dasgupta with a comment, “I think let’s decline”.

To which Dasgupta responds, “Isn’t India TV figure very high? Any surprises otherwise?”

“No surprises. It is,” says Ramgarhia. “But then if we further reduce that it will become no 3.”

“OK,” responds Dasgupta.

This conversation happened as the 2019 general election was underway, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had just filed his nomination from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

From the looks of it, that week, India TV ranked higher but was pushed down one rank, if these chats are to be believed. It’s unclear why.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t check whether Dasgupta’s instruction was acted upon because BARC releases weekly data, and removes the data from previous weeks. But to give you an idea, this is how the ranking is given out:

In this scenario, it would be like giving an instruction to reduce the ratings of Republic Bharat, ranked second, until it goes down to third. Consequently, TV9 Bharatvarsh will move up to second rank.

‘Arnab is worried about India TV’

On April 10, 2019, Ramgarhia met Goswami and the rest of Republic Media Network’s management to give a presentation on trends in the Hindi news genre. He later updated Dasgupta about it.

“Arnab liked some of our analysis on Breaking news, Personality & persistent coverage of top news stories,” Ramgarhia tells him. “However, he showed deep concern on India TV ATS.”

The ATS refers to the average time spent by a viewer on a channel.

Further, on April 17, 2019, the former CEO poses a strange question, “In your mind - what all can Rajat do to us?” Then he adds, “To highlight the severity to Arnab.”

“Audit, instigate TRAI/MIB...for cancellation or alternate as consultation is on, come out with videos of tampering,” Ramgarhia responds, referring to the country’s telecom regulator and the information and broadcasting ministry.

“OK,” says Dasgupta.

After some time, he tells Ramgarhia, “Have asked Manashi to compile all evidence against India TV in the past including video.”

Manashi is Manashi Kumar, the chief people officer and head of human resources at BARC, who stepped down in August 2020. We tried calling her to get some context but she didn’t respond.

It wasn’t really a surprise. According to an audit by Acquisory Risk Consulting, Kumar, while at BARC, was “involved in activities breaching ethics and code of conduct”.

One thing we do know for a fact is that while this conversation about “what all can Rajat do” happened, Dasgupta was with Goswami. He reveals so himself, in a chat with Shashi Sinha, the chairperson of the technical committee of BARC.

Two days after this conversation, Dasgupta tells Ramgarhia that Goswami met Sunil Gupta, an official at TRAI, and “they have agreed to Republic complaining to BARC and TRAI on India TV tampering in UP. TRAI will ask us on the same, marking India TV a copy. We have to think thru how to reply.”

“Yes, we need to be careful,” Ramgarhia replies.

Dasgupta adds, “It will act as pressure to Rajat no doubt.”

If you are losing the plot of this Game of Ratings Throne, allow me to simplify. First up, Dasgupta and Ramgarhia are seemingly manipulating the ratings data of India TV to give it a lower ranking. Meanwhile, Republic TV is lodging a complaint with BARC and TRAI about India TV for manipulating ratings in Uttar Pradesh. This, according to the purported chats, is being done to put pressure on Rajat Sharma. Consequently, Dasgupta wants to collect evidence against India TV for tampering.

Point to note: we found evidence in the chats that several channels, and not just India TV, were manipulating TRPs by using landing pages and dual LCNs. (To understand how the manipulation is done, check out this explainer on How to Rig Ratings). We also found that BARC’s executives were aware of this and were “controlling” the data to manipulate the results.

We are working on a larger story on TRP rigging and outliers. Watch this space.

'Let's get more'

On June 6, 2019, Dasgupta and Ramgarhia acquired evidence to prove that India TV was tampering with household data. We see progress on that front in their purported chats.

Ramgarhia forwards a video to his boss with a comment, “In addition to this we have one more video, which is positive and the hh has confessed,” using the shorthand for household. “But there the investigator is slightly more forceful. On its own that video may not stand, but all three videos put together are strong evidence in UP.”

“Let’s get more,” replies Dasgupta. “Should I send these to Punit and Sashi?”

He’s referring to Punit Goenka, the chairman of BARC, and Sashi Vempathi, the CEO of the state broadcaster Prasar Bharati and a member of the BARC board.

“We have got three till now. Two are clear. One is on the edge from discom standpoint. But may not be from PG standpoint,” Ramgarhia says, referring to Goenka. “Should we take them to discom?”

Dasgupta says he will tell Ramgarhia what’s to be done further.

Here, Ramgarhia pinpoints, “4 min 30 sec he confessed that they were receiving Rs 500 per month.”

It’s clear that Dasgupta’s team had obtained video evidence of tampering against India TV and were seeking to use it to put pressure on Rajat Sharma. They were trying to figure out whether to send this evidence to the BARC board or to TRAI, the “discom” referred to in the chats.

After Dasgupta had quit BARC, the chats show, he and Ramgarhia discussed what had happened to that video evidence.

On September 2, 2020, Dasgupta asks, “Is there any proof where India TV was caught but Rajat terrorized Sunil?”

“I will not have it and I am not remembering this incident,” Ramgarhia responds. “Let me try and recollect.”

“You told me on phone,” says Dasgupta.

“Hmm. There was proof with vigilance but was buried by Varun,” says Ramgarhia. “Because SL told him to. You can say vigilance is being run like mom n pop and favoring few.”

Here, it’s clear that Sunil and SL they refer to is the new CEO of BARC, Sunil Lulla. But it’s unclear who Varun is.

The immediate question to be asked here is: did the vigilance department bury the evidence of tampering against India TV which was gathered by Dasgupta and his team?

We contacted BARC for a comment on this and received this response: “As the matter is a subject of an ongoing investigation by the various law enforcement agencies, we are constrained to respond to your enquiries.”

We also sent questions to Goswami and Dasgupta’s lawyer. The story will be updated once we get a response.

India TV, on behalf of Rajat Sharma, sent us this response which we are publishing it in full:

"Anyone who reads the Whatsapp messages exchanged between Partho Dasgupta and Arnab Goswami will know their dirty minds and malafide intent against Mr Rajat Sharma. Partho tells Arnab, “You have to decimate Rajat. He needs to be finished. Get dirt on him." And why was Partho Dasgupta saying this? Because Mr Rajat Sharma had raised his voice against rating manipulation by the BARC CEO.

Partho Dasgupta is repeatedly asking Arnab Goswami to put political pressure on Rajat Sharma: "A S should tell him (Rajat Sharma) to stay clear of BARC”, “A word from A S or ministry to Rajat to shut up”. There are numerous messages like this. He tells Arnab, “You should file complaints against India TV. His stature is to be finished."

Arnab assures repeatedly that he is at work to “finish” Rajat Sharma and agrees to file motivated complaints to achieve this. Had this conniving team found anything of substance against India TV would they ever have let it pass?

It is very clear that if Mr Rajat Sharma had not raised his voice at the IBF against malpractices, manual interference of data and corrupt practices at BARC, Partho Dasgupta and his associates would have gone scot free. Mr Rajat Sharma could speak against the culprits because India TV has a clean slate. The whole industry knows that India TV has never indulged in any tampering of data , landing pages or dual LCN. The IBF board and NBA board members are witness that Mr. Rajat Sharma has been fighting to clean up BARC and make it transparent and robust. It is evident from the exchanges between Partho and Arnab that they tried their best to “get dirt on him” because Rajat Sharma exposed them.

The messages exchanged between Partho Dasgupta and Arnab Goswami clearly establish collusion between the two in manipulating ratings to garner greater viewership numbers for Republic TV, month after month by fraudulently manually reducing the ratings of other channels to give Republic TV an unfair advantage. These WhatsApp messages not only establish manipulation of ratings but also power play. The messages exchanged go on to refer to the appointment of Secretaries, Cabinet reshuffle, access to the PMO and the workings of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This only confirms the many and continuous allegations made by Mr. Rajat Sharma as NBA President in the last 4 years that ratings were being manipulated by a non-NBA member broadcaster in connivance with BARC’s top management officials.

Any allegation or insinuation, therefore, against Mr. Rajat Sharma, or his channel India TV, is utterly false and a mere figment of the conspiring and malicious minds of Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta."

Power play

All of this points to a larger problem. Dasgupta and Ramgarhia should have been actively gathering evidence against other TV channels which were indulging in TRP tampering as well. But they went only after India TV, possibly after Goswami asked Dasgupta to help him with his rivalry.

In the Arnab-Partho chats, we see instances of Goswami plotting with top BARC executives against Rajat Sharma. But in the chats between Dasgupta and Ramgarhia we see instances of them acting upon it, essentially using tampering as an excuse to settle scores.

This shows gaming the TRP system to gain advantage is a systemic problem that the former BARC executives should have worked on tackling. Instead, it seems, they exploited the loopholes to do the bidding of one TV channel’s owner against another and to settle their own scores.

Update: The definition of ATS has been corrected to "average time spent by a viewer on a channel".

This is the fifth 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.

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