Did the Modi government give parliament dubious data on media ads?

The data shows NewsX, News Nation and India News got more ad money than Republic and Times Now. But numbers released under the RTI Act tell another story.

ByAyush Tiwari
Did the Modi government give parliament dubious data on media ads?
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Editor's note: After this report was published, the Press Information Bureau sent a response. You can read it here.

In February this year, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, or DAVP, released data on the Narendra Modi government’s advertisement expenditure in the media.

It shows that Republic TV and Times Now, the two most watched English news channels, received fewer government ads than NewsX, India Today and BTVI. Similarly, in the Hindi news segment, News Nation and India News got more from the government’s ad kitty than Zee News and India TV.

These numbers, however, do not match the data the Modi government provided under the Right to Information Act, nor do they tally with the figures maintained by the channels themselves.

DAVP is a media unit of the information and broadcasting ministry which, in its own words, provides “solutions for the paid publicity requirements of all central government organisations”.

The February data was released after MP Nusrat Jahan asked Prakash Javadekar, then I&B minister, for the “total quantum of government advertisements” to newspapers, TV channels, magazines, and digital media in the last three years.

“Details of amount committed on government advertisements issued to newspapers, magazines, TV, digital media during the last three years are available at Bureau of Outreach and Communication website, ie www.davp.nic.in,” Javadekar replied.

The data on the website throws up curious figures. Between 2017 and 2020, it shows, NewsX pocketed the largest sum of ad money from the government among English news channels of Rs 2.7 crore. India Today and CNN News18 received Rs 1.59 crore and Rs 1.55 crore, respectively. BTVI, which suspended broadcast in September 2019, got Rs 1.16 crore in ad money.

Republic TV, launched in May 2017, cornered Rs 74.3 lakh. Times Now got a paltry Rs 14.9 lakh, far below NDTV 24x7, which got Rs 27 lakh.

Aaj Tak bagged Rs 12.6 crore, the highest of any Hindi news channel. News Nation got Rs 11.7 crore and India News – the sister channel of NewsX – Rs 11 crore, ABP News Rs 9.9 crore, News18 India Rs 8.6 crore, Zee News Rs 7.1 crore, India TV Rs 7.06 crore. NDTV India received only Rs 1.55 lakh, the lowest sum received by a Hindi news channel.

Republic Bharat, launched in early 2019, received Rs 71.6 lakh worth of ads in 2019-20.

Sudarshan News, known for its hate shows, earned Rs 2.01 crore over three years through government ads.

Parliament data vs RTI data

The figures produced in the parliament are a sum of the Modi government’s ad expenditure over the three financial years of 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20.

This is the second time the government has released its ad expenditure data in 15 months. In December 2019, Reetika Khera, associate professor of economics at IIT Delhi, and Anmol Somanchi, an independent researcher, had obtained data on the government’s ad expenditure on news channels under the Right to Information Act. Those figures had been compiled by DAVP as well.

Yet, the figures produced in the parliament differ from those provided under the RTI Act. Given the 2018-19 data produced under the RTI Act could be provisional, let’s compare the two sets of numbers for 2017-18.

Aaj Tak, for example, received Rs 3.7 crore worth of ads in 2017-18, as per the data presented in the parliament. But according to the RTI data, the channel received Rs 2.4 crore.

The parliament figures state that News Nation received Rs 3.4 crore in government ads but the RTI data shows it got only Rs 2.09 crore.

Similarly, India TV cornered Rs 1.9 crore as per the first dataset. As per the second, it only received Rs 74.8 lakh.

For several channels, the ad money received as per the RTI figures exceeds the sums disclosed in the parliament data. The Hindi channel NDTV India got 1.5 lakh in ads in 2017-18 according to the DAVP figures given to the parliament. But the sum swells to Rs 1.16 crore as per the RTI numbers. The English news channel CNN News18 bagged Rs 58 lakh as per the first dataset. As per the second, it received Rs 85 lakh.

Somanchi, the researcher, told Newslaundry that the two sets of data do not seem to have a clear trend of overreporting or underreporting. "It is indeed strange that the advertisement expenditure figures provided in response to our RTI query are at divergence with the figures tabled in the parliament," he observed. "For some channels, advertisement expenditures are higher in the RTI response and for others they are lower."

He does not discount that a revision of the ministry’s budgets might have affected the numbers and caused the discrepancy. "There are, however, some hints that this data is manually compiled (for instance, in the RTI response, the table with data for the year 2011-12 is erroneously titled 2011-13) and if so, then there is scope for manual errors at the compilation stage," he added. "In either case, it would be helpful for the ministry of information and broadcasting to clarify why their own documents are at divergence with each other."

Newslaundry reached out to the ministry and the DAVP for comment. This report will be updated if we get a response.

More ads for NDTV than Times Now?

In 2018-19 and 2019-20, the parliament data shows, the government did not advertise at all with the Hindi news channel NDTV India. The ad expenditure, it shows, was zero. But a source at the network confirmed that the TV channel received ads worth lakhs from the Modi government in the two years. Similarly, a source familiar with the Republic network’s ad earnings confirmed the channel’s data on government ads did not match the figures given to the parliament.

According to the parliament figures, Republic TV, which had the highest viewership among English channels according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council, did not get as many ads from the government as India Today and CNN News18. Times Now, mostly placed at the second spot in viewership, got less ad money than NDTV 24x7.

TV news industry executives offered an explanation for this curious phenomenon. “It is possible that Republic and Times Now get better rates for ad slots in the open market than that offered by the government,” said an executive at a news channel on the condition of anonymity. “The government offers fixed rates for ad slots. But private players are prepared to pay four to six times more. So it ultimately helps these channels to avoid government ads.”

Another executive claimed that state governments advertise more on news channels than the Centre. “The DAVP does not include ad expenditure by states,” he noted. “Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab have lately been spending significantly on media ads.”

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