Uber’s ties with the Times Group are raising eyebrows. On July 12, the Indian Express shed light on the media group’s “strategic partnership” with the cab firm.
Express that in 2015, Uber co-founder and then CEO Travis Kalanick told his associates that the company should have a “strong relationship” with the media group after he was invited to the Economic Times Global Business Summit. “If there is something we can do for them that makes sense, we should do it,” he advised them over email.
In 2015, Times Internet, the digital arm of the group, invested around Rs 150 crore in Uber to “support” its “expansion in India”. Rape allegations against an Uber driver in 2014, and the Delhi government’s subsequent ban on the firm’s operation, formed the backdrop of this partnership.
We parsed through the Times Group’s reportage on Uber in Times of India, Economic Times and IndiaTimes.com between 2015 and 2022. We documented stories in publications like Express and Hindustan Times, among others, where Uber fared poorly and tried to look up their Times equivalent. We also went through stories on the cab firm’s business operation that appeared in the pages of its strategic partner.
We only studied Times reportage available online. TOI’s epaper archives prior to December 2021 were not accessible on the internet. We also checked with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the National Archives of India. These institutions did not have TOI archives beyond 2010. At the Times of India office in Delhi, we were told that the archive hasn’t been functional since a fire in 2017.
In the seven-year period, Times covered most incidents in India where Uber’s services and operation came under scrutiny, though not all. This chiefly includes incidents where the firm’s drivers misbehaved with customers. It even reported on the “” series by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Simultaneously, its reportage on Uber’s operation in India was seemingly balanced, with pieces that were both puff and picky.
Uber in these Times
Uber’s stars in India seemed dim in late 2014. In December that year, an Uber driver was accused of sexually assaulting a customer and the company’s operation was clamped down by the Delhi government. By March, the Times-Uber deal had been inked.
In January 2015, TOI had reported that the victim had an American trial lawyer to sue the company in the United States, as well as the of the case in September by the victim amid indications of an out-of-court settlement. It also reported on the Delhi High Court verdict which the driver guilty of rape. We found a in TOI when the accused was awarded a life sentence, and a on the verdict, while Economic Times carried a Press Trust of India on it. In the same year, TOI also reported on the alleged of a passenger by an Uber driver in Kolkata and the of another driver for allegedly masturbating inside the cab in the West Bengal capital.
In 2016, TOI reported separate incidents of alleged molestation of a and a in Noida and Mumbai respectively. It carried a reported piece on the of a Delhi University student after an Uber rammed into a truck. When an Uber driver in Gurgaon fell asleep while driving, TOI certainly didn’t, and reported on the .
However, we could not find two Uber-related incidents in TOI that were covered by publications like Express and Hindu in 2016: the arrest of an Uber driver for in Kolkata and the claims of “” behaviour against another driver in Navi Mumbai. TOI did on an Uber cab driver "misbehaving" with a passenger in Delhi in 2016.
In 2017, when the victim of 2014 Delhi rape case sued Uber for breach of privacy, ET carried a Bloomberg on it. TOI seems to have given a pass to the settlement of the lawsuit in December as well as CEO Kalanick’s for claims of harassment and discrimination in the company earlier that year. But it did report on incidents involving abuse, molestation and “unprofessional behaviour” by Uber drivers in , and , respectively.
Between 2018 and 2022, the Times Group seems to have not covered three incidents where Uber’s safety came under a scanner. One of them is from May this year, when an Uber driver was for attacking a customer in Assam. Another is from 2019, when a Bengaluru family was on a deserted road by an Uber driver for refusing to pay cash. While on the Delhi High Court upholding the life sentence of the accused in the 2014 Delhi rape case in 2018, ET appeared to have skipped it.
There were some odd reports on Uber here and there. In May 2021, an Uber driver and two others were held for allegedly killing a Kenyan man in Delhi. While Express the cab firm in headline and copy, the TOI did not mention Uber at all. It stuck to “Delhi cabbie”. Its on the incident contained the same omission.
In all fairness, between 2018 and 2022, the Times Group did cover incidents that might’ve embarrassed its investee. These include a litany of crimes by Uber drivers – allegedly , , at and and customers, and of course, .
The good and the bad
Uber does not always have it tough in the pages of the Times Group. In Economic Times, for instance, its policies and investments have often had positive coverage.
“Uber continues to pursue its goal of becoming a ‘superapp’ for travel,” announced the ET website on April 6, 2022. The – with the byline ‘ET Spotlight Special’ – said that the firm “will now offer buses, trains, car and planes rentals to its U.K. app in the near future this year”.
In the previous month, the ET website had carried a report on how Prabhjeet Singh, president of Uber in India and South Asia, had doubled as a cab driver and had the most pleasant interactions with passengers. “Imagine taking a cab and finding one of the top bosses of that taxi company behind the wheel,” the cheered. “Wouldn't that add to your travel experience and make you feel more welcomed, valued and safe?”
In December 2021, ET reported that Uber had offered the highest salary packages at the IIT placements. The was carried on the front page of the paper.
But for every report that counted Uber’s successes, publications of the Times group also touched upon the nervous points. In May this year, it how lack of incentives from Ola and Uber had forced drivers to quit the firms in droves. That month, the Economic Times a PTI copy on how India’s consumer protection regulator had issued notices to Uber for “unfair trade practices and violation of consumer rights”. This was also on Mirror Now, a news channel in the Times Group.
In December 2021, when ET made a big deal of salary packages at IIT placements, it also that the Karnataka state transport department had claimed that Uber and Ola were operating in Bengaluru without the requisite licences.
This month, one of ET’s ‘Spotlight Special’ pieces also how Uber fares can often be “overpriced” and “exorbitant”.
In a reply to Express story on Uber’s ambitions for a “strong relationship” with the Times Group, the group refuted implications that the Uber deal might have coloured its editorial coverage of the firm. “At The Times Group, there is no interaction to influence between the business teams and the editorial teams,” wrote Sivakumar Sundaram, the chairman of the group’s executive committee. “The editors control the selection of matter that is published as news, while the business teams, including advertisement sales teams and barter teams, do not have any control whatsoever on the editorial matters.”
Uber told Express that “there has never been an expectation of positive editorial coverage as a result of the investment” by the media group.
The Times’s reporting on Uber over the last seven years offers a reasonable gauge to determine the accuracy of these statements.
Update on July 18
A previous version of this story overlooked three instances of TOI's coverage of Uber – a comprehensive report on a high court sentencing, a 2016 case of an Uber driver "misbehaving" in Delhi, and a high court order upholding the life sentence given to the accused in the 2014 rape case.
These reports have been added to the story. The omissions are regretted.
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