New Delhi: Hints of lobbying and a general discomfort with India’s broadcast regulatory pop up more than once in WhatsApp conversations that allegedly took place between senior journalist Arnab Goswami and former BARC CEO Partho Dasgupta.
These conversations, whose authenticity The Wire could not independently verify, were attached to a supplementary chargesheet filed in the TRP scandal by the Mumbai police this week and contain hundreds of chat pages.
One thread ,however, that runs through the purported conversation between the two is a sharp discomfort towards interventions made by India’s telecom regulator (TRAI or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) to change the way ratings are calculated.
Over the last three years, the I&B ministry, TRAI and BARC have butted heads more than once.
In 2018, there was a discussion between the regulator and the ministry on a proposal to ask DTH operators to install a chip in new set-top boxes to calculate data about the channels watched and the duration.
In the purported WhatsApp chats that were attached to the supplementary chargesheet , Dasgupta allegedly told Goswami that the “TRAI proposal” would politically hurt “both parties” (implying Republic and BJP).
The new proposed system never gained traction in policy circles.
In a conversation dated March 2019, Dasgupta lashes out the regulator, apparently in response to a separate incident where TRAI had asked BARC to immediately make all viewership data public. At the time, media reports indicated that the ratings body had decided to release weekly data only to its subscribers in the wake of the transition to the new tariff regime.
“TRAI spreading misinformation against us that we are not putting on ratings. I helped BJP on that advertiser story too… it’s time they shaft people who are against them,” Dasgupta rails in private to Goswami.
Dasgupta tells Goswami that if the data is made public, many channels could be blacked out by Multi System Operators (MSOs) and Local Cable Operators (LCOs).
“With public data MSOs and LCOs will push you guys for more carriage,” Dasgupta warns.
In another alleged conversation the following month, Goswami said, “In two months if BJP comes TRAI won’t have teeth. They have taken on AS who told them to pull back and they didn’t.”
‘AS’ is not identified in the conversations.
Get AS to help?
To this, Dasgupta asked Goswami if he can text ‘AS’ and get the telecom regulator admonished. In response, Goswami agrees, but asks the former BARC CEO to list out three reasons that he can share with ‘AS’ to explain how the move will politically hurt him.
In his messages, Dasgupta expresses concern at potential legal action being taken against him. “They have said in their show cause.. BARC is acting at the behest of some big stakeholders… I hear if they move, my passport will be revoked etc,” he said.
Two days later, Goswami, messaging Dasgupta, allegedly said a strong message had been sent to TRAI. In another alleged conversation over the same issue later that month, Goswami said “critical people in the PMO” are aware of the issue.
In May, after the Lok Sabha election results, the Republic TV journalist texted the former BARC CEO to say that he “can happily push back now”.
“Great news. Amit Shah in government. The order changes. Complete clean up. You can happily push back,” he purportedly wrote.
“Amit Shah is now the MIB (Minister of Information and Broadcasting)… as in whoever comes doesn’t matter.”
‘Complaint against Republic’
Soon after Republic TV launched in May 2017, Dasgupta allegedly messaged Goswami about a complaint from NDTV regarding the former’s dual LCNs (Logical Channel Numbers).
LCN is an identification number assigned to a TV channel, and having dual LCNs allegedly allows a channel to be placed outside their genres by distributors. It is a tactic that helps push up ratings.
“The set that is calling you has no influence at all. Not even a secretary meets India Today, NDTV at times is boycotted by the government,” Goswami said, adding that he has a letter from India Today asking for a dual LCN.
To this, Dasgupta purportedly replied that Goswami should leak it as “one must play dirty”.
The use of dual LCNs had sparked a controversy after the launch of Republic Bharat, the Hindi news channel of the network, as well. In February 2019, TRAI received complaints regarding the same from TV Today Network, which owns Aaj Tak, as well as India TV and News18.
A month later, in March 2019, Dasgupta purportedly messaged Goswami about a meeting of the News Broadcasters Association, where the subjects discussed included “Partho-Arnab proximity, landing pages and dual triple LCNs of Republic as usual”.
Landing page is the channel that a television set automatically switches on to.
In August, Goswami asked Dasgupta how TV18 had shot up to number 2. The two then allegedly had a conversation about how the “government can help with this”.
Goswami said, “We did everything and TV18 does nothing. TV18 is giving up networks they are so confident of landing being measured.”
“Dont let TV18 win like this,” he added. Dasgupta allegedly replied that BARC management has to be independent and that “nobody is letting that happen”.
Goswami purportedly said the government thinks BARC is helping TV18.
“PMO guys said that yesterday to a channel head that TV18 is winning like this. You moderate TV18 landing, they will come down to 7 pc pr less given their content,” Goswami said.
To this, Dasgupta replied, “It is severely moderated.”