• Sumit Singh

Modia Maverick

In a democracy, it’s the job of a journalist to hold politicians accountable to the public. Politicians are the representative of the people and journalists are their voice. People in the press are supposed to ensure that the concerns of the electorate are listened to, considered, and where appropriate, acted upon. It’s often said that the relationship between a politician and a journalist is professional. But some of the recent events that unfolded within the media fraternity point to the fact that there’s more to this professional relationship.

Thomas Jefferson, once said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter”. Perhaps he was right in suggesting that journalists are more important to society than politicians. Perhaps, in some societies, the politicians know and fear that. But in India, the world’s biggest democracy, it’s the other way round. Every other day it seems, something or the other occurs to remind us of the ailing state of the Indian news media. Politicians, particularly those in power, treat the press as their puppets.

This is not just an assumption but a fact by now and the recently leaked WhatsApp chats between Mr Partho Dasgupta, the former CEO of the television ratings measurement agency- Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) and Mr Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic Media Network confirm these claims. The leaked WhatsApp chats came into light after Mumbai Police filed a 3,600-page supplementary charge sheet in the TRP scam with a transcript of the Whatsapp conversations between Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta which ran over 1000 pages. The chats prove Arnab’s nationalism as a mere ploy for TRP.

This exposé reminds the nation of the Niira Radia tapes scandal that rocked the corridors of power in 2010. The chats call for a deeper probe because like the Radia Tapes, they reveal the nexus between business, regulators and the government. The Radia Tapes is another episode in the history of scams in India that caused a lot of embarrassment to the then ruling UPA government. It also cast a shadow on journalistic ethics, especially when eliciting information is the only concern, with no thought given to the means of doing the same. The tapes exposed and revealed a cosy nexus between corporate houses, Delhi-based journalists and several politicians and a PR professional (Niira Radia) all of whom seemed to be pushing for a deal between DMK and Congress with A Raja as the Telecom Minister after the general elections in 2009.

The conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and her clients were recorded by the Income Tax Department. It is, in fact, the content of these tapped conversations that led two investigating agencies, the CBI and the ED, to probe Radia’s role concerning policy decisions like spectrum allocation in the 2G case. The leaked audio files included tapped conversations between Niira Radia and politicians such as A Raja, Kanimozhi and Ranjan Bhattacharya, the foster son-in-law of the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Several journalists such as Barkha Dutt, Shankkar Aiyar, Shalini Singh, late Jehangir Pocha and Vir Sanghvi were also in talks with Radia when the calls were being tapped. Niira Radia tapes posed serious questions for journalists in India who routinely interact with a cabal that is close to the seat of power and is willing to part with information that can offer leads for a story.

Coming back to the issue of the leaked WhatsApp chats between Mr Goswami and Mr Dasgupta, here’s a few highlights that a concerned and responsible citizen of India must read, think and reflect upon unlike the pseudo nationalists masquerading as journalists and party spokesperson on National television. The chats indicate that Goswami and Dasgupta met regularly, shared jokes about politicians, calculated business interests after major political developments and gossiped about journalists.

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. 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”. Goswami’s chats with Dasgupta are garnished with references to his meetings in the Prime Minister’s office and with a mysterious AS. The most popular revelation so far is that Goswami’s chats establish that the anchor had prior knowledge of the Balakot airstrike of February 2019, and possibly, the revocation of Article 370. In other words, he was privy to a top-secret military operation and a political decision with grave security implications highlighting his close connections with the upper echelons of the government. This claim has been made not only by political parties but also by journalists at independent media organisations. One thing that needs to be noted is that the timing of Goswami’s message to Dasgupta was critical. The fact that he told him this three days before the event is quite problematic. Goswami’s most egregious bragging happened in August 2019. He told Dasgupta that on the day the Indian government revoked Article 370 in Kashmir, he had not only met the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and PMO officials but even got a call from Doval separately. In 2017, Republic TV circumvented Prasar Bharati’s auction system to gain viewership on DD Free Dish. Free Dish is a free-to-air DTH service provided by the Indian government. To be available on this platform for a limited period, broadcasters have to bid for a slot and pay a fee amounting to crores of rupees. Republic TV did not pay this fee and violated norms and as a result, cost the public exchequer more than Rs 52 crore. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore was then the Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting. Two crucial points must be looked upon here. The first one being that the minister had purportedly tipped off Goswami that his channel’s games with the state-owned broadcaster had reached the ministry. And second, and most importantly, it strongly implies that the minister buried the complaint into oblivion. Four years later, there is little to suggest the Narendra Modi government acted against Republic TV for cheating the system to the tune of crores. Arnab termed Prakash Javdekar as “useless” and the then-ailing Arun Jaitley as the “biggest failure” of the government and said that “Jaitley stretching it” and “one of my meetings in Delhi this week gets pushed because of this.” However, BJP leaders have not felt obliged to challenge the belittling of Jaitley in the WhatsApp chat or condemn the insensitive comments made when he was battling death. Many in the BJP believe that Goswami, known to have had easy access to Modi and Shah, was expressing what those in the power corridors genuinely felt about Jaitley at the time. It was widely speculated that Modi and Shah wanted Jaitley out of the Finance Ministry but couldn’t act on the desire since both had accepted his services as a lawyer. Jaitley had defended Modi in Gujarat riot cases and Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. The chats also 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 asks the anchor to persuade the politician regarding several matters, including the controversial landing page issue, which had then been discussed in the parliament. 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. Another set of chats show a casual suggestion of ‘buying’ a judge, made apparently in all seriousness, appears to attract the contempt of court. And it remains to be seen if the Supreme Court, law students and the Attorney General react as pro-actively as they have in the case of several cartoonists, journalists and stand-up comics. 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.

Arvind Subramanian did flag grave concerns on the economy. So did Kaushik Basu and several others. The dire remarks fell on deaf ears in the Narendra Modi government. Understandably, because they are economists; a source of mistrust for a regime sceptical of domain expertise. Now, possible evidence has emerged that a non-economist whose credentials and intentions the Modi government trusts was privy to a blunt insight, shorn of tiresome jargon, on the economy. Goswami said that NM/AS should first rejig the Finance Ministry in the second term, the economy is screwed, no matter what we tell outside. The message does not expand “NM” and “AS” but there aren’t too many duopolies with the telling abbreviations in the country that can “rejig” the Finance Ministry at the drop of a hat.

An instance of attempted ‘match-fixing’ occurs where Dasgupta tells Goswami to ‘influence’ the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) with ‘AS’. There is a clear attempt to mislead the government into thinking that TRAI’s digital measurement of viewership would hurt the ruling party politically. One can understand the dubious gloating over winning TRPs by breaking news on the Pulwama terrorist attack that led to the Balakot strikes, but surely, influencing regulators in collusion with the top audience measurement agency is not what one would expect of a news organisation. Nor would we expect an audience audit company to fix the regulator. Apart from the transcripts of the leaked WhatsApp Chats, the additional charge sheet filed by Mumbai Police makes some more startling revelations. Mr Dasgupta has admitted his role in the TRP scam and stated on record that he worked with his team to ensure manipulation of TRP ratings that helped Republic TV get the number 1 rating. Mr Dasgupta has also claimed that he received US$12,000 from Arnab Goswami for two separate holidays and a total of Rs 40 lakh over three years, in return for manipulating ratings in favour of Republic TV.

Amidst all this, there has been radio silence on all fronts of the establishment. The government has not yet responded to the growing demand for a formal inquiry into the controversial WhatsApp chats retrieved by Mumbai Police and submitted as part of its charge sheet in the TRP scam. Not even a single minister of the Modi government came out and addressed the nation on this issue. The government should know by now that in public life, silence often amounts to acquiescence, not denial.

Meanwhile, the opposition finally has something on which they can corner and attack the ruling government. Breaking his silence over the leaked WhatsApp conversations, former Congress President Rahul Gandhi said that sharing of information under the Officials Secrets Act is a criminal act and the receiver and giver of such information should go to jail. The Congress party in a press conference demanded a joint parliamentary panel probe into national security implications of the leaked Arnab Goswami chats.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan also tweeted on the issue saying the revelations from communications of an Indian journalist, known for his warmongering, reveal the unholy nexus between the Modi government and Indian media. Arnab Goswami was probably waiting for this. His favourite topic is Pakistan and when Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and its Prime Minister tweeted, he started to play the game he is best at. In a statement released by his own TV Network, Goswami lashed out at Pakistan and the Congress Party for accusing him of betraying the nation and its people. He ended his statement with the salutations: Satyamev Jayate, Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Jai Hind. That perhaps is the easiest way to muster the support of “nationalist forces” and escape all the questions that are posed to him via “anti-India forces”. Arnab Goswami also debated and ran hashtags such as “RepublicVsPakistan” and the tagline “Republic Fights Imran” for several days.

While the Editors Guild of India, chose to stay silent on this issue, the National Broadcasters Association (NBA) has taken a jibe at Republic TV and said that the messages not only reflect manipulation of ratings but is also about power play as it referred to the appointment of Secretaries, Cabinet reshuffle, access to the Prime Minister’s Office and the workings of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The NBA demanded that the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) should suspend the membership of Republic TV with immediate effect. Finding a way out of the malaise is a challenge for the media and democracy itself. While a pair of news channels debated on this issue in their primetime, most of the mainstream news channels in India chose to stay quiet on this whole issue.

We don’t need to turn the pages of history to know what Arnab’s Journalism has been. After the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, Mr Goswami hounded Rhea Chakraborty and many Bollywood celebrities with baseless allegations followed by their leaked WhatsApp Chats. He shouted and demanded 320 for many at that time. Now, the tables have turned. Arnab’s chats have leaked and there’s no one to question him in the ‘Republic’! Not even mainstream Indian Media. The WhatsApp chats were one of the bases on which several investigative agencies summoned eminent Bollywood personalities. Arrests were also made. What happened to the Courts, the investigative agencies and the Police now?

A lot of us have heard Arnab Goswami screaming at the panellists, particularly the opposition, in his regular TV news debates. Not only has he pushed falsehoods that were a Google search away from being busted, but also tweaked the truth, targeted the weak, and fed hate to millions of viewers. One thing that’s crucial and should be noticed is that on many occasions, he ran hashtags on ‘Lutyens Media’ and widely debated it. But Mr Goswami was so busy trolling and ridiculing the ‘Lutyens Lobby’ that he had no sense as to when he joined that lobby and his News network became the Real ‘Lutyens Media’. Chitra Subramaniam; a veteran journalist tweeted saying, “Getting support/solidarity from political parties, any political party, is bad for good journalism” after the BJP officially came out in full support of Arnab Goswami against his arrest by Mumbai Police. Be it the Home Minister or a local karyakarta of BJP, everyone mustered support for Mr Goswami. Only the Prime Minister didn’t tweet on this. The Maharashtra BJP also carried out a protest march in support of Arnab Goswami. The Party which is known for suppressing journalistic freedom in its ruling states suddenly became very conscious of press freedom is a surprising turn of events. These same ministers and karyakartas didn’t utter a single word on the leaked WhatsApp Chats. This clearly shows how dear Arnab is to the ruling government and vice versa.

Arnab Goswami is that typical Journalist who becomes a close friend to the politicians and their party and rarely questions their positions, often taking the stance that the politicians of that party are right regardless of any evidence. These typical journalists will do the politicians and their party favours but will have limits, usually when they think they will be found out. However, they will always be ready to lend a hand when needed if they feel that their coverage might benefit the politicians and their party and themselves. These so-called journalists are little more than an unpaid member of the politician’s public relations team. They enjoy name-dropping and being seen as connected to the influential.

Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut raised the issue of leaked WhatsApp chats in the Parliament, saying the BJP-led NDA government should be ashamed of protecting him. More opposition parties are likely to raise the Arnab Gate in the ongoing budget session of the Parliament. The opposition will try its best to corner the Narendra Modi government on this. It will be fascinating for all of us to see how the government, which has maintained complete silence on this issue, responds to the questions in the Parliament.

By Sumit Singh sumitsingh8254@gmail.com

The featured image first appeared in Outlook on 31 December 2012.

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