Arnab Goswami paid me $12,000 and Rs 40 lakh to fix ratings: Partho Dasgupta

The former CEO of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, Partho Dasgupta, has claimed in a handwritten statement to Mumbai Police that he received US$12,000 from Republic TV Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami for two separate holidays and a total of Rs 40 lakh over three years, in return for manipulating ratings in favour of the news channel, according to the supplementary chargesheet filed in the TRP scam case.

The 3,600-page supplementary chargesheet, filed by Mumbai Police on January 11, also includes a BARC forensic audit report, WhatsApp chats purportedly between Dasgupta and Goswami, and statements of 59 persons, including former council employees and cable operators.

The audit report names several news channels, including Republic, Times Now and Aaj Tak, and lists instances of alleged manipulation as well as “pre-fixing” of ratings for the channels by BARC’s top executives.

The supplementary chargesheet was filed against Dasgupta, former BARC COO Romil Ramgarhia and Republic Media Network CEO Vikas Khanchandani. A first chargesheet was filed against 12 persons in November 2020.

According to the second chargesheet, Dasgupta’s statement was recorded in the office of the Crime Intelligence Unit on December 27, 2020, at 5.15 pm, in the presence of two witnesses.

Dasgupta’s statement reads: “I have known Arnab Goswami since 2004. We used to work together in Times Now. I joined BARC as CEO in 2013. Arnab Goswami launched Republic in 2017. Even before launching Republic TV he would talk to me about plans for the launch and indirectly hint at helping him to get good ratings to his channel. Goswami knew very well that I know how the TRP system works. He also alluded to helping me out in the future.”

It states: “I worked with my team to ensure manipulation of TRP ratings that made Republic TV get number 1 rating. This would have continued from 2017 to 2019. Towards this, in 2017 Arnab Goswami had personally met me at St Regis hotel, Lower Parel and given me 6000 dollars cash for my France and Switzerland family trip…also in 2019 Arnab Goswami had personally met me at St Regis and given me 6000 dollars for my Sweden and Denmark family trip. Also in 2017, Goswami had personally met me at ITC Parel hotel and given me Rs 20 lakh cash… also in 2018 and 2019… Goswami met me at ITC hotel Parel and gave me Rs 10 lakhs each time…”

Dasgupta’s lawyer Arjun Singh said: “We totally deny this allegation as the statement would have been recorded under duress. It does not have any evidentiary value in the court of law.” When contacted, a member of Goswami’s legal team declined to comment. Goswami has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and alleged he was being targeted.

The chargesheet also includes BARC’s audit report, dated July 24, 2020, which states that evidence “indicated favouritism shown to few channels” and “in some cases, we suspect that the ratings were pre-decided”.

For instance, the report mentions alleged suppression of viewership for Times Now to boost Republic’s weekly rankings, and highlights a purported conversation between BARC’s top executives and a senior marketing executive of India Today Group on “pre-fixing” Aaj Tak’s ratings.

With multiple emails and messages between BARC officials attached as annexures, the report states that one of the reasons given by the council for changing Times Now’s viewership data is to cater for “outlier” data, which is meant to identify spikes in viewership due to the channel being the “landing page” on some distributors.

The practice of placing a channel on the “landing page” was prohibited by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. But that direction was set aside by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal, and the matter is now in Supreme Court.

The audit was conducted by Acquisory Risk Consulting. The executive summary of the audit report states that “manipulation was evidenced in 2017, 18 and 19 across English News Genre and Telugu News Genre”.

The report states that six top executives of BARC at the time were involved in “manipulation of ratings and violation of the code of ethics” between 2018 and 2019, including Dasgupta, Ramgarhia, Head of Products (South) Venkat Sujit Samrat, Head of West Rushab Mehta, Vice President of Strategy Pekham Basu, and Chief People Officer and Strategy Manashi Kumar.

In October 2019, Dasgupta was replaced by Sunil Lulla as CEO. The supplementary chargesheet includes a statement by a BARC official claiming that in “February 2020, Sunil Lulla told me that there were allegations of TRP rating manipulation from the media industry” against Dasgupta, Ramgarhia, Mehta, Samrat, Kumar and AVP Pekham Basu. The official states that in “the first week of June 2020, from the server I took the backup of the emails of the suspected persons on a hard drive and gave Ramgarhia’s laptop in the last week of June” to the auditing agency.

Mehta, Samrat, Kumar and Basu have not been charged by police. The audit report was provided to Mumbai Police in December, two months after it registered an FIR in the TRP case.

Some of the instances cited in the report point to changed ratings that resulted in Republic being the top channel in English news from 2017. It cites emails and messages as evidence for weeks in which Times Now’s data and ratings were decreased, giving Republic the edge.

On June 18, 2017, the report states, Mehta wrote to Ramgarhia: “As required, Times Now numbers are changed, while Republic is kept the same”. According to the report, “this is pointing that the senior management wanted Republic TV to be number 1, and the team was working to achieve this objective”.

According to the audit report, conversations between BARC’s executives and a top marketing executive of India Today Group, in 2016, pointed towards “pre-fixing” the ratings for Aaj Tak. The report cites “chat message conversations between Romil, Partho, and external officials of channels, hinting about pre-fixing the channel ratings during our analysis”.

When contacted, BARC said in an email: “As the matter is a subject of an ongoing investigation by the various law enforcement agencies, we are constrained to respond to your enquiries.”

Republic said in a statement that “there has been a collusion of corporate and political interests to target” Goswami. “This collusion, which is a result of commercial, political and personal interests, is aimed, quite obviously, at illegally trying to create prejudice against the Republic Media Network,” it said.

Times Now defended the use of landing pages, stating that they are “not ruled as illegal” and “are simply the most preferred frequency which is sold and bought at a Premium by perfectly legal means”. It said the outlier policy was “abused by corrupt BARC officials to manually intervene and wilfully and deliberately improve channel ranks for favoured channels” and that it is “contemplating legal action”.

India Today Group did not respond to queries from The Indian Express.

While Dasgupta is in jail, The Indian Express reached out to Mehta, Samrat, Ramgarhia, Kumar and Basu. Only Kumar responded. “I had remotely nothing to do with research or ratings as it was a different team which handled market analytics and data,” he said, adding that everything else was “slander”.

The chargesheet also includes statements by cable operators that they were asked to show Republic on two channels to increase its TRP in exchange for money — two operators said they were asked to raise vouchers of Rs 11,800 each.

FULL STATEMENT FROM TIMES NOW

“Times Network uses only bonafide and legally valid means to do its business. We do not indulge in Panel-Tampering or bribing BARC officials which are common cheating practises followed by unscrupulous actors. TRP numbers are a function of 2 factors: Reach of channel and Time Spent by Viewer on the Channel (TSV). TSV depends upon the Content plan, style and quality of story-telling. Reach depends upon Distribution efficiency and Opportunity To See (OTS). There are laws of the land that govern distribution, and as per them Landing Pages are not ruled as illegal. Landing Pages are simply the most preferred frequency which is sold and bought at a Premium by perfectly legal means. It is the same as FMCG Companies strategy of acquiring best Shelf Space in supermarkets for higher visibility. Or advertisers placing ads on the front page of newspapers for highest visibility. This is available to all and is not done by any underhand deals. Times Network has optimised its Product, Brand and Distribution with the best in class inputs including Landing Pages at high cost to deliver its channels to maximum viewers. It is also worthy to note that such viewers are real and genuine as far as advertising reach is concerned and the Advertiser gets the viewership that he has paid for.

“The Outlier Policy of BARC to filter Landing Pages is a contentious issue as this is not Spurious reach. It is pertinent to note that the Landing Page Filtration Algorithm has been officially announced by BARC only on Sept 03, 2020 after which Times Network has challenged this in the Bombay High Court and the matter is sub judice as on date. The 44 week Forensic audit is for the period May 2017 to March 2018 when no such Outlier Policy was in place and BARC had no mandate to remove bonafide reach from landing pages. The outlier policy or moderation policy is a mechanism provided by BARC Technical Committee to remove statistically significant anomalies, mainly abnormal TSV from unlikely homes or spikes in data that don’t represent the logical true picture. The Outlier Policy is the key provision that has been abused by corrupt BARC officials to manually intervene and wilfully and deliberately improve channel ranks for favoured channels.

“Times Network views this as the gravest breach of trust by BARC and is contemplating legal action. The timing of misrepresentation of numbers makes it even more damaging as it was done at a critical juncture in our Brand history when Times NOW was engaged in a marketing battle, energetically defending and retaining its position. The resultant financial and brand impacts are being ascertained at the moment.”

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