Mumbai: Media Research Users Council (MRUC), the body that audits the much- sought-after print readership figures in India, said it will delay the release of Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2008 Round One because of attempts by at least one publication to influence readership.

Mass media: File picture of people at a news-stand in Srinagar. The Indian Readership Survey is a biannual readership survey that is used by newspapers and magazines to assess their relative competitiveness.

The IRS is a biannual readership survey that is used by newspapers and magazines to assess their relative competitiveness and also to set advertising rates. In turn, the data is also used by ad buyers to decide on their media plans.

In a statement, the council, or MRUC, said it has decided to delay the release of data due to additional and repeat fieldwork. “Hansa Research Group Pvt. Ltd that undertakes the fieldwork for IRS had reported to MRUC that some publications were trying to influence the results in some markets as a result of which fieldwork was being redone."

The council went on to say that recent issues cropped up in Rajasthan, “where the research agency’s quality control process found evidence of an attempt to manipulate and influence research findings."

One person on the council, who didn’t want to be named, said the issue revolves around Rajasthan Patrika Pvt. Ltd, the publisher of Hindi daily Rajasthan Patrika.

Repeated attempts, via phone calls, SMSes and emails, to get comments from Rajasthan Patrika officials on Saturday and Sunday weren’t successful. Arvind Kalia, national director, marketing at Rajasthan Patrika, on hearing about the allegations asked a Mint reporter to speak to another executive. That executive, in turn, asked for an email to be sent regarding the issue. Eventually, Rajasthan Patrika responded in an email saying: “Contact the MRUC."

TV Today Group CEO and current council chairman G. Krishnan declined to comment. Ashok Das, managing director of Hansa Research, also declined to identify the publication. Mint has no independent way to confirm the name of the publication. HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, also publishes Hindustan Times, and Hindustan in Hindi, and participates in the IRS.

The same person familiar with what happened said: “Hansa Research, the research body that conducts the IRS, discovered a marked jump in readership of the said publication and brought up the matter with the field staff. The field officials allegedly confessed that they had been bribed to project the publication in a favourable light."

The council’s general manager Sabina Solomon wrote in an email: “We are currently investigating the issue and it is difficult to say which publication(s) is involved. It is true that interviewers were being influenced and, as a result, we have scrapped the fieldwork done till now as well as withdrawn the field staff."

“The move by MRUC is to sensitize all parties involved that acts like these affect the entire industry irrespective of the parties involved. In a way everyone pays a price—the publications, the advertisers and their agencies as well as the research agency—since the data if suppressed or fieldwork not done will impact the quality of research having a cascading effect," she wrote. The council has now put in mechanisms, added Solomon, will now create a code of conduct to which all constituencies agree to abide by.

There will be a standing committee to investigate issues related to publication interference in the research process, whether identified through quality control process of the research agency or through complaints raised by the members. The standing committee would be empowered to appoint an external agency to investigate such issues if required.

“The members of the standing committee will be nominated shortly," she said. “The draft code will be approved by the steering committee of the MRUC. The expected delay is about 1.5 to 2 months."

“I hold readership surveys like the IRS in very high esteem, and if anything like this has occurred, I am quite surprised by it," said Manish Porwal, Starcom MediaVest Group’s MD India-West & South. “The fact that the MRUC is stating it, and taking steps to nip it, shows the right intent on their part."

Added Outlook group’s publisher Maheshwar Peri: “Ultimately, the industry comprises of 200 companies and there will be publications who will try and sabotage readership figures by dubious means. I think that the MRUC already has enough that they have cited...Rajasthan, they need to isolate this area and treat it separately, and use the right measures to maintain the hygiene of the research."

Says Sandip Tarkas, media-buying head for Reliance, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group: “The very fact that a particular malpractice was caught shows that the system works somewhere."