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Republic TV’s editor Arnab Goswami
Republic TV’s editor Arnab Goswami

When WhatsApp chats open up a can of worms

A transcript of alleged exchanges between Arnab Goswami and the ex-chief of a viewership tracker has blown up into a scandal that raises questions of sleazy links and legal processes

For the past few days, social media has been abuzz with scandalous excerpts from a transcript of WhatsApp chats purportedly between Republic TV’s editor Arnab Goswami and the former chief of Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), Partho Dasgupta. The leaked document is said to be part of a Mumbai Police chargesheet. While its authenticity is yet to be ascertained, the lurid story of TV-ratings manipulation, power broking and other sleazy practices that it allegedly offers testimony to has drawn sharp reactions. On Monday, the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), a private group of news channels that does not count Republic TV as a member, expressed “shock" over the messages. The NBA argued that they “clearly establish collusion and power play" between Goswami and Dasgupta aimed at rigging BARC’s viewership data to give Republic TV “an unfair advantage" in India’s market for advertising airtime. Dasgupta is currently in custody over allegations of BARC having done as much under his direction. If those charges are proven in court, our ad industry will need to reset the mechanism by which advertisers allot their budgets across broadcasters (audience measures that are based on improperly randomized household samples are easy to rig). But the can of worms opened by these chats has spilt over into other domains as well.

Revelations of data distortion, should this turn out to be the case, are not entirely unheard of in an industry that has a gaggle of nearly 800 TV channels vying fiercely for an advertising pie that is placed at over 30,000 crore. Allegations of fudged ratings were levelled even in earlier times, when there were two rival rating services. Today’s BARC monopoly, originally meant to avoid duplication of research costs, is particularly vulnerable to capture by special interests for the simple reason that we have no other readings to check against. This can easily be fixed. A bigger problem that these chats suggest the existence of, prima facie, is a covert nexus that extends beyond TV studios and audience trackers. The WhatsApp exchanges between Goswami and Dasgupta also contain references to the Pulwama terror attack of 14 February 2019 and India’s retaliatory plans that have raised questions over the editor’s access to privileged information and its potential implications for national security. As with other such transcripts, these conversations are too sketchy for inferences of wrongdoing that could withstand the rigours of judicial scrutiny. But their shock value has stirred up a controversy, and calls have arisen for a joint parliamentary probe. That a TV channel’s editor could be in the eye of such a storm on account of a social media trail was unthinkable till recently.

While investigations are in order, a general issue that must not escape debate is the admissibility of private chats as evidence in court. As of now, the Information Technology Act allows ‘electronic evidence’ with some caveats on how such records are obtained. The seizure of a personal gadget, as Dasgupta’s was reported to have been, may pass muster. In another case, actor Rhea Chakraborty found her chats aired on TV. For all such instances, we need clear rules that respect everyone’s right to privacy. We need a data protection regime that would make a judicial warrant mandatory for law enforcers to obtain personal chats. This would not only guard our freedom of speech, which is vital to democracy, it would also help uphold a principle of law that often gets short shrift in India: The right not to incriminate oneself by means of casual or out-of-court statements.

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