Facebook has repeatedly been accused of facilitating hate-speech against minorities, and the rapid spreading of fake news via WhatsApp forwards has fuelled growing communal violence in the country. The two platforms are clearly integral, near irreplaceable, to India’s political classes, which is why it was astonishing when Indian users began to leave the app in swathes.
Enter our dramatis personae, Arnab Goswami — India’s most controversial journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the far-right Republic TV — and Partho Dasgupta — former CEO of the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) of India. While the Indian public reeled from this escalated strong-arming on the part of Big Tech, it was surprised once again. Days after people began switching to alternative apps such as Signal and Telegram, as if on cue, the Mumbai Police released a 3,400-page supplementary charge sheet against Goswami and Dasgupta as part of an ongoing investigation into Republic TV’s manipulation of TRPs, including 1,000 pages of private WhatsApp chats between the pair.
Arnab Goswami is perhaps simultaneously India’s most loved and loathed news anchor, known for his shameless support of the government and his relentless shrieking and impropriety on Republic TV’s televised debates. He has on many occasions demeaned proponents of the Opposition, university students, Muslims, Dalits, and Sikh farmers. He puts a spotlight on un-newsworthy topics (usually fake news) that highlight the shortcomings of these groups and distract from the glaring and frankly embarrassing failures of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. At some point, one begins to question where news ends and reality TV begins. Among other journalists, he is responsible for the consistent undermining of not only journalistic practices, but also democracy.
The discussion between the two begins in early 2017 and continues until late 2020, outlasting Dasgupta’s time as CEO of the BARC. Among his private messages, Goswami’s chats include scathing attacks on public figures that he publicly supports. They also reveal Dasgupta’s collaboration with Arnab in trying to raise Republic TV’s ratings above other channels, making a compelling case for the Mumbai Police. But there are two aspects to this case that stand above the rest: the first being Goswami’s influence over the government. He specifically mentions his frequent correspondence with and proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Secondly, and more concerningly, Goswami mentions his prior knowledge of an air strike conducted by the Indian army in Balakot, Pakistan, following a terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir wherein forty military personnel were killed. He also states that the attack was good for his own TRPs. Needless to say, it provoked outrage from both the left and the right in a country already experiencing a wave of nationalism. The chats only exposed just how far the Modi-led government is willing to go in its propaganda push, now even undermining national security. It is safe to say that a TV anchor having knowledge of confidential military actions is, regardless of where one lives in the world, absolutely unheard of.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in response to these statements, referred to an “unholy nexus” that has been exposed by the entire affair. While the remarks of a rival nation’s leader are perhaps not the most reliable commentary on such matters, it is certainly true that an entanglement of social media, news networks, and the shamelessly undemocratic BJP government has disrupted Indian politics and society (not to mention the economy, which contracted by nearly 25% last year). Republic TV and platforms like WhatsApp have contributed to a careful and very systematic dissemination of fake news and hate-speech by the BJP and its proponents.
Whilst it is informally common knowledge that Republic TV serves as a mouthpiece for government-directed hate-speech, to see it all come out into the open was still shocking. Arnab Goswami has come to represent the twisting and contorting of news media in India, and its reduction to a shouting show of hot-headed bigots very well aware of the circus they partake in. In a way, he has rewritten the rules of televised news in the same fashion that Rupert Murdoch did when he launched Fox News in 1996.
Even the most left-leaning Indian media houses like NDTV failed to report on the Goswami WhatsApp chats until days after they were released, and still gave it far less attention than it deserved. Some social media activists like Dhruv Rathee speculate that this is due to their own less-than-legal activities vis-à-vis TRPs and hate-speech and government funding. The Mumbai Police is currently investigating Goswami for TRP manipulation when he should really have been charged with treason. What is more curious is that the Police named Dasgupta as the primary accused in this case, rather than the firebrand anchor himself.
A combination of Big Tech, compromised media, and an actively deceptive BJP government is misinforming the Indian masses, making any sort of discourse impossible. The news that people view on TV channels, and on WhatsApp, is so starkly different that it changes the notion of what is fact and what is fiction. Hindus thus buy into the idea of conspiratorial religious minorities and the poor see a booming economy.
It is true that India’s response to the WhatsApp update and the leaking of Goswami’s chats are a good sign. However, Republic TV’s statement responding to Mumbai Police’s charge sheet is a good example of how far Indian media is yet to go—something on the lines of a “deep conspiracy of anti-India and anti-national forces”.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons