NEW DELHI – Since it first aired three years ago, Republic TV has been one of the most watched, most discussed and controversial television news channels in India.
Its main anchor, Arnab Goswami, has made a name for himself by shouting down opponents, addressing right-wing concerns and aggressively supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing government.
In return, Republic TV’s audience ratings have increased.
But this week, Mumbai police officers accused Republic TV and two smaller channels of tampering with the rating system by paying poor people the equivalent of a few dollars a month to tune in and keep their TVs on. In some cases, police officers said, people bribed to watch the English language channel did not speak English and were upset at connecting their televisions to programs they could not even understand.
These viewership figures are not just a source of pride: they are also an important factor in a broadcaster’s advertising revenue, fueling their continued ability to shape public discourse.
Republic TV’s dominance has emerged at a time when many Indian journalists have said their freedoms have been undermined under the government of Mr Modi and he has been trying to target the country’s news media, particularly the airwaves, like no other prime minister in decades manipulate.
The broadcaster’s co-founder Mr. Goswami has strongly denied the bribery allegations and said he has been targeted because of recent coverage criticizing Mumbai police. He seems to live off confrontation and has used this moment to gather his millions of viewers.
“Come to my house, come to my office if you have the courage,” he mocked the police on Thursday evening. “Come and arrest me!” He called Mumbai’s police chief Param Bir Singh “a man without a backbone” and “a flexible tool”.
The news that Republic TV had been investigated hit the country’s media elite like an earthquake. Mr Goswami is one of India’s most famous darlings on the political right, and wall-to-wall news outlets covered the investigation throughout Friday.
A free press has played a vital role in protecting Indian democracy since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. However, under Modi, liberal media has been repeatedly targeted by senior government officials who berated editors, cut advertisements and ordered tax investigations.
At the same time, right-wing media organizations like Republic TV, which some refer to as Fox News of India, are often given preferential treatment.
In Mumbai, the tables are turned. The state government is not controlled by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, but by an alliance of parties, including the Indian National Congress, who are rivals of Mr. Modi.
Despite being a friend of the central government, Mr. Goswami plays the role of the opposition in Mumbai, hammering state officials and wearing down those questioned in a barrage of loud abuse. He recently unleashed a tirade against Mumbai police, accusing them of botched an investigation into the death of Sushant Singh Rajput, a popular actor who appeared to have died of suicide in June.
Media commentators said it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what was behind the bribery allegations and that the rating system had been flawed for years.
Sevanti Ninan, a media columnist in New Delhi, said if Republic TV tampered with its ratings, it would indicate that their sensational coverage is less indecisive. “It would show that their so-called success does not reflect the success of their journalism,” she said.
In the Modi camp in particular, there is also suspicion that the police are persecuting Mr. Goswami because of his political views.
“The direction of the media by #Congress and its allies violates all principles of democracy and is unacceptable,” wrote Modi’s Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar on Twitter.
Ms. Ninan said: “Given that the investigation has barely started, the speed with which the Mumbai police have called a press conference certainly raises questions, especially given the way Republic TV is watching the Mumbai police attacked on her channel in the past few months ”
To determine television viewers in India, certain households are selected to have a meter attached to their television to monitor which channels they are watching. These results are then aggregated to measure the popularity of different channels that can make or break them: the more viewers a channel can draw, the more money it can charge for advertising.
Recent reviews showed that Republic TV is the # 1 English language news channel. The Hindi version drew an even larger audience – roughly 40 times as many.
Police officials said a former employee of a research firm hired by Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s rating agency, admitted paying households to keep their devices on Republic TV for a period of time each day.
“We interrogated those customers who were spoken to and manipulated,” said Singh, Mumbai’s police chief, at a press conference on Thursday. “They admitted they were paid money to run that particular channel.”
Police officers said they were investigating “suspicious trends” from two other smaller channels, Fakt Marathi and Box Cinema.
Another channel, India Today, was also mentioned in one of the police documents, although police later said they had no solid evidence against it.
The investigated charges include breach of trust, fraud and conspiracy. Police officers said they had arrested four people and were preparing to interview Republic TV executives.
Mr. Goswami’s Position: Bring it up.
“If you have the courage, Param Bir Singh,” he said in his mockery directed against the police chief on Thursday, “look at me in an interview.”