Social media has largely come out in support of the advertising and marketing news platform Best Media Info (BMI) after its founder Niraj Sharma revealed that he had been sent a legal notice from Republic TV for his attempt to publish an article on advertisers pulling out of Republic TV.
BMI had tracked sponsorship and found that over 80 advertisers had pulled out from the channel due to what they claimed was a "toxic" atmosphere created by the latter.
The notice, which was issued on February 13, strongly condemns the proposed article stating that it was a "defamatory, falsified, motivated, concocted publication" and that Republic would be willing to pursue the matter legally should the report ever come to light.
Speaking to Madhyamam, founder and editor of Best Media Info, Niraj Sharma revealed that he was not worried as there was no legal standing for the case and insisted that he would continue to fight for ethical journalism on the face of threats.
"I had the intention of showing BMI's consistent efforts for a clean news environment. I wanted to show the impact of [toxic discourse]. If any news channel wants to engage in good journalism, let us compete to create a good society...there is no need to resort to shortcuts like breaking societal harmony to get publicity."
In September of 2020, Niraj Sharma had published a report on rising concerns within the advertising industry that prompted top advertisers to express "concern over the rising toxicity in news content in the name of gaining TRPs."
Although Republic TV's legal notice points fingers at the pandemic crisis affecting ad revenue, Sharma expressed disagreement on the issue as he pointed out that BMI had been monitoring data on advertising sponsorship for over 16 weeks via the TAM Media Research organisation.
In fact, Sharma says, they had kept that in mind while investigating the loss of ad revenue but he did not think that the loss of 80 advertisers was due to the pandemic alone.
"COVID-19 happened one year ago," Sharma opined. "When the number one news channel - Republic - starts getting dropped out of the media plan by advertisers who were heavily and regularly investing in it for many months, that cannot be attributed to COVID-19 alone."
He also directed attention to the fact that Republic TV had been losing sponsorship even during 'festival' months where advertising spending typically increased.
"We monitored the data week by week," Sharma said referring to TAM's weekly ADEX reports on advertising promotions and sponsorship initiatives.
"After 16 weeks I had enough data to do the story. But I waited for January because January was an important month for Republic TV since the WhatsApp chat transcripts were leaked. I wanted to see what impact that would have."
The report by BMI mentions that in January alone, 30 advertisers dropped out, of which 20 were "very large scale" advertisers belonging to multinational companies. An additional 20 advertisers had also dropped out between the period of October 2020 and January 2021, which Sharma points out may be due to the impact of the TRP manipulation scam that has embroiled Republic and several other major news channels like India Today.
In response to questions on whether the three-month TRP rating suspension was affected by BARC and TRAI would affect the way advertisers chose to invest revenue, Sharma remarked that it would have little to no impact as there were many more factors that went into buying and selling of advertising. Mostly it was the channel's image and standing that affected its ability to attract sponsors and not just raw TRP data on how many were tuning in, he said.
Sharma was also conscious that many advertisers were not willing to be named in the report as they were wary of being targeted. In his earlier report on the increasing toxicity of news reports, Sharma noted that the TRP scam broke just days after his story was published and that it had hit news channels which relied on promoting content intended to stir controversy or hate solely to attract viewers.
"There are many sane advertisers who feel that [Republic] is spreading hate in society," he remarked.
He expressed great disappointment in the matter of the legal notice on a proposed article and noted that a news channel which threw such "tantrums" would lose credibility in the face of the public and their sponsors as well. Although BMI had reached out to Republic TV CEO Vikas Khanchandani for his point of view, the legal notice arrived shortly after the request.
Meanwhile prominent journalists and other personalities have criticised the perceived hypocrisy in Republic TV's actions, noting that the channel which often batted for free speech would itself resort to silencing dissent.
The TRP scam is still being probed by the Mumbai Police which has repeatedly butted heads with Republic TV's senior management, even naming CEO Khanchandani and AVP Ghanshyam Singh in the chargesheet.