Times of India: Proposal accepted for a 500 crore deal

Times of India: Proposal accepted for a 500 crore deal

cobrapost |
May 25, 2018

Top brass discuss options to reroute cash via hawala

Pradeep V, Group Head Sales, Radio Mirchi, Bangalore; Binit Kumar, Senior Manager, Radio Mirchi, Patna; Prabhu Jha, Station Head, Radio Mirchi, Patna; Aarron D'Mello, Account Manager, Manglore; Anshuman Dey, Deputy General Manager and Head (Northeast India), Times Group; Vijay Bhaskar Reddy, Hyderabad; Srikanth Redddy, Deputy Manager Response, Times Group Hyderabad; Vishal Guleri, Deputy Manager Response, TOI Chandigarh; Bipin Kumar, Chief Manager NBT Lucknow; Atul Mehta, Senior Manager Brand Solutions, Worldwide Media, Mumbai; Priyadarshi Banerjee, General Manager Product Strategy, Mumbai; Raunaq Raje, Senior Manager (Digital Sales), Mumbai; Sanjeev Shah, Executive President (Mergers and Acquisitions Corporate), Mumbai; Vineet Jain, Managing Director, Times Group, Mumbai

The Times Group is widely held to be one of the most reputed and reliable media conglomerates of the country, not just the biggest. The family owned business is responsible for the circulation of The Times of India, the largest selling English language daily in the world, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, with an average daily sale of 3,32,1702 units. With 179 years of legacy behind them, and the force of 11,000 employees, the Times Group is a force to reckon with in the Indian media landscape. The parent company owns 16 publishing centres, 15 printing centres, 55 sales offices, 5 dailies, including two of the largest in the country with approximately 4.3 million copies in daily circulation, 2 lead magazines, and 29 niche magazines reaching 2468 cities and towns, along with 32 radio stations. By sheer force of circulation in these colossal figures, what they print and propagate is forever imprinted and archived in public memory. Over the years, The Times of India has gained a significant foothold in the industry as the touchstone of truth and journalistic veracity. And yet, they are not outside the web of deceit and treachery that paid news disseminate. The Times and its several branches and subsidiaries are more than willing to participate in the scandalous bid to maliciously malign certain parties and push the communal agenda before elections. The idea was to see whether the most reputed media brand in the country is up for sale or not. And as it turns out, it is.

The Times subsidiary, Radio Mirchi, is a nationwide network of private FM radio stations in India owned by the Entertainment Network India (ENIL), which, in turn, is a subsidiary of The Times Group. Radio Mirchi has immense reach and has a presence in 38 cities, including all major and minor metropolitan areas and townships in every state of India.

The original avatar of Radio Mirchi had been Times FM, and it had begun operation after the Government of India privatized the radio broadcasting sector and sold blocks of airtime, which were bought by The Times Group. In 2000, ENIL, owned by the group, won the highest number of frequencies in the auction of 108 FM frequencies, and started operations under Radio Mirchi. Immensely popular throughout the length and breadth of the country, Radio Mirchi is known to maintain weekly music charts for record charts in India, a ranking of recorded music according to popularity. These charts are published weekly in the Times of India.

Radio Mirchi’s entrance into the fray of public discourse signals the modernization of the auditor/listener and their willingness to recognize the revamped radio stations have led to its emergence as a new player in media war. Radio can penetrate grassroots and people in a way that is still unthinkable for social media instruments or even television or newspapers. It especially enjoys tremendous popularity in urban areas, with a record daily listenership of over 8.5 lakh in the Delhi NCR region.

Sharma exposes the cooption of the media in the power politics surrounding the saffron agenda, leading to a series of revelations of how radio channels are willing to misappropriate their social presence in order to gain monetary benefits.

The journalist met Pradeep V at his Bangalore office, who wants to know “what kind of content would go on air.” Sharma starts getting to the point, saying that he wants a corporate tie-up with the station for marketing purposes, “No, no, no…. see for me it’s a very clear understanding that I am approaching a corporate company. I am taking care of their financial things, business interest and I am requesting them, you please [in an] innovative way design something so that my political interests are taken care of.” Pradeep is curious as to “what kind of content” Sharma wants to “put forward.” Sharma is obliged to explain a bit further. Pradeep accedes to the tactic and assures that “how to push this particular concept, I will take care. What do you want to promote?”

When the journalist mentions a parallel campaign to malign political opponents, especially the Congress, he finds a willing listener: “I get your point.” It gradually becomes clear that Pradeep is not only on board about this nefarious agenda of pushing Hindutva politics into the mainstream but also that he has done it before, for the BJP, as he liberally spills information on what he has achieved on that front, “We have done so many long run campaigns, so many… I will tell you, agar BJP ki baat karein so during election we got quite bit on radio, Madison karr ke ek agency tha... we have runs campaign for BJP… matlab... (We have done so many long run campaigns, so many… I will tell you if we talk of BJP, there was a company called Madison … we have run campaigns for BJP, I mean…).” The journalist digs deeper and asks whether the campaign was done “in a massive way.” Pradeep is enthusiastic in his description of the high profile campaign account he has handled, oblivious to his statement a few minutes back where he said as media assets, he and his team couldn’t be seen taking sides: “Absolutely, matlab bahut high decibel, bahut hhi high decibel (It was very very high decibel, high profile, I mean).” Smelling a rat, the journalist encourages more discussion on the pecuniary transactions involved in the whole thing, and correctly guesses that not only was BJP directly involved, it was done through its own committee, in which case, the party is also liable since it influenced media houses and took them on their payroll: “Wonderful, okay, so party was handling the entire thing?” Pradeep confirms his suspicion, “Yeah, party was directly handling.” But they don’t give everything in cheque? Pradeep says, “Nahi nahi ho jataa hai (No, no, it happens). It is absolute, it was done by the … committee of the BJP. It was a proper understanding.”

Pradeep suggests that Sharma may pay him via some third party: “Agar local humlog karenge toh woh [third party] shayad ho sakta hain (If we do this locally, may be an arrangement can be made).” Sharma encourages him to think that he has the same intention and openly asks if it fine with him to accept cash, as his ashram gets donations in cash. Pradeep pounces on this opportunity and advises him to use third party fronts to make payments: “If there is media agency involved, these guys would take and give it to us… that would solve the entire issue.”

The journalist met three officials of Radio Mirchi in Patna, including Station Head Prabhu Jha and Senior Manager Binit Kumar. When the journalist tells him that they can make jingles in an innovative way by using the shlokas of Gita and relating them to today’s politics, to thrash political rivals through such jingles, Kumar says: “Wo toh main aapko apne script writer se milwa doonga wo apna bana lega usmein (I will introduce my scriptwriter to you … he will create it accordingly).” These jingles will not name any politician directly.

The meeting with station head Prabhu Jha turns out to be even more interesting. Prabhu Jha also appears to be ready to run ads and programmes on Radio Mirchi Patna according to the journalist’s specifications, and endorses his ideas to ideologically brainwash and “inject” the populace. As the journalist tells him that he wants to thrash political rivals, Jha announces, “By the way, main bhi RSS se hi belong karta hoon (By the way, I also belong to the RSS).” This sets the tone of the discussion. The journalist tells him that they are targeting the campaign at 2019 elections, so we want to propagate our ideology in a big way. Jha is all help as he says: “Don’t worry…job hi humare programming head hain ya main hoon we have been brought up in RSS toh issliye aap wo aur last time hum logon ne BJP ke liye campaign bhi kiya tha (Don’t worry, my programming head and I are both brought up in RSS so you can … and the last time we did run a campaign for the BJP).” In fact, the whole team of Radio Mirchi is from the same stock, as Jha further reassures us with regard to the campaign: “Koi diqqat nahi main aapko brief isliye de raha hoon ki aapko bhi clear hai ki kahin agar humko ye sab karna hai toh humko duss jageh dimaag nahi lagaana padega wo saara jo cheej hai na wo kar doonga … toh ye aap isko content de dijiyega toh mere creative head hain wo bana denge by the way wo bhi BJP ke hee hain toh yahan poori team jo hai wahi wali hai (There is no problem. I am briefing you this because it should clear to you that if you want to get these things done here, you don’t have to engage your mind on so many things … I will get everything done … you can give this content and our creative head will create it. By the way he too is a BJP fellow. So, our entire team is the same).” It is clear that Jha and his team are sworn BJP/RSS supporters. He takes responsibility for an all-round campaign on behalf of the journalist.

When the journalist briefs the purpose behind his visit to his Mangalore office, Account Manager Aarron D'Mello is happy to receive him as they are looking for such interested parties who wish to do campaign on their radio station. But then during elections, they are bound by certain regulations. If that is the case, why not you create such content in-house which will be funny to thrash our rivals. Agreeing, D’Mello  says: “We have to integrate it into you know entertainment. And if it is going to be direct you know that we can’t do directly lot of things but what we can do …” Yes, you can do it certainly by tweaking the content, the journalist suggests. Agrees D’Mello: “Yeah, by tweaking. You need to tweak it little bit.”

Sharma’s next stopover was Guwahati where he met Anshuman Dey, who is working with Times of India as Deputy General Manager and Head Northeast India. After discussing his agenda with Dey, the journalist comes to the ethnic issues that plague Assam. Raising such issues as Bangladeshi settlers, he tells Dey that such issues should be hammered time and again. Telling us that such issues could be covered as advertorials, he says: “Yeh jo aap bol rahein hain that is either advertorial mein ayega ya editorial issues mein aa jayega (What you are saying that is covered either in advertorial or in editorial issues).” Yes, you got the issue, the journalist tells him. Dey explain how he will help: “I will connect you to my counterpart jo editorial mein hain yahan pe, lekin ussmein kya hai ki dekhiye dono ka antar samjha kijiye, ek hai ek aapne event kiya, kuchh aapne activities kiya uska coveragethat is one that will be taken care of by our editorial team (I will connect you to my counterpart who is in editorial here, but what the issue is you see you should understand the difference between the two. One is you did some event, you did some activities, it is about its coverage … that is one that will be taken care of by our editorial team).” He explains further: “Ek hai aap chahte hain ki ye cheej iss tareh se hype kiya jaye that is known as advertorial … content aap denge hum usko write-up jaisa design karenge (The other thing is you want to create hype around one issue. That is known as advertorial … You will provide the content for it and we will design to look like a write-up).” What he is telling is quite obvious to discerning minds. You mean, says the journalist, it is purely a commercial deal. Replies Dey to explain how it works: “Commercial haan, who bhi hota hain…aap dekhiyega kabhi kabhi special reports hota hain, theek hain…suppose abhi Gopashtami mela hota hain, say …ussko theme banake humne ek advertorial kiya, ussmein aaplogo ki do, teen cheezein highlight kar sakte hain (Commercial, yes. That also happens. You’ll see sometimes we have special reports, all right … suppose it’s Gopashtami, say, we shall make this the theme and then we shall highlight a few things that you are doing).” So, to get that sort of mileage we will have to pay you, wonders the journalist. “Yes, so you have year-long plan to, you have to plan it in such a way, it should not look like …,” replies Dey. This is paid news camouflaged as regular content.

The story does not end here. Dey has a shrewd business mind and wants to close the deal as soon as possible. He explains again: “Yes, it should look like a general awareness kind of thing…haan toh vaisa karke agar aap planned way mein karein toh zyada achcha hota aur agar aapke paas kuchh hai ki aapne doosre jagah mein kahan kya kiya hain ve aap share karenge mere saath toh zyada achcha hoga … (If you do this in a planned way, it shall be better, and if you have other stuff that you have used elsewhere before, you could share them with me, that would be quite good).” What if we want to thrash our rivals? The journalist asks. Dey agrees to do it as well but with a rider: “Nahi dekhiye uss type ka aapko bahut tactfully karna padega, tactfully in the sense kuchh kuchh cheez to hain jisse hum chhaap nahi sakte (No, you see. We will have to do that type of content very tactfully, tactfully in the sense that we cannot directly publish some things). Herein come advertorials disguised as news items.

The context of the journalist’s next meeting with Vijay Bhaskar Reddy in Hyderabad does not change. When the deputy manager of  the Times Groups asks the visitor the purpose of his visit, the journalist upfront tells him that he is there to promote his Hindutva agenda, Says Bhaskar Reddy: “Hindutva agenda… directly may not be calling Hindutva agenda, we will [be] calling about like…” Something like a religious congregation, the journalist suggests, Yes, he says, and then goes onto suggest that the client must organize such an event and invite dignitaries over there. His paper would happily promote that event. You mean like advertorial? The journalist surmises. Replies Bhaskar Reddy: “[Yes]Advertorial, it may not be writing advertorial here, it is a paid content.”

In order to take the deal forward, Bhaskar Reddy met again his prospective client. He was accompanied by his colleague Deputy Manager Srikanth Reddy. He lays out a plan to start events and activities collaboratively, and then draw more and more people into the circle, attracting a crowd, and instilling in them a sense of pride on being Hindu. Reddy sounds more saffron than even his client when he says: “Unn logon ko pehle samjhaiyye ki bhai aap Hindu hain, you should feel proud of it (We tell the people that brother, you are a Hindu, you must feel proud of it.)” If Reddy were on a podium giving a lecture on RSS and Hindutva ideology, he couldn’t have spoken better! Responding in like measure, their client the journalist tells him that they would start campaigns like ‘Love Jehad’ on the lines of the VHP to charge people with communal feelings. Would you help us achieve that? Bhaskar Reddy shows no scruples while agreeing to this overtly communal agenda. He nods vigorously to say, “Ho jayega, ho jayega (Yes, it will be done, it will be done).” 

 The journalist reiterates the two main points of his agenda when he met Vijay Prakash Singh. My first agenda is Hindutva, he tells the Delhi Radio Mirchi Group Head, and the second is thrashing political rivals in an innovative. Vijay Prakash easily gets on board, “Ok, sure.” We come to know from Vijay Prakash that Radio Mirchi has 53 stations. Well, the journalist tells him, we are willing to go with Radio Mirchi for the first test and trial phase. Vijay replies, “No problem … this will be under four month December to march. I will ask my team to send you plan.” Hope you got my objectives clear? “Yes,” replies Vijay Prakash promptly.

Coming straight to talking business, the journalist briefs Deputy Manager Response at Chandigarh Vishal Guleri on how he wants to promote his agenda of Hindutva and take on political rivals in Punjab, keeping in mind 2019 elections. As the deliberations proceed, the deputy manager asks: “How we will get benefit out of this model, see Times of India is a revenue base model.” Obviously, your paper is brand in itself and every service we ask for will be duly paid. Now, Guleri assures the client that ToI will facilitate their entry across educational institutions in Punjab. What Guleri tells us is revealing: “See we do these events and it is very simple we go to school we get sanction or we do things … If you go to school it will be difficult for you to get a sanction but when we go Times of India … We show them as a social cause this and that, so this way we can do but it can … we need to work on that.”

Pushp Sharma made it a point to visit the Lucknow office of Navbharat Times, a Hindi daily published by the Times Group. Here he met Chief Manager Bipin Kumar. After they have discussed the agenda thread bare, Bipin Kumar rues their fate as their group is being completely ignored by the present government causing them to lose a good and sustained source of revenue in terms of government ads. While agreeing to his client’s agenda of character assassination, he pours his heart out: “…otherwise also abhi jo halaat hain aapko bataun main humare yahan ki, ki Modi and Amit Shah is [sic] not very happy with TOI group.  So they want to do something for them, so that they are happy. Abhi ek pehla signal usse milega jo yeh business meet hain agar ussmein PM chale gaye that means he is mellowing down (Otherwise, I am telling you, actually Modi and Amit Shah are not too happy with the ToI group, so we also want to do something to pacify them. If the PM finally relents and visits the business meet, it may signal that he is mellowing down).”

Senior journalist Pushp Sharma next visited the office of Worldwide Media, a Times Group subsidiary. Here he met Senior Manager (Brand Solutions) Atul Mehta, General Manager (Product Strategy) Priyadarshi Banerjee and Senior Manager (Digital Sales) Raunaq Raje. The journalist discusses with the Hindutva agenda at length. They agree to host a Maharashtra Achiever Award at the behest of their client, as vehicle to promote Hindutva. Atul Mehta gives the project his blessing, saying, “Sir usska agar title hum post karte hain toh baithega about 1 cr. (Sir if we post the title then the cost comes to Rs. 1 crore).” They even also fix who will be the first recipient of this award, Maharashtra DGP Satish Mathur.

Coming to his pet theme of thrashing political rivals, the journalist tells them the main rivalry is between the Congress and BJP. So, the Congress should be the major target of this thrash the rival campaign, while you can also rope in Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. This has to be done through jingles. Coming with an idea, Mehta tells the client they have a website for their women’s magazine femina.com which already has a spiritual section. Mehta suggests that they will create a micro-site therein. This micro-site will be designed to function as platform of the promotion of their client’s agenda. “What it we create a micro-site uss micro-site pe itna content rahega na we can put shlokas, we can put lot of stuff over the micro-site even micro-site can be hyperlinked to Sangathan (What it [sic] we create a micro-site. There we can put so much content on that micro-site, we can put shlokas, we can put lot of stuff over the micro-site. Even micro-site can be hyperlinked to Sangathan).” He further says that they will post articles on this micro-site apart from the femina.com. His colleague Raunaq Raje chips in to explain it further: “Micro-site alag se create karenge na jo Femina ko attach karega. Usko hum log promote hee kar lenge na matla saara aapka hee base hee ban jayega (We will create the micro-site separately which will attach the Femina site. We promote that site, I mean it will become your base).”

On the other hand, Priyadarshi emphasizes that it is important for a media company to “appear neutral”, saying, Media company hain dikhna chahiye ki neutral hain (A media house should at least have a semblance of neutrality).” They agree on the “character assassination” agenda as well. Coming to the character assassination of leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilsh Yadav, the journalist tells them that the word Pappu serves that purpose. “Haan, haan bilkul (Yes, yes sure),” says Priyadarshi. When the journalist tells them that spoofing should be aimed to render the characters laughable like those of circus, Priyadarshi laughs and says “Issmein unka khud ka bhi yogdaan kaafi hain (They are responsible for that to a great extent).”

This meeting led the journalist to Executive President (Mergers and Acquisitions Corporate) Sanjeev Shah, the group’s the most important man, second only to its owner and Managing Director Vineet Jain. In fact, it was Priyadarshi who facilitated the meeting. In this meeting, they discuss the possibility of exploiting beauty pageants to pitch in questions to candidates that relate to Hindutva, to which Priyadarshi says, “Okay, achha (Yes, all right). Funnily, the journalist asks them to frame some question for their beauty pageant around Hindutva and its icon like Savarkar. But he soon lets them know that his ultimate goal is communal polarization. Discussing with them how the Hindutva has to be played around Shrimad Bhagwad Gita and Lord Krishna, he tells them what his objective is in no subtle way. We hear Sanjeev Shah utter: “Correct, correct, correct … bas wohi (That’s it).” Priyadarshi seconds him: “Bilkul sahi (Very true).”

After everything has been discussed, the journalist seeks to know if he could meet the final decision maker from their group. Assures Sanjeev: “That I will have to talk to Vineet … Main ek baar baat karke dekhta hoon … kuan hoga wahan jisase hum who we trust completely… see the problem is not, problem is somebody who will keep mouth shut (That I will have to talk to Vineet [Jain]… Let me speak to him once … Tell me if there is anyone who we trust completely … see the problem is not, problem is somebody who will keep mouth shut).” Secrecy is the basic mantra of such shady deals!

Before the journalist meets the boss, he had another meeting with Sanjeev. Here, he says that Vineet had been “very upset” with him because “I have not quoted any figure but he said he is ready to … you know depends on what we delivering.” According to Sanjeev, “If they are convinced they will increase the budget he said there is no question and he has personally said he is going to involve in creativity and his brain works on creativity.”  Sanjeev also claims that when Jain was presented with the agenda, his reaction was to charge them 1000 crores: “…so he told me you should quote [Rs.] 1000 crores. I told him ‘Vineet aise what is wrong with you 1000 crore.’ I said 1000 crore who is going to give? He said ‘No, no, no but we have this, we have that, show him our access.’ I said ‘Vineet vo sab theek hain I said 1000 crore confidence aise let us deliver.” Sanjeev further adds that Jain had claimed that nothing less than 500 crores should be charged for the campaign: “So he says ‘yeah but less than 500 don’t’ so I said ‘okay whatever it is I quote … it is their money it is their budget it is their agenda they have to get confident’ so I have told him this.”

Finally, the journalist is allowed to meet Vineet Jain. When the journalist asks Vineet if he was fine with his agenda and willing to go beyond a “transactional kind of relationship”, Jain emphasises the need for “appearing neutral,” amongst other things, while actually working for them: “As a corporate we have to look neutral, as neutral as possible matlab dekhne mein toh neutral hona chahiye jitni bhi koshish karke (I mean, we have to at least make an effort to appear as neutral as possible).”

When their client the journalist tells Jain that the ultimate goal of this Hindutva agenda is to take political advantage by conducting suitable field activities by riding high on this campaign, Jain agrees to say, “Right…haan [yes] so as long as we maintain that then it’s fine…” Jain also understands the second political component of the agenda, that is, thrashing of rivals, and who words like Pappu and Buwa stand for. So, when the journalist tells him that he is there to gain political mileage, we hear Jain utter: “Right.”

In the second meeting held at the Times Tower, Sanjeev claims that Jain has quoted a sum of at least 500 crores, if not more, to run the agenda. Sanjeev Shah also says that the “USP of Times” is that it reaches “65 million to 70 million people everyday” which is “higher than the population of UK” and will, therefore, have the capacity to propagate the Hindutva agenda to a massive extent. When the journalist repeats his suggestion with regard to Femina Miss India pageant, which is organized by the Times Group, Sanjeev actively considers it and says “We can bring Hinduism, Hindutva, Lord Krishna, Bhagwad Gita into anything we do … So, for example, Femina final round … Western cast so what I … why don’t you ask question about Hindutva? So it has to be thought through carefully.” Jain also agrees to pursue the plan of an event called the Maharashtra Achiever’s Award.

Coming to the payment part of the deal, the journalist tells them that his ashram gets a lot of cash money in donations. He would appreciate it if they accept one-third part of Rs. 500 crore in cash. Sanjeev Shah clearly suggests that an arrangement can be arrived at: “There is cash component which we discuss … I told him that’s not something we do but let’s see.” He also discusses the cash transaction freely, suggesting that third parties be brought in to convert cash into cheque. This is also the time where Hemendra Kothari and other industry bigwigs are named as possible conduits for routing the unaccounted cash.

In their second meeting, after discussing the core agenda, they again come back to dealing in unaccounted cash. Here, we come to know that Jain known certain big business families through which the unaccounted cash be routed and they can get be paid in cheque. It is quite revealing to know how deeply entrenched is this illegal non-banking transaction system. Here, the conduits are Angadiyas, a Gujarati name for hawala operators. Naming some GD Gaurav from one Dalmiya family, Jain tells us that the family “Mere saath hai (They are with me).” When the journalist asks them if he should speak to Gaurav and asks them to tell the man who will be trustworthy, Sanjeev tells us how the cash money would be routed: “Sir there is a person in between … He will not deliver the cash to GD Gaurav … He will not meet him also … He will give it to a Angadiya. Angadiya is a carrier … who will take that from him in Delhi suppose if Gaurav says I want it in Ahmedabad so that Angadia will have contact in Ahmedabad where they will exchange in number on a note or whatever ... So there is no direct contact at all.” While Sanjeev make it simple for us to understand how hawala money reaches its destination after a transaction has been agreed upon, Jain keeps on uttering “Hoon” here and there. After they have revealed many other established names in India’s corporate world purportedly dealing hawala, the meeting comes to a close with both parties agreeing to move forward on the stated agenda.

TOI response:

We sent a detailed questionnaire to the Times Group to which they have replied. We are, however, debarred from publishing their responses, since their mail comes with the following injunction: “Confidential. Strictly not for publication, unless approved by us in writing.”

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