Saw TV last week? Or read the papers? Did you hear or read of India’s latest scandal, as it unfolded with Outlook’s latest expose. Amidst the parliament disruption and any number of scams (adarsh, CWG, 2G, BDA) this one never got an airing or a printing. But on the online space, it caused a huge Twitstorm. The scam that takes its name from its Twitter hashtag, #barkhagate.
In short, the Income Tax Department of the government of India has secretly been taping conversations made by Niira Radia, a corporate lobbyist to various journalists. These include her conversations with journalists like Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi to ‘fix’ coverage, among other things.104 such tapes found their way into the hands of Prashant Bhushan. He put them as evidence in a public interest litigation (PIL), and also let Outlook and Open magazines have a look at them. They published transcripts of these tapes in their November issue.
Several news-sites have reported on these tapes, and their aftermath. Midday (no stranger to sensationalism) published the raw transcripts, WikiLeaks-style. Barkha Dutt’s employer, NDTV published a rebuttal on their site, which triggered a rebuttal of the rebuttal by Open magazine. You can listen to the tapes on YouTube; there are several postings. To keep up with developments in this ‘scandal’, you can follow the Facebook page set up for this. Read the Wikipedia article, which already has 33 references. Or simply follow all tweets with the hashtag #barkhagate. And a number of angry, angry blogposts. Anant Rangaswamy of Campaign India is effusive in his praise of Open’s publication of the tapes, happy about the daring route it has chosen. DNA’s G Sampath expresses consternation about the compromised role of the mainstream media. Betwa Sharma took the matter to the Huffington Post, the USA’s much revered (or reviled) online magazine.
As the storm took hold on Twitter (which has had the honour of bringing down Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor), the print & TV media finally stirred. Sevanti Ninan sums up the old media’s reaction here, including Hindustan Times own defence of Vir Sanghvi, and Deccan Herald’s stinging editorial. The Hindu group cleverly published an op-ed in its Hindu Business Line, but not the main paper. Similarly the Indian Express (whose editor has a show on NDTV), put an article on ExpressBuzz, a website of the group, rather than in the main paper. And of course the incredibly clever way of having your reporters blog about the issue, as DNA did, but not report it.
So why’s an ad agency blogging it?
To this blogger, #barkhagate is a sign that new media has arrived in India. What WikiLeaks was to the West, this case is to India. When the online media generated enough firepower to make the country notice.
And when a medium comes alive, should an agency stay behind? Yes, there’s money to be still made in the old media, we can’t burn our bridges yet (atleast till the saas-bahu serials are still airing). As a medium not (yet) controlled by a tiny oligarchy, the internet has become the place where you might see more exposes and ‘daring’ stories like these. (Though if Google and Facebook have their way, there is going to be a new breed of Murdochs, Goenkas and Jains). The new media is where the the thoughtful, intelligent, educated people are spending their time and effort today. Blogging, Facebook-ing, tweeting about Niira Radia.
The very same people who buy life insurance, airline tickets and e-books. Who will respond to banners advertising these things. Can an ad agency affords to miss these people? Because it’s running ads on channels that have (temporarily) lost their sheen?
I remember when the Satyam scandal broke out. I was in a search marketing firm then. We did this trick: we created a tiny campaign around keywords related to the scam – Ramalinga Raju, Satyam etc. This was for a company that teaches management courses online. We wrote ads that roughly said, “Learn accounting management so the next scandal doesn’t have your name”. It was quite a hit. I’m sad there are no ads that have exploited this poortunity. Isn’t there a company making anti-tapping devices who could have benefitted hugely?
This is an extreme case of contextual marketing, I’m sure, but it serves to highlight the role the new media can play. Especially when the old media won’t.
(And yes, this blog was written with a gloating smirk, as new media scored 1-0 over the old)