Essar Leaks: How the Indian news covered (and didn’t cover) the June 2016 Essar phone tapping
What are the leaked Essar tapes?
Hailing from the Rajasthani business community of Marwaris, Shashi and Ravi Ruia moved to Mumbai in 1969. Essar, named by grouping both brothers’ initials, began then as a small-scale construction company. Today, the Ruia brothers with interests in steel, oil, ports, and telecom, represent a net value of over $7 billion.
On 17th June 2016, the print magazine Outlook India published a report documenting a series of phone conversations, allegedly recorded by Essar through illegal phone tapping operations. The transcripts detail exchanges of senior employees of Essar and Reliance (thought to be Essar’s rival company), with members of the bureaucracy, government, parliament, and judiciary. The tapes were said to be leaked by Essar’s former security chief, who then handed the content over to a Supreme Court lawyer for ‘safe custody’.
Essar is not unfamiliar to such controversy, having faced accusations of accessing sensitive government documents in 2015 revealed through a similar insider email leak. Neither is Essar unique to this problem–similar leaks in the past have unveiled the relationship between government, private corporations, and big media in India. In 2010 Niira Radia, a lobbyist-PR agent for several big corporations such as TATA and Reliance, was caught brokering deals for private companies to both government ministers and mainstream media.
The increasing corporatization of both government and media over the last decade has affected the presentation of evidence surrounding this interconnection. Analyzing media conversation has become of increased importance in identifying agendas and priorities of various publications.
The digital publication of news has created new opportunities for such analysis.
An open-source platform, the Media Cloud project at the Civic Media group, part of the MIT Media Lab, aggregates and distills news data to help understand news agenda and issue focus, influential publications and stories, as well as language analysis.
Using the Media Cloud platform, the analysis below explores the variation in coverage of the Essar tapes amidst both mainstream print and digital news sources in India. The analysis covers a span of 20 days starting the day of the story’s release on June 17th 2016.
Coverage in mainstream newspapers
The graph in Figure 1 below shows the coverage of the Essar tapes in seven English print newspapers in India. These include the Times of India, Indian Express, The Hindu, Livemint, Business Standard, Economic Times, and the New Indian Express, chosen on the basis of readership and reputation. The varying pulses across the 20-day period beginning with the 17th June peak (day of the story release) mark the varying coverage per newspaper.
Figure 1: Line pulses showing varied coverage of the topic per newspaper, for a span of 20-days following the release of the story
The Business Standard and Indian Express had maximum coverage of the issue, both in terms of peak attention given as well as sustained coverage for the following 10 days. The New Indian Express and Economic Times also followed the story for a period of 8 to 10 days, albeit with less attention. The Hindu and Times of India had limited coverage on the topic beyond the initial 2 to 3 day preliminary news cycle.
The newspapers also had varied focuses of coverage on the issue. For example, visible from the word cloud in Figure 2 below (the size of the word in the image proportionately reflects the relative frequency of its use), the Times of India discusses the names and places of people (ruias, ryan, bihar, goenka) while the Indian Express, reputed for its investigative journalism, looks at the legality and government accountability following the leak (pil, snoop, inquiry, prashant, bhushan, supreme [court]).
Figure 2: Word clouds comparing Times of India vs. Indian Express coverage of the Essar tapes
The Livemint, a popular daily business newspaper, had the least coverage on the issue as visible in Figure 1. Given its focus on finance and business, such a topic would not be out of its scope of reporting. Editorial choices in news coverage are often a function of prioritizing competing topics within the same news cycle. The word cloud in Figure 3 below is based on all the stories covered by the Livemint within the same time period. Discussions over the investments and the economy, China, the Reserve Bank of India, Brexit and Europe, and Trump seem prominent.
Figure 3: Word cloud reflecting all Livemint stories reported between 17th June and 6th July
Coverage in digital publications
The rise of the Internet as a news content space over the last decade has increased the number of digital-only news publications. Some of these have been created as alternate content spaces by established media houses to distinguish their print news from their online news e.g. indiatimes.com (digital-only) and Times of India (print and digital mainstream newspaper) both belong to the Times group. Other spaces have arisen out of a need to have alternate funding models to stem the effect of media corporatization. These differences in funding and ownership are often reflected in the content and reporting.
Some of the popular alternate, digital publications are The Quint, Scroll.in, Caravan, The Wire, Newslaundry, Huffington Post India, Catch, and Firstpost. Of these, The Wire, Huffington Post India, Firstpost, Caravan, and Newslaundry did two or less articles on the Essar phone tapping issue. Newslaundry covered it in more detail on several of their weekly news podcasts, while Caravan has in the past done a cover story based on email leaks from Essar and was sued by the company for the same.
Figure 4: Line pulses showing coverage of the topic for some digital publications, for a span of 20-days following the release of the story
In Figure 4 we look at the coverage of some of these publications. Scroll.in and The Quint had maximum coverage, with the latter reporting 18 stories. The original story released by Outlook India on 17th June, carried a link to the transcripts of the conversations. The Quint however, provides audio access to the leaked tapes, giving it lead in the follow-up and pursuit of the story. The Quint was founded as an independent publication in the last two years by Raghav Bahl, former employee and founder of Network18. Bahl quit Network18 in 2014 after its takeover by Reliance Industries.
Below is a list of sentences from some of the stories covered by The Quint on the issue of the Essar tapes.
What the coverage around the Essar tapes tells us
In an age where newspaper subscription numbers is a limited metric of understanding influence, analyzing news influence and coverage is a complicated task. The Times of India, which covered the Essar tapes with far less attention than the Indian Express, is the most read English newspaper in India with a daily print readership of nearly 7.6 million. The Indian Express by comparison does not even make it to the list of top 10; yet, the most shared article on the Essar tapes on social media was from the Indian Express, with over 25,000 shares on Twitter and Facebook.
The Outlook India article, where the story was originally released, received 5,400 shares on Twitter and Facebook. Many of the sharers were prominent activists such as Meera Sanyal, and politicians from the opposition party such as Ashutosh from the Aam Aadmi Party. Outlook India may not be a significant print magazine by readership numbers or social media following, but its readers are possibly those that may be able to echo the content to a larger audience.
The coverage around the June 2016 Essar leaks, is in some ways an important example of the various factors shaping the news agenda in India; funding sources, editorial values, social media presence, and readership by size as well as influence. With regards to the issue of the Essar tapes, as of 13th July, the government has asked the Delhi Police to conduct an inquiry into the matter. The demand for accountability, by both media and citizens, could shape the seriousness with which the government and court address the evidence.
 The Hindustan Times, albeit part of the list of leading newspapers by readership, was excluded due to a problem obtaining the paper’s digital RSS feed.
 ‘ruias’, ‘ryan’, and ‘goenka’ are names of people and families, while ‘bihar’ is a state in India
 ‘pil’ in the Indian context is Public Interest Litigation, and ‘prashant bhushan’ is the Supreme Court lawyer who filed the PIL.