Facing heat after rape ban, Uber warmed up to TOI, got its investment

On December 31, 2014, three weeks after Uber was banned in Delhi following the rape of a woman passenger by an Uber driver, The Economic Times Editor sent an email to Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick: “With the Delhi government revising its rules to allow Uber to resume operations, perhaps January would be a good time for you to revive your travel plan… I would urge that you travel to New Delhi on January 16 and 17, when The Economic Times Global Business Summit will take place… your insights will help set the agenda for policy formulation in India and other countries. It will also enable you to acquaint yourself with decision-makers in India.”

The same day as this email from The Economic Times (it is published by The Times of India Group), Kalanick wrote to his associates: “Let’s be sensitive to keeping a strong relationship with ToI… if there is something we can do for them that makes sense, we should do it.”

On January 1, 2015, the day after his email, Allen Penn, Uber’s then Asia head, wrote to top colleagues suggesting that Kalanick delay his trip, “let the air clear further on the rape, giving space for a higher success rate on govt and business meetings” — Kalanick eventually deferred his trip to India.

Within three months of this email, part of The Uber Files investigated by The Indian Express, it was announced that Times Internet, the digital arm of the Times of India Group, was making a “strategic investment” in Uber.

A report in The Economic Times on March 23, 2015 said the deal was “around Rs 150 crore” and would let Uber “leverage the reach of assets owned by the Times Group, across print, television as well as 150 million monthly active users on digital.”

That same day, Uber too announced that the company and Times Internet have “entered into a strategic partnership to support Uber’s expansion in India”.

Incidentally, the ban on Uber was lifted only on July 8, 2015, when the Delhi High Court set aside the Delhi government order denying Uber’s application for a licence to ply on the Capital’s roads.

The December 2014 emails and the March 2015 report in the ET form part of The Uber Files.

India was not the only place where Uber was looking to tie up with a media company.

The Washington Post, a partner in this investigation, is reporting that Uber “pushed the usual guardrails for journalism ethics by inviting media owners to invest in Uber, in hopes of enlisting them to make high-level connections and spread a favorable message”.

An email from Rachel Whetstone — she was Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Policy at Uber from June 2015 to April 2017 — stated: “Having (Bild parent company Axel) Springer on our side is very valuable if we are to make progress in Germany… I believe they will actually do things proactively to help.”

“Other media investors who bought stakes in Uber included Lord Rothermere, who owns the Daily Mail in Britain, Ashley Tabor-King, founder of the largest commercial radio group in Europe, and Carlo de Benedetti, publisher of Italian newsweekly L’Espresso ― whom Uber executives asked to help make a connection for Kalanick with then-Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in 2015, according to emails. (De Benedetti acknowledged hosting several of the company’s executives for dinner at his house in Rome that year but said that “I never made lobbying operations with them or anybody else.”),” the Post report states.

Responding to questions from The Indian Express and The Guardian on the Times Internet-Uber deal, Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman, Executive Committee, Times of India Group, in an email, said, “At the outset, we reject all of your motivated and coloured questions, which presumes that alleged Times Internet Limited’s investment in Uber had bearing on articles published in Times Group publications.”

“We Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited (“BCCL”, together with its subsidiaries also known as “The Times Group”) are one of the largest media services conglomerates in India, enjoying unstinted patronage from millions of discerning readers and viewers worldwide. We have a heritage of over 180 years and our publications “The Times of India”, “Navbharat Times” and “The Economic Times” are well known to readers in India and abroad as pillars of integrity and ethics. The Times of India is the world’s largest selling English daily newspaper. We ensure that correct information reaches the readers of our publications and public at large in an unbiased manner,” he said.

“We vehemently oppose your attempt to malign us, as an independent media house which is unaffiliated to any political party / agenda and has been a pillar of integrity in our rich and diverse society for close to two centuries… Without going into the specific allegations about Times Internet Limited (hereinafter referred to as TIL), and without prejudice to our rights and contentions we state that TIL is an independent company with its separate management. All Investments made by the companies in the group, would be in their course of business and in compliance with laws of India as well as the code of conduct applicable to all Times group Companies,” he said.

“Specifically regarding BCCL, we can confirm that over the years we have had a cordial advertising relationship with Uber in India. We however categorically deny any involvement in Uber’s internal affairs or policies, such as the ones you have mentioned in your email. We further categorically deny facilitating or providing Uber with any form of political access or promoting changes in legislation/regulation. These are internal matters of the said company, and you may reach out to them directly in this regard,” Sundaram said.

“We can safely assure you that the alleged “partnership” you have referred to has nothing to do with any understanding as alleged and may be only an investment and cooperation exercise where advertisement and marketing support is provided as desired by client in the normal course of business…,” he said.

“At The Times Group, there is no interaction to influence between the business teams and the editorial teams. Both under law and as per Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.’s and other Group company’s internal codes of conduct, the editors control the selection of matter that is published as news, while the business teams, including advertisement sales teams and barter teams, do not have any control whatsoever on the editorial matters. There is a Chinese wall separating advertisement sales / investments with news, similar to any media house of repute, with strict policies and proper corporate governance in place for independence of news and editorials. The process of segregating the functioning of various departments and companies has been developed, implemented, upgraded and enforced by The Times Group over decades. This process fosters good governance, prevents conflict of interest, ensures impartiality and thwarts insider trading. Uber or its functionaries visiting and being a part of any business summit has no relationship with Times Group’s journalism…,” Sundaram said.

The Uber Files also reveal that Uber prepared lists of politicians, bureaucrats and thought leaders it called “stakeholders”, numbering over 1850 in 39 countries including India, hoping to influence people at the centre of policy-making.

On December 17, 2013, Nikos Stathopoulos, Account Manager of Brussels-based public policy advisory firm FIPRA, sent an email to a law firm employee with copies to two FIPRA employees and a group of Uber employees stating that Uber was seeking a “list of 4-5 stakeholders in each city, from which they will likely pick 3 to have meeting with… the desired stakeholders are usually not regulators (e.g. police, traffic authorities, etc) but rather ‘friendly’ people that can help protect/promote Uber and educate Uber about the taxi/for-hire market.”

“These people might be young, progressive, tech-savvy politicians, or experienced formed officials who do not have vested interests in the taxi industry, or prominent figures with extensive knowledge of the sector,” Stathopoulos wrote.

Underlining that Uber was “largely looking for safe meetings,” the email also had a list of “stakeholders” it was “in the process of finalizing for India” where the cab-hailing service had begun operations from Bengaluru in August that year.

Reached for comments, a spokesperson for Uber, responding to queries on the company’s relationship with media organisations, said, “Like many startups, Uber sought out strategic investors who could help us understand certain markets and grow our business…There has never been an expectation of positive editorial coverage as a result of the investment. In fact it is fair to say that we have received a lot of critical coverage from various outlets of the media group.”

On the ‘stakeholders’ , the spokesperson said, “We meet with these stakeholders to educate them about our business model, seek to understand how we can better serve the needs of local communities, and advocate for progressive regulation that supports drivers, riders and cities.”

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