Harangue-happy Arnab Goswami is unfortunately becoming the template for TV channels, where noise more than news dominates
by ANURADHA RAMAN
“What faith do you have in Indian institutions? In Indian law? In the Indian judiciary? You have little faith.”- Arnab Goswami to Kavitha Krishnan, CPI(ML) Politburo member
“Dumbo. Coward. You are unfit to be an anchor. Use your brain. Are you genetically incapable of keeping quiet?” BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to Arnab Goswami
“You promoted AAP on your channel and joined it when it became a political party. You are an opportunist.”- BJP talking head Shazia Ilmi to ex-IBN7 anchor Ashutosh
If a Martian landed in “the nation” and tuned in to India’s most watched English news channel seven years in a row, this is what she would see: the anchor barking at a guest like a pitbull, a guest snapping at the anchor like a Doberman, and guests going at each other like, well, strays. Welcome to Times Now, or more precisely, welcome to the Newshour, the gabfest which transports Indians five nights a week back into the Roman era with its gladiatorial war of words, and a bit of ‘nautanki’ and ‘tamasha’ thrown in for good measure.
The arena is a veritable House of Squares, six to 12 faces peeping out of tiny holes. Sometimes an empty chair too. As he admirably emerged as the conscience-keeper of “the nation” post the 26/11 siege of Mumbai in 2008, pulling off skeletons from the UPA cupboard, Arnab Goswami became the darling of the English TV-watching class. But as nostrils flare, teeth gnash and decibel levels soar, sending sec-a blood pressures soaring across living rooms, questions are beginning to be asked.
Is this news? Is this an hour? Is this fair journalism? Is this information or is this entertainment? Is this visual cacophony the best Indian news telelvision can offer in the name of reasoned debate? What is this doing to the civility of our public discourse? What is this murderous rage doing to my health—and, more importantly, to that of the nation’s, of which Arnab proclaims himself as sole custodian each night, by wrapping every issue around the tricolour?
As Peter Finch presciently said in the Oscar-winning 1976 film Network: “TV is not the truth. It is a goddamn amusement park. It is a circus, a carnival. A travelling group of acrobats, storytellers, lion-tamers, sideshow freaks. We are in the boredom-killing business.”
Make no mistake, Arnab kills boredom bigtime, with his amazing drive, energy and articulation. His larynx-popping dialogue delivery has reduced his peers on rival channels like NDTV, CNN-IBN and Headlines Today to purring kittens. And Arnab—a pleasant, courteous man sans the suit and pencil—knows what he is doing. The ratings show that he is getting more people to watch his channel and he has essentially made all the other channels irrelevant by boldly taking up the kind of issues he does and by raising the pitch in the style and manner he does.
“I admire Arnab,” says Star India CEO Uday Shankar. “There are days when I enjoy his discussions and there are days when I disagree, even get angry with the positions that he takes. But every day I am acutely aware that this country would be much worse off without him. His is not a news bulletin. It is his take on news and as long as he provokes me to think, he plays an important role in public discourse. If Outlook has a right to say what it wants to say, so does Arnab.”
That’s a Jeffersonian way of saying I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Which is as it should be in a free-market economy. But on key news events in recent weeks, most involving “the nation”—the ban on the BBC documentary on the Delhi gangrape; the denial of permission to a Greenpeace activist to go to England; the burning of the Pakistani boat that was allegedly on a 26/11 style suicide mission—Arnab has emerged as The Great Polariser, with his acid tongue stripping complex issues of all nuance, in favour of jingoistic noise. Why, even the screen is on fire, with the flames threatening to lick the participants.
“The British left India in 1947. Why do you go back crying to them? Who are they?”—on Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai being offloaded
“There are enough flawed peaceniks in Lutyens’ Delhi who will support you.”—Arnab to a guest on March 9, after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed freed separatist Masarat Alam.
Last month, after guests appearing for ‘debates’ on the Greenpeace issue were called ‘anti-national’ and ‘unpatriotic’, seven women, including the redoubtable Aruna Roy and Vrinda Grover, shot off an open letter announcing their boycott of Newshour for using terms of abuse and hate speech. “The TV shows cited here,” the letter read, “were designed to canvass certain views held by the government and the Intelligence Bureau and appeared as a platform for the public heckling and jeering of the activists involved, not just by other panelists but by the anchor himself. It is inappropriate and irresponsible for channels to label anyone as ‘nationalist’ or ‘anti-national’ or ‘terrorist’ or the like. If panelists indulge in such terms, it is in fact the duty of the anchor to rein them in, and to ensure that such loaded and provocative words are not used to drown out the substantive points of the discussion or disagreement.” Arnab declined to be interviewed for this story saying, “Journalists are not the story.”
One-man show Newshour is where Arnab plays judge, the audience the jury. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
And last week, when BBC prepared to air India’s Daughter, a documentary on the gangrape of a young woman in Delhi with an interview of one of the rapists, Arnab demanded to know whether the interview should be shown at all on the rival channel, NDTV. According to close aides of his, Arnab was very clear that airing the interview violated the Indian Penal Code. By making it a fight about legality, the stage was set for a ban on the airing of the interview. According to sources, it was after watching Newshour that I&B ministry officials decided that a ban would be in order. The ruckus in Parliament sealed the debate. India’s Daughter was silenced with a ban.
On key news events, Arnab has emerged as The Great Polariser, his acid tongue stripping complex issues of all nuance.
Says Inderjit Badhwar, who edits media magazine Views on News, “He takes a point of view and behaves as irresponsibly as is possible. So long as you are on the right side on national security issues, you are fine. Arnab Goswami will never do stories on human rights violations by the Indian army in Kashmir where he will be louder than Prime Minister Narendra Modi unless of course he focuses on social issues.” Adds a Delhi-based TV presenter: “Newshour is neither news nor is it an hour. Arnab is not just the judge, jury and executioner but also the undertaker and pujari who conducts the final rites.”
Getting temperatures up is the default position of Newshour, so it should surprise nobody that everybody is fuming and fulminating all the time. As a person close to Arnab says, “He takes no position. People react when their positions are in conflict with his. He is not bothered about who the affected party is.” Or as former diplomat K.C. Singh, a regular on his show, says, “He punches everyone. Everyone is punchable.” An insider reveals how Arnab has always consistently championed the cause for tougher laws on terrorism—the genesis of which goes back to his research in Cambridge. His book Countering Terrorism, published by HarAnand publications, is proffered as proof of a consistently patriotic stand.
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“Every day, I am acutely aware that this country would be worse off without Arnab Goswami and Newshour.” Uday Shankar, CEO, Star India “I don’t think Newshour or, indeed, most programmes on our TV news channels have been about news for quite a while.” Ammu Joseph, Journalist and author
“It is like a gladiatorial fight where Arnab Goswami demolishes his opponents. I don’t go to his shows as they are polarised and the anchor calls the shots.” Gautam Navlakha, Human rights activist “He is always on the right side of national security issues. As for social issues like ghar wapasi, Arnab will be angry. But that is predictable.” Inderjit Badhwar, Editor-in-Chief, India Legal & Views on News
“There is a certain trend emerging in news channels that is not connected to the news.” A. Surya Prakash, Chairman, Prasar Bharati “He is like the Fox News of India. He will pick up stories quicker than others and take a position. And he punches everyone, spares none.” K.C. Singh, Former diplomat
“There are times Goswami warns everyone on the panel what is allowed and what is not. ‘I will not allow anyone to oppose the death penalty on tonight’s show,’ he may say.” Padmaja Shaw, Rtd professor of Osmania University’s department of communication and journalism “The success of its coverage of 26/11 has gone to his head. While he may seem very humble and soft-spoken to outsiders, with his team, he is often cruel, and the arrogance shows in his talk.” Pradyuman Maheshwari, Editor-in-Chief, MxMIndia
“Arnab never allows his lack of knowledge to come in the way of his opinion. I never bother to go on his show, the sole purpose of which is to highlight the anchor.” Biraj Patnaik, Right to Food activist “Belated media expansion has disproportionately empowered the conservative elements of Indian society who are better-placed to exploit such spaces.” Arvind Rajagopal, Professor of Media Studies at New York University
“This is not news but everybody is doing it.” Sevanti Ninan, The Hoot “Newshour defies any rational explanation.” Sandeep Bhushan, Researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia
Says Hyderabad-based Padmaja Shaw, a retired professor of the department of communications and journalism at Osmania University, “Newshour plays a clever game of aligning with the state and its repressive agencies by trashing rights-based arguments under the garb of patriotism and nationalism. For instance, on the issue of beheading of soldiers, the show adopts a ‘we are saints and they are demons’ narrative instead of acknowledging that both countries can perpetrate atrocities.”
Clearly, the numbers for Newshour suggest that in a market saturated with information, there is an impatient audience out there, which doesn’t quite believe in layers and nuance; which wants someone to distil the key news of the day and spin it into sharp polemic in clear simple terms, just black or white, with no shades of grey. Three out of every five Indians watching English news television watch it the first few minutes. The show commands higher ad rates than other shows at the same time. “Ninety per cent of the audience calls back after a show. Eighty per cent did after budget day, 70 per cent on the Delhi election verdict day. That’s the kind of response we get,” claims a Times Now source.
Arnab’s always pitched for hard terrorism laws, something that harks back to his research on the subject in Cambridge.
Which means Arnab Goswami is onto a good thing, which his employers, the Jain brothers, Samir and Vineet, who also own the Times of India and the Economic Times and who swear by revenue-driven media, wouldn’t mind one bit. However, make no mistake, again, there is a rising tide of resentment bordering on disgust at the collapse of seriousness and sobriety from news, the easy labeling (and humiliation) of guests who do not quite conform to the set script, and the barely concealed bid to wrap every debate around the last refuge of scoundrels, nationalism and patriotism. “My father loves to watch Arnab at 9 pm,” says Nandini Rajanna, 37, a Bangalore artiste. “But he keeps the mute button on.”
Even guests are having second thoughts at being part of the lynch mob. Says Hamid Mir, executive editor of Pakistan’s Geo TV, “I stopped appearing on Times Now long ago because Arnab Goswami always tried to make it an India-Pakistan fight.” But choosing guests is Arnab’s preserve. “He wants young, opinionated charged-up people who conform to his idea of a polarised debate. Some guests refuse to come after their first experience. Others have to be mollified after their harrowing experiences,” says a former guest coordinator, who acknowledges that they have had to appease upset guests sometimes. One was even said to have tearfully remarked as she walked out of Newshour, “The gods won’t forgive Arnab.”
The result is that subtlety dies a sudden death at 9 pm every day. “Newshour is not all bad. It certainly is not,” wrote Shajahan Madampat, a columnist in the Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News last week (see accompanying column). “After all, when the soul of the nation invades the body of a single individual, it has to have some righteous moments of national salvation. The trouble, however, is the impunity with which Goswami turns all notions of fair journalism and democratic debates upside down, presenting a sorry spectacle of all-round humiliation, name-calling and discursive tyranny.”
“To my mind, there are two people who defined television journalism. Prannoy Roy, founder of NDTV, and Arnab Goswami,” says former TV reporter Sandeep Bhushan, now a research scholar at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. “There was a joke about how Times Now was a Times Never, till Arnab realised he had a product to sell. After 2008 and the global recession, whose impact was felt most by the Indian media, it was as if reporters didn’t matter. Reporting meant too much money. This was when anchors defined news.”
In an info-saturated market, audiences want distilled news. Three out of five Indians watch news only for first few minutes.
Result: In the mad blur of shouting, screaming, finger-wagging, table-thumping, news (as we knew it) has been given a noisy burial at the one time viewers who have come back home can catch up with it. Says Pradyuman Maheshwari, editor and CEO of MxMIndia: “In the good old days, you would get an idea of what is happening in the country by watching primetime news. That news is gone now. The only way to get to the news is the newspaper. What you get to see on TV are ‘shows’ and panel discussions.” Adds Prasar Bharti Corporation chairman A. Surya Prakash: “For news you have to come to Doordarshan.”
Media observers are also wary of the bandwagon effect, of more and more channels following the same chat-show format, which is less expensive compared to sending out crews to cover complex stories. Already NewsX looks like a carbon copy, with ex-Times Now person Rahul Shivshankar at the helm. On Zee Business, Amish Devgan can match Goswami in two languages, and anchors like Gaurav Sawant on Headlines Today are running close. Clones of Arnab are now all over the place on the language news channels.
Says Bangalore-based media-watcher Ammu Joseph, “The main issue is that the public is shortchanged. After all, the primary purpose of the news media, as generally understood, is to provide audiences with a range of information and analyses so that they can form their own, informed opinion on current events and issues in order to be active, responsible citizens. The big fight style of news presentation, pitting people with diametrically opposing views against each other, where anchors play referees (at best) or throw some punches of their own, doesn’t quite serve the purpose.”
“What the Times of India did to the newspaper market by dumbing down and bowling to the lowest common denominator, Times Now is doing to the television market,” says a Chennai-based media academic. “But whereas there was sufficient media critiquing of TOI to force Bennett Coleman to do a course correction, there is no such corrective for Times Now. The results could be disastrous in the long run.”