English language television news in India nowadays is nothing more than exaggerated visual editorials. They pick two or three stories, sensationalize them, run them in a loop through the day, alongside panel discussions where the editorial ideology of the channel is forced down the throat of the panelists and the viewers. In short there is hardly little journalism left in these channels. Though they do have panel discussions, regional language channels – at least Malayalam and Tamil channels that I watch – have a wider and more diverse reportage than self-proclaimed national television.
It wasn’t always like this. When Prannoy Roy pioneered private television content for Murdoch – regardless of the ideological content – there was reportage. Editorial proselytizing and endless panel discussions were limited most often to when psephologists stepped in.
Nonetheless the pioneers had started on the wrong foot. There was a joke that reflected reality that used to do the rounds in journalist circles during the birthing of the first private English news channel – Star News. It was called the uncle-aunty channel and after a few drinks there were journalists at the Delhi press club who would throw a dare that if a journalist with the content provider of Star – NDTV was named – the journalist could tell you her/his lineage. I have been a witness to this nepotism myself. A smoking acquaintance who had just returned to India, armed with a Rhodes degree, had applied for an internship with NDTV. She would call the office everyday only to be cold shouldered until one day she lost her cool and dropped the name of her senior celebrity journalist parents. She was given an interview the same day and offered a job.
The bottom line is that English TV journalism in India started off with glamour quotient and not an emphasis on content or quality. In my opinion this had a direct effect on the format of panel discussions passing off as journalism – because nepotism is a multiple way street. This also stunted the professional growth of many of the early day journalists – who would cover only major events or do celebrity interviews. They might have covered Kargil and Palestine from the safety of their OB vans – but most of them cannot claim to have done an independent cutting edge story but are now the bosses of English TV journalism.
The social profiles of aspiring journalists have changed over a period of time but their foundational values haven’t. The focus still seems to be who they could get as many panel discussants rather than what news could be covered. This culture has also created a bunch of people who do nothing but studio hopping. It is in this milieu of journalism that Arnab Goswami made his mark – or to put it another way, took his rise! Hailing from the original crop of TV news journalists lacking journalistic values – he carried with him a certain abrasive arrogance, which many read as irreverence. He used that along with his very prejudiced jingoism into steering Times Now as the leading brand of English television news. But what propelled the growth of Times Now was no journalistic feat, but unabashed sensationalism orchestrated from the studio floors. But, given the limited audience for English news, Goswami also started the rat race for TRPs – with other channels trying to emulate his style.
The audience that flocked behind Goswami was almost entirely upwardly mobile supporters of the Hindutva brand of nationalism who kid themselves and try to kid the world that they are politically neutral. They share a symbiotic relationship with Goswami –he feeds their blood lust for everything that is going wrong in the society and in return they feed his ego. But the food for this was entirely the drama that was enacted on the studio floor as panel discussions – Goswami had to have his staple diet of panelists whom he could chew and spit out with or without protestations. And he did get enough fodder for this from people hungry to show their faces on prime time TV as part of their upward mobility.
Blinded by his own sense of grandeur this is exactly what Goswami failed to realize. His panelists did not flock to his studios because of any love or goodwill towards him – but for their own diverse reasons impelled by the Times Now TRP. When he walked out of Times Now and took a sabbatical to launch Republic TV – viewership of English news did not plummet, panel discussions did not stop and the show went on – for an Arnab Goswami required very little skills or intelligence to mimic and there were enough people with loud voices in the studios. Another blunder that Goswami committed towards the zenith of his career with Times was his blatant contempt for journalistic colleagues and their freedom of expression. Stories inspired by his own sense of self importance was spread that other journalists were busy conspiring to bring him and his channel down.
But all of that seems another story from another era. Goswami hitched his fortunes with a politician businessman confirming what many suspected of his political affiliations, though Goswami himself does not seem to have realized it and gets offended whenever anyone raises it. In the run up to the launch of this new venture interestingly christened “Republic TV” – two things seem to have happened that went against Goswami’s evaluation of his own importance and reputation. First, many people from political persuasions or opinions that were contrary to Goswami’s evinced total lack of interest in participating in the proceedings called for by His Majesty Arnab Goswami – some of them rebuffing his overtures outright. Second, even half way decent journalists could not be roped in to join team Arnab resulting in a mediocre team. Of course with the belief that he is a brand unto himself Goswami shouldn’t be affected by this.
And just when many thought that English language television journalism couldn’t get any worse, Republic TV was launched. The first three stories it broke were interestingly against people that the BJP and its supporters see as threats – Lalu Yadav – who has been uncompromising in his refusal to be tainted by communalism and has a credible following. Arvind Kejriwal – a person not too distant ideologically from the BJP and who is able to pull support from educated savarna castes and Shashi Tharoor – who is being celebrated by even Modi Bhakts as a possible alternative if Congress comes to power. Of course these matters in a TV studio that believes its TRP decide the fate of the nation. In carrying each of these stories – pretenses of neutrality were dropped and the studio transformed itself into a political meeting with Goswami and his journalists pitching for the political party in power. Anyone opposing this view were abused and shouted down. Interestingly in the few days that this channel has been in existence – for a person watching this channel – India has the best government incapable of any mistake being regularly undermined by the opposition. Worse than the choice of stories for its launch was the behavior of Goswami’s minions in pursuing these stories with a gusto rivaling their boss. Every norm of basic decency was flouted and the targets were literally stalked. The channel was behaving as if it was immune to rule of the law and no action was unjustified as long as their crass loudness was broadcast.
More importantly the Goswami who returned to the news studios seems to be irritated and ruffled – with his insecurity showing each time he is challenged. Though I haven’t watched this channel except for one unfortunate insomniac night at a guest house in Pondicherry, video clips from the channel have been doing the rounds on the internet popularized of course by the RSS troll army. Two of them in particular caught my attention as they floated on my Facebook updates. The first one has Goswami literally frothing in his mouth and not allowing the adversary Ghansyam Tiwari of the Samajwadi Party to get a word in sidewise – only because the latter chose to question the political and funding location of the channel. The second one involves a personal friend Brijesh Kalappa who is a lawyer and Congress spokesperson who challenged the credentials of Sheetal Rajput – the anchor, who had phoned him saying he does not even know who was calling him. A visibly troubled Goswami started abusing Brijesh forcing him to hang up – while the former continued to abuse a dead telephone line for a couple of minutes. I am sure there are more incidents. But what these demonstrates is that Goswami is indeed troubled by the new image he has cultivated. Both these people were at the receiving end of his temper only because they challenged his professional location and political allegiance indicating that Goswami is not yet convinced about the saleability of the idea he is working for.
There aren’t too many people (who aren’t BJP sympathizers) who would disagree that Goswami’s Republic is a menace to democracy. There will be fewer journalists who would disagree that Goswami’s Republic isn’t journalism even by the worst yardstick. In that scenario I believe that the best way to contain this scourge would be for all people who are for democracy and ethical journalism – including non-NDA political parties to boycott Goswami’s anti-democratic republic. The channel will not fall – its TRP will be sustained by hardcore fans, the owner has fairly deep pockets and it has the fullest support of the current dispensation. But there will be two effects that will reflect positively for both democracy and journalism. First a singular voice from the studio floors without any actual reportage is bound to dent the little bit of credibility that Goswami claims, second and most importantly, the RSS trolls will be bored without fodder provided by people like Tiwari and Kalappa by engaging with Goswami – to feed their hate campaigns. There is a limit to propagating people scratching each others back on the internet.
And there is a third effect – which is rather a wishful prayer than an effect – that Goswami’s ego gets so ruffled and miffed by the lack of people wanting to be abused by him – that he gets sacked or voluntarily leaves the arena. If that happens, we can all hope for the beginning of some amount of deliverance for English TV news in India!