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Why journalists can't stand Arnab Goswami

Neena Haridas
Neena HaridasFeb 18, 2016 | 20:07

Why journalists can't stand Arnab Goswami

At no time in Indian history has a single journalist been as influential as Arnab Goswami is today. One of the weirder sidelights of the JNU controversy is the way in which a controversy-within-a-controversy has mushroomed on the back of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar's arrest. Many journalists have called for a boycott of Goswami and Times Now, the channel he runs.

Angry articles have appeared - many of them written by senior journalists - slamming Goswami for the stand he has taken on the issue. Other TV anchors have broken with tradition to tweet against him. And at least one news channel has rearranged itself to seem like a downmarket clone of Times Now.

What irks the journalists is not just the stand that Goswami has taken on the JNU issue. They are even more annoyed by the fact that this stand, and others like it in the past, are finding favour with viewers. For something like three years now, Times Now has been the number one English news channel in the markets that matter.

Often Goswami's lead over the number two channel is so massive that the lead itself is greater than the entire market share of some established news channels.

What's more, Goswami and Times Now have re-written the rules of news television. Once upon a time Indian channels struggled to follow the BBC model. Goswami threw all that out. There is no real news on Times Now and there is little original news footage. There are few journalists of note on its rolls. And a minimal journalistic presence in many parts of the country.

Goswami's model is not the BBC. It is wrestlemania. For three hours, every night, he moderates riotous debates in which contestants/participants are encouraged to shout at each other and to interrupt whenever they like. When they get tired of shouting, Goswami takes over and shouts his lungs out himself.

By the end of each show, no viewer is any clearer about the issues. But the spectacle has a certain horrendous watchability about it. And at the end of each programme, Goswami remains the undefeated world champion, wrestlemania-like.

Why does his model work? Why does Goswami get such high ratings? The answer is not difficult to find. Goswami is a creation of demographics, economic growth and public anger. Over the last five years, the audience for English news has changed from the comfortable, newspaper-reading professionals who used to watch Prannoy Roy and NDTV.

A new generation has begun tuning in to English news. These are children of the economic boom whose parents never read an English newspaper or venerated Prannoy Roy.

They like the ruff and tumble of acrimonious debates because that is what Hindi news channels have been providing for two decades. They have no respect for the BBC model because none of them ever watched or listened to the BBC. And though they are the later beneficiaries of economic gain from the Indian system, they are convinced, nevertheless, that the system is biased against them and favours a cosy privileged elite.

Goswami recognises their resentments and pushes the right buttons. He leaves behind his own privileged background, his Oxbridge qualifications and his years at NDTV to masquerade as one of them. Each time he attacks a minister or sneers at the Mumbai cocktail circuit, he articulates their grudges and grievances.

Predictably, this approach outrages traditional media who cannot stomach the fact that there is no real news on Times Now and that despite this, it continues to do better than all of them.

So what accounts for this recent fuss?

It is because Goswami's critics have scented blood. Smart people know that wrestlemania is always fixed even if some viewers are conned into believing that the fights are real. This time around, Goswami's detractors think they have found evidence of fixing.

When the JNU controversy exploded, Times Now followed a path of primitive patriotism and Goswami shouted about anti-nationals. This approach began to seem inadequate after a BJP MLA known to be close to Union finance minister Arun Jaitley beat up a protestor outside the Patiala House Court in full view of TV cameras. Inside the court, lawyers beat up journalists and students.

The only proper response to this hooliganism was anger and outrage. And sure enough, Goswami exhibited lots of fire and outrage. But it was still directed at the "anti-nationals". The lawyers and the BJP MLA got off relatively easily.

For Goswami's detractors, this was the opportunity to openly make the point that they have long whispered about. They suggested that Times Now was no more than a staged wrestlemania where the scripts were written by Arun Jaitely and other influential members of the Modi government.

Obviously, the truth is not so simple. Yes, Jaitely is a no-go subject on Times Now but the Modi government is often criticised. On this occasion however, with Times Now, curiously out of step with the public mood, it was easy to smear Goswami as the battlehound of the ruling establishment.

Has the episode hurt Goswami? It probably has. Soon after the backlash began, Times Now changed the tenor of its coverage. The lawyers and the MLA were finally attacked. But it may have been too little too late.

In the long run, however, Goswami has little to worry about. Social mobility and demographics, more or less, guarantee that his audience will stay with him. And as for the fights being fixed, well, that's never hurt wrestlemania, which still gets high ratings, decades after it was introduced.

Goswami may be a little battered and bruised. But he is still the champion of the India's news wrestling federation.

Last updated: February 19, 2016 | 17:01
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