Arnab Goswami is back on TV. This morning, his new venture Republic TV went live and he started with a bang exposing a telephonic conversation between RJD supremo Lalu Yadav and jailed mafia don cum former RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin. The incident is already creating ripples in Bihar and national politics, but Arnab being back on TV is poised to create some ripples in the mainstream media too.
Arnab, in his previous avatar, was the one man machine of Times Now. He headed Times Now almost a decade ago, and has left a lasting impact on not only the channel, which owes practically its entire success to him, but also on the media industry. He may not have aimed at being such a strong and eventually “polarising” figure, but today, he is that figure.
It is because he broke and re-wrote many rules of a television journalist. Here are six of them:
1. The “neutral” host
This is a very interesting proposition. Firstly, the rule is that a media personality hosting a chat or debate, should be a “neutral” person facilitating the debate. It can be argued that most TV journalists and channels are hardly “neutral”, but at least they pretend to be so by not taking a stand on any issue. Arnab changed that.
If we look at the micro-level, analysing each of Arnab shows by itself, the template is clear: He picks a topic, makes up his mind on it, calls guests from across the spectrum of views, and proceeds to bash the guests who are of opposing views. So in any show of Arnab, you will find him harping only on one side of the debate, obliterating his opponents, by volume of by data.
Is this good or bad? It is bad if you believe TV journalists are genuinely neutral. If you are past that stage thanks to the obvious leanings of many Prime-Time hosts, then it is a good thing. Why? While Arnab wears his allegiance on his sleeve for every debate, other anchors prefer to mask it under a veil of “neutrality”. Who is more likely to mislead you? A person who “claims” to be neutral but secretly peddles his own narrative? Or someone who clearly tells you where he stands?
In fact, this is the model followed by most western media outlets especially in the US. The people know the political leanings of every media house, and accordingly alter their sense of scrutiny for news and views of a particular channel. Indian media houses haven’t moved in that direction, but Arnab may have forced at least some to shed their pretense.
2. The journalistic Omerta
It is an unwritten rule which all of media follows: No media person or organisation speaks about the doings or wrongdoings of another media house. Only when the smoke is too much to be contained (e.g. the Radia tapes or sexual assault by Tarun Tejpal) do we hear of such things from media houses. Or else it is just swept under the carpet.
Here too Arnab has changed the rules. Sure, he doesn’t name and shame, but he does enough for all to get the hint. Take for example the time when he referred to Barkha Dutt ever so slyly by saying “those who are using the killing of a terrorist, trying to project Burhan Wani, as an innocent son of an headmaster”. That was enough for Barkha to throw a fit on social media writing multiple blogs, tweets and railing about it for days on end. And he hadn’t even named her. He didn’t even spare journalists from the Times Group, as was seen when he hit-back at Sagarika Ghose who works for the Times of India.
Everyone knows what Prime-Time is. It is generally the time when maximum eyeballs are glued to the TV screens, the block of broadcast programming taking place during the middle of the evening. In India, it traditionally meant between 8 pm to 9 pm, after which people are supposed to take dinner and go to bed.
Arnab’s show on Times Now starts at 9 pm and contrary to most TV shows which wind up in a maximum of 60 minutes, Arnab goes on beyond 11 pm on some occasions. This, he termed as “Super-prime-time”. Running two back-to-back TV debates on high octane for well over 2 hours was something unheard of and Arnab pulled it off day-in-day out for years on an end. He eventually began owning the 9 pm slot, even forcing competitors like Barkha Dutt to re-schedule he flagship show.
Even today as Republic TV launched, he chose a rather irregular time slot of 10 AM of a weekend to break an important story. And guess what, he forced at least two news channels – Times Now and CNN-News18 – to follow the pattern and announce their own important story breaks at the same time.
4. Calm, nuanced debates
One of the pitfalls of Arnab’s style of anchoring is there is no place for nuance, no place for the grey. You have to black or white, and depending on which side Arnab is, either get thrashed by Arnab and his panelists or be on the winning side. And more often than not the debates of extremely loud, noisy and unruly.
One reason being the host himself is loud, the second being his panelists may also be those having polar views, and thirdly because he just has too many panelists! (5 times when Arnab went ballistic on the Newshour)
This again can be argued to be not a welcome development, but do note that this article is about what Arnab changed, not for whether that change was good or bad.
5. Being in Delhi
It is called the “Lutyen’s media” for a reason. Most of India’s leading media houses are based in New Delhi, close to the action, where the Central Government is based. And most of India’s leading journalists, have their residences, some even having plush mansions, in the up-market Lutyen’s zone, frequenting the high-society cocktail party circuit.
Times Now though, was headquartered in Mumbai, and so is Republic TV. Arnab beams his views across the world every night from a place that is far away from the political power center. Perhaps being even physically away from Lutyen’s circle of journalists has enabled him to take them on and change the rules as he does.
6. Breaking away from the owner’s ideology
Let’s face it, nobody is 100% neutral. Everyone has their own preferences, leanings etc. So does the Times Group which owns Times Now. In fact, Jains, who own the Times Group, owe their entire current earnings to one decision taken by Indira Gandhi. Leave aside political viewpoint, Times of India also has a clear editorial stance. Take for example the Aman ki Asha initiative championed by Times of India.
Arnab Goswami at Times Now though steered clear of this agenda. He was so harsh on the Congress (as he is with any body who is against him) that the Congress party boycotted his show for many times. Even on Indo-Pak relations, Arnab has a diametrically opposite stand, and doesn’t have any Asha for any sort of Aman. In fact, this difference of opinion between Times Group and their former employee had now taken an ugly shape with the media group serving a string of legal notices to Arnab Goswami.