Here’s How Much Times Now and Others Gained from Jingoism

Post-Uri and surgical strikes, Indian news channels discovered nationalism pays. Big time.

WrittenBy:Kshitij Malhotra
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In the first two weeks of September, the topics on Times Now Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami’s nightly primetime show, The Newshour, ranged from Kashmiri separatists, the Cauvery river row to the release of criminal-turned-politician Mohammad Shahabuddin in Bihar and the Chikungunya health crisis in Delhi. The discussions, while predictably noisy and chaotic, didn’t really do much for the channel’s ratings. Data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) shows that the channel registered an 18 per cent drop between week 36 (September 3 to September 9) and week 37 (September 10 to September 16). Other major English news channels – NDTV, India Today TV and CNN-News18 – also saw a drop in ratings during the same period.

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Can a military attack be termed fortunate? If television rating points (TRPs) are your only parameter, then probably. The Uri attacks on September 18 bolstered the ratings of all English news channels dramatically, helping them make up for the dip in the previous weeks’ numbers. The biggest gainer, however, was Times Now.

Times Now’s weekly impressions for the target audience of males (age 22 and above) across India for week 38 (September 17 to 23) touched 779,000, an increase of nearly 74 per cent from the previous week’s figure of 446,000. A lot of the credit for this must go to Goswami’s Newshour, which by Times Now’s own admission is greater than the sum of the channel’s other parts. (Advertisements regularly proclaim The Newshour is “greater than” rival channels.) In Week 38, Goswami had 10 debates on the Uri attacks. This makes sense since the attacks were the ‘burning issue’ at the time.

What was questionable was the line Goswami took while conducting his debates. Goswami was in hyper-nationalist form throughout, ably supported by panelists like Major Gaurav Arya, Major General (retd) GD Bakshi and Times Now Consulting Editor Maroof Raza. As the decibel levels rose, those who raised just an eyebrow — let alone questions — to Goswami and gang were literally shouted down.

In these 10 debates, Goswami took on a host of ‘enemies’, including “Pakistani propagandists” who were operating “with impunity from Indian soil”. During a debate titled “Send back Pakistani stars – politically correct?”, an incensed Goswami said that ceasing cultural activities between the two countries was “an occupational hazard for people who live off this cottage industry of peace” and not “for the people of India”. Never mind the minor detail that the Indian government’s spokespeople, including Home Minister Rajnath Singh, had stressed the point that India was not fighting Pakistanis, but terrorism.

Goswami’s lead was followed by other news anchors. The usually-composed Zakka Jacob of CNN-News18 appeared to be channeling Goswami when he asked Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) National Secretary RP Singh why there wasn’t a “muh tod jawab” (befitting reply) from the government 12 hours after the Uri attacks. This was during a special edition of his show, India @9.

Meanwhile, on India Today TV, Gaurav Sawant passionately exclaimed, “I don’t want to go into the history of India-Pakistan relationships. No more history! We will talk from this point on and this country will not take Pakistan sponsored terror anymore”.

NDTV, perceived to be the most ‘liberal’ channel, too ran the hash tag #UriPayback along with captions like “Payback time: stop handshakes, play hardball?” during Barkha Dutt’s primetime show.

Commenting on the media coverage, Economic and Political Weekly Editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta termed it “hysterical”. “Here are a bunch of guys, Arnab Goswami included, who are trying to tell us that if you don’t support everything that the government was doing – and that too blindly – you are anti-national. That to be a peacenik is a dirty word,” he told Newslaundry.

This post-Uri hysteria was ramped up significantly when the Indian Army announced it had conducted surgical strikes along the Line of Control (LoC) and destroyed terrorist “launch pads” in Pakistani territory. Even though the statement from Director General Military Operations (DGMO) did not reveal any details about the strikes except that they’d occurred “along the LoC”, news channels immediately launched into frenzied speculation about how far Indian forces had gone into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), how many “terror launch pads” had been destroyed and how many casualties had been inflicted on the terrorists.

There were no official facts – all channels ran different figures, citing ‘sources’ – but that hardly mattered. India had finally given a “muh tod jawab” and news channels discovered they could pretty much get away with anything in this atmosphere.

At one point, there was clamouring for video or visual evidence of the surgical strike, which the Indian Army has not released. For television news, this posed a challenge that different channels met with varying degrees of imagination. ABP News, for instance, decided to recycle footage from older Bollywood movies. India Today’s Sawant decided to make up for the lack of a visual element by creating his own ‘war room’ primetime, sporting an imitation flak jacket and a baton.

To counter the Pakistani government’s denial that any strikes had occurred across the LoC, CNN-News18 aired a “global exclusive” in which the channel made a police officer in PoK believe he was talking to a Pakistani official when he was actually talking to a CNN-News18’s Investigations Editor, Manoj Gupta. The police officer said on the phone that the strikes had indeed taken place and this unverified testimony was held up as conclusive proof of the surgical strike.

When opposition politicians asked for evidence of the strikes, Goswami conducted a debate on Times Now titled, “Netas demoralising army forces by asking proof of surgical strikes”. After reading out headlines from Pakistani publications which reported on demands of proof by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the Congress, Goswami angrily admonished Rashtriya Janata Dal (a Congress ally in Bihar) spokesperson Ashok Sinha by saying, “You don’t think of the consequences, why can’t you keep quiet?” He also (hilariously) attacked Congress politician Sanjay Nirupam for calling the surgical strikes “jumla” (spin), referring to him as a “half comedian, half politician”.

Then on October 6, NDTV decided to drop an interview of former defence minister P Chidambaram, allegedly because he was critical of the government’s handling of the surgical strikes. That evening, at the top of the 9pm bulletin, a graphic titled “India Above Politics” was shown, which informed viewers “NDTV will not air any remarks that risk security for political advantage”. Exactly how Chidambaram’s criticism risked the nation’s security was a question many asked, including The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan.

If you’re wondering why the nationalist ante was upped at such a dramatic rate, the answer lies in the ratings. They went through the roof for all channels. Once again, Times Now beat them all: between week 38 (September 17 to 23, week of the Uri attacks) and week 40 (October 1 to October 7, week following the surgical strikes), weekly impressions for Times Now jumped from 779,000 to 1,340,000, an increase of 72 per cent. In comparison, their biggest rival, CNN-News18, racked up a relatively measly 505,000 impressions during week 40, rising from 309,000 in week 38.

To sum up, between week 37 (before the Uri attacks) and week 40 (after the surgical strikes), Times Now’s ratings tripled. CNN-News18 and India Today TV’s ratings more than doubled (2.4 and 2.5 times, respectively) and NDTV’s ratings increased more than one and a half times.

Clearly, all channels gained from whipping up nationalistic fervour and they toed the government line in this regard. As Sevanti Ninan, editor of media watchdog The Hoot put it, the nature of coverage “does not suggest that what the channels do is a reflection of what a substantial number of TV viewers want”. Ninan described the media coverage of the surgical strikes as “more likely to be a reflection of what the government would want these channels to project”.

Newslaundry sent the following questionnaire to NDTV, Times Now, CNN-News18 and India Today TV, seeking their response:

1) Your channel’s TRPs have increased substantially after the Uri attack up until a little after the Surgical Strikes. This period saw extensive news debates on the Armed Force’s actions and the government, packaged with the right amount of jingoism/nationalism. Do you think nationalism sells and is a good TRP booster?

2) Is packaging news along nationalistic lines a well thought-out strategy of your channel to boost numbers?

3) You channel had multiple debates on Pakistan as the rouge enemy. What impact do you feel your coverage has had on foreign policy or national security?

4) Your channel’s news debates pretty much took the government line without questioning details given on the operation? Do you think your TRPs would have been affected negatively if you had questioned the government line?

Zakka Jacob of CNN-News18 responded with this:

“I have forwarded your queries to my superiors as I am not authorized to speak on behalf of the channel. They will get back to you, if they so choose”.

If we receive any further responses, this article will be updated.

What we saw in the news served two purposes: it appeased the government and at the same time grabbed more eyeballs, pushing up advertising revenue. The casualty in this project: sound and sane reporting. While some channels did send reporters to border areas for on-ground reports, there has been very little delivered by way of information. What English news channels have presented is opinion, that too a single point of view — the jingoist perspective.

Did Times Now and other channels choose this bent because it led to spikes in TRP? Was it to toe an official line? Whatever the answers, the fact is, news served an agenda and those ‘consuming’ the news should wonder who that agenda serves.

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