Why Arnab Goswami is not solely responsible for the degradation of news

Arnab, the man above parody, impersonation and journalism

WrittenBy:Samrat X
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“Arnab by your side”, the promos said, with the hashtag #May 6 With Arnab, and a giant picture of Angry Arnab. It was not clear if he was trying to scare people or reassure them. A long string of Arnabic exhortations spouted out of the Republic TV Twitter handle. There was “Unmask the human rights lobbies. Nation first”, and “No shred of disrespect to the national anthem. Nation first”, the latter with pictures of the national flag waving in various settings. Hoardings with a picture of him, looking like he had a headache, billed him and his channel as “Pakistan’s migraine”. Whatever doubts may have existed about the character of his new “global” channel, were set to rest even before the launch.

Viewers seem to love the Angry Arnab persona and shower it with TRPs and adulation. Other television anchors, who like Arnab are also equally amoral about their journalism and equally greedy for viewers, have therefore also turned into versions of Angry Arnab. These other fellows – including, most noticeably, his successor at Times Now, Rahul Shivshankar – have come up with their own Angry Arnab impersonations, each with a particular slant unique to the anchor.

It is doubtful if they can beat him at his own act.

Some months ago, in Bandra in Mumbai, I bumped into stand-up comic Anuvab Pal, whose acts included one called “The Nation Wants to Know”. This was a parody based on you know who, and it was – I am not sure this is a good word to use here – a riot. The performance, which used to end with Pal almost literally foaming at the mouth, used to be at the Canvas Laugh Club in High Street Phoenix. Among other institutions in the same neighbourhood was Times Now. Pal had gone on stage one day and received the shock of his life when the curtains parted and there, sitting in the front row, was the subject of his parody, Arnab Goswami.

Arnab (he, unlike other mortals, doesn’t deserve to be referred to by his surname) had laughed along with the crowd, and gamely joined him on stage at the end of the show, from what I remember Pal telling me earlier.

This day, when we met at the Bandra coffee shop, our discussion naturally went to his act, and the character at the centre of it. Pal was troubled. “The man is too good”, he said. I asked him what had happened now. He had been watching his favourite channel at the time – Times Now – and had come across a moment of particular genius. It was a stock moment of Angry Arnab shows; a retired Pakistani general had been persuaded by some mysterious inducement to sit before a camera and receive a yelling from an Indian anchor on live television. He was naturally expected to retort at comparable volume and vehemence, until eventually being muted or outshouted by the heroic anchor. Unfortunately, perhaps retirement and advancing years had shown this general the futility of anger; or perhaps, he was just a man given to Vajpayee-esque pauses. He took the worst that Arnab had to offer and said nothing. He merely sat there quietly, said Pal. It was a moment of crisis for the anchor.

“So what happened?” I asked.

There was an instance rare in the annals of Newshour, said Pal…a moment of silence. Then Arnab had asked the general, “ARE YOU BREATHING HEAVILY?”, and thereafter proceeded to berate him for breathing heavily, said Pal. It was at this moment, the stand-up comic declared, that he realised the futility of his parody. “The man is too good”, he had said again in conclusion, before sipping his coffee in silence.

I commiserated with him, and left, and am sharing the story now so that all the television anchors of our nation know that their Angry Arnab impersonations are not going to get them anywhere. What Pal was doing was parody; the anchors are like serious Elvis impersonators with the real Elvis in the room.

It is often asked about performers if they are “like that in real life”? Is Arnab Goswami really Angry Arnab?

I have never met the man, but have seen him at close quarters. I walked into my favourite neighbourhood coffee shop in Bandra toward the end of February to find him on stage. He was saying “we were destined to be here this moment” or something along those lines when I entered. It was a book launch, for a book written by a child who had passed away. He made a moving speech, gamely posed for selfies with all the people – largely Bandra Catholics – who mobbed him, and stood in line for his tea and refreshments after. He was the epitome of the good Assamese gentleman, soft-spoken and kind.

I had heard from several friends who know him that he is a wonderful guy in person. Angry Arnab is his television persona. Even some Pakistanis seem to think so.

Pakistani journalist Wajahat Khan wrote in a Facebook post, “I worked with this man when I was on assignment in India. We got along. He was a sensible, affable, switched-on chap in person. But on TV, Arnab Goswami was a different animal. He was venomous. He was not fair or balanced. And he rigged debates”.

“Our last conversation”, Khan continued, “was when he actually called me to pitch positions on a show we were going to do together (he suggested ‘Wajahat, you will say X, and I will say Y…’). By the way, I didn’t want to say X. X was a stupid thing to say from a Pakistani perspective. Meanwhile, Y was a more sensible position. But he wanted to say Y, and reserve that rational sensibility for strictly an Indian perspective”.

According to Khan, “He wanted to push the us versus them narrative: That the Indian perspective was rather sane, and the Pakistani perspective was, actually, quite mad.”

“Should an otherwise sensible, affable man put on a jingoistic, even pathologically hyper-nationalist persona just to get great TV-ratings?” asked Khan.

I sent Arnab a text message asking him if he had a response to the allegations made by Khan, but got no reply.

What Khan has highlighted really is the nub of the matter, in India, Pakistan and everywhere.

Does journalism have a purpose beyond sales and revenues? Is the quality of journalism properly measured in TRPs and numbers of hits? Do higher TRPs and hits equate to journalistic success?

It is not surprising that Arnab is locked now in a battle with antagonists who evidently believe, like him, that they do – and I am not referring here to his impersonators.

Vineet Jain, his former boss, who along with brother Samir runs the Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd of which The Times Of India and Times Now are a part, had told The New Yorker in an interview in 2012, “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business”. He had explained to The New Yorker writer that the local entertainment supplement had stories that were paid for. In other words, they were “paid news”.

Bhaskar Das, who was a member of the company’s board of directors, was quoted in the same interview as saying, “When the advertiser becomes successful, we are successful. The advertiser wants us to facilitate consumption”.

Even the spiritual supplement, Speaking Tree, has tiny lettering below the masthead announcing it is a “promotional feature”. Samir Jain is known to be a man of Spartan habits, and a deep believer in spirituality. However, even that has not come in the way of business.

What viewers and readers of “news” are now choosing is one among a plethora of amoral businesses whose principal aim is to maximise profits for owners, shareholders and advertisers. The flag, the republic, religion and spirituality are all harnessed as props in the productions that are staged to achieve those goals.

The author can be contacted at samrat.choudhury@gmail.com.


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