‘It’s not a newsroom, it’s a durbar’: Inside the Republic of Arnab Goswami

How the media mogul’s inflated sense of self-importance, ‘nepotism’ and political partisanship drive Republic TV’s coverage – and drive away its staff.

ByManisha Pande
‘It’s not a newsroom, it’s a durbar’: Inside the Republic of Arnab Goswami
Anish Daolagupu
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On August 27, Tejinder Singh Sodhi took to Twitter to announce his resignation as Republic TV’s bureau chief in Jammu and Kashmir. “After writing an apology to Journalism for killing it's soul for three and a half years, I have resigned from Republic TV,” he wrote. “More details here soon.”

The “details” were subsequently published on September 1 by PGurus, with a blurb declaring that the “no-holds-barred letter” speaks of the journalist’s “horrid experience working for Republic TV”.

The letter also found its way to Twitter as most tell-all resignations now eventually do. Newslaundry reached out to several former employees at Republic TV to know their views on Tejinder’s assertions and to gauge if their experiences in the Republic TV newsroom had mirrored his.

First, a rundown of Tejinder’s claims.

‘Job of a hitman’

Tejinder’s 3,500-word email to Republic TV’s head of human resources elaborates on a range of issues he faced at the organisation. He says he joined Republic TV because its owner and chief editor, Arnab Goswami, assured him that the channel would “be the voice of the downtrodden”. But Tejinder says he soon realised that the reporters were being used to carry out hit jobs on behalf of Arnab.

He talks about how he was told to ambush Sunanda Pushkar’s father and get him to blame her husband, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, for her death. He also says his prime job as the Jammu and Kashmir bureau chief was to “target and speak against Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti”, former chief ministers of the erstwhile state. He did that job well, he adds, and “ensured to project them as anti-national and find fault in whatever they say”.

In a conversation with Newslaundry, Tejinder confirms that the email doing the rounds online is penned by him. He says he wrote it at great professional risk, knowing that speaking out against a former employer could render him unemployable in a news industry that’s governed by an Omerta — journalists rarely speak about the goings-on in their companies or newsrooms.

“Someone had to do it,” he tells Newslaundry. “This was not journalism, what we were doing. This was a hit job. The first time I realised this was when I was asked to protest outside the Congress office with black bands and placards.”

He adds, “My job was that of a hitman – to find out what Omar Abdullah is saying, to find out what Mehbooba Mufti is saying, find fault in it, and report that they are anti-national.”

As in Bollywood movies, editors at Republic TV have a name for this kind of reporting; it’s called the “chase sequence”. The reporters are told to chase down people, usually opposition leaders, thrust their mics in their faces, and demand answers.

Tejinder says he was never explicitly told that the BJP was a holy cow, but it was understood in the way stories were chosen and dropped. He alleges that a story on illegal constructions by politicians near an Army ammunition dump in Nagrota, Jammu, was never aired even though he had Army spokespersons confirming it on record.

Incidentally, the story was reported by the Indian Express. The leaders in question included BJP’s Nirmal Singh and Kavinder Gupta, both former deputy chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir. Tejinder cites this as an example of Republic TV’s fake nationalism.

In his resignation letter, Tejinder talks about nepotism within Republic TV. He claims that Arnab’s wife, Samyabrata Ray, practically heads the operations of both its Hindi and English channels. “He calls Sonia Gandhi the super prime minister,” Tejinder says of Arnab, “but his wife is really the super editor and managing director in the organisation. Though now she holds the position of senior executive editor, she is the one deciding everything.”

Samyabrata has previously worked with the Telegraph, ANI and Tehelka. She is editor and co-owner of Republic TV.

Durbar culture

Newslaundry reached out to senior editors, anchors and reporters who have left Republic TV to understand their reasons for leaving and what they made of Tejinder’s allegations.

Newslaundry is aware that a story based on anonymous sources can often be tricky to present but most of those who chose to speak with us did not wish to be named for fear of being seen as “troublemakers”. They feared that they could be rendered unemployable if they spoke out openly about their previous employer. Some were willing to be named in this report but were denied permission by their current employers. Most media houses in India have strict rules against their employees speaking to other news organisations, which makes it doubly difficult to report on the media.

Several of the people we spoke to have worked closely with Arnab.

One person remarked that Tejinder’s email illustrated precisely why there were few experienced professionals in the business who’d like to work for Arnab. “What he’s built with Republic TV is not a newsroom, it’s a durbar. Usually, you have juniors, mid-level and senior managers in an organisation. He’s filled the newsroom with young kids who cannot stand up to him, even as most experienced hands at Republic TV have left.”

The person noted a distinct change in Arnab after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. “He has become increasingly vicious as have his panellists. He has nothing good to say about anyone. Beyond a point, it became embarrassing, this brand of theatrics in the news, and the constant screaming and shouting. He was obsessed with beating Aaj Tak, which he did, but at the cost of losing any credibility at all as a news person.”

A former senior anchor argued that when experienced professionals and the cream of the organisation are leaving one by one, you have to pause and think.

The anchor said the environment at Republic TV was “toxic and negative”.

“There is complete disregard for a person’s personal life,” the anchor added. “You can get calls at 1 am just to be shouted at. There are impossible demands from the reporters to chase a person even if he has agreed to speak to you, heckle or provoke a reaction.”

This anchor also pointed out those who signed up to work in television were aware of how gruelling it could be and prepared to work hard. “I can’t say any of us left because we couldn’t work hard or keep up with the pace. We gave our best. But there’s also the problem that if you begin getting noticed in the organisation for your work, you will be snubbed. He may know of your potential, but the man is born with a trust deficit, and he has a coterie around him that feeds into it,” the anchor said, adding that if anyone did well, the people around would start feeling insecure.

“In that sense, there’s only a certain level to which you can rise in the organisation and you have to make your peace with it.”

Aditya Raj Kaul, who was a top editor and reporter at Republic TV, said he wouldn’t comment on Tejinder’s email, but would vouch for him as a committed reporter. “He may be a bit too emotional but that surely can’t be held against him. I had persuaded him to give TV a chance back then when he had a comfortable job in PTI. I resigned from Republic as senior associate editor and senior anchor on December 31, 2018. I made a commitment to Arnab that the purpose of my resignation was not to defame him or his channel, and I stand by that even today. Though I have never regretted resigning from Republic TV.”

‘Are we going to be number fucking one or what?’

A common theme that emerged from our conversations with former Republic TV employees is the emphasis on sting operations.

A former Republic TV anchor who is now at another major English news channel said she was once told to sting her source. “They would give us instructions like, ‘Wire yourself up and meet your source’. Why would you do that? A source becomes a source because of a certain trust that you develop with them, you have to protect their identity, not expose them. Just imagine what young journalism graduates are being taught there: basically that it’s okay to throw your source under the bus, secretly tape them and reveal their identity even if they don’t want you to do that.”

In a recent “sting operation” on Sushant Singh Rajput’s fitness trainer, the Republic TV reporter says right at the beginning, “It’s off the record, I am not filing it.”

What’s being presented here as an exposé seems like an off-the-record conversation between a journalist and a source. It is not an undercover operation. Moreover, traditionally, undercover investigations are treated as the last resort in journalism. There also has to be an overriding public interest when a news outlet decides to go down this route.

The anchor quoted above was part of the channel’s founding team, but left soon afterwards. The last straw was when she was forced to reveal her source. “I had some information on a certain politician from a very credible source but this was more to do with the politician’s personal life. When I discussed this information with Arnab and his wife, they got very excited. They bullied me into revealing the source, saying if I didn't tell them, they would go on air and ask who was feeding this information to Republic TV reporters,” she said. “Then they demanded that I get the source to meet Arnab. I said, ‘No way would the source want to meet Arnab’, to which I was told things like I should know who I was talking to and that PMs and CMs are scared of Arnab. It got pretty ugly; I just went out for a walk and never came back.”

The anchor painted Arnab as the archetype media mogul consumed by self-importance. “I think in his head, he’s the most powerful person in India after Modi. I remember this time when Arnab once came out of his office at 12:30 am and screamed, ‘Are we going to be number fucking one or what?’ We’d all chime in to say, ‘Yes’. He’d go, ‘I didn’t fucking hear you.’ And we’d loudly say yes and clap. When he addressed the office in one of his speeches, you couldn’t sit. If you smiled, he’d single you out.”

The anchor said she had a particularly hard time adjusting to the work environment. “It was an insane place to work at. Every day, the edit meeting would get over at 2:30 am and you would be asked to report back at 7:30 am. We never got weekly offs. We would sleep in the office, sometimes get woken up at 3:30 am to shoot promos. I wanted to leave the office once because I had a running temperature, I was simply told to take a pill and stay on.”

Credits: Anish Daolagupu

A former reporter had similar experiences to speak about when it came to stings. “You are given mindless directions to just sting people, even if they are willing to talk to you or even when you can get that information on record. I was just told to sting students of a particular university. I left Republic TV within a brief time of joining. I knew this wasn’t for me.”

The reporter said it shouldn’t take people years to figure out that what is happening at that channel is not journalism.

News agenda

Shweta Kothari was a founding member of the Special Investigative Team at Republic TV. The team was headed by Prema Sridevi, who too has left and is set to launch her own venture. Shweta, currently managing editor at the Logical Indian, highlighted the paranoia that pervades her former workplace.

“I was accused of being a spy for Shashi Tharoor,” she said. “This was around the time when the channel was launched and we were chasing Tharoor on the Sunanda Pushkar story. When I confronted Arnab on this, he simply told me, ‘We are trying to protect you and keep you off stories on someone you are close to.’ I have no idea what he meant by that.”

Shweta suspected that it was because Tharoor followed her on Twitter.

“The one thing that came up was that I had signed a change.org petition to make Tharoor the chief of the Congress maybe sometime in 2014. But there was no way of knowing that unless they went through my emails,” she said.

Shweta had joined Republic TV from NDTV and had clearly told Arnab in her interview that she was not Right-leaning. “He and his wife both assured me that with their own brand, their aim was to do right by India and the armed forces. I thought since he was no longer with Times Now, Republic TV would be built differently.”

This was echoed by other people who had agreed to work with Arnab despite his pro-BJP tilt from 2014 onwards. “I left Times Now to work with Arnab because, until the time he was there, at least he never pressured us directly, he never told you that you could not do this story because it was against the BJP. Navika started doing that more openly. But things changed drastically at Republic in 2019, earlier I could at least push some stories across,” said a former Republic TV anchor-editor.

By way of an example, she recalled a banking scam that she had been covering. “They wanted me to pin the blame on Congress MLAs who were not involved in the scam but were in fact trying to bail out certain people. They played up pictures of the accused with some non-BJP leaders saying they were hand in glove. When I sent them pictures of the accused with BJP leaders, there was radio silence.”

The anchor-editor said when it came to interviews with opposition leaders, the staffers were expected to be uncivil. “If it’s a regular, sitdown interview, it doesn’t work. They want you to be rude to people because that’s more drama, right? The reporters are supposed to chase people and it’s not about asking hard-hitting questions but being rude.”

As far as pre-deciding a story, Shweta said she had her first experience in the early months of the channel’s launch. She was told to conduct a sting operation on what Kashmiri Muslims thought of Kashmir Pandits returning to the valley. “I travelled village to village and I got a bunch of people to say they would welcome Pandits. There were some people, mostly people who had picked up the gun at some point, who talked about taking part in violence against Pandits. I must have spoken to 50 people, 20 on camera, out of which three or four said the things Arnab wanted to show — hate against Pandits. People who spoke of a hope for peace with their exiled Kashmiri brethren were never aired.”

‘Surrounded by a coterie’

Ironically, Arnab comes across as a Rahul Gandhi-esque figure when former Republic TV staffers speak of a “coterie” around him. Except maybe Arnab is actually successful at what he does.

A common refrain was that he surrounds himself with loyalists who get insecure when anyone outside their circle starts getting noticed by him.

A former editor said she was glad that Tejinder’s email had brought to light Samyabrata’s role in the organisation. “They really cannot go on about nepotism because they are nepotistic themselves. Arnab has practically handed over the reigns of the channel to his wife. There is a little incestuous pool they have built and ones who are loyal to it will be rewarded.”

The former editor said she had a particularly hard time coping with Samybrata even though her equation with Arnab was always cordial. “There are constant shouty instructions given to be aggressive and to sensationalise. I was doing a minimum 13-hour shift, which is ok if it’s productive work. But they already have a conclusion ready for every news story and they have a trajectory in mind, so your job is only to get them what they want.”

Another ex-staffer of the founding team said for Arnab, there was only black and white, there were no shades of grey. “You are either good or bad, you are either for him or against him. I left Republic TV because the office was only about one-sided journalism and dirty politics. People who were the fixers rose up the ranks while hardworking journalists were either pushed to the wall or exploited,” the person said, adding that there was a time when Arnab would recognise merit and talent, but not anymore.

The former editor added that there were, however, some positive points to the man. “It doesn’t matter to Arnab how you look, who your family is, or where you come from. He will give you an opportunity to be in front of the camera and push you if he thinks you are talented.”

The former editor-anchor seconded this opinion: “You could be a nobody from any kind of family, that is immaterial to Arnab. Broadcastibility for him is if you can speak on air or not. I know one reporter who was told to his face in the channel he came from that he was ‘too dark’ to be put on air. But Arnab put him on air on all stories because he doesn’t care about these things.”

Another former anchor, though, disagreed on the presence of a coterie, citing the example of Aditya and Prema as old-timers who left Republic TV without a job in hand. "For Arnab, no one matters. He relies for certain things on certain people, but everyone is disposable. Besides his wife, who practically manages everything in Republic, and the production head who has been with him since the Times Now days, I don't think there is anyone else who is permanent.”

“You have to give it to him,” the anchor added. “He was just a journalist and is now sitting on a media empire worth crores. He's a brilliant businessman and knows what his audience wants. During elections, he would sit at 6 am in the studio and stay till 12 in midnight, would only take lunch breaks. I think in Arnab's head, aside from Modi, he's the most powerful person in India. He enjoys his stardom, people talking about him on social media. I think he would be very depressed if people stopped talking about him.”

A battle for TRPs

According to the latest BARC data, Republic Bharat has displaced Aaj Tak as the Hindi TV news channel with the highest ratings. It is this battle for TRPs that has perhaps resulted in some of the ugliest TV moments of the past month. On the one hand, you had Republic Bharat anchors heckling ordinary folks outside Rhea Chakrobarty’s house and, on the other, an Aaj Tak reporter’s blatant invasion of a citizen’s privacy.

In this context, a former employee at Republic Bharat said, “I am not very taken in by this urge to single out Arnab as the worst thing that’s happened to TV news. Who’s any different? Turn on any news channel, and they are selling ‘rastravaad’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim’. I was very clear when I joined Republic Bharat that this was not journalism, it was jingoism. Unmaad phailane ka kaam kar rahe hain. This is the game of TRP.”

He, however, said the biggest fault in all of this was that of the viewers. “Do you know how much pressure we are in every Thursday when ratings come out? You are answerable for every little drop in ratings. But the question is why do news consumers watch this tamasha?”

Like news consumers, it appears that news professionals have also grown accustomed to the plummeting standards of what’s dished out as news on TV. Those who took the plunge with Republic TV probably knew that they wouldn't be working with a Walter Cronkite or the legendary SP Singh. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t willing to demonstrate flexibility while at the channel, it was that they weren’t willing to crawl — something that seems to be a prerequisite in Arnab’s scheme of things at Republic.

Newslaundry reached out to Arnab for comment on the allegations made by Tejinder and other former employees. This report will be updated if a response is received.

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