Arnab’s Republic

Print edition : June 23, 2017

Arnab Goswami. Photo: SUJIT JAISWAL/AFP

THE launch of a missile and the launch of a TV news channel were entirely different things until now. Until, that is, the supremos of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (less felicitously called North Korea) and Republic TV (rather unfairly, if irresistibly, called banana republic TV) conflated the two. Kim Jong-un’s scuds may or may not turn out to be duds, and Arnab Goswami’s opening lobs, in his new channel avatar, against Lalu Prasad and Shashi Tharoor may or may not come a cropper. Their penchant for bluff and bluster, posturing and grandstanding—the threat perception and buzz they whip up and perhaps relish—make them strange bedfellows.

There is, of course, a limit to which one can stretch such a comparison. Leader Kim may be showcased as deified by his people, but it is a thraldom of fear rather than love, whereas anchor Arnab has a demonstrative and big fan following that, although it unreasonably expects him to pull a new scoop out of the hat every news hour, is surely proof of something more than just some kind of a Stockholm syndrome at work. Republic, the channel, naturally prefers, in keeping with Arnab’s trademark practice of the profession, demagoguery to democracy. Its idea of democracy is very qualified.

It is the new made-for-TV variety of compulsory consensus: as long as your views are my views, you can air them on my show, at my pleasure; when they are not, I will outshout you into silence or insignificance or interrupt and badger and bully you until you are reduced to a sputtering stuttering idiot; and if even that does not work, I will mute your audio so that viewers cannot hear what you are saying and you will end up looking like an idiot all the same, and the people will love it all the more, and the TRPs will soar all the higher. That is the win-win formula for a super news show.

In Kim’s democratic people’s republic, the rogue state, this problem does not arise because there is no need to pretend to be democratic in the first place.

But there must be something to the formula because almost every other English news channel in India has adopted it. Almost all the anchors are suddenly (actually have been for a while now) shouting and screaming, including some who started out perfectly reasonably and intelligibly, so much so that we begin to wonder why we should watch the copycat acts when we have the original performer back in action, relaunched, so to speak. Arnab should have copyrighted his act. Because he did not, not only is he left competing with his clones, but some of them seem to be getting better than him at his act—being younger and endowed with stronger vocal chords and rasher demeanour. In fact, a promo that grabs your attention, for the wrong reason, is one of the channel he was on before this, and where just about all anchors vie with one another now to imitate him to the hilt, in which one of them is peremptorily ordering a guest out of the studio! A grandiloquent act of banishment from the show that seeks to outdo even the previous low of guests constrained to withdraw from it because they could not cope with the bullying—the anchor will then gloat over the empty chair left behind by the “cowardly” person who so quit as a trophy of the show’s hunt.

Incidentally, if Arnab had legally secured his proprietary rights to his inimitably offensive on-air manner and style, he could have sent a return notice to his former channel when it charged him with theft of material, accessed or prepared while he was still working there, for news stories telecast on Republic TV. After all, after he left, that channel looks like an Arnab encore in loop, and that, apart from being flattery by emulation, is tantamount to theft of identity and signature style.

Yes, Arnab does seem, despite his feigned gusto and defiant mien, less up to this electronically artificial hype than before. His imitators are catching up and threatening to overtake him.

Maybe he should drop this high-decibel act and be the naturally nice person he is off-screen when he is on-screen too. Arnab unplugged. That would be something. Maybe he should reinvent himself into a cool-headed, intelligent, soft-spoken, knowledge-seeking, but no less the tough for it, anchor rather than bash on in this bull-in-china-shop vein. Who knows, he could be a trendsetter on the rebound and maybe undo what he did to television journalism to begin with. And the other channels would duly follow his example again, and we would have a more robust signal-to-noise ratio restored in the medium, one in which noise is not overwhelming and drowning out the signal. He certainly has the mental equipment to make the transition. And the moral responsibility to do it. Can he summon the initiative and guts to step away from this pile-up of news channels that looms like the vile shadow of a Tower of Babel across our precious evenings and make meaning rather than pulp of what is happening around us, happening to us? Or is he to be stuck in this role play of riding a roaring tiger, unable to dismount and unable increasingly to himself match roar for roar?

Purposive journalism

All this is not to suggest that journalism on television should become a toothless, docile, all too civil pehle aap affair. Certainly, asking the tough questions and rigorously and relentlessly holding those in power to account are among the hallmarks of good, purposive journalism. But surely toughness does not mean hyperventilating all the time and working the viewers into a hyper state of excitement for no reason other than giving them a high, or, worse, driving them into neurosis. And when, instead of holding power to account, all that sound and fury are drummed up and deployed for and on behalf of those in power, as has now become almost the norm across these news channels, the game is really up. Riding roughshod over the ones who can only, who are allowed to only, put up a token resistance—mostly in the form of a string of protestations at not being allowed to speak throughout a show they were inveigled into on false promise or pretence—and becoming a cat’s paw of the ruling dispensation to swipe at any voice that can be seriously embarrassing to it is not journalism. It is not even PR. It is cronyism, toadyism or worse. Running scared of the government is not journalism. It is cowardly athletics. That you have an eager viewership lapping up your manufactured sensationalism does not make it acceptable journalism either because, for the nth time, there is a critical difference between the public interest and what interests the public.

Arnab’s Republic cannot, and need not, strive to become anything like Plato’s Republic. That dialogic rigour and method, the constant questioning to arrive at discernment of what is true, that philosophical gravitas are in any case beyond a TV news channel’s remit. Some superficiality and dilettantism seem unavoidable in, indeed germane to, journalism. But surely Arnab’s Republic can be one of some reason and some grace. Must it plunge into dystopia because that is what makes for the better spectacle? Surely, admission of a lapse enhances a channel’s, and its star mascot’s, credibility.

Faced with summons from the Delhi High Court on the defamation suit filed by Tharoor against the channel’s projection of the investigation into his wife Sunanada Pushkar’s death, Arnab’s response was, cussedly but not surprisingly, as if he had been vindicated by the court because it did not bar him from coverage of the case even though it pointedly asked him to scale down his “rhetoric”.

A blinkered adamance is hardly a journalistic virtue. When a wrestler, in round one, is wrestled to the ground and pinned there, and instead of tapping the ground twice with his palm to indicate he has given up, shows the thumbs up signal, you do not know whether to laugh or to cry.

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