The rise and fall of Arnab Goswami signal a tipping point for Indian media

The already low credibility of Indian media has suffered yet another blow by the release of WhatsApp chats of Arnab Goswami, revealing complicity between media and the state

The rise and fall of Arnab Goswami signal a tipping point for Indian media

Zafar Agha

That all’s not well with the Indian media is now an old story; that a large section of the Indian media now allow a free pass to the Government and question the opposition instead, is also fairly well known. But the extent of the collaboration and complicity between some of these TV channels and the Government is now getting unraveled. The WA chats of the Republic TV editor in chief and owner Arnab Goswami, released by Mumbai police as part of its charge sheet in the TRP scam not only shows Goswami in poor light but raises several questions about the changing nature and character of Indian media.

Arnab Goswami, like several TV anchors, had indeed developed a larger-than-life persona, blurring the lines between anchors, journalists, politicians, and demagogues. He appropriated for himself the role of the nation’s conscience-keeper with a divine right to question anyone and everyone. His clever war cry ‘The Nation Wants to Know’ was enormously successful in building his image, if not the credibility, of a national whistleblower. Blessed by the ruling dispensation, he wore nationalism on his sleeve and seemed to have outshone more established and older channels in the business. People believed that his channels were indeed drawing a larger share of the audience.

But even as his hectoring style and shrill debates, which bordered on bad and often ugly entertainment, appeared to appeal to a section of the audience, it inevitably began to rake in diminishing returns. Increasingly he sounded like a BJP spokesperson and began dropping any pretence of journalism.

But as long he confined himself to Pakistan, terrorism, nationalism, and Kashmir, he managed to serve his masters well. But the moment he began to go overboard on the coverage of Tablighi Jamaat, the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and ‘drugs in Bollywood’, his unprofessionalism and absurdities in positions he took began taking a toll. He seemed to be ignoring the economic impact of the lockdown, the migrant crisis, the joblessness and hunger and appeared intent to hold media trials and flaunt flimsy evidence to insinuate the culpability of various people in the actor’s tragic death.

He got so carried away that he accused the Maharashtra chief minister and his son, the Mumbai Police and Congress leaders, accusing them of shielding the murderers of the actor. He not only turned his studio in a wrestling arena, he also introduced the language of the street in his programme. Now that he is on the run from the law, accused of conspiring with former BARC chief Partho Dasgupta to ensure higher ratings for his channel, some would see it as poetic justice.

The chats have raised several questions and revealed his close proximity to the highest echelons of the Government. It allowed him to get prior information on the Balakot air strike and what was to happen in Kashmir in August, 2019 among other sensitive news. What is even more significant is that the chats hint at Goswami’s elation at the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot strike and his certainty that they would ensure that BJP and Narendra Modi would sweep the general election. This has strengthened the suspicion that the attack and the strike were engineered, that they were prompted by political considerations.

Journalists not just in India but across the world thrive on access to power. This has been the pattern for a very long time indeed and Goswami cannot be faulted for being close to people who matter. It is a different question how the access is gained; whether the trust is secured by diligent, professional work and mutual respect or because they serve each other’s interests. What puts these chats in the same category as Radia Tapes is because of what they reveal. Both sets of conversations reveal how media is manipulated by the powers that be and how prominent anchors and journalists lobby for cronies and peddle their influence in the Government.

If a sensitive and top-secret military operation like the Balakot strike was revealed to Goswami days before the actual strike, questions are bound to be asked. Could it have compromised national security? Who should be held responsible for the security breach? For far less serious access to military secrets, people have been charged and jailed. And the chats have increased the clamour for an inquiry, which may never take place.

Indian media have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Several journalists have mysteriously emerged as owners of TV channels, most of them with strong connections to big business and government. Even 20 years ago, journalists and editors could put their foot down and refuse to carry motivated or one-sided reports. But today, especially since 2014 when the Modi Government came to power, rules of the game have changed.

But chickens are coming home to roost. The façade of patriotic and nationalist journalism having been ripped by the chats now described as #ArnabGate, it is a tipping point for the India media. Things may never be the same again.

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Published: 20 Jan 2021, 2:00 PM