Why the entire TV Shows are obsessed with Arnab Goswamy, so much so that, a special Campaign is done to counter TIMES NOW!
BEING ARNAB GOSWAMY!
Over lamb kebabs in Mumbai, the controversial television anchor tells why it’s crucial to go with ‘gut feelings’ and to ‘take a side on what is right’
As I wait for India’s most over-the-top TV news show host to arrive, I mull over last night’s edition of his programme, The Newshour with Arnab Goswami. The evening’s main topic was typically populist, involving a court case about corruption allegations in the Indian Premier League cricket tournament. Goswami kicked off the show in bravura style. “Will he be sacked?” he thundered during his opening monologue, referring to a senior cricket administrator, before addressing his audience: “Will you watch a tournament which has fallen so low?”
From there, the discussion descended rapidly into bedlam, with eight guests simultaneously on screen, barracking and yelling over one another as flashing red and blue graphics whizzed around in the background. Amid the chaos sat Goswami, ringmaster and orchestrator, sporting a sober suit and slicked-back hair, peering over thin wire-frame glasses as he interrogated his guests in a booming voice. At one point, he repeated the same question eight times, jabbing his finger and shouting down his interviewee’s attempts to answer. Towards the end, the same guest ripped off his microphone and walked out. As a viewer, the spectacle was exhilarating but exhausting. By the end I felt in need of a lie-down, and was little the wiser about the facts of the cricket scandal in question.
The Newshour is India’s most-watched English-language political show and its host’s hectoring style has transformed Arnab, as he is generally known, into one of the country’s most controversial public figures. His hyperventilating persona is often lampooned by comedians, even gaining a measure of international notoriety during last year’s Indian elections, when comic John Oliver featured clips of Goswami’s antics on his own US talk show — the suggestion being that the mix of abrasive questioning and seizure-inducing visuals had spawned a news style even more excessive than American channels such as Fox News. Yet it was Goswami who secured the two most coveted interviews of the election campaign: with Rahul Gandhi, scion of the incumbent Congress party, and with the BJP’s Narendra Modi, who went on to win a thumping victory in May.
Goswami, who is also editor-in-chief of Times Now, the channel on which The Newshour appears, is widely credited with having fashioned a new and aggressive style of reporting in a country where private sector news channels are still barely a decade old. Yet his influence is often lamented too, particularly by those who hanker after a more sober and impartial approach to news, in the mould of Britain’s BBC. In 2012, Indian academic and commentator Madhu Kishwar wrote a widely-quoted open letter to Goswami, in which she compared his show with a “Kangaroo Court.’”
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When Goswami finally arrives a few minutes later, I am taken aback. He is wearing a casual black shirt and dark-blue jeans and, at 41, looks younger than he does on screen. The hair gel he wears on TV is absent, creating a floppy, thick black fringe, and the thin glasses have been swapped for thick, hipsterish rims. Gone, too, is the overbearing voice, replaced by calm, soft tones as he tells me about a recent trip to Britain to give a speech at Oxford university, where he previously studied social anthropology. The contrast with Goswami’s onscreen persona is jarring: as though I had been expecting to have lunch with Superman, only for his mild-mannered alter-ego Clark Kent to turn up instead.
We are sitting at a discreet booth in the Sahib Room, a colonial-themed Indian restaurant in a fancy hotel a few minutes from Goswami’s office in midtown Mumbai. The table is plainly decorated, beyond a small vase of red roses and some unusual gold-coloured cutlery. Sitar music plays softly in the background but Goswami is speaking so quietly that I have to lean in to hear. I ask him first about last night’s show: why did he lead on the cricket scandal, rather than a prominent foreign trip taken by prime minister Modi?
“Basically, it’s a gut feel thing,” he says. “I changed the running order at about 4pm or 4.30pm. In the normal course of things I may have led with Modi, and then gone on to [cricket] but, yesterday, when I saw the court order . . . there were many questions.” It is a typical Goswami move: picking a topic that resonates with India’s public but also one where there is a clear moral issue, in this case corruption. “Our screen was bursting with people,” he says with satisfaction. “It was trending last night in a big way.” And why so many guests? “The idea is to present all points of view,” he says. “The speakers who come on the programme are people who have strong views.”
Waiters hover nearby, offering menus featuring traditional Mughlai-style dishes, heavy on spicy grilled meats and fish. Goswami seems pleased. “I love kebabs,” he says, picking a gilawati lamb kebab, supposedly created by the Nawab of the northern Indian city of Lucknow. To follow, he asks for a simple daal, served with roomali roti, a paper-thin flatbread. I go for tandoori mushrooms, followed by rockfish curry. Goswami declines wine — he is back on air later that night — so I drink solo, choosing a glass of pinot grigio. “I used to go to Lucknow, where there is a place that makes the best gilawati kebab,” he recalls of his time as a junior reporter. “It is this finely minced kebab which melts in your mouth . . . so I’m a bit of an expert on gilawati kebabs!”
Today, India has dozens of ferociously competitive news outfits, most of which have at least partially copied the style Goswami developed, in particular his almost monomaniacal obsession with breaking news. Even so, Times Now and its main anchor stand out both for their ability to tap middle class anxieties, and their bombastic, campaigning approach to reporting — a style that was particularly prominent during a spate of multibillion-dollar corruption scandals that hit India’s previous government.
Goswami cites allegations of massive bribery in the run-up to New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games in 2010 as one formative example of this approach. “As a result of our coverage of each of these scams, several people in power had to resign,” he recalls. The channel focuses on seemingly small examples of injustice too. “Stories of individual loss, individual tragedy, have now become subjects of national debate in India,” he says, citing one recent scandal in which dozens of poorer women received shoddy medical care. “We dedicated tremendous resources to the story. We sent reporters, [outside broadcast] vans, fly-away units down to where it happened,” he says, transforming it into a major media event.
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The waiters arrive again, serving our starters on gold-rimmed plates. “As an expert on gilawati kebab, I can say I rate this quite high,” Goswami says, tucking in. Is it similar to those he enjoyed in his younger days? “No, they were not so finely manicured but they were still good.” My own dish, known as a dhungari kumbh, features chunks of spicy mushrooms with a smoky chargrilled flavour, and just a hint of ginger. As we eat, I return to those who accuse Goswami of coarsening India’s public culture, and losing sight of objectivity amid the relentless din of breaking news. He sidesteps the question. “We are a very, very young medium in India. Earlier, television followed newspapers; now television is breaking stories of its own,” he says, describing his style simply as “a more aggressive form of journalism”.
If something is wrong, you can ask yourself two questions: “Why did it happen? Will the people who did it go unpunished?”
He began his own career as a junior editor on the Kolkata-based Telegraph in 1994, before moving to television, just as the liberalisation policies that transformed the country’s economy ended India’s era with only a single government-owned channel. He rose to become a senior anchor and editor at NDTV, a new cable network, before quitting to set up Times Now in 2004, a new channel backed by the Times of India media group. After a bumpy start, its ratings grew. Goswami cites the terrorist attacks that hit Mumbai in 2008 as one of the more important moments in its development.
“I think we did about 100 hours of coverage, and I anchored about 75, 80 hours,” he recalls of the days after Pakistani militants killed more than 160 people. “We’d been broadcasting for three to four days nonstop, we dropped all commercial breaks,” he says. That coverage itself won headlines, notably for the way that anchors such as Goswami channelled public anger over the government’s incompetent response to the attacks. “I’ve often said this: that, in a choice between right and wrong, black and white, the facts that stare you in your face, will you not take a side on what is right?” he says.
By this point, we have moved on to our main courses. I notice Goswami picking furtively at his daal. “I usually have a very light lunch that is sent from home,” he explains. “If you have a heavy lunch, I find that it doesn’t go well with the newsroom activity.” My dish is tender with a rich coconut flavour and I compensate for his restraint by ripping off chunks of roomali roti, hungrily using the bread to scoop up small, tasty parcels of fish and rice with my fingers.
I bring up the comparison with American cable shows, which he flatly rejects. “We don’t get Fox News in India, so people may want to flatter themselves thinking that this has evolved from some inspiration from America,” he argues. “But I think we have our own cultural editorial style, our syntax, our own grammar. And I’ve never watched much of these channels.” This may not be entirely accurate, according to the head of one Indian media organisation I spoke to before our lunch. “[Goswami] has said to me that he has followed the Fox news model in many ways,” the person said. “But now he has got caught on this style. He has become a moral vigilante, who is the judge, jury and executioner every evening.”
Goswami rejects this type of criticism too, saying that while critics may be “sniffy” about his style, they also acknowledge its impact. “It is certainly different from the kind of television that was done 10 years back but then times change. India is also changing,” he says. I find his views on India’s media culture less than convincing, given it seems so self-evident that some sense of objectivity and accuracy has been lost amid the clamorous hubbub that channels such as Times Now create. Yet, for all the controversy surrounding his role, in person Goswami is charming and thoughtful, with barely a hint of the bellicosity that is so familiar to his Indian viewers.
I decide to take a different tack, asking about his family background. He grew up in Assam, he says, in India’s rural northeastern region, though the family moved frequently, following his father’s army postings. He went to university, first studying sociology in New Delhi, then to Oxford, winning a reputation in both places as a fearsome debater — a talent that, he admits, now informs his role as an anchor. “When you debate, you really debate,” he says. “It’s points versus points, your points versus mine, then out of that dialectic emerges something which you tell the audience, ‘Make up your mind.’ ” He continues: “I don’t believe in creating an artificial consensus, which some people are comfortable with. So if there is something wrong, you can ask yourself two questions: ‘Why did it happen? Will the people who did it go unpunished?’ ”
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His background also lies behind his self-styled image as an outsider in India’s political culture. He chooses to live with his wife and young son in Mumbai, the financial capital, he explains, rather than the political hothouse of New Delhi. Even so, as the waiters clear our plates, I push him for his views on India’s new leader. He won’t be drawn on whether Modi has lived up to expectations, claiming, somewhat implausibly, to have no first thoughts on politicians. But he is clearer on the prime minister’s presentational gifts. “It was a presidential-style campaign, and clearly, on that, Mr Modi had an advantage,” he says of last year’s election. Modi has a “strong media presence”, he adds. “He is a very effective communicator. So obviously, in this day and age, these are strong qualities.”
The Sahib Room and Kipling Bar
Palladium Hotel, 462 Senapati Bapat Marg, Mumbai 400013
Himalaya mineral water Rs175.00
Bottle of Perrier x2 Rs1,300.00
Glass of Masianco Pinot Grigio Rs1,500.00
Gilawati kebab Rs800.00
Dhungari kumbh Rs650.00
Basmati rice Rs195.00
Roomali roti x4 Rs500.00
Moongdal tadka Rs600.00
Mechi ka balan Rs950.00
Latte x2 Rs700.00
Total (inc tax and service) Rs9,324.12 (£98.50)
Our meal over, we order coffees, and I ask about his future plans. Here Goswami is forthright. He will continue as an anchor, he says, but against a backdrop in which Indian media is set to play a vastly more prominent global role. “I’ve often said that so many Indians speak English that we will be the media capital of the world,” he argues, giving just a flash of the type of grandiloquent statements that he deploys so often on air. “India, with its competence and technology, with English, with the fact that we are a very vibrant democracy; we are going to be the global media powerhouse.”
And what of his country’s role as a potential political superpower? He pauses, before recalling another story from his time as a young reporter, this time from a trip to China. “I tried to do a live report outside Tiananmen Square, which I thought was one of their greatest mistakes. I was immediately rounded up by five people and told not to report there,” he says. “Unlike China, we [in India] are very sure about our institutional apparatus, being able to exercise control upon the levers of power. So I look upon us as a very stable, thriving, healthy democracy and I think that’s one of the reasons India will be great, 10 years from now,” he says. “I think the independence of the media is one of the greatest things of Indian democracy, with all its ills and mistakes. We still have a very, very vibrant media culture. I think that’s one of the greatest things.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent