Arnab Is Back; But Can He Recreate the Magic?

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Much as I hate clichés, I would begin with one. Like him or hate him, but you just can’t ignore him. Just a week into his new innings at Republic TV, Arnab Goswami – and his channel – have received more attention than he could have expected. True, much of the attention has been rather unflattering; but there is little doubt that Arnab would be relishing every ounce of it coming his way. As they say, “Any publicity is good publicity” – more so for a fledgling new channel in desperate need of some traction.

If the first week of the new channel has proved anything, it is that the most loved/hated television anchor in India has lost none of his verve, irreverence and audacity in the six months since he left Times Now. The hectoring style, the scandal mongering and over-the-top shouting that made him such a figure of love, hate and envy for so long are all intact – mercifully for his loyal viewers and annoyingly for his detractors. The tendency to cram the screen with more panelists than one can count hasn’t been jettisoned either. So all that his critics can pounce on now are the set, the props and the looks.

Based on the evidence of the first week on air, just about the only thing that seems to have changed in Arnab’s new avatar is that he has dispensed with any pretension of being neutral. He has made it abundantly clear that he would bat for the Modi government and go after the Opposition with a vengeance. It began with Laloo and has now reached – expectedly one may say – his bête noire, the Gandhis. Arnab has always worn his ‘nationalism’ on his sleeves. But what has changed in his new innings is he is using it as a cover to hide his sympathy for the government of the day.

History and past experience tell us that a media organization that is on the side of the government of the day or is seen to be so – finds it hard to inspire confidence among the people at large. To cite just one example closer home, ‘Sambad’, which was seen as a ‘mouthpiece’ for the then JB Patnaik for years it was launched in 1984, began its upward climb – to eventually ensconce itself at the No. 1 spot – only after JB was unseated in 1990. Arnab himself earned his spurs when the UPA was in power and scandals tumbled out of its cupboard and fell into the Times Now ‘Newshour’ with amazing frequency. It remains to be seen if Arnab can prove the golden rule of journalism – that people always want to read/watch ‘anti-government’ news – wrong and can set his own rule. Seasoned journalist and canny reader of the public pulse that he is, the maverick anchor could not have been unaware of this risk and must have a plan up his sleeve to ensure that he doesn’t fail the credibility test. Thus, it is possible that there could be an occasional story – and a debate around it – that questions a government move, but doesn’t hit where it hurts the most: something that is bestcdescribed in the phrase “Willing to hit, but unwilling to hurt.”

It is also hard to say at this point of time whether there are still enough takers for his haranguing, hectoring style that made Times Now the No 1 English new channel for so long; whether his erstwhile loyal viewers would stay loyal and start watching Republic TV and whether viewer fatigue with his brand of journalism has indeed set in, as some would have us believe. It is interesting, however, to see that his former channel, far from obliterating the last vestiges of Arnab Goswami, is actually trying to outdo him in what he does best: exposes.

While the answers to all those questions remain in the womb of the future, what is already clear is that Arnab’s return has riled quite a few people, who had started breathing just a little easier in his absence for about six months. The vitriol that is being poured out against him on a daily basis is more a reflection of the insecurities, inadequacies and apprehensions of his rivals than a reasoned denunciation of the Arnab variety of journalism. I, for one, can’t understand why his detractors, who are among the loudest champions of media freedom, should have a problem with Arnab’s freedom to do things the way he wants. As in the world at large, it takes all kinds to make the media world. In the long run, it would be the viewer who would decide the fate of every star anchor – and his/her channel.

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