It was the last great firecracker of Diwali. And it exploded with the mother of all bangs. The news of Arnab Goswami’s impending departure from Times Now detonated like the Indian equivalent of an American October Surprise, never mind that it was technically November.
Soon the internet was awash with Arnab jokes and Arnab memes. Some suggested a minute’s noise should be observed in his honour. Others had pictures of supposed reactions of every VVIP imaginable from Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal. Madhu Menon lamented, “My mother is going to be upset about Arnab leaving. Times Now was the only channel she could watch without her hearing aid”.
There is a temptation to dismiss the bombast of Arnab Goswami as proof that empty vessels make the most noise. But that is a mistake. All the sound and fury around his departure does signify something. It proves, once and for all, that we now live in a world now where the news anchor is the newsmaker. In the guise of giving us the news, he has become the news. He is the newsmaker. He is the headline. He is the news in the News Hour.
As always with these kinds of sudden Mistry departures, there are conspiracy theories aplenty. One rumour has it that Arnab Goswami left of his own choosing. He has been in talks for a while to turn media entrepreneur, that he might be returning in a Fox news avatar with Rajeev Chandrasekhar and Rupert Murdoch. Others claim Arnab and Vineet Jain, the managing director at Bennett Coleman were on sharply different trajectories, most recently on the Great Pakistani Boycott. Jain was attacking the “fake nationalism” of those trying to stop films and boycott Pakistani artists ,while Arnab was comparing Fawad Khan and Ghulam Ali to Osama bin Laden.
Those who are chortling about the sound of silence descending over our nights would do well to remember Arnab’s last words to his team. “The game has just begun.” That sounds like a promise and a threat rolled into one. The thought of a Fox-ified Arnab Goswami with even less of a leash on him boggles the mind (and the eardrums). After all his Times Now show was already described as “Fox on steroids” by Vice. Now it could become the real McCoy. Thus, it’s silly to treat the news of Arnab Goswami’s departure from Times Now as a story of retirement.
So, hold that champagne. He is leaving not because India got tired of his bullying, hectoring ways, not because guests started boycotting his shows because they accused him of fostering hate speech, not because a Ravish Kumar is succeeding as the UnArnab. He is leaving because he thinks that he can be bigger, better and louder elsewhere. He is leaving because he thinks he has changed the way we consume news. He knows people do not watch Times Now. They watch Arnab Goswami.
It’s a gamble. Fox News filled a certain space in American media when it debuted in 1996. At that time, no one thought Fox could survive. By 2011, it commanded more eyeballs than CNN and MSNBC combined. Murdoch said mainstream media ignored huge swathes of conservative America and he spotted a business opportunity there. “I don’t like monopolies when I see them,” he said. He essentially brought conservative talk radio to television under cover of the slogan “Fair and Balanced”.
The problem is in India, Arnab Goswami has already changed the game. There’s not quite that vacuum anymore for his brand of turbocharged outrage overdrive. The other channels are filled with wannabe Arnabs, just at varying decibel levels. The bobble-head shouting matches that pass as panels have become the norm (and not just in the bubble of English TV). His confrontational bullying is more the rule than the exception. His hyper-nationalism is echoed all over the media by the likes of Sudhir “traitors will not be spared” Chaudhary on Zee TV.
Right and Left are more nebulous concepts in India than in the West. As Shashi Tharoor once pointed out, while the media calls the Bharatiya Janata Party a “right-wing party”, it is in reality culturally a right-wing party but nativist in its economics and “until Mr Modi came along, it was Left in conventional terms, to even the Congress Party.” Thus, a “right-wing” Fox in India would just mean something uber-nationalist, a channel unafraid to call out what it believes is “pseudo-secular” “minority appeasement” and “majority-shaming”.
But there’s already room aplenty for that. Despite all the claims of liberal media bias, Subramanian Swamy has no shortage of platforms on which he appears. When a Zee TV journalist proudly (and with impunity) calls her critics “Dalit apologists”, says Sikhs “deserved” the 1984 massacre because “they killed Hindus for nothing” and suggests “Presstitutes and Liberals” describing “SIMI terrorists encountered at Bhopal as UnderTrial and Unarmed” need to be “Encountered” as well, she is following in the footsteps of an anchor who made it A-OK to insult his own guests on his own show. He gave us a new kind of “achhe din” for journalism, Arnab-style, bold, brash and in-your-face and now others rush in where even Arnab fears to tread.
A Fox News in UPA-led India might have been exciting, going against the powers-that-be. Fox in the age of Obama had a certain galvanising appeal for those who resented the success of America’s first black president. In a BJP-led India, with a bruised and battered Congress, the rise of Fox News could easily feel like the government’s megaphone and thus far less exciting. Arnab Goswami’s power was the persona of the Grand Inquisitor, his ability to amplify what his audience was thinking, and his occasional unpredictability. If he loses that, and sounds like a ruling party’s bullhorn, he becomes predictable and thus, dare we say it, boring. So, the question is, is another Arnab Goswami possible?
While we await the resurrection of Arnab Goswami though, it’s worth wondering what The Age Of Arnab gave us besides remixes, memes, and catchphrases. In the end, it taught us a profound and cynical lesson – that it was all theatre, that none of it really mattered. As Oscar Rickett pointed out on Vice, “In the world’s largest democracy, The Newshour provides the potent illusion of democracy” where the corrupt, or those perceived to be corrupt, are shouted at but no one is really ever held accountable. The nation might have wanted to know, but it never really got to know anything at all because no one was allowed to complete a sentence. And we just learned to stop worrying and love-hate the A-bomb
Feature Image Source: Twitter