Opinion

If you care about press freedom, perhaps it’s time to boycott Arnab Goswami?

'The Newshour' anchor's refusal to stand up for fellow journalists who were subjected to assault is galling.

With adversarial debate marked by interruptions and whataboutery, sanctimonious nationalism, and invasive on-screen graphics, Arnab Goswami and his nightly show, The Newshour, on Times Now dominate English primetime news ratings to such an extent that most of his rivals have long since adopted diluted versions of his model. But the ongoing controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University has demonstrated that Goswami stands alone in his refusal to value the principle of journalistic freedom.

Let us examine what various primetime news anchors were doing on Tuesday, February 16. Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of India Today TV, who are direct competitors every weeknight, jointly led a march from the Press Club of India to the Supreme Court to protest against the violence against journalists the previous day at Patiala House court and the police’s failure to respond. Ravish Kumar of NDTV India, in many ways the anti-Arnab, not only participated in the march but featured it prominently on his 9 pm show. Zakka Jacob of CNN-IBN, a channel many feared would turn into a government stooge following its takeover by Reliance Industries, went further than anyone in his criticism of the government’s failure to protect the press.

But if, like a majority of those who watch English news, you chose instead to watch Arnab Goswami’s NewsHour on Tuesday night, you would be forgiven for total ignorance about any attack on journalists. Goswami began his nightly monologue, as usual, with a harangue, but his target was not, for a change, the JNU students, but his fellow journalists – he speaks of “the media” in a manner that suggests he does not consider himself part of it– whom he accused of misleading their readers and viewers by concealing the true extent of the “anti-national” slogans at JNU and elsewhere.

A colleague's defence

Goswami’s colleague Aditya Raj Kaul has hit back against those who criticised the anchor's absence from the Delhi march by pointing out that Goswami was at his father’s hospital bedside. But this did not prevent him from hosting his show as usual, and the line he took suggests that even if he had been at liberty to attend, he would not have done so.

During the debate that followed the monologue, perhaps mindful of the common criticism that, in this instance, he has been deferential towards the government, Goswami launched a half-hearted attack on Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra, accusing the government not of coming down too hard on the students but on not coming down hard enough. He demanded more arrests. The only time he was silent was when he allowed former intelligence offer RSN Singh an extended tirade against JNU faculty, whom Singh said needed to be “purged” wholesale.

Leave aside Goswami’s hypocrisy. Having refused to show his viewers JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s moving speech, with its appeals to Parliament and the Constitution, he is no one to talk about concealing the whole truth. It is his refusal to show the slightest solidarity with his fellow professionals that is so galling.

Repeat offender

In Patiala House, journalists were prevented from doing the most basic aspect of their job – reporting – through physical violence and intimidation. The police present deliberately declined to fulfill their most basic function – protecting citizens from violence.

Subsequent statements by Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi and Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju illustrate the extent of the government’s concern for the journalists. Speaking to CNN-IBN, Rijiju dismissed the incident as “minor” and asked rhetorically whether anyone had been murdered.

This was a direct threat to the freedom of the press, perpetrated by a mob but abetted and implicitly encouraged by the state. The extent of the solidarity shown by print and television journalists is proof that even the country’s most prominent and powerful media figures directly feel this threat.

Our news channels crassly proclaim their superiority to the competition, constantly patting themselves on the back for real or imagined accomplishments. Most of our newspapers have explicit or implicit policies that ban the mentioning of a rival in print. The Indian media scene is characterised by vigorous competition, which on the whole is a good thing. On this occasion, that competition was suspended. Goswami stood alone in his lack of any regard for the profession he purports to practise.

This is not the first time that Goswami has chosen to attack fellow journalists rather than to stand up for the principle of press freedom. When NDTV was barred from broadcasting the documentary India’s Daughter on the December 16, 2012 gang-rape incident in Delhi, he accused the channel of “voyeurism”, and with a delicious lack of self-awareness of a “desperate attempt to get TRPs”.

But even by his standards, this time is different. To refuse to stand up for fellow journalists when they are subjected to assault, indeed to indict them rather than the state that has condoned the assault, is to display a staggering selfishness and want of principle.

Taking a stand

Goswami’s lonely stance has not gone unnoticed by supporters of the government’s position. The filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri claimed that participants at the march spent time plotting Goswami’s downfall.

The columnist Swapan Dasgupta called Goswami the “real, unspoken target” of the march, and in a chillingly Orwellian turn of phrase, lauded Goswami for his “dissent”, a word that apparently now means the aggressive, jingoistic embrace of authoritarian state action.

Far from a brave dissenter, Goswami, with flames rising from the bottom of the screen, and his voice achieving ever more impressive feats of indignation, has come increasingly to resemble Lewis Prothero, the hyper-nationalist TV host in the film V for Vendetta.

Like his occasional panelist, the author Chetan Bhagat, Arnab Goswami appears to relish criticism, which he uses to perpetuate his narrative of an outsider challenging the media establishment. So it is time to do more than merely condemn him.

He often congratulates himself on featuring a wide range of views on his show. The Newshour relies on the participation of journalists, activists, politicians and other citizens. At this point, any journalist who appears on The Newshour is in effect endorsing Goswami and his refusal to stand up for the profession. The same is true of other non-journalists who believe in the principle of press freedom. Even when press freedom is not at stake, those who have been invited to express the position opposed to Goswami’s are subject to hectoring, ridicule and humiliation. It is time for all of those who value a free and strong press and a productive public discourse to boycott The Newshour. The loss of a few minutes’ television time is a price worth paying.

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Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
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