THERE was a time when Times Now claimed to be the most watched show on television. Arnab Goswami was touted as the most ardently watched anchor. A time came when reams of newsprint were devoted to a close analysis of the reasons for the immense popularity of Arnab’s prime time show, Newshour. Experts pointed out the reasons for the mass appeal. Arnab was famous for posing a question and then refusing to hear the answer. The most frequently made request of the panellists was a plaintive, “Let me have my say, Arnab!”, or “If you are not interested in what we have to say, why call us for a discussion?” Meanwhile, Arnab would pronounce his verdict as soon as he popped his question. Obviously, he had a tremendous research team which collated all the facts for him; he had access to all the documents. He read all the articles that had appeared in the print media. He did not have any sides or ideologies.
So, obviously, he was the best one to pronounce an objective verdict on a contentious issue. He knew it and used his advantages to the hilt.
The other merit of his programme was that there was no discipline of any kind. Arnab provided the lead by interrupting all the panellists without a by your leave. Often he would egg on the silent ones by saying, “this is an open discussion. So feel free to make your point as soon as you feel like it.” He never interrupted a heckler to make him hold his tongue. He never advised the participants to observe the niceties of a debate on national television and speak only when called upon to do so. And, whenever he felt the decibel count was too low, he would add to the cacophony by shouting, “You have much to answer for, Mister Jyotirmoy Sarkar… you have much to answer for, Mister Jyotirmoy Sarkar,” ad infinitum till other hecklers joined the fray and raised the decibel count to acceptable peaks.
I once advised a former top bureaucrat to join the Newshour debate on an important topic concerning the civil services. He said witheringly that he had no intention of projecting a postage stamp face and being hardly visible or audible unless he became a party to the shouting brigade.
These days, when one has time, one surfs from one news channel to another. Increasingly, one finds the other anchors trying to out-Arnab Arnab. There was a time when Rahul Shivshankar seemed to be a sedate, equable personality, following all the rules of a college debating society. Now he specialises in calling friends from Pakistan and the separatists from Kashmir and not letting them speak. He pontificates at them and, when he loses steam, brings into play stalwarts like Marouf and General Bakshi and Ashok Pandit, who can be depended upon in shutting up the enemies within and without.
Arnab never advised the participants to observe the niceties of a debate on national television and speak only when called upon to do so. If he felt the decibel count was too low, he would add to the cacophony by shouting
Rahul himself is unable to get in a phrase edgewise and is reduced to saying in a plaintive refrain, “Just a second, just a second, just a second…”, but no one gives him that crucial second.
While on this subject, we should ruminate over the elasticity of time on television. The anchors often say, “Okay, let us wind up the discussion. You have five seconds each.” One wonders how elastic those seconds are, as the voluble speakers keep on letting forth steam and sputum for interminable minutes.
The antithesis to Arnab is the patrician Karan Thapar, whose personality exudes the sedateness of the family background (he is the son of General Thapar, a Chief of Army Staff and a product of Doon School and St Stephen’s) and his earlier stint on the BBC. He has imbibed the steely look of Hard Talk and can look chillingly satirical and silence his interviewee with an imperious gesture.
But Indian television has injected a desi flavour into his biting sarcasm and sometimes his subjects turn around and give him a dose of his own medicine. Over the years, he has lost some of his pungency and looks almost human at times, especially at the end of an interview when he masks his wolfish teeth with a genial smile.
The other Rahul (Kanwal) of TV Today has a pleasant face and a warm smile. He has no obvious skews in his coverage of news and views.
I like Rajdeep Sardesai the best. He has lustrous eyes and is well up with the facts, but he does not ride roughshod over his interlocutors. Like his father, he plays cricket and tries to be balanced in his approach. His conclusions come at the end of a programme and seem to be derived from the tenor of the discussion.
But the fact that the Editor’s verdict comes sharp on the heels of the debate seems to arouse the shrewd suspicion that his observations are a foregone conclusion drafted by Sagarika Ghose and his team of advisers.
And the story of how Reliance bought up TV 18 in order to get rid of Rajdeep and Sagarika and their mentor, Raghav Behl, is a scathing comment on the farce called electronic media on Indian television.
MK Kaw is a former Secretary, Government of India