Two years ago, at Mumbai Press Club’s Red Ink Awards, two leading broadcast journalists were honoured. One was Arnab Goswami, then at Times Now, named as the impact editor of the year, recognizing his ability to attract the most eyeballs and keep them glued to his channel. And there was Prannoy Roy, who got the lifetime achievement award. Roy’s network, NDTV, had brought a sense of urgency and immediacy to television news in the days when state-owned Doordarshan alone provided news, and much of what Doordarshan presented comprised visuals of ministers cutting ribbons and speaking to bored audiences.
In his speech, Roy decried the tabloidization of television news, pleading for greater seriousness. He was right to point out that treacherous trajectory. While the print media continued to register growth, the trend was inevitable: Indians would turn to broadcast media for news. Now WhatsApp forwards seem to be taking over from both! Unlike on his shows, Goswami’s speech was measured and modest; he saluted Roy for his leadership, acknowledging how he started out at NDTV and learnt his early craft there.
The path Goswami has taken since, however, could hardly be more different. Goswami has turned boorish belligerence into a populist art form: His haranguing of his panellists, his relentlessly loud tone, and his clothing himself—metaphorically—in military fatigues or the national tricolour, have earned him the jingoistic support of an audience which wants to see gladiatorial fights, and not information. Goswami plays to that gallery astutely, transforming his news channel into something akin to entertainment, with a vicious, sharp edge.
Goswami pursues investigations with the zeal of a muckraker. Great investigative reports are where the journalist unravels or exposes what the state or someone powerful is hiding, and the journalist holds the state accountable for its dishonourable conduct, incompetence or complicity. Goswami is selective in his targets: He pursues Shashi Tharoor, the former minister, over the death of his wife even as authorities are investigating the death and Tharoor is cooperating with the investigation. Or he turns his camera on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who wants to express sympathy with farmers who have been shot dead, while sparing the state, whose security forces have killed the farmers. The priorities are warped—that is his choice. He knows his audience, and at a time of heightened, shrill nationalism, he believes he is playing a useful role. That shows sharp business sense, a keen understanding of the market; it does not mean it is journalism.
Roy, on the other hand, is caught in a complicated saga, where a loan he has settled with a private bank is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the state. There are also allegations of collusion involving a web of companies. It is nobody’s case that crimes should not be investigated. But is this a case of an early retirement of a loan through mutual understanding between a private lender and a borrower, or is there fraud involved, as some of the network’s critics allege? If it is the former, then the implications go beyond NDTV: It can stall commercial lending. When market conditions change, lenders often agree to ease the repayment terms for borrowers in distress—think of farmers or telcos seeking debt waivers or rescheduling. If bankers stay adamant, their non-performing assets may rise, weakening their balance sheets over time. But if NDTV’s transactions with the web of companies have altered the network’s effective ownership and if the regulatory authorities are not informed about it, then that is a separate matter for investigation by the appropriate authorities.
Roy is not an ordinary businessman; he runs a television network that the ruling party does not like, because NDTV is not fawning in its coverage of the government. During a live discussion on NDTV recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman Sambit Patra talked over another panellist, not letting him speak, and said NDTV had an agenda, at which point NDTV’s anchor Nidhi Razdan politely—but firmly—asked him to leave the show unless he withdrew his allegation.
Nor can the BJP be happy about the Hindi anchor Ravish Kumar, who with his calm and deliberately inscrutable face and sardonic nuance raises pointed questions, which are bound to make the government uncomfortable. This, when other networks appear to be busy ingratiating themselves with the government, either by mobilizing public opinion through sensational hashtags, creating mock-ups of the Line of Control dividing India and Pakistan and wearing flak jackets while discussing fantasy military movements, with their anchors playing commanders, or tediously reporting how much dogs or cows love Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Journalists who don’t fall in line are called unpatriotic, anti-national, even “presstitutes”. Last year, Scroll.in reporter Malini Subramaniam was forced to leave Chhattisgarh after vigilantes attacked her car and the police detained her landlord, who then asked her to vacate the property.
The law should take its course, but it is important to remember that in India, the process alone is the punishment. By keeping NDTV’s promoters busy with the investigation, the network will get distracted, even if the network and its owners are separate, and its reporters will have fewer resources to pursue stories they should. With the cloud of a criminal inquiry over its promoters, prospective lenders will pause. Such are the subtle ways of curbing dissent.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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