| 1 |
WHEN A MASSIVE FIRE ERUPTED at Mantralaya, the headquarters of the Maharashtra state government in Mumbai, shortly before 3 pm on 21 June, national news channels interrupted their broadcasts with live coverage of the blaze. Producers at Times Now, which calls itself “India’s most-watched English news channel”, borrowed footage from a Hindi channel until their broadcast vans reached the place at 3.20 pm, and the channel’s reporters and cameramen began to record pictures and describe the scene. A jittery camera found frightened people inching away from blazing windows on a ledge high above. A man dressed in white, just out of reach of the firemen, swung down from an air conditioner’s holding cage, put one foot on an open window frame a floor below, and gingerly reached out to another window, a few feet away, with the toes of his other foot. Nothing but the ground lay beneath. His desperate bid to stay alive replayed every few minutes, looped on a split screen alongside live images of the spreading flames.
Times Now, which is owned by Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited, publishers of the Times of India and the Economic Times, had earned a reputation for playing news fast and hard. On this occasion, the network was late to arrive at Mantralaya, but once the cameras were ready and footage streamed in to Times Now’s main bureau in central Mumbai, the operational machinery that set it apart from other channels came alive. Raw pictures of the fire arrived at the bureau’s “ingest room”, where two technicians were standing by. Under normal circumstances, footage is pushed through from here to the edit room; edited clips are conveyed onward to the output desk, and then launched into space from the production control room. For this event, the machine was primed to behave less like a conveyor belt and more like a catapult. Incoming footage was diverted straight to the production room, with words tacked on remotely as the digital footage streamed by. The entire chain of events, from recording to broadcast, took less than 30 seconds. This streamlined process was the primary reason editors and reporters said Times Now was unmatched in live coverage; as one former Times Now journalist told me, “There is no bureaucratic delay, as there is with other channels.” But nimbleness was only one reason why Times Now had consistently beaten its more established rivals in the ratings from late 2008 until early 2012. The frenetic coverage of the Mantralaya blaze demonstrated the channel’s other strength: a flair for creating drama.
By 4.20pm, Times Now had five reporting teams at the scene. (“We kind of went berserk that day,” a senior producer told me.) The broadcast cut rapidly from one reporter to the next, while the live images from the fire took up less than half the screen area: the rest of this real estate pulsed with banners and headlines. Over the course of one typical minute—between 6.04pm and 6.05 pm—there were 58 studio-induced flashes on the broadcast. No bar stayed still, words evaporated and reappeared, and at the centre of this sea of red and blue were reporters performing the simple task of describing what the viewer could see for himself. “We used to call it deaf and dumb,” said Naman Chaturvedi, a former associate producer who handled on-screen graphics. “Hum jo bolte the woh likhte the. Jo likhte the woh dikhate the. Jo dikhate the woh sunate the. (What we spoke was what we wrote was what we showed was what we told you.)”
The coverage that afternoon was a typical Times Now production, designed not just to attract viewers, but to mesmerise them with an array of visual effects and excited voices. Two of the channel’s rivals, NDTV 24X7 and CNN-IBN, were far less energetic: Times Now jumped between five cameras trained on the flames while workers in the building hung on for their lives; the NDTV screen, a placid white in comparison, stayed fixed to a talkative survivor for 45 minutes, rarely returning to the fire itself, while on CNN-IBN a single reporter patiently tried to assemble the details of the fire.
Few facts emerged as the fire raced towards the chief minister’s office at Mantralaya, but Times Now layered the incident with meaning. An editorial line was given shape in the form of a question: a flashing banner under the headline “Controversy breaks out” asked, “Could there be a sabotage angle?” The question referred to the Adarsh Housing Society scam, which involved impropriety by bureaucrats, politicians and military staff—and suggested, without evidence, that files related to the case were cooking somewhere inside the building. An anchor’s voice proffered that “there is a whiff of conspiracy theory”, while flashes on the screen read “Adarsh files gutted?” until the Central Bureau of Investigation declared that the files in question were safely in its possession. Times Now downgraded the Adarsh conspiracy angle, retreating to new lines suggesting many other “important” documents had been destroyed. (A follow-up report the next day ran with the headline “Who’s behind sabotage?”) The footage of the dangling man continued to run in a loop on Times Now for hours after he had made it to safety—long after NDTV and CNN-IBN had cut away from the event. That week there was one more fire, and then a child fell into a borewell in Haryana, where she remained for three days. When the weekly ratings were released the following Wednesday, they showed that more than half the people who had watched English-language news had been tuned in to Times Now.
BACK IN 2007, soon after learning that Times Now had beaten its rivals in the weekly ratings for the first time, the channel’s editor-in-chief, Arnab Goswami, summoned everyone in the office to a cake before him. He looked around and spotted someone he had waged a one-sided cold war on, and warmly said, “Naomi, come here! Come here!” his first words to her in a full year. “I don’t care about ratings,” he began, waving a knife at the newsroom, “but we’re number one.”
Broadly speaking, this was not true. Tall and wide, and possessed of an acid personality that singed the newsroom often, Goswami, who some privately referred to as “meethi churri”—a knife sheathed in honey—had come to care so deeply about ratings that he controlled every knob, button, lever and handle on the production line of news that ran through the channel. He dictated the colour of flashing panels, changing them whenever he wished. He decided the size of on-screen fonts, following no particular style guide. Even cameramen were told which angles to choose while filming. All this was to one end: Goswami was obsessed with attracting, and retaining, his viewers. “I will set the news agenda for India today,” Sonorita Chauhan, a former correspondent, recalled him saying. He did this by exercising absolute control over the flow, substance and appearance of news. Members of his “core team”, who ran various editorial divisions, spent vast stretches of their lives silently taking notes at an oval table in the editorial meeting room while Goswami dictated the channel’s agenda to them for up to six hours each day.
The cake was not simply for inching ahead in a race without end; these ratings had deeper meaning for Goswami. They represented his first major triumph over the two channels that had come to possess him. Before becoming the editor-in-chief at Times Now, Goswami had spent nine years at NDTV, rising to head its national news desk. At Times Now, he scorned his former employer openly, letting everyone know that the network was lumbering and irrelevant; he referred to it as “the white elephant”. “It was said to us, quote unquote, ‘Let NDTV do their social service,’” a former high-ranking editor who was part of Goswami’s core team said. When Rajdeep Sardesai, who had been Goswami’s boss at NDTV, launched CNN-IBN in December 2005, one month before Times Now went live, the ambushed newsroom watched nervously. (Goswami tried to keep up his team’s morale by trashing the new channel in text messages to his staff, a member of the Times Now launch team recalled.) To make matters worse, CNN-IBN quickly asserted itself against NDTV. Goswami had worked under Sardesai for almost a decade, and despised him so deeply that his son had made a charming drawing of Goswami triumphing over his former boss. Goswami is a dedicated father, and he proudly displayed it in his office.
The channel’s first victory in the ratings gave Times Now a legitimacy that had been elusive while it trailed NDTV and CNN-IBN since its beginnings in January 2006. Staffed with reporters from other channels and newspapers, the network began life as an unusual hybrid under an editor who was only 33 years old. It aired general and business news during the day, and light programming at night, a format that had been approved by the Times Group’s powerful proprietors, the brothers Vineet and Samir Jain. The mix was unique—news channels were usually one thing or another, not both—but weekly numbers were poor. What the channel stood for was unclear. An output editor from the core team who worked closely with Goswami recalled that “nobody watched the channel. He couldn’t get people on his show. Nobody wanted to speak to him. He had no access to the top politicians. Neither did his reporters. Nobody gave us an interview.”
Six years on, Goswami’s nightly debate show, The Newshour, has become the cultural and economic centre of Times Now. “It’s the centre of the solar system,” a senior manager at the channel said. Discussions about Times Now are invariably discussions about Goswami, whose abrasive moderation every weeknight has inspired angst-ridden open letters, a stream of parodies, and even standup comedy routines. The Newshour runs anywhere between 60 and 120 minutes and, partly by dint of its variable length, attracts more viewers than competing shows with fixed slots at 9 pm. Its advertising rates are among the highest for prime time news television, at Rs 16,000 for a ten-second spot. And the show is so vital to the relevance and well-being of the network that “60 percent of the editorial resources are used for The Newshour”, the senior manager said. It pulls in 40 percent of the channel’s overall viewers, and a fifth of its Rs 1.5 billion annual revenue.
Goswami isn’t shy about letting staff know that his show pays their salaries—its advertising revenue, the senior manager told me, nearly covers the channel’s approximately Rs 340 million wage bill, including Goswami’s own Rs 20 million paycheck. As his name became a stand-in for the channel, Goswami could do as he wished. He exercised this right roughly, creating an organisation obsessed with breaking news and setting the agenda to the exclusion of everything else. From the inner pages of newspapers he plucked events scantly explored but rich with emotional resonance. Ushered along by his producer, Charu Thakur—reportedly the only employee who has his ear—Goswami and a host of editors played up stories that addressed urban middle class concerns wound in old prejudices and insecurities. “He was quite clear about the formula,” a former senior desk editor said. “If you go with popular perception, and give it to people on a massive level, you win.” Editors chafed in private at this, but the only response that mattered to Goswami was the Wednesday numbers from the ratings agency.
The newsroom’s occupants fell in line with Goswami’s vision, and version, of the news. The output desk, where operators package reports and write the incendiary lines that flash on screen (“Obama administration dismissed gurudwara shooting as a case of ‘domestic terrorism’”), was particularly essential to the channel’s operations. From here Goswami directed reporters by yelling at them, above the lowered heads of editors, to follow predetermined lines of inquiry, and encouraged the desk, also by yelling, to distill developments to an emotional essence or an irresistible line. In his view, the desk served a more vital function than most of the journalists he hired; reporters only did what the desk in Mumbai told them to.
When I called Goswami to request an interview for this story, he declined, saying that he was interested in reporting the news, not becoming it. Reasoning that he was just a regular newsman, he expressed surprise that anyone would pick him as a subject, and offered that I was welcome to come by his office for a cup of tea if I agreed not to write the story. Shortly after my call, according to two current Times Now employees, Goswami informed his staff in Mumbai and Delhi that a magazine was writing about him, and asked them not to cooperate with any interview requests—a plea his employees took as an order.
In private, Goswami had no doubt that his channel was no ordinary news organisation, and that he was no ordinary newsman. In a speech to the newsroom in 2011, which was recorded by a former reporter, Goswami made it clear he believed the channel’s place in history was already secure: “Can the history of India be written honestly without the contribution of Times Now to a new form of journalism in the era that we are in?” he said. “Think about it. Think about the bigger picture. I can tell you it can’t be written.”
| 2 |
AROUND 8 PM EVERY WEEKNIGHT, two young researchers hand Goswami a slim file of information, talking points, and questions for The Newshour. His researchers discuss their findings with him, and he listens intently, looking for facts to bolster his line on that night’s topics. On more technical subjects, such as a discussion about law, he prefers to be left alone with their research. Sometimes Thakur, his producer, joins him in his office down a corridor on one side of the newsroom. At 8.30 he begins to type out the show’s introduction on the fly in loose conversational English. With ten minutes to go, Goswami heads to the green room to replace the clothes he has worn all day, usually a black kurta and dark jeans, with a full suit and tie. At 8.55, Rajiv from makeup arrives to powder and puff his face. He scrambles into studio 1 just before nine. Then Thakur’s voice crackles in his ear, and Goswami looks dead ahead and reads out what he calls his “address to the nation”.
One by one, Goswami introduces The Newshour’s panelists. The only two benchmarks for prospective guests, the desk editor said, were that “both sides should speak flawless English, and should be extremely aggressive”. The show is meant to be partly debate, partly journalism, and partly—if Goswami has his way—a public confessional. But it is mostly an open-ended chunk of airtime from whose centre Goswami live-directs an intellectual reality show where dramatic things happen. Participants abuse other guests and the show’s host. People walk away, leaving empty windows behind.
As a matter of principle, The Newshour pits people and their extreme views against one another—but its main character is always Goswami. A typical episode finds him demanding answers, making accusations, riling up participants and passing judgment, venting the angst of a man upset by how far his country has fallen. His pronouncements are rooted in everyday frustrations: Why is Pakistan dithering? Why can’t Australians admit that they’re racist? Why is the government indifferent to the middle class? Who is responsible for all this?
“I think that a lot of people must realise that the editor-in-chief of Times Now is someone who has excelled himself at executing, to the T, the brief that was handed down by the management,” the former high-ranking editor said. “The brief was to be relevant on urbane issues to the urban viewer.” They were to follow the Times of India’s lead, and draw out stories of particular interest to an under-represented Indian middle class; namely, the holy trinity of national identity, corruption and terrorism. “They are not a political constituency, and the Times Group was keen that their English news channel would give the middle class a relevance and, secondly, a channel of expression.”
The conduit for this expression is usually Goswami’s on-screen persona. He shakes his head vigorously when a question is met with a denial. He demands answers, insisting that India needs to know the truth. He cuts off discussions to share his own thoughts before allowing the show to continue. He dislikes separatists, child molesters, racist articles in foreign newspapers, and Pakistan. The projection each night at nine is of a patriot with widely shared beliefs. “If there is an obvious case of right or wrong, I can’t pretend not to know what is right and what is not. And if in that situation, I prevaricate or chose to be silent, then that is wrong,” Goswami said in a 2009 interview with indiantelevision.com. “I am sure in what we do and my viewers are sure that Times Now will not deliberately keep the truth away from them.” His vocal stances and noisily interrogative approach have made Goswami an exception among Bennett, Coleman’s current editors, who are largely anonymous. “He’s the only editor bigger than the brand,” the senior manager said. “The Jains are not happy about this.”
But people who have worked closely with Goswami say his aggressive emotional nationalism is a practiced act designed to set him apart from Sardesai and the NDTV founder Prannoy Roy, who preferred a more subdued approach. Naomi Datta, who was among the first employees at Times Now, recalled Goswami’s Newshour practice sessions in 2005, months before the channel went live. “I would be the dummy guest on Newshour,” she said. “I remember he would say things like: ‘Okay, now, look into camera three, and hold your heart and tell me…’ Which is not something news anchors generally do. So I think, right from the beginning, he definitely did have this persona in his head. That I’m going to be this slightly hysterical, emotional kind of news anchor. That didn’t come later, it’s just started working now. But that was always part of the plan. Because that was part of his vocabulary from the dry run.” The output editor said, “once he realised that it had become a success mantra and people were following him, it started becoming a format for him. It would just be decided that, suppose we are doing China stories, then we’re always going to say that China are transgressors, and the dragon is attacking India, and so forth. It became really over the top.”
The Newshour’s guests say they accept invitations to the show expecting a discussion, only to find themselves cornered and painted in stark terms and, if they persist with nuance, ignored. The activist and academic Madhu Kishwar, a frequent but exasperated guest, penned a widely-circulated open letter to Goswami, complaining that “panelists are expected to simply come and lend further strength to the anchor’s delusion that one hour of Newshour will rid India of all its ills”. The senior manager explained Goswami’s approach. “He feels TV is about drama. You have to stir something up or the audience will be lost. He sees his role as livening things up.”
In his recent book Pax Indica, Shashi Tharoor, the former minister of state for external affairs, recalled sitting for “a lengthy interview at the Ministry of External Affairs with a particularly egregious TV anchor—famed for his hectoring rants on assorted peeves, mostly unsupported by either fact or reason”. Tharoor did not name the anchor, but the subject was “a crisis in Indian-Australian relations” that he blamed on “channels whipping up mass hysteria” over alleged racist attacks on Indians, a campaign Goswami had pounded for weeks on end. “The cameras stopped to change their tapes,” Tharoor wrote, “and in the ensuing break I asked him whether he was really serious about the kinds of things he was alleging on air. ‘How does it matter?’ he asked perfectly reasonably. ‘I’m playing the story this way, and I’m getting 45 percent in the TRPs. My two principal rivals are trying to be calm and moderate, and they’re at 13 percent and 11 percent.’”
A former colleague of Goswami’s who knew him from the late 1990s as a sharp editor was pained by the change he saw. “Here is an intellectually sound journalist who has become very much of a comedian on air. What airs at 9 pm on Times Now is not news. It is a programme that revolves around an anchor who appears to be on instances, a comedian. Who makes the business of news into a farce. And for a lot of us, news cannot be a farce. It’s serious business. It’s all very well for an anchor to have his or her ‘informed opinion’, but beyond a point the style is so overbearing and so overwhelming and so comical on occasion that it distracts from the news. We believe that it’s not news at all.”
Chintamani Rao, the former CEO of Times Global Broadcasting, the television arm of Bennett, Coleman, was upset when I asked him if there was an absence of balance in the channel’s coverage. “News as we think news ought to be was done by the Old Lady of Boribunder,” Rao said, using a bygone nickname for the Times of India. “Where is that Old Lady of Boribunder now? News was done in a certain way in the 1960s. Another way in the 1840s. Another way in the twenty-first century. What’s wrong with that? Why do we have this cast in stone way of doing news?”
Goswami’s way of doing news may have been controversial, but it was working, and other channels soon adopted some of his more visible practices. “There was definitely pressure to be more like him,” a senior editor at CNN-IBN told me. “He forced you to adopt a certain aggressiveness and speed,” an NDTV reporter who knew Goswami well said. “Not just to tell a story, but tell it a particular way.”
“Look at English news television,” Rao said with satisfaction. “All of it looks more and more like Times Now.”
ON A SLOW NEWS NIGHT IN MARCH LAST YEAR, an editor weaving a brief newsreel for The Newshour discovered it was one story short. The editor, Mahrukh Inayet, had risen quickly to become one of only a few editorial decision makers at Times Now. That night, faced with a ten-second hole in the channel’s most popular programme, Inayet decided to put in a short report on the social activist Kisan Baburao (“Anna”) Hazare, a 73-year-old threatening to begin a hunger strike unless Parliament approved a new law to stem corruption. Goswami and the channel had reported on the growing tide of political misconduct and the government’s continuing indifference, and the Hazare story seemed like a natural fit.
After the programme ended, Goswami turned to Inayet in anger. According to two senior editors who were present, he tore into her: “How dare you put on Anna Hazare? Who knows Anna Hazare? This nation doesn’t know Anna Hazare. Why have you put him in?” Goswami had frequently voiced his distaste for social activists—“he detests them,” the output editor said, “he thinks they are con artists who don’t believe in anything and are just out to get publicity and money”—and he worried that Hazare had limited appeal for the channel’s national audience.
But Goswami changed his mind by the first weekend of April. He ordered the bureau to prepare a minute-long segment about Hazare for the next day, a Sunday. At the editorial meeting on Monday morning, Goswami explained his reversal. “You know, I don’t like Anna Hazare,” the output editor recalled him saying to a team of editors. “You guys know that. But the issue that he’s talking about is very pertinent. It’s corruption, and that gives a cause to every Indian. We are all affected by corruption. So we’re going to make a campaign out of Anna Hazare. And this is what we’re going to do: tonight, I’ll have a debate on Newshour, five minutes. Tomorrow, between 12 and 1, we’ll have all our reporters at Jantar Mantar, and from 12 to 1 no other story will play except for Anna Hazare.” As he said this, the extent of his turnaround became clear. “My eyeballs popped out,” the former desk editor said.
Hazare’s call for a new order fell squarely in the channel’s jurisdiction of apathy, national security, and corruption. When the fast began on Tuesday, Times Now lent the agitation its heft, with headlines such as “India for Anna” and “We are all Anna”. On The Newshour, Goswami declared it was “a movement that cannot be cast aside by just some cynics”, and repeatedly exclaimed “incredible” in the studio while the channel broadcast footage of people vowing to eradicate corruption. Goswami covered Hazare for two hours on Tuesday. He decreed that the channel would report from Jantar Mantar, the venue of the fast, for six straight hours on Wednesday. Editors asked him how he wanted the time filled. “He started thinking of these packages that we could do around corruption. People who’ve faced corruption will send in their stories. We kept bouncing all these ideas off him, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do this. And that’,” the output editor recalled. Three hours after they began covering the fast on Wednesday, according to Times Now lore, CNN-IBN finally placed a reporter at the venue. Then NDTV began reporting live. The next day, 42 outdoor broadcast vans were seen at Jantar Mantar.
Goswami’s editors were certain that his relentless promotion of Hazare had single-handedly elevated the anti-corruption campaign to national prominence. To show that Hazare’s agenda was resonating beyond India, the channel’s staff pulled up contacts of Indians abroad and asked them to share their thoughts on Skype. “You start putting that out,” the output editor said, “and then you say ‘Anna becomes a world phenomenon’.” Only a few months earlier, a revolutionary wave of protest across the Middle East had toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt; now Indian wits paid tribute to Goswami’s ardent crusade for Hazare by dubbing his movement “the Arnab Spring”.
“He saw a popular wind that weekend,” the former desk editor said when I asked him about Goswami’s abrupt shift toward Hazare. The output editor, who worked closely with Goswami for years, said, “I know how his mind functions. He’s not a rightist, though a lot of people think he wears saffron chaddis—nothing of the sort. He believes in one thing, which is opportunity.”
GOSWAMI’S VISIBILITY AT NINE every night obscures the fact that his role in Indian news is much greater, and more pervasive, than his fiery pronouncements during The Newshour suggest. “He understands TV more than he understands news,” the output editor said. “He understands what makes for good television.” Under Goswami’s watch, reporters were instructed to thrust microphones at their subjects and demand answers because it made for dynamic television. (Cameramen at Times Now called it “the running away shot”.) “Doorstepping isn’t new, but no one did it in India before,” said Rahul Shivshankar, who served as Goswami’s deputy until 2010.
In a piece published in Outlook last year, Goswami recalled his early days as a television reporter, when he was “thrilled at thrusting my mic into the faces of the who’s who of Indian politics” as they emerged from a courtroom investigating the 1996 Jain hawala scam. “There was something deeply egalitarian and liberating about being able to ask a question,” he wrote. By asking questions, and guiding his reporters to ask questions, Goswami made the questions themselves the main event. “We put mics to people’s faces,” Shivshankar said. “That was not persecuting and hounding. It was soliciting replies from people who were really very evasive because that was the culture in this country. I think that’s changed for the better. I think politicians now know that they need to answer and be more accountable.” The need to be seen asking questions is so ingrained at Times Now that one reporter recently shouted a query at the closed windows of a minister’s passing car, before turning to the camera to explain that the minister had not replied.
Times Now’s visual identity embraced the main philosophy of its editor-in-chief, namely to hold on to viewers, and it quickly co-opted attention-grabbing devices from Hindi news and entertainment channels. “If you saw five windows on Star News, it would appear on our side of the fence very quickly,” the former high-ranking editor said. “Recently, ‘News will be back in 30 seconds’ between news breaks. Or you might have that thing on top [of the screen]: ‘Coming up!’ This is all borrowed from mainstream entertainment and news channels.”
“I remember our colleagues at Reuters turning in their graves when they used to see or hear some of our packages with all those effects,” the editor said. “We brought in a lot of what was happening in TV soap operas into the way we were treating our stories. We brought in alarmist music and a soundtrack to our reportage.”
Goswami decided cameramen at Times Now would be called video journalists, and he empowered them to make decisions during live events—an inversion of the traditional relationship between reporters and cameramen. “At Times Now, reporters are called sound bite collectors,” a former Mumbai bureau chief said. “If there’s a story happening, video journalists take over.” If a broadcast van was not close by, reporters would leave the scene to deliver footage by hand so the channel’s video journalists could keep filming.
Times Now had a smaller editorial team than its rivals, and tended to cover fewer events each day; to compensate, Goswami wanted to dominate the agenda on the issues he chose to highlight, and to be fast and first with breaking news. He prized speed, new information, and captivating visuals over explanation and analysis. “He realised that in today’s world, reporters are becoming passé,” the output editor said. “Except for the ones who get you exclusives, the rest are just event reporters—they just stand on location and tell you what’s happening, right? So he’s making them redundant.”
But the channel’s emphasis on reducing “bureaucratic delay” and broadcasting news quickly has come at a cost. “If you have a copy editor involved, it causes a delay,” the bureau chief said. Two reporters said that the channel had few internal filters to prevent errors from going on air.
According to the senior manager, “the obsession with speed” led to a particularly expensive mistake on 10 September 2008. A story about a provident fund scam involving a number of judges unfolded on the network that afternoon and, for approximately 15 seconds, Times Now broadcast the name of one judge, PK Samanta, along with what they believed was a picture of him.
The image was of the wrong man. Justice PB Sawant, who retired from the Supreme Court and now lives in Pune, was alarmed to hear that his face had been flashed on Times Now in connection with the scam. Within five days, Sawant demanded an apology and payment of Rs 500 million in damages. He received neither, though Times Now issued a correction on 23 September. When the channel finally broadcast an apology two days later, Sawant was still dissatisfied, and filed suit against Times Now in a Pune district court, which in April 2009 awarded Sawant Rs 1 billion in damages. (That financial year, Times Now and the other three channels that make up Times Global Broadcasting had an overall income of only Rs 1.47 billion.)
In court, Hector Kenneth, the output desk editor, testified that the mix-up happened because the channel’s image database “inadvertently displayed” the wrong justice. Goswami later told India Today that it was “a computer-generated error that involved no human interface”.
But interviews with three former senior editors and one current senior producer, all of whom were at Times Now when the incident took place, revealed that the mistake was indeed human. As the producer explained: “This happened when the rules were loose at every organisation. There was no footage of the guy, so we said ‘let’s get stills’. Now where are you going to get stills from? Now what happens is, you get on the web and get it off Google. It came from some place like that, off the net. So when you say there’s no human interface, it means the damn search engine didn’t give us the right picture. It’s a nice way of cloaking it.”
The desk editor described an internal system where the demand for instant news clashed with the messy reality of a small and overburdened desk division. “The input guy fucked up,” he said, referring to the reporter who sourced the picture. “But the discretion of the desk is to put the right things on air.”
When I asked the senior producer if any changes had been made as a result of this incident, all he could recall was that Goswami had told the newsroom, “Google journalism is not going to happen here”; the output editor had a similar recollection. The senior manager, who had blamed the incident on an obsession with speed, said that “the premium on breaking news” meant “the Justice Sawant thing can happen again.”
| 3 |
THE GOSWAMI FAMILY originally came from a village in Assam’s Borpeta district, migrated to Shillong, and eventually settled in Bharalumukh, Guwahati. Goswami’s paternal grandfather, Rajani Kanta Goswami, practiced law at the Guwahati High Court, and later became the vice president of the Bar Council of the eight northeastern states. The pay was modest, and the work kept him so busy that he barely had time for his brood of seven sons and a daughter. “He would ask us, ‘What class are you in?’” Dilip, the third of the seven brothers, said. “He had no time to look after our education.”
Still, the children were driven. Rajani Kanta’s eldest son, Dinesh Goswami, grew involved in politics, and became the union law minister in the short-lived VP Singh government. Arnab Goswami’s father, Manoranjan, studied at the Delhi College of Engineering (later renamed Delhi Technological University) before joining the army. He set off on a whirligig of postings between Kashmir, Jabalpur, Delhi, Narangi and Shillong. Goswami was born in March 1973, and he found himself tugged along with his parents and older sister, now a doctor in Bangalore. The family returned to Bharalumukh occasionally. Goswami wrote that his maternal grandfather, Gaurisankar Bhattacharya, “a devout communist and intellectual”, broadened his mind on these visits by taking him on fishing trips which meant a lot to him. At other times, Goswami was an unwitting witness to history. He wrote of watching torch-lit processions march by his grandfather’s sprawling home, fleetingly aware of the popular, and sometimes violent, agitation against illegal immigrants in Assam. The subject was discussed at home, and what he saw and heard moved him two decades later to write that history was about to repeat itself in Assam if “a total crackdown against terror doesn’t happen”. Goswami graduated and gained admission to Delhi University’s sociology program, and then studied for his master’s degree in social anthropology at Oxford.
“He had a good way with people,” said Suranjan Das, the vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta. Das had met Goswami at Oxford, and found him “intellectually alive, and acquainted with important things around him. We talked about the Assam question, and about the question of national integration in India.” Das was impressed by Goswami’s debating skills, and expected him to stay on in England in academia. When Goswami said he wanted to return to India, Das was surprised, but spoke to Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a friend who edited the opinion pages at The Telegraph, about considering him for a job.
The first time Goswami entered a newsroom, he wore a large-collared shirt, and carried an attache case and a tiffin. Even in 1994, the sight was unusual. “He looked like a typical Assamese,” said Indrajit Hazra, who was then an assistant editor at The Telegraph, and now serves as consultant editor at Hindustan Times. Goswami had wrangled a job as an assistant editor. Mukherjee, himself barely a year into the job, made it known that he expected high personal standards of his new hire, who settled in to cross-check facts and edit opinion pieces for the next day’s edition. Over time, Mukherjee noticed his curiosity and enthusiasm. “He was bubbling,” Mukherjee, who still edits the page, said. “This job was not going to be permanent.” Goswami later wrote that he lived in a “200 square foot room on a terrace at Keyatala Lane”, a locality Mukherjee referred to as a comfortable residential area. He spent most of the day at the bureau working, keeping his head low, and being extraordinarily polite, according to Mukherjee. He wasn’t ready to write editorials that represented what the paper stood for, but Mukherjee allowed him to try his hand at op-eds.
At The Telegraph, Goswami befriended Hazra; the newspaper schedule gave the editors free time in the evenings, and a number of them, including Goswami and Hazra, used to frequent Chunghwa, a nearby Chinese restaurant. Talk was loose under the influence of Black Label beer, but Goswami was cautious with both. He would have only one drink, and guarded against saying anything to incriminate himself when the alcohol-fuelled discussions were about Mukherjee. “He was very aware of what people thought of him,” Hazra said. “He was very keen not to be misunderstood, and much more scientific about it.” Still, Hazra enjoyed his company, and found him eager to establish himself.
I asked Mukherjee if he recalled anything in particular about Goswami. “I remember it for some odd reason,” he said on the phone from Kolkata. “He had done some mistake, and when I pulled him up for it, he didn’t say sorry. It struck me that, normally, when you point out a mistake to somebody, people say ‘it won’t happen again, sorry’ or something like that. We all do it. He didn’t say sorry. I remember turning around and telling him ‘Is sorry a word in your dictionary?’ and I walked away. I think he got the point.”
A year into the job, Goswami told Mukherjee he had a good offer. “He looked ambitious, and was looking for a larger playing field,” Mukherjee said. “I was pleasantly surprised at the successful transition to television.” Goswami resigned in 1995 to join NDTV. In doing so he inadvertently followed in the footsteps of Sardesai, who had left The Telegraph for NDTV a year before.
Goswami arrived at a channel that revered its founder, Prannoy Roy, and was awestruck by Sardesai. “Rajdeep towered over all of them,” a reporter at NDTV, who knew Goswami well, told me. “There was a constant tug-of-war, a one-upmanship between them. If a political story was breaking, Rajdeep would start reporting, and in response, Arnab would look for newsmakers on the subject”—an attempt to steal back some of the attention. “Neither of them believed in subtlety,” the NDTV reporter said. “They were open about it—brazen.”
Since leaving NDTV, Goswami has given vent to this low, rumbling anger obliquely, portraying himself publicly as an outsider to Sardesai’s consummate insider. His former colleagues at NDTV, who now occupy senior positions at the channel, denied the existence of any strife, but employees at Times Now say that Goswami felt overlooked at NDTV, and that his frequent derisive remarks revealed a simmering resentment that had still not abated. “It’s not a healthy attitude,” the senior Times Now manager said of Goswami’s distaste for Sardesai. “It’s beyond that.” When Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party, called him “Rajdeep” during an episode of The Newshour, Goswami cut in: “You always mix it up. It’s Arnab. It’s Arnab, Rajiv. And I assure you there’s very little in common.”
By the time Goswami quit NDTV in April 2004, he had risen to the post of national editor; he co-anchored a show called Newshour with Sardesai, and a debate show, News Night, by himself. He had hosted a news programme before, called Surkhiyan, an abridged Hindi capsule broadcast on Doordarshan, but he came into prominence with the primetime debate show. He transformed it from a typical question and answer session to something more confrontational. A coordinator for the show mimicked his anchoring style then: “So are you committing on my show? Are you making this statement on my show?” The coordinator said that “his whole focus was political then. He only wanted vocal people on his show. Three voices for each side, and he wanted a hardcore debate.” Then as now, Goswami preferred his guests articulate and extreme, and if his coordinators couldn’t convince guests to appear on the show, he would call them himself. “Once he has the phone in his hand, he will convince you,” the coordinator said. “He’s good with people.” The NDTV reporter who worked closely with Goswami particularly remembered the quality of his news scripts. “They would begin with a punch that you’d find difficult to ignore. He wasn’t shrill then,” the reporter said.
On his last day at NDTV, Goswami was at an apartment at the India International Centre in New Delhi, where he told a colleague that he had been given “a great opportunity”. He was, in the words of someone who met him that day, “overwhelmed by whatever it is that was offered to him”. He returned to the studio that evening one last time for his final episode of News Night.
Goswami had spent nearly a decade in Sardesai’s shadow, and he emerged from the experience sour. “Ten years back, in the pit of another newsroom,” he wrote in Outlook in 2008, almost certainly referring to Sardesai, “a now-famous TV anchor had laughed me off when I fought to get a mention for the ten people dead [in a blast] in a remote part of Assam. ‘Ten deaths in your part of the world equals the death of one person from here, as far as news is concerned,’ he had said. ‘It’s unfortunate but that’s a fact,’ he added, looking for and, shockingly, getting a raucous response from his audience.”
Sardesai seems to make an unflattering appearance in another one of Goswami’s Outlook pieces, from 2011. Goswami again refers to an unnamed “fellow editor of an English news channel”, whom he describes as “a visible cog of a small power elite”, and who privately defends a corrupt chief minister at a meeting of national news editors, and then “punches his fist in the air and looks around for reactions”. In Goswami’s own accounts, here and elsewhere, he portrays himself as a newsman alone in pursuit of truth. Peers exist, but they are held as accomplice to the unforgivable journalistic crimes of being close to power and not putting their viewers first.
WHEN I ASKED former Times Now editors and reporters if they believed the channel’s top priority was the independent and objective pursuit of truth, most of them paused for while before answering; some said yes, some said no, and a few laughed derisively. “On the whole, I’d say Times Now was independent to do what it wanted,” the former high-ranking editor said. But a former reporter insisted that “if Bennett, Coleman doesn’t cover it, Times Now doesn’t cover it.” The senior manager noted that “Vineet Jain texts Goswami a lot during the coverage of big events”, and imitated an agitated Goswami reacting to Jain’s constant feedback: “He’s on my case! He’s screwing me over this!”
Former editors and reporters said that the issue was not so much independence as Goswami’s desire to isolate, and then amplify, the unique selling proposition for each new story. Sonorita Chauhan, who reported and worked at the desk for two years, said, “When you take a Times Now story in the morning, it runs with a decent, polished, and neutral journalistic point of view. The minute the man comes in, it changes. There’s no integrity. Watch it at six in the morning and then watch it at three, because that’s when I think the morning [editorial] meeting is over.”
“At certain times,” the editor said, “you can report the news as it is. Until 6pm, the news is reported as it is reported. After 6 pm, the news is reported to reflect a line that you might have taken—the edit meeting ends by 5.45, and after that the editorial line is given out.”
“I think journalistic integrity comes very low, in terms of the kind of things that we do,” the output editor said. “There was a rape victim in Kolkata. Usually you’re supposed to morph the face of a rape victim. But we were told that only the eyes will have a black patch, because the minute you see a morphed face on TV, you lose interest. And for a good two to three days, that story ran with just a black patch on the lady’s face and everybody could make out who the person was.”
Former employees described a tendency that worsened over time, in which the channel ignored facts that challenged its positions on air. “Militants had killed a 20-year-old girl in Kashmir,” a former reporter said. “It was in Shopian. Times Now kept asking on air, ‘Why are the separatists not reacting? Why are they silent?’”—even though one of the channel’s Kashmir correspondents had recorded and uploaded the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s condemnation of the crime hours earlier. “Times Now did not carry the condemnation for the longest time,” the reporter said. “It was not in line with the story they had taken.” The desk editor chuckled when I asked if he could confirm the story. “I remember Shopian,” he said. “I don’t recall this, but I would not be surprised. Arnab’s TRPs are dependent on bashing separatists.”
The output editor said Goswami instinctively shied away from stories that could be perceived as critical of security forces. “We never did them,” the editor said. “We just never touched them.” The network also held back the taped confession of Ajmal Kasab—the Pakistani terrorist captured during the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai—the former bureau chief told me. “It was with Times Now two weeks before other channels played it,” the bureau chief said. “But Goswami was like, ‘It’s not in keeping with our nationalistic line,’ because it made Kasab look like a mercenary. He played it safe. I was very upset for the young reporter who got it.”
The output editor, an integral member of the core team, told me about the time the channel discovered that the Ministry of Home Affairs was simply looking at a report on non-governmental organisations sent to it by the Gujarat government. “The home ministry was just viewing the report,” the anchor said. “We were aware of the fact that it wasn’t a complete story. It wasn’t that there was a certain charge against them, or [about] a hawala racket.” Navika Kumar, the political editor, raised questions about the story, but Goswami’s mind was made up. Times Now headlined the story: “It’s the big NGO crackdown, under the scanner are 100 NGOs who are violating rules and going against the national interest.”
“After two or three bulletins it was pulled off,” the output editor said. “But the fact is that many of those NGOs were doing bloody good work. Facts are paramount for a journalist, right? When you want to play around with them just to say that 100 NGOs are under the scanner, because it makes for a great headline, then I have massive issues with that.”
In November 2010, the US president Barack Obama arrived in Mumbai for a three-day visit. He addressed survivors of the attacks on 26 November 2008. “Those who perpetrated these horrific attacks hoped to drive us apart,” he said at the Taj Palace Hotel in South Mumbai, adding that the two governments were working more closely than before. According to a former high-ranking editor, when Rahul Shivshankar began to report from the Taj that Obama had not mentioned Pakistan because US diplomats felt the venue was inappropriate, he was abruptly cut off on air. “I don’t think I need to tell you who the anchor was,” the editor said. “There was no moderation, and it appeared as if Times Now was suggesting that Obama should have stepped on Indian soil and immediately attacked Pakistan.”
When Shivshankar came back on the air an hour later, his tone had a notably harder edge. Dressed in a blue and white pinstripe shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, Shivshankar’s second report was more critical. “President Barack Obama’s first speech on Indian soil, meant to commemorate 26/11 victims, was widely anticipated to be a strong negation of cross-border terror,” Shivshankar said. “But, in his seven-minute-long address Barack Obama did not even mention Pakistan once. More than that, he did not even refer to the deep linkages between those who perpetrated the attack, and groups across the border in Pakistan.” The report was set within a broader narrative frame that Times Now titled “The speech that disappointed India”, and whose on-screen graphics included the complaint, “Obama only salutes Mumbai optimistic spirit”. The editor told me that the coverage of Obama’s visit made him consider leaving the channel. “That’s when I realised that we had crossed a certain rubicon. Now if you really want an example of a complete disregard for the facts, that was it. The Obama story was simple: it was decided that the channel was going to take a line that Obama was not really a friend of India.”
| 4 |
BY MOST ACCOUNTS, Times Now began in a haze of optimistic confusion. “The big news then was not Arnab, it was that the Times Group was getting into television,” the bureau chief said. Initially envisioned as a business channel, the unnamed network was expected to challenge CNBC, the market leader in business news. But Naomi Datta recalled that when she first joined the channel, Goswami surprised her one afternoon in December 2004 at their temporary offices within the Times of India building, asking theatrically, “Who do you think is our competition?” before swiveling to a whiteboard and writing N-D-T-V.
Goswami emerged as a driven leader who dispensed encouragement gloriously. From 1 June 2005, when editors moved into their new office at Lower Parel, the newsroom feverishly readied itself for the launch. According to the former bureau chief, Goswami told reporters, “We are not going to editorialise news. People will come here to listen to news and information.” Editors and journalists, newly hired, arrived for a three-week long training program administered by Reuters, who held a 25.82 percent stake in the new venture. Training lasted until sundown, and they returned to Sea Palace, a downbeat hotel (“where Arabs came to bonk”) in South Mumbai, to pass out drunk.
“It was like being back in school,” a former Mumbai bureau chief described the training program. “They were trying to tell us what they thought TV reportage was. Two sources had to confirm a story, and we had to get a sound bite to put the information on air. ‘No adjectives, and no embellishments’. Imagine that in TV news.” At the time, the nascent channel held established journalistic norms dearly; a detailed code of conduct was embedded in the articles of association—the company’s constitution—detailing how reporters and editors should report the news. Above all, the code stated, “always hold accuracy sacrosanct”. (The code also declared: “The company does not take sides in national or international issues, conflicts, or disputes.”) To include the code may have been a condition laid down by Reuters, because when they exited the partnership, the entire code of conduct was scrubbed from the modified constitution. (“They wanted it in,” the senior manager confirmed. “When Reuters left, it was taken out.”)
At the end of the training program, Sunil Lulla, the CEO, unveiled the channel’s name and logo during a party at a nearby bowling alley. “Arnab was in a light mood that night. Very gentle, very caring, very concerned,” the bureau chief remembered wistfully. The wait for the channel’s launch was interminable, but Goswami kept spirits up by making an event of everything: the unveiling of the logo, the new office, electricity in the new office, his excited declaration that he, instead of “these advertising types”, had come up with the perfect tag line: “Feel the News”.
“He said that we were going to shake the foundations of the elephant—the elephant symbolically being NDTV,” the output editor said. “We were the nimble-footed deer. We were nobodies in the industry. And NDTV was like a giant. All of us had our grouses against NDTV. We thought they were too arrogant, and full of people who came from political and bureaucratic families.”
With the weekend team, which produced feature stories, Goswami read every concept note, and sat through the creation of every promotional video. He turned producers pink with praise. He grew particularly involved in the production of a show called Men of Honour, a version of Jai Jawan, an NDTV programme on the lives of army men. “He didn’t want it to be frivolous. ‘[NDTV] makes it into a picnic. It’s not a picnic. Let’s show them the real thing,’” Datta recalled Goswami saying. “Then we realised that [the title] was sexist because they have women in the army.” They renamed the show Line of Duty.
In the months prior to the launch, Goswami exuded drive, charisma and civility. “They all had huge crushes on Arnab Goswami,” the former bureau chief recalled. At that time, Datta said, “he was a very inspirational boss”.
By the time the channel went live on 31 January 2006, exhausted reporters and editors had worked six-day weeks for months without a pause. There was no respite; staff showed up seven days a week for the next two months. Goswami surrounded himself with several capable editors, making the channel top-heavy. “There were fewer people below to run around,” the bureau chief said. The channel relied on its output desk to make editorial calls. They were outnumbered by NDTV and CNN-IBN in the field, so the desk gave reporters editorial direction and even dictated lines to repeat in their ‘P-to-C’, or piece to camera, a statement made looking directly at the camera.
But within months of the launch, at least 20 former staffers told me, Goswami began to behave unusually: he grew unsettled, unpredictable, and deeply insecure. “He started finding faults in everyone,” Datta said. “So from being the best, most quietest, wonderful bunch of people, we became these people who were just no longer in sync with what the channel wanted. Everything was too long, everything was too boring.”
Goswami’s day-long meetings began to follow a pattern. Editors said they started with Goswami in a fine mood on most mornings, but turned into one-sided diatribes by the afternoon. He would vent at them, tearing up the story list, and accuse them of not understanding television. In time, editors coined several names for the daily meeting: some called it “bhagwan ka pravachan” (the word of God), while others said they referred to his complaints as “daily ka randi rona”.
On television, Goswami was loud and passionate, but still restrained. In private, away from the eyes of the millions who watched him, his behaviour consisted of throwing things, kicking chairs, and, in one instance, dislocating his own shoulder during an argument with an executive producer. “Have you watched that movie, The Last King of Scotland?” the desk editor asked me, referring to a film about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. “That was the story, man.”’
The change in Goswami’s demeanor was related to the channel’s poor ratings. CNN-IBN, which had launched in December 2005, a month before Times Now, had grown popular, in the view of former editors, while their channel languished. “Arnab had all the right ideas,” the former bureau chief said. “But the market didn’t allow it.” The mix of general and business news made the channel look indecisive, and Goswami seemed out of his depth. “Arnab doesn’t know the ‘B’ of business, okay?” the output editor said. “He doesn’t understand business, like most reporters and news anchors, but he had to run the channel.”
There were questions about Goswami’s capability as a news editor. The numbers refused to improve in a meaningful way. It became common to discuss his imminent departure as if it were true, and former editors told me Goswami came under severe pressure before a year was up. “The minute we went on air,” the output editor recalled, “Arnab started facing pressure from the Jains.”
The editorial director of the Times of India, Jaideep Bose, was sent to sit in on meetings at Times Now, the senior manager said. “Gautam Ojha, the principal secretary of the Jains, also sat through editorial meetings so he could carry back impressions to Vineet Jain,” he added. “Jain had doubts about Goswami’s ability to carry it through.”
When a member of the Times Now launch team met the former Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi in late 2006, he asked her how Goswami was faring, and she replied that he was doing well. “He said, ‘Really? Then why are the Jains shopping?’” she recalled, and said Sanghvi told her he had been given “an offer to head everything” at Times Now within months of the launch. The senior manager confirmed that a placement agency specialising in media had been retained to search for Goswami’s replacement.
Under strain, Goswami reassessed the approach he had taken so far, and came clean with editors he trusted. “Look, it’s now or never. Or I’m history,” the former high-ranking editor recalled Goswami saying.
In the months that followed, Goswami used the low ratings to convince the channel’s managers to let him jettison business coverage. The channel’s financial reporters were assigned to other tasks as Times Now slowly became a general news channel. Weekend programming, conceived as a cornerstone of the channel, was watered down, and eventually the weekend team was disbanded. “The horrid time he had for those three to six months really crystallised his thinking,” the senior manager said. Reporters found that Goswami, who had spoken of his desire to do much more with the news, now assigned them to stories of questionable import. A short while past midnight on a Friday in August 2006, employees were woken up by Goswami and ordered to report to work. The water at Mumbai’s Mahim Creek—a malodorous spot where the Mithi River, thick with industrial effluent and human waste, hauled itself into the Arabian Sea—had turned sweet, and people from across the city had arrived to consume it. “We realised it was not journalism a long time ago,” the desk editor said. “Arnab woke us all up and said, ‘This will be the biggest story that you guys will do!’ and went back to sleep. The entire Bombay team was in the office at three in the morning. Rahul Shivshankar was like, ‘What the fuck is water is meetha? What is Mahim Creek?!’”
While Times Now had at its disposal a fully functioning editorial team that delivered news all day long, it found the highly fragmented cable market a difficult hurdle to surmount. The channel was available on some networks and not on others, and this, in turn, had depressed the channel’s ratings. Even as Goswami felt pressured, and in turn squeezed others below him, the channel’s managers initiated a “fair share analysis” to understand how Times Now was faring on cable networks that offered rival news channels. The findings, the senior manager said, were very encouraging. It is unclear if the results eased the pressure on Goswami.
Goswami grew more certain of himself as his new editorial approach began to work. He began to give employees the distinct feeling that his editorial choices were not open to discussion. “There’s no point talking about issues at Times Now once the line has been discussed,” the high-ranking editor said. “Dissent on an editorial line is not well received. You could say that perhaps other channels suffer because there are too many voices in the room, and therefore there is confusion. Maybe this is one way of directing a channel’s energies towards covering one particular story, so that your line gets reflected at the end of the day in a sharper way.”
“That’s the reason why a lot of people say that the presentation of events is very simplistic, it’s very unidimensional,” the editor continued. “It’s news for the lowest common denominator. Now you can say that this was by design. I don’t think so. It was by default. I think Goswami wants to say it like it is by himself, and in doing so, he is dumbing it down to the degree where it might be devoid of substance; it sounds like noise, baseless. That’s where the problem comes from. No one individual knows everything about everything.” The bureau chief told me that “his strategy has been to dumb down things he can’t understand. He tears down all its facets and keeps the dumbest one.”
| 5 |
AS GOSWAMI CUT HIS EDITORS out of the decision-making process, he became more removed from them. Sometimes he declared that he and Charu Thakur, his producer, had built the channel alone; employees later spoke of these moments with acute hurt. When he yelled at them for “screwing up my channel”—as multiple people said he had done—the bonds they had formed with the company began to snap. Once, a young editor pleaded in response, “Don’t say this, boss. It’s not just your channel. It’s our channel.”
In the course of reporting this story, I interviewed more than 25 current and former Times Now employees, and every single one described the experience of working with Goswami as emotionally, physically and psychologically wrenching.
“He humiliates you,” the output editor said. “It’s not just about picking holes. He’s the editor. He’s supposed to pick holes. But to humiliate a person, to demean the person, to bring the person down, to almost terrorise the person in such a way that your self-esteem hits rock bottom?”
The high-ranking editor recalled Goswami’s handling of an employee whose talents were more suited to longer features than breaking news: “You called him lazy. You called him a blockhead. Things that are not meant to be said to an employee. Idiot. Moron. Incompetent. Because you didn’t know how to harness his skills.” Employees believed Goswami kept tabs on where they went after work, and who they met. The belief that Goswami sought control not just over their work, but over their lives, was a commonly held one.
A former writer described Goswami’s behaviour as classic bullying. He had stood up to Goswami immediately and put a stop to it, he said. But years later, he was still afraid that Goswami would find out he had granted me an interview. Most former employees insisted on speaking anonymously, even if they had left the company years earlier. “Because he’s a very vindictive person, and I don’t want to deal with him,” a former top-level editor said. “He pulled me off air, he took away all my responsibilities.”
The former high-ranking editor, who worked closely with Goswami for years, said, “You’re dealing with an individual who is deeply complex, unstable, and absolutely vindictive. A brute of a human being. A complete philistine.”
Among the biggest mysteries at Times Now was the question of why Goswami had been allowed to run riot. From above, where the air was cleaner, the answer was obvious: the editor-in-chief of Times Now had delivered the ratings. But from the ground, where the abuse was personal, reporters and editors wondered if there was anybody at all who would listen to them.
The former head of human resources, Zahira Crasta, encouraged employees to speak up, and emphasised to management the damage Goswami was causing. Crasta had reportedly seen early signs that Goswami did not want to be bound by the strictures of human resources. When the department laid down procedures for routine matters such as annual leave, “he didn’t want them put online,” a former manager said. “He didn’t want a situation were employees are capable of making decisions for themselves. It’s an insecurity. A mindset.” Editors told me that Goswami called appraisal forms a waste of time and discouraged staff from completing them; instead, he conducted all the appraisals himself. Employees felt there was no recourse, and no safety net. According to a person from human resources, Crasta became “his biggest opponent”. Most editors agreed that Crasta tried to make a difference. But it seemed like nothing could displace Goswami, whose effectiveness was measured in numbers, not gross happiness.
Interviews with dozens of present and former staff revealed that the management was of little help. One CEO, Sunil Lulla, was described by the former bureau chief as “a rubber stamp”. When Hector Kenneth, who manages the channel’s desk now, called a female anchor a “cunt”—according to several witnesses—Crasta encouraged the anchor to lodge an official complaint. That very day, Goswami announced loudly, “Every employee should strive to be like Hector.” The output editor said, “Arnab picked holes in her anchoring… it was quite clear that since she had complained and taken the whole thing to HR, she was targeted after that.” The anchor resigned, and now works with another network. Chintamani Rao, the CEO who replaced Lulla, and Crasta spoke to Goswami, the person in human resources said. “He seemed ashamed in hindsight. He agreed that what he did was wrong.”
An employee who had been involved in the search for Goswami’s replacement said, “He understood that he couldn’t just fire people. So he found other ways of dealing with them.” To squeeze people into leaving, Goswami favoured the television equivalent of denying them bylines. Promising editors, such as Inayet and Shivshankar, were taken off air. “Reporters who were more visible were shunted,” the desk editor said. “If you get popular, he doesn’t say it in as many words, but it’s a fact: You’re gone. You’ll be told, ‘Yaar, there’s so much work to be done on the desk. How can I let you go out [to report]? You’re my pillar.’ What the fuck do you do?”
The Goswami experience has left everyone, including those who resisted him, a little unsure. One former editor reached for fantasy to describe his effect. “I used to call him the Dementor because you see him and all your happiness gets sucked out. It’s like there’s a chill in the air and everything sad and bad and negative in your life comes out.” After leaving Times Now, Naomi Datta wrote a fictitious account of life in the newsroom, called The 6pm Slot. “Officially, it’s an exaggerated prototype of a news editor,” she said, producing a copy of the book. “A lot of people thought I was too soft. They said, ‘What is this? You should have done something to him in the end’.”
Times Now had, and continues to have, a higher rate of employee attrition than any other English-language news channel, according to the senior manager. A person who previously worked in the company’s human resources division estimated that, on average, two people resigned every week.
Last year, in a move seen as a signal to Goswami, the company assigned Grant Thorton, an accountancy firm, to conduct an employee survey between November and December. The ratings-based questionnaire came with the promise of anonymity. Staff took this as a sign that management was about to crack down on Goswami, but still had their reservations. (It didn’t help, one current employee told me, that Goswami had the unnerving habit of looking people in the eye and joking, “I know what you wrote about me.”)
On the evening of 24 February 2012, the head of human resources announced the results of the survey in an internal email. The mail, shared by the senior producer, began discouragingly: “I would like to share the good news that the overall Employee Engagement Score for Times Television Network has been 70%, which is better than the industry average of 67%. This really means that most employees are fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work.” The survey had discovered that the channel’s managers helped to develop a positive team atmosphere, and were rated at 76% versus the industry average of 65%. This wasn’t just news to surveyors, but also to the channel’s unhappy staff. Senior leadership was found to be “strong and accessible” with a score of 72% against an industry average of 68%. The senior producer said that the survey’s findings gave him “a communist Russia kind of feel. Like the voter turnout is at 100 percent and the party has won.”
The senior manager thought it over and said that a descriptive survey, where employees were asked to write how they felt about the company, instead of grading their experience, would have been more useful. I asked him if dozens of exit interviews hadn’t already served that purpose. “The difference with exit interviews is in convincing Arnab that it is a mirror to him,” the manager said. “The disgruntled part of exit interviews gets prominence.” The officer from HR said that Goswami waved away suggestions of dissent. “There’s nothing like that,” the person recalled him saying. “My people love me.”
The first thing people who quit Goswami have discovered, apart from a life with vastly more time and silence to fill, is that he has rented a house in their head. He is present in their Facebook status threads, is the subject of BlackBerry messages, and his memory dominates conversations. “Our favourite pastime is talking about him,” the output editor said with a laugh. His missteps are shared electronically as a kind of group therapy. “The bitchiness was all directed towards one entity. That was one of the most fascinating features of Times Now.” Others spoke of the relief they felt after leaving. But in time, it dawned that while they did not miss Goswami, they did miss the tingling energy of their work at Times Now. That this too was Goswami’s doing was not an easy admission to extract. “If he goes, I’ll come back,” the former desk editor said. But could there be a Times Now without Goswami?
Outside, he is its sole human reference. Inside it, he has eroded the authority of the organisation’s pillars while bolstering his own, and has methodically ejected potential replacements. In doing so, he has made himself ever more indispensable. “He isn’t a conformist, but he wants conformists working for him,” the senior manager explained.
I asked Chintamani Rao, the former CEO, about the precariousness of this arrangement. “The obvious thing to an outsider is the importance of a single person as a lynchpin,” he said. “It’s true that it’s not ideal. From a management perspective it’s not ideal. In this situation, you can never ever have a backup sitting ready in your pocket. You can’t. When you’ve decided to back one leader all the way, you don’t have another leader sitting in your pocket.” When I asked the manager if there was any possibility of Goswami being asked to leave, he thought about it and said, “I see Arnab himself looking for a change. I get the feeling he believes he’s not respected. He knows he’s the name, and he’s the face. He’s clear about that.”
In a speech to the newsroom two months after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, an event that propelled the channel in the minds of his viewers and noncommittal advertisers, Goswami addressed a large news team which was young and largely optimistic. They looked at the floor as he spoke. He told them that “there has to be a sense of pride” even if they did not share in the glory. He was charming, and funny, and on a roll. “The competition is already looking for places to hide,” he told them. “We have to take this fight to its logical conclusion.” It is entirely possible, Goswami said, “that Times Now will be the only channel that is around at this time next year.” Goswami was in the mood now, and his thoughts came out fluently, as he saw them, and had expressed them many times before.
“What you are doing today is revolutionary,” he said. “What you are doing today will be written about ten years, twenty years from now. It will be remembered.”
The following changes were made to the article after errors were pointed out by readers:
i) The name of the hotel was changed to "Sea Palace" in the sentence beginning, "Training lasted until sundown, and they returned to Sea Princess, a downbeat hotel.."
ii) The name of the news programme was changed to "Surkhiyan" in the sentence beginning, "He had hosted a news programme before, called Surkhya, an abridged Hindi capsule.."
Rahul Bhatia is a reporter. He previously worked for Open magazine, Mint, ESPN Cricinfo and The Caravan, among other places, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal.