Indian prime time needs a ceasefire

By Sanjeev Srivastava

Jul 28(IANS): Two of the biggest stars of Indian News TV -- Barkha Dutt and Arnab Goswami -- are now fighting in full public glare. The gloves are off. And how!

That this would happen -- sooner or later -- was inevitable. The signs were there for anyone who cared to see. And not many viewers of prime time news were oblivious to these almost impossible-to-miss the signals.

These were the not-so-subtle innuendos, the in-your-face suggestions, mocking not just the style of journalism and presentation of the other, but also questioning each other's motives and ideology. Prime time news became an obsession with a section of the English elite. It became a heady cocktail which combined pain and pleasure, ecstasy and agony in equal measure.

News became secondary. So did the debates. As star anchors became gladiators, the viewers began to behave more like spectators in a Roman arena; baying for blood and constantly looking for their evening fix of adrenaline rather than reasoned, well-articulated arguments.

So the writing was on the wall. But that the cookie would crumble in this manner, with such viciousness, I, at least, did not anticipate.

But more on that later. Let's get the background out of the way first.

It all began with the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA-II). Times Now was climbing the ratings charts on the back of its coverage of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. And then -- out of nowhere -- came the Radia Tapes. In the controversy that followed, Barkha Dutt's credibility took a hit. She has never fully recovered from the episode.

Those were difficult times for her. The more she tried to defend herself, the more she tied herself in knots. She argued well, with an equal measure of logic and emotion. But she lost out on public perception and there's no fighting that.

And here's my disclaimer. As somebody who has been a reporter/editor for a better part of his career, I will admit that if my phone was being thus tapped one could have also chanced upon conversations with some politician friends that could have been misconstrued without knowing the proper context. By the way, there is a conversation in those tapes where Niira Radia is criticising me for being a "show off and a loud mouth".

Meanwhile, Arnab was emerging as the knight in shining armour in the collective consciousness of Indian chattering classes. Raising issues of corruption in UPA-II, he was unsparing and clearly partisan. But he was riding on the common man's disgust with the government, was on the right side of public perception and soon created an almost embarrassing gap between himself and others in the ratings game.

He did not always follow journalism ethics and enjoyed tossing out -- from the NewsHour windows -- rules of fair play and balance. Others in the TV news genre either followed him or did not change. Both sets fell by the wayside as the Arnab juggernaut rolled on, ruthless, remorseless and relentless.

Already smarting under the Radia Tapes controversy, Barkha also lost out because she was -- and rightly so -- seen as an apologist for status quo, i.e. UPA. Not so much because she supported the Congress and the UPA but because she was seen as a die-hard Modi critic, an enemy in the eyes of Modi bhakts. To be fair (or am I being unfair here) Barkha never did hide her opposition to Modi.

On the other hand and largely thanks to his anti-establishment image and his relentless campaign against the UPA -- which interestingly continued even after the Congress lost the 2014 elections -- Arnab is now perceived as a supporter of the Modi government.

The Barkha-Arnab slugfest is now not just about clashing egos and contrasting styles, it's about who is on which side of our sharply polarised polity. Both are free to choose which side they want to battle for, but as someone who has genuine admiration for both of them -- one may agree or disagree with them on different issues but there's no denying their success and spunk -- is it too much to ask for some restraint from both these fellow journalists? For a majority of our young journalists, these two are role models.

So Arnab, please stop calling journalists names on your show. We are still a democracy. Allow them the freedom to tell a story as they want to. And Barkha, the shoe may be on someone else's foot today but it does not behove you to call anyone a "chamcha". You have been called different names at different times and while you have shown remarkable strength of character in fighting back, you know it hurts.

At a time when this country is losing faith in most institutions, including journalism, it's the responsibility of both of you -- idolised and hero worshipped by so many -- to uphold the dignity of our profession.


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