“Journalists are not the story,” Arnab Goswami had told Outlook in an interview last year, but his decision to step down as editor-in-chief of Times Now and ET Now has been hogging considerable news space of late. Speculation is rife as to what his future plans might be.
Goswami himself has set the media buzz going by hinting that he may soon be coming back stronger. “The game has just begun,” was a phrase repeatedly used by him during a meeting with his core team to announce that he had resigned from the channel, according to media reports.
Much of what he said during the hour-long meeting about his desire to lead a change in television has triggered speculation in an industry that he dominates. From plans of joining Fox News in the UK to starting a news channel with global media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Chandrasekhar as partners or starting something with the backing of a leading Indian industrialist close to the central establishment, there is no dearth of rumours. This extends also to the reason why Goswami quit Times Now, which became a brand name under his stewardship. In fact, going by the commercial yardstick—the ratings—Goswami’s programme, The Newshour, has helped Times Now hold the top slot among English news channels for five years in a row, with the next channel coming way below. This is because The Newshour had dedicated viewers, many who were critical of his style of sabre-rattling debate, where, more often than not, only one-sided views were allowed and opposing views shouted down abrasively.
Media sources, including those from within the Times Group, claim that for the last few years, particularly since the NDA government came to power, a divergence in viewpoints had surfaced with the group newspapers through editorials and Vineet Jain, managing director of the Times Group, through Twitter, opposing Goswami’s views. In one such Twitter message, Jain had opposed Goswami and the MNS’s demand to ban Pakistani actors from working in Bollywood films stating: “This is ridiculous. Why just stop films? What about Rs 20,000 cr business between India and Pak…shall we stop that too?”
In the last three years, there has been ample evidence of a shift in how Goswami conducted his programme. From being seen as anti-establishment initially, now a right wing tilt could be perceived. This was more so in the last six months, point out media watchers. But this did not result in the Times Group management showing Goswami the door as he was continuing to deliver on the commercial numbers, claim Times Group sources.
“Of course there has been discomfiture about the positions he has been taking, which have been at variance with the Times Group’s stance, whether on Aman ki Asha, JNU or, lately, Pakistan. In fact, in Arnab’s case, the Times Group has gone against its practice of not allowing any individual to outshine its brand, which is because he was delivering on all counts,” a source claimed.
“It is Arnab who has decided to move on as he was seeking an ownership stake, which was not agreeable to the Times management. Arnab is not being ousted,” the source further clarified.
Whatever the actual circumstances, one thing is clear—Arnab has come to be identified with the Modi government, which was not the case three years ago when he was tagged “anti-establishment”. Thus, many in the social media have expressed pleasure at Goswami’s departure from the Times Group calling it a “smart purge”.
“There was some discomfiture about the positions Goswami had been taking. But the Times Group largely ignored it since he was delivering on all counts.”
Technology investor T.V. Mohandas Pai came out strongly in favour of Goswami, calling him a brand which could make a success of a television venture. He, however, denies plans to back any proposed venture by Goswami. “Television channels worldwide are led by anchors,” says Pai. “They are brands which create a following on TV. They run programmes, and channels become aggregators of brands, so there is always room for channels which will get brands to do specialised programmes and aggregate them. NDTV had it but blew it up and did not worry about it as they all became leftists. Times Now had Arnab, who is now gone. India Today has Karan Thapar and Rajdeep Sardesai. But they would have to work for at least 10 years to create a similar brand,” he adds.
He further points out, “In Hindi television, you have Rajat Sharma, among others, who is a brand in himself. There is always room for a channel which collects brands and runs programmes that have a following and they will do well. Basically, the success of any TV channel is brand-led today.”
Attempts to elicit some clarity on the rumours that Goswami might forge a joint venture with Murdoch’s News Corps, the parent company of Star India, and Rajeev Chandrasekhar yielded no result. Outlook tried to get in touch with Goswami as well, but to no avail. Murdoch’s Indian empire, controlled by Star India Private Ltd, is a 100 per cent subsidiary of News Corp. It has expanded over more than two decades to include TV production and broadcasting to films, TV news, cable distribution, DTH services, wireless and digital services, basically providing content to more than 400 million people every week.
The single biggest broadcasting group in India with a strong southern tilt, Star India’s network includes 32 channels in eight languages. This includes Star Plus, Star One, Star Gold, Channel [V], Star Jalsha, Star World, Star Movies, Star Utsav and joint venture channels Asianet, Asianet Plus, Star Vijay, Star News, ESPN and Star Sports. Earlier this year, Star India ended its joint venture with ABP TV, a fully owned subsidiary of ABP Ltd. Media Content & Communications Services Ltd (MCCS), to exit Hindi news channel Star News.
Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, a media specialist, feels Murdoch may not be too keen to start a new news channel given that “he has burnt his hands with news in India once and the entertainment business is doing very well. So he might not want to jeopardise that by getting into news, which is largely an unprofitable business.”
Political sources, however, reveal that Murdoch has been lobbying to get the FDI slab for News and Current Affairs TV channels further raised from 49 per cent currently to 51 per cent “as they are keen to have control over editorial content”.
“Murdoch is famous for going where others fear to tread,” says Meenakshi Menon, managing director of Spatial Access, an audit and advisory firm. “He has been clear in terms of his right-wing leanings. This would be the perfect kind of playing field for both Murdoch and Arnab.”
Given the close links between Chandrasekhar and Star India through Asianet (K. Madhavan, who is MD (South) of Star India is also vice-chairman of Asianet News Network Pvt Ltd, which is wholly owned by Chandrasekhar’s Jupiter Capital), there are expectations that the politician-businessman may become a ‘front’ for Murdoch’s expansion into the news segment in a more meaningful way, till a policy change happens. Further, Chandrasekhar’s close proximity to the central government, being the NDA vice-chairman in Kerala, is being seen as an opportunity. Any new channel that could spring from such a close association is bound to have a right-wing slant, which should suit all the players in waiting.