Anyone seeking a political career would envy Arnab Goswami. He grabbed news headlines on a day when these belonged rightfully to the world’s greatest political spectacle—the US presidential election. Thus, while his arrest may keep him down for a while, it is only a matter of time before he sheds the thin cover of journalism in pursuit of his political ambitions. Look at the impact of his arrest. The media, the Maharashtra police, and the political class are either under fire or stand discredited. The only long-term beneficiary of the police action is Goswami.
I do not recall in recent memory a single instance of practically the entire Union Cabinet and heavyweights of a ruling national party, including several chief ministers, coming out in defence of a “journalist” and condemning his arrest as an “attack on freedom of the Press”. At the same time, some journalists and professional media organisations—to whom he was no longer acceptable as a “journalist” or as one of their own in terms of values and principles—were constrained to defend him. Willy-nilly, these professional bodies of the Fourth Estate found themselves on the same side as the state, with high-sounding statements condemning Goswami’s arrest as an attack on the Press. His arrest, as well as political play around it, posed an intellectual challenge to media leaders and organisations—and they failed to rise to it by their inability to go beyond the simplistic, predictable positions.
Ranged against these powers and the powerful in media, were eminent and credible voices including renowned journalists, which held that Goswami’s rightful place was in jail as he was no journalist; he had single-handedly disgraced and wrecked the space for free, fair, and independent journalism in India; his platform, masquerading as a news channel, was a vile vehicle for media trial, vilification and persecution of people he picked upon and these had little to do with public interest or public service journalism; and, he had set himself up as the law, judge, jury, and executioner when it came to his targets. In short, he was a serial offender who deserved what he got in spite of his political masters doing their best to protect him.
Between these two opposing viewpoints was a barely perceptible sliver that held to the sane ground and argued that while he deserves to be dealt with under the law of the land for any offence he may have committed, such action cannot be by way of vendetta or outside the limits of law. Not surprisingly, this middle ground, which shuns a black-and-white view of the matter, has found little space. This suggests that when it comes to the crunch, the media itself is deeply divided and unable to discharge its public service obligations.
The issue has become Goswami. To that extent, both he and his political masters have won the day by the simple act of demonising the Mumbai police and Maharashtra’s political heads. Only a few days before, when a woman was seen abusing and beating a Mumbai policeman, almost everyone came out in defence of the cop (who was publicly honoured for his restraint) with lines like, “This is not Uttar Pradesh, police in Maharashtra are better behaved”, and so on. Overnight, after Goswami’s arrest, the same police are painted as being the most repressive and the worst.
Also read: If Arnab Is Bad, State Vendetta Is Worse
What has happened in cold, clinical terms is that the Shiv Sena-led government cracked down on a TV personality who, in the garb of journalism, is the BJP’s willing accomplice and its media warrior.
Yet, this action underscores the sad truth of the police being used or misused by their political masters, both at the Centre and the states. The Mumbai police may be no freer of political diktats for dealing with Goswami than Delhi Police is when it comes to the riots of February 2020. Besides the police in states where it calls the shots, the Centre has other agencies, like the CBI, at its beck and call. Over the decades, the CBI has come to be used blatantly for partisan purposes.
Therefore, in the case of Goswami being accused of abetting suicide, the Press—sections of which take pride in investigative journalism or professional bodies—should have probed whether CBI closing the case was a political hatchet job or not. If the closure was political, inevitably, re-opening of the case, even if for reasons of ensuring justice, would be political when the party in office changed. Is not the family of those who died by suicide entitled to justice? Should they be sacrificed on the altar of Press freedom, if that, indeed, is the case?
Which brings us to the second sad truth: that this is an unequal political battle being played between two parties, one at the Centre and the other at state. Whether Goswami is a victim of this political play or a political player who brought it upon himself is something on which there is no clarity, including among the media organisations batting for him. Moreover, as much as Goswami, the police, too, is a victim of the political games being played at the expense of Press freedom, public interest, and justice.
The third sad truth is that moderation or middle ground cannot be expected of the Fourth Estate, when the other three estates—Judiciary, Parliament, and Executive—are perceived to be unresponsive, if not weak and pliant, at any particular juncture. There is a balancing dynamic at work within and between the four estates upheld by a variety of systemic processes, lawful checks, healthy tensions, and necessarily adversarial factors. When these come under pressure and the balance is upset, the Fourth Estate alone cannot be moderate or balanced in the exercise of its power.
(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV. Views expressed are personal.)