In a no-holds barred interview, Arnab Goswami, Editorial Director & Editor- In- Chief, Times Now, takes on his critics and tells Simran Sabherwal why, according to him, Times Now scores over other news channels. He also pleads guilty to practising the journalism of opinion as alleged by critics
In a passionate speech at Goafest, you took on your critics and pleaded guilty to their criticism. You highlighted the importance of following journalism of opinion, activism and being involved with the story. How difficult is it to maintain objectivity and present balanced news?
This is like saying that if you do your job faithfully, truthfully and passionately, will you be doing it well? Of course you will. If you report exclusives, will you also be able to do it with speed? Of course you will. If you are passionate about your journalism, does that mean you lose your objective? Of course not. The reality is -and I don’t want to be harsh on those who have unfortunately lost out - as they say, a bad dancer always blames the dance floor. So, a lot of the channels who are thoroughly out of sync with the reality of this country, whose tape-recorders are stuck in the eighties, can do nothing but crib. We have a whole lot of channels today that continuously crib about why Times Now is getting viewership. The more fundamental question, all those who crib must ask, is why nobody is watching them? If you have credibility, people will watch you. There is no point claiming to have credibility if nobody is watching you. You must actually ask, have I lost credibility which is why I have lost my viewership. They can’t keep crying but I think I have credibility as if you had credibility, people would watch you. I am not naming any channel but if you are truthful, credible and do the news well, people will watch you. If you have no credibility, if you are slow, outdated, if you belong to an India three decades back, nobody is going to watch you. That is exactly what is happening to some of the has-beens channels. Now I am asking you, why should I respond to the has-been channels? I will not respond to has-been channels or has been news teams. I represent contemporary India. Have I made my point clear on this.
What makes for good television news viewing, according to you?
Contemporary, good television news is when a 10-year old kid or someone who doesn’t speak English at home as a first language watches you because they believe in what you say. Contemporary news is when somebody in a far-flung part of India calls and says you connect me to my own country. That’s good television news. There is no point in others cribbing that just because it is watched, it must be bad. The question to ask is, why does nobody watch me? What do I lack? Do I lack speed, credibility, connect with the people, honesty? It must be a mix of all of this why other channels are not watched.
What would you say to critics when they say that media planners in India have not created methods that enable them to evaluate news on factors other than just number of eyeballs? Do you believe that viewership numbers are the true criteria for deciding AdEx and quality loses out?
I don’t think we should be unfair to the advertising or media planning industry. Our fraternity is more than aware that in the news business, viewership follows credibility, trust, serious journalism and hardcore reporting. Times Now’s relentless coverage of the battle against corruption since 2010 saw great rise in our viewership. Channels that were seen to be pro-establishment have consistently lost viewership as viewers saw through channels that they couldn’t believe or trust and began welcoming channels that they do trust, which they felt were more honest to the pursuit of journalism. What does this prove? That viewership is a function of trust. Let me give you another example. In the last general election, Times Now’s viewership on the day of the results and the period preceding that was double, treble any other channel. I believe it is a function of people’s faith and trust in our reporting. On the day of general election, people watch a channel they trust, which they believe has credibility. You will not watch a channel that you believe has lost credibility. It will be unfair not just to the advertising and media planning fraternity, but also to the people of India to deride them by saying that their viewership is not a function of their trust. Why is it that on every major event in contemporary Indian history, the entire audience watches what my team does? It is because they have trust, faith, honesty and they are incorruptible. I don’t believe in such generalized stereotypes, which end up questioning the ability of the advertising and media buying fraternity, which knows that it is solid news teams that relate to contemporary India that get the viewership. It is also proven that journalism that has become irrelevant will not be watched. There is no point blaming anyone including the media buying fraternity for that. The only option if your viewership has fallen is to do soul-searching on the subject and find the reason. One day you say that TAM is bad and tomorrow you will say that BARC is bad... you can’t keep blaming measurement systems, but you can have a strong connect with the viewer to the best of your ability.
The channel and you personally faced a severe backlash on the stance you have taken regarding Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai and earlier on India’s loss in the ICC World Cup. What is your side of the story? Does this kind of public criticism affect you personally or professionally?
I don’t see any backlash. Following our coverage of the World Cup, our viewership grew manifold. I don’t believe in armies on social media determining the journalism that I do. Social media is very important but the statistics prove very strongly that our viewership grew. Analysis and maybe even justified criticism of a cricket team’s performance, if it is particularly bad in a very big event, is not blasphemy; we are a democracy.
Talking of television viewership measurement, when the first Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) data came in, your numbers were even better than the TAM ratings. Were you surprised?
We would have been surprised if we were not No.1 by far, because we have been No.1 to a point where there is no No. 2. We have been No. 1 for hundreds of weeks, so really there is nothing to prove. Times Now is the last word for television news in India, whether it is TAM or BARC or any rating system in the future, it will reflect this reality. No one is close to us by a mile now and no one is likely to be close to us by a mile, so frankly for us it is the reaffirmation of the truth.
It’s going to be a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. How do you see his relationship with the media?
I am still waiting for an interview. I got an interview with him on May 6, 2014. I hope he gives me an interview again and only after that I can answer this.
How would you assess the performance of the government, particularly when it comes to the I&B Ministry?
We have had healthy and detailed interactions with the government and I&B Ministry whenever required. Nobody is trying to influence what we do and we don’t try and influence what others do either, because of mutual respect on both sides, arm’s length distance works for us.
Has there been any government influence on the Indian media?
Times Now and my team is generally seen as those who cannot be influenced, so I think even if there was a premise to your question, nobody would try it with us. We are seen to be the most independent of journalists in India today, so I have not had any such experience.
Do you believe that there is a fair amount of objective criticism in the media, or has the media made too much of Modi?
The quantum of coverage of Narendra Modi has gone down. Obviously, in the run-up to the general elections, results and maybe a couple of months after that, there is an unending focus on one individual. With the elections over, the focus shifts to other issues. We are not a one-issue country and cover a multitude of stories. It’s normal. The government will soon have its one-year anniversary, but then many governments have had one-year anniversaries... we will have to wait and watch.
What are some of the things that the Modi government needs to do going forward?
The Modi government needs to give me an interview with the Prime Minister. The Modi government needs to let its top ministers come on the Newshour, it’s a selfish agenda from the Modi Government. The Modi government needs to tell right-wingers like Giriraj Singh, Sadhvi Prachi to just keep quiet and mind their own business. The Modi Government must reconsider its position that in India there is nothing like marital rape which I felt is something appalling. To say, that there can’t be marital rape in India because of the culture, I don’t agree with that. And then the Modi Government needs to give us the Netaji files, preferably as an exclusive to Times Now.
The integration between social media and Newshour – what are the key learnings from this move? What more can we expect from the news channel in the social media space?
My key takeaway is that we are the most high impact news brand in the world. Our hashtags trend every second day and there is no comparison with other media organizations. We are creating a new digital team and have just launched a brand new app. We have the best talent working on mobile and web and as a quantum leap of faith, we are now moving strongly in the digital space.
Our rate of growth on digital is 300% that of any of our competitors. At the time of general elections, it was magic and it was like a hockey stick curve. We are already the biggest brand on digital right now and get huge response. Something we put out on Vine crossed seven million views in a few days. People want to consume good content on social media. The problem is that some people are obsessed with the vehicle but are not looking at the content. I am interested in the vehicle but I am also interested in the content that I create for it. So we are more relevant. Irrelevant brands may have had the first mover advantage on social media because we have not been there. Now that we enter social media, all the irrelevant brands will become irrelevant on social media also. So, they should watch out.
Will you be doing exclusive content on social media?
Some. We started with putting a couple of interviews on social media before we put it on TV. I don’t look at these two as intrinsically competing mediums. Exclusivity of content is a few minutes anyway, and on television nature of viewing has changed where people are coming in more for appointment viewing rather than the two-minute bit of breaking news. The success of Newshour proves that. We won’t put the Newshour on social media first, but if there is breaking news, I can’t be selfish about it and have it on television first before I put it on my app, it may not be the most relevant thing to do.
What can we expect from Times Now going ahead?
Brilliant stuff... I think this is going to be a very exciting year because we are going to work a lot on Digital. We have hired 15-20 of the best names in Digital and the last periphery of my newsroom is ringed by Digital. We are also going to work a lot within the network and try and enhance our presence within the network.
Newshour is going through further improvement as I believe you need to change at a time when you are on a high. We are going to make it far more interactive, for example, but I don’t believe in structural changes... I believe in the changes that every news story brings. Every day is a fresh day for us.
How can the news presentation format reinvent itself? What could be the next big leap after live discussions that you popularized?
I don’t pressurize myself on reinvention. For me, when I go on air every night, I reinvent myself as I connect to my audience. That is the best form of reinvention... every phone call I get from the viewer who says we like what you are doing and have faith in you. You then go back and realize that for all the pressure and all the people who do scams, politicians, it is worth it when you have ordinary people who come to you and say we like your analysis.
On a lighter note, they say imitation is the best form of flattery. Have you seen The Viral Fever, Barely Speaking with Arnub? Your take?
These guys contacted me and they wanted me to give them an interview. I told them that their guy does such a good job, I wouldn’t be able to match up to him. He is a great guy, gifted, more gifted than me certainly and I wish him all the very best. I really think he is doing a damn good job.
Any other comments that you would like to make?
I hate to hear negativity about the media. I hate to hear people cribbing and cribbing about what’s wrong with the media. This is wrong that is wrong, viewers, advertisers, media planners are wrong. Children and older people who watch us, the whole world is wrong. It is a fantastic time in Indian media... we brought corruption to the fore in our country, and younger audiences are watching us... people who watched Kyunki Saas... serials are watching the news at night. How wonderful is that? How blessed are we that we are being able to reach and enter the homes of people and make an impact everyday... How blessed are we that politicians will think five times before trying to break the line and move ahead... Would all of this have happened without television media? The media has changed and if you say today I want to back to the 1980’s style media, this country will not go back to the eighties. This country has moved on. My optimism comes from the fact that I know people born in the nineties - who are just 20-25 years old - will be watching the journalism that we do. That keeps me alive.