What’s made Arnab the Face of News TV

25 Nov,2013

 

It’s been five long years since that evening of November 26, 2008 when Mumbai was taken hostage by 10 terrorists in various parts of South Mumbai. We’ve seen the television coverage of the Kargil clash and some of the disturbances within the country like in Gujarat, post-Godhra, but clearly the Mumbai terror siege was the biggest news happening after 24×7 news television arrived. Social media hadn’t taken off in right earnest then, else the coverage could’ve taken an all-new complexion.

 

We spoke with Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Times Now, who could be called the Face of the 26/11 Coverage and whose channel hasn’t looked back ever since. In fact, in time, he has become arguably the Face of News Television in the country. In this freewheeling chat, Mr Goswami talks to MxMIndia on what he thinks helped his channel score with the coverage, why he chose to stay in the studio and not go out on the field and the government’s criticism of the television media’s live coverage of the terror attack.

 

Excerpts from the interview:

 

So where were you on the night of November 26?

I was in our newsroom. We were doing Newshour and there were phone calls from people who said there was some firing at CST. I think we were the first to go on air with the report that something was going on and we were also among the first to break away from standard programming. So I started at about 10 o’clock and went on for three-and-a-half days. I remember going home only once and must’ve slept for an hour in that entire period.

 

Was it a conscious decision for you to stay in the newsroom. You were the seniormost journalist of the channel, based in Mumbai and you stayed back in the newsroom rather than be on the field?

Yes, It was a very critical decision for me. As you know, in my stint at NDTV I was a reporter through and through. I was probably the only news channel editor based in Mumbai at that time so the natural temptation was of getting into a car with camera units and going on the spot. But I had done that, what would have my reporters done and I would have not been able to focus on what we were putting on air minute-to-minute. At that point, what was very important was the graphics, visual and text we were putting out. Key decisions needed to be taken – on what we carried live and what we didn’t, which reporter went to different locations, what versions to take from the security agencies, from the government and how much of the information we had needed to be disseminated. Since all these decisions are taken better in my view if you are in newsroom rather than from the spot, I decided to stay back.

 

So you never went to the spot, not even for a wee bit?

Yes, I didn’t go to any of the spots for the entire duration when this event happened.

 

There has been a lot of criticism of the media in general for the coverage especially this charge that the media was giving away vital information on the movement of our armed forces and police. Do you think it’s fair criticism?

Well I can speak for ourselves, we did not do that. I don’t want to use the fact that we didn’t do that to be critical of other channels but speaking for Times Now, we didn’t give away a lot of the information related to individuals and specifics and at that point of time we had a lot of information which we felt if we put out in the public domain may compromise the security of the people involved. Like the floors/restaurants in individuals were present. I remember we shared the fact that we were holding some information with our viewers and I think our discerning viewers would have appreciated that.

 

As you look back, do you think the government and the authorities should have restricted the movement of journalists?

The government too was reacting to a situation and they had no idea what was happening. Clearly, if the media needed to be held back from reporting from certain locations, the security agencies needed to do that. For instance, there were camera teams right up to the lane which led to Chabad House and that was dangerous for the reporters as well. In retrospect you can always argue that perhaps the reporter shouldn’t have gone that far, but at that time they were doing their job.

 

Were your reporters worried about their safety and lives?

No, I don’t think that was even a consideration at that point of time. We had some reporters wearing bullet proof jackets. I think the place which was from my perspective worrying in terms of safety was Chabad House. We were careful not to compromise any of our reporters, they would go in and out and they would send footage and we would carry it.

 

There were many discussions with the government after the siege and there was a possibility of a severe clampdown on the functioning of news channels. What was your advice to the I&B ministry then?

I have never been in the business of advising the government

 

You were part of the NBA and from what I remember instrumental in formulating a code or some such?

Yes, I did play a role initially in drafting this code and I have been actively associated with the NBA. At that point of time, we did officially put in a word to then information and broadcasting minister because channels had got blacked out in Mumbai and there was outcry from viewers who wanted to watch what was happening and I must say the government responded quite quickly. The channels were back on air in less than an hour. I think there are lessons from all of this and if you ask me one of the reason why people watched Times Now much more than any news channel in that period was the fact that we never compromised the credibility of our coverage. We weren’t hyping the event nor making ourselves the story.

 

We were simply and only focusing on getting the maximum amount of information first and fast and to that extent the events of 2008 and we never looked back since as a channel and the events of 2008 told us that at the end of the day, accurate and objective, fast and passionate news coverage determine leadership and that for me was important. Those hundred hours were a big learning for our reporters and in the growth of the Times Now as a channel as well. We have also not forgotten this event as every year we have done something though we don’t try and do it in a commemorative fashion but as a news channel that focuses on internal security issues much more than any other. We bring back renewed focus on 26/11 almost every year whether in terms of how far the case has progressed with Pakistan or the local security situation.

 

As you look back, would you possible redo your coverage? Should something have been done in a different way?

Honestly, we did not do the things that people have criticized 26/11 coverage for. We did not reveal sensitive stills. I would still not do that. There were times when we chose to put out delayed footage. I would still do that and we dropped all breaks in that period and covered it for a stretch in a committed manner and stayed with the story. I would still do that, so I think a lot of the things we did right. I wouldn’t say what we did was perfect, people can say the quality of broadcast could have been better. We did the best we could. We had a very young and passionate team which we still do which did the job. So, looking back after five years, we did as decent job as we could.

 

There were some who also said that one of the reasons why other channels were showing more sensitive stuff is because they were getting it… given that there were senior people out there on the field.

You know I am not the best journalist around but I think that everybody had more or less the same information. It is in these occasions the newsdesk plays a crucial role and the role of the editor is better when he or she is on the desk because you are putting out information which is very quick and you need to put it out in the breaking news situation. The editor has to take decisions on a minute-to-minute basis. I felt that was a big challenge for me in those four days and that’s one of the reason, I stayed with the story nonstop.

 

But you were on air all the time, so how could you take those split-second decisions?

See, most of our anchors on our channels are also people who have had strong experience on the newsdesk and I believe that you can only be a good anchor when you have done that. So I had back0up anchors and I would keep going in and out and we would have a conference roughly every two hours where the producers, the executive producers, the senior producers desk sat down and discussed very briefly what we were doing and we would then go back to the broadcast.

 

For Times Now specifically there has no looking back since then. While you may have been on the rise even before, would it be right to say that November 26 was the turning point.

I won’t try to be politically correct with you. Yes, the evolution of news channels tells you that critical moments in a nation’s history determine the growth of news channel so whether it’s an election or a Gulf War in United States whether it’s 26/11 here or whether it’s going to be an election in the future, how a news channel covers a particular major event is seen to be a test of the channel’s competence. I think that with 26/11, I am not the one to overstate what we did but I think we did a decent job and I think we won the trust of lot of people but we have also worked very very hard to retain that trust because in the news business you often would be remembered for the mistakes you made. We have worked very consciously on retaining the trust and not just on this 26/11 but all the scams we reported. The manner in which the viewers responded to us – with love, affection, respect and regard after 26/11 was quite overwhelming for me and my team because we were a group of journalists who all at least a decade younger and a decade less experience than any of the other channels but the passion and the fact that we were working as a team, we are very closely knit as an editorial team it made up for our lack of experience and the fact that the viewers responded well to us was a big confidence booster for my team at that point of time.

 

I don’t really remember how it began and how it ended and I don’t remember what happened in between…  all I remember is that we were at it and most importantly the same team that started the broadcast ended it, in that period not one of my people or reporter went home, there were no shifts so while it will be argued whether that was the way to do it ,but you know putting hundred hours equal focus on a live broadcast where enormous number of people are watching is a huge amount of team work. I personally I think 26/11 is one of those events which teach you that television is all about team work. Some of our people have gone on to do so well inside the organization, some outside the organization and I feel very proud about it. The experience of covering 26/11 has added a lot to our collective experience and our maturity.

 

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