Friday, March 27, 2015

#ShameOnTimesNow trends worldwide as India takes on the news channel // Piyasree Dasgupta - A hashtag that was just waiting to happen

When Times Now began tweeting as well as broadcasting the hashtag #ShamedinSydney, people did not take kindly to it and things quickly went downhill after that. There was genuine anger among the people because the news channel was clearly sensationalising Team India's defeat, which had come after an amazing run of seven straight wins. Alongwith New Zealand, they were the only unbeaten side in the tournament until they ran in Australia. Moreover, unlike the 2007 World Cup where India were knocked out in the first round, Dhoni's team made it all the way to the semi-finals. That run is worthy of being celebrated -- and it certainly didn't deserve the #ShamedinSydney campaign that was being run by Times Now. Fans, in turn, slammed the news channel on Twitter and made the #ShameOnTimesNow hashtag trend worldwide.
Then Arnab Goswami shrugs, pulls the lapels of his severe black blazer together, leans forward, pulls every muscle of his face into a scowl and speaks. Pausing after each word (possibly to hear them echo), twirling his pen, he says, "My first question is to Vinuta Gopal, head of climate and energy campaign, Greenpeace. The British left India in 1947. Why do you go crying before them? Who are they?" Gopal, an unsure smile plastered on her face, responds with humility to the deeply insulting rhetoric. "Thanks Arnab for inviting me to the show and giving Greenpeace a chance to be heard..."

This was on 17 February this year. Times Now was discussing the row between the Indian government and Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai who was prevented from travelling to the UK by the government. The video was later uploaded on YouTube with the title 'Activism or Anti-Nationalism?' What prompted Times Now to insinuate that Greenpeace's activities may also be anti-national? It was the news that Priya Pillai was headed to UK for a talk with UK MPs as audience, where she was slated to speak about Mahan, a thick sal forest in Madhya Pradesh which allegedly faces destruction thanks to the expansion plans of corporate houses like Essar and Hindalco.

Now, here's another way to frame the same question Goswami asked. "Ms Gopal, what purpose would talking to UK MPs about Mahan serve? This is an internal issue that they have no say on." Or, if he was indeed suspicious of her motives, he could have asked, "Except for inviting criticism for the government, talking to UK MPs wouldn't serve any purpose, was your only motive to embarrass the Indian government?"

However, the above questions don't have either the sting of an accusation nor the jingoistic drama that paints Goswami as the righteous nationalist and his interviewee as the wrong-doer trying to squeeze out of the trap he has her in. Goswami seems like he falls back on popular courtroom dramas of the nineties (think Sunny Deol howling one melodramatic line after other in Damini) to turn a debate into a 'tu tu main main'. The kind India indulges in parking lots over the best spot, in crowded bazaars with vegetable sellers or with autowallahs at peak traffic hours, therefore making it deeply satisfying for a great section of viewers. Since India's preferred idiom of argument is aggression, Newshour seems to have struck a chord with millions of Indians who tune in to the shows devotedly, every day for an hour.

While the rest of the Times Now anchors don't always manage to ratchet up the kind of vitriol Goswami does, the over-all tone of the channel is provocative, loud and meant to disturb. And their tickers and hashtags are perhaps undeniable proof of the same. Shame, accuse, judge - that's their motto. Actually, long before Twitter saw the light of the day and the word 'trolling' became a part of our daily vocabulary, Times Now had mastered the brand of conversation we now associate with no-holds-barred brawls on the social media site.

It was in the same spirit that #ShamedInSydney was born. The channel probably felt particularly pleased with the same, especially since they had managed to squeeze in an alliteration, usually considered the mark of a superior hashtag in the social media world. They probably did not think this hashtag as particularly out of the ordinary forTimesNow. They have had hashtags like #ArrestThemNow over a separatist leader hoisting a Pakistani flag in Kashmir, they have had #IntolerantAAP when Kejriwal, like many other leaders, accused some media houses of being sold off to a particular political party, they had #NirbhayaInsulted when the controversy over Leslee Udwin's documentary India's Daughter broke out and had #ProPakCM referring to Jammu Kashmir CM Mufti Mohammed Syed. A TimesNow hashtag is not just a social media publicity tool, it is the channel's verdict on an issue, often an issue on which they are pretending to have an open debate. 

And for a while now, not many had a problem with it. Or even if they had it, they never voiced it. The mistake Times Now made this time was it came up with a verdict-in-a-hashtag on a cricket team, that the country engages deeply with and will not quietly swallow. Cricket in India is perhaps bigger than politics, bigger than Bollywood. People skip work to watch the game as they did for that semi-final. It is when Times Now wielded its whip on an issue that millions of Indians care about passionately, that the country felt collectively bristled. The answer was #ShameOnTimesNow.

Prior to this, several individuals had shown resistance to Times Now's heckling tactics, some time with dignity, some times not. For example Subhramanian Swamy called Goswami an idiot, TMC MP Mahua Moitra showed him the middle finger and activists wrote an open letter boycotting the channel. Although some of these people, like Swamy, were hardly the voices of reason themselves, protests against the channel's verbal vigilantism was growing. #ShameOnTimesNow, clearly, was waiting to happen.

In the debate on the Indian versus Australia semi-finals, Goswami began with saying how 'some people' were getting 'touchy over the truth' but it was a fact that 'we(India) got walloped'. His voice is abrasive, deeply disdainful of any opinion contrary to his. One would ask then, if he has already decided what the 'truth' is, what's the point of a seven member panel to 'debate' it? Usually, that's something stuff memes are made of in the country. Only, yesterday, Times Now gauged the mood of the country wrong. And India told the channel that while it has been critical but indulgent of its rhetoric, it has the capability to reject it too. Rahul Bhatia, in his incisive profile on Goswami in Caravan magazine mentions a staff meeting after a particularly good run. "I don’t care about ratings,” he (Goswami) began, waving a knife at the newsroom, “but we’re number one.”
Perhaps, the channel should start caring about how it plans to stay there.