Early in my career while covering cricket for NDTV, I remember watching  an animated  bunch of cricket fans at the M.A. Chidambaram stadium engaged in an argument over how Zaheer Khan should  bowl to the Aussies. The conversation veered around where exactly India’s ‘Sultan of Swing’ should pitch the ball, how he should grasp it, his run up and even the field he must have – how many slips, men in the deep and whether that forward short leg was required at all. Cricket is like a religion. And every spectator is entitled to have an opinion. As I left the stands, I inquisitively asked those lads if they were professional cricketers – not Ranji but at least league or college team level. They turned out to be gully players. Mercifully, this was in the pre-twitter age and none of them were ’empowered’ to troll the medium pacer, if his attempted yorker turned out to be a juicy full toss, or if he bowled a wide or a no-ball, or was clobbered by an in-form batsman. Sports viewing invariably comes with the realisation that form is temporary, class is permanent.

Sanjay Pinto analysing election results on Times Now

Sanjay Pinto analysing election results on Times Now

Cricketers are the flavour of the season. Deified when they win but with the risk of having their homes stoned when they lose. Unlike the head honchos of the mainstream media, evident from the crass term ‘presstitutes’, by which they are referred to in certain circles. The more prominent prime time anchors are, the more flak they are likely to get. In any case, the brickbats will far exceed the bouquets. And from those with half baked information and little or no understanding of how the media works. The very folks who lament about ‘media trial’ and how anchors play judge, jury and executioner, which in many cases is true, derive vicarious pleasure in sitting in judgment over arguably, the most watched and the most criticised television journalist in India –  Arnab Goswami. To be fair to discerning critics, it’s the anchoring style of the Editor-in-Chief of Times Now that gets their goat. The entire channel seems wittingly or unwittingly built around brand Arnab. And his flagship show ‘The Newshour‘, which extends to almost two hours every weeknight, has a different format which sections of  viewers call a slugfest. The common complaint is that the anchor does not allow panelists to complete their sentences and insists on their taking a line in agreement with his view.

As a “long time buddy”, as Arnab himself introduced me on the election counting eve show, a former colleague at NDTV and a regular panelist on the Times Now debates, I do have a different take. The Arnab I know is a thorough gentleman. It may shock you to know that one-on-one, he is quite soft spoken. And affable. And unassuming. And reasonable. In NDTV, I can vouch for the number of times he had fought to showcase ground zero exclusive stories of reporters. TV, as a medium, can have Generals who have never fought a war. Arnab has had his baptism by fire. Has he changed since we worked together at NDTV? Everybody does. But if our short coffee, lunch and dinner breaks at the Times Now Noida studio during that marathon Election Results Day were any indication, Arnab seems to have retained his sense of humour and those middle class values. And his contempt for the blue blooded, power tipsy brigade.

Sanjay Pinto (L) and Arnab Goswami (R)

Sanjay Pinto (L) and Arnab Goswami (R)

The rub really lies in the format of his show. For starters, Arnab doesn’t follow the beaten track. He sets his own rules and leads the pack. Unlike other channels and programmes, the NewsHour is not a sedate Panel Discussion with the usual suspects pontificating and sometimes even hijacking the show. It’s a no holds barred fiery debate, as even the flames on the screen portray! It’s like the Super Over of a T 20 Match, not the last day’s play of a drawn Ranji Trophy Test Match. Don’t look for that classic square drive. Expect cross batted shots including the helicopter chop! Making no pretence of being a ‘moderator’, his views are his views and he unabashedly takes a stance on every debate, challenging, perhaps pinning down, alright even pummeling those with a contrarian view. The panelists who draw first blood usually come out on top. Yes, there are often enough panelists to play a cricket match! And yes, some don’t get a chance to speak, what with their finger up in the air pleading for a word. Intervening in a vociferous argument is a skill. But seldom has Arnab cut me off in the middle of a sentence. On an average, I have got close to a minute for every point or rebuttal I made on his show. This has been so even when I have taken diametrically opposite views from his own stand, as in the case of the slapping of the controversial Sec 66A of the Information Technology Act against a twitter user on a complaint by a top politician’s son, which was when I made my debut on Times Now. To those who think he is pro Sangh Parivar, what would have explained his outrage over the RSS attack on Mother Teresa?  Yes, there is a lot of screaming and fillibustering but  grandma’s advice that ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ applies here! Lampoon him till the cows come home but at the end of each night, the TRPs speak for themselves. Let me give you a crude example. If there’s a fight on the road, wouldn’t many of us be tempted to stand and watch? When politicians get grilled, there’s an outlet for all that pent up anger and angst and the craving to put them in their places. That’s what Arnab does. With aplomb.

Several months ago, I texted him for a testimonial blurb for an upcoming book of mine. What Arnab sent me was so heart warming and glowing. Once during a debate, I noticed some dramatic footage which I did not have a chance to view in advance. A simple sms  during the show (yes, he checks messages during the live telecast) ensured that he respected my position and steered clear of any questions on that aspect. Having been under many a shadow in his previous avatar, he knows how much an opportunity means to meritorious professionals. That is one reason why he probably offered me a seat at the high table during the elections. When I thanked him, his response humbled me. “Don’t thank me, Sanjay. I’m delighted we are on together again this way.”

No matter what the world says about Arnab, I will always stand by my friend. He may shout. He may scream. And he may cut you off in the middle of a sentence. But he’s a good human being. And a terrific, fearless journalist who is politically accurate, never politically correct. That’s enough for me to stay tuned. For the others, there’s the remote.

Sanjay Pinto Black Shirt

(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, TV Political Analyst, Author, Communications Mentor and Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)