A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.
It’s that time of the year when the Modi government customarily issues itself a report card and also customarily proceeds to give itself straight ‘A’s. This time the report card was particularly well produced with a breathtaking array of infographics in rainbow colours, each one embellished with visuals of the prime minister. It shows, if nothing else, a rare talent for arranging numbers.
What is obviously in everybody’s sights is the 2019 parliamentary election, as hosannas play in the background and Venkaiah Naidu, who is officially the Union minister of information and broadcasting but should rightly be designated chief broadcaster, tweeting, “Under PM Shri Modi unleashing the potential of Indians and India. Great going.” The moment itself is branded as the MODI (an acronym for Making of Developed India) fest, and everybody – especially present and future voters – is invited.
Such a nation-sized pat-on-the-back is perhaps understandable for a government and party anxious to clinch the 2019 verdict. The question is should the media become a part of this astronomical, acronym-driven exercise of self-salutation? Should they not be a tad more independent in their appraisal of governmental performance, a responsibility all the more urgent given this government’s gigantic publicity machinery? Media assessments help build a public evaluation of the year that has gone by and become statements of record for the future. Unfortunately, though, the occasional exception apart, what we see today in the media’s treatment of this anniversary is the familiar pulling of punches; the forgiving wink, nod and nudge; the old velvet touch in the velvet glove.
Amit Shah, the prime minister’s doppelgänger, occasionally submits himself to a press conference or interview and watching him perform at an event billed as the “editors’ roundtable” on the three years of this government, hosted by a major television channel, was educative. It had an audience packed with Modi supporters and BJP spokespersons, and the few editors around were somewhat cramped out of the frame. Meanwhile, against a backdrop of celebratory visuals of the prime minister festooned with confetti, the anchor shot off his carefully assembled list of questions, all of which Shah either dismissed, deflected or seized as opportunities to sing praises of his mentor.
Every major crisis facing the country was perceived as insignificant. Jammu and Kashmir? Just some disturbances in three and a half districts. Unemployment? We are skilling India for self-employment. Vigilante violence? Occasional and random incidents. The contempt he had for the media came into full view when a senior editor questioned him about the opacity of the government: “We talk among ourselves at party fora, we have only stopped talking to you – and that is a good thing,” was the BJP president’s arrogant response. Predictably, it drew instant applause from the fawning audience.
The piece carried in The Wire entitled, ‘Three Years Into the Modi Revolution and Indira Gandhi’s State is Back with a Bang’ (May 26), notes that one of the most remarkable achievements of the Modi government in these three years is that it has successfully seduced the media into redefining its role and run the opposition out of town. It argues that “no other government since independence has had the media so eagerly eating out of its hand, not even during the infamous Emergency” – and all this without any apparent coercion.
One plausible explanation for this is that many big media actors have now chosen to don the “nationalist” garb. To understand exactly what this means, let us go directly to what the editor of a news channel that goes by the name of Republic TV has to say: “I am a nationalist. And I want to say today that being a nationalist is a prerequisite to being a journalist. In our reporting and in our relentless pursuit of the truth, our nationalism is our strength, our nationalism is at our core.” When journalism becomes synonymous with nationalism, and nationalism becomes synonymous with Modi, or MODI, one need not wonder why this particular anchor and his team “run the opposition out of town”, night after night.
Another piece in The Wire, ‘Modi Report Card: Between Good and Satisfactory, But Best Is Yet To Be’ (May 26), argues that such journalism is, in fact, faithful to the perceptions of the average Indian citizen, who has made a broad rightward shift and now reposes faith in Modi. This may or may not be the case, but should the media deepen that faith or question it? Is it their job to drum-beat the prime minister all the way to 2019, or should they call out the innumerable dangers that his brand of politics poses for the country? Being old school, I would only say, “Please keep the gap.”
In accounting jargon, a forensic audit is an exercise to gather and assess an entity’s background financial information that could also be cited as evidence in cases of fraud. In an age of multiple platforms and personal accounts that seek to put out fake news, journalism too can do with such a tool. Indeed several fact-checking websites have come up across the world after the Trump victory with the singular purpose of calling out the hoaxers. In India, we have a couple attempting to do the same – ‘Social Media Hoax Slayer‘ with its tagline “Don’t spread lies” and Pratik Sinha’s Alt News, “Alternative News and Views in the Post-truth World”. The methodology they follow is essentially through a journalistic forensic audit – following the trail of the links emerging from a particular piece of information.
The Wire team received some well-deserved plaudits for its audit of Paresh Rawal’s vicious tweets on Arundhati Roy, which could only be termed as cyber dog whistling (‘How Fake News Triggered Republic TV, TV 18, MP’s Attacks on Arundhati Roy’ (May 24). It had the effect of causing a section of the commentariat to snap at the opportunity to lash out at Roy. The Wire report confirmed beyond dispute the dodgy provenance of the story, having ferreted out several Hindutva inclined websites that had carried this story of Roy’s interview attacking the Indian army, complete with verbatim quotes. It also established how the same story had featured almost simultaneously in Pakistan’s mainstream television platforms. The Wire team finessed their investigation with a quote from Roy herself, who dispensed a couple of sharp, pithy words while dismissing the entire business.
Two interesting aspects emerge from this story. First, is the intriguing manner in which the same fakery was used to serve political causes that cast themselves as irreconcilable adversaries: Pakistani interests and Hindutva. Second, while two websites that did stories based on the spiked information apologised and took down the content, large television platforms preferred to move on without a backward glance. They obviously don’t do apologies in the world of “nationalist” journalism, probably because they believe they are on the “right side” of history. The Wire piece, ‘Tying Arundhati Roy to an Army Jeep is a Right Winger’s Fantasy’ (May 24), explains why such an attitude exists: it is “tied deeply to the notion that India would return to a Golden Age if all the dissidents and malcontents – everyone from minorities, leftists, ‘sickulars’, journalists and pesky question askers of all types – could somehow be done away with.”
If apologies don’t figure in nationalist journalism, neither does “nationalist” politics have time for a mea culpa. The Indian army most certainly owes an apology to the Kashmiri voter, Farooq Ahmad Dar, for trussing him up as a human shield in clear violation of the Indian constitution and international law, as pointed out in The Wire analysis, ‘Why International Law Matters, From Kulbhushan Jadhav to Kashmiri Human Shield’ (May 22). There is something disturbingly hypocritical about the failure to apologise to Dar, even while an interim order from the International Court of Justice, which thankfully granted a stay on Kulbhushan Jadhav’s capital punishment, is celebrated nationally as a vindication of international law.
Reader Siddharth Raghuvanshi would like to thank The Wire for getting the facts right on the trolling of Arundhati Roy. He adds that it would be “really great if the media fraternity, despite ideological and business differences, comes together to expose and eradicate all sources of fake news from their roots.” A good thought, Raghuvanshi. To paraphrase the wise one, “Eternal vigilance is the price of truth.” But who in mainstream media will take the lead?
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Note: In an earlier version of this article, the Social Media Hoax Slayer site was incorrectly identified as belonging to Vishal Dadlani,