Government

Backstory: Fact Checkers Unite, You Have Nothing to Lose But Untruths

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking in parliament on February 7, 2018. Credit: PTI

Over the last few days, I have been the recipient of a string of mails berating me on columns that continually criticise Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One writer clarifies that he is not a “bhakt” but believes the prime minister is “doing such a great job” and it is my duty, as the public editor of The Wire, to lend a helping hand to the government.

Another asks why is it that I don’t “write about Yechury’s downfall and a third front being crafted by Pawar to keep Rahul away. These are the topics about which you have some knowledge and your honesty will be tested there”. Yet another reader avers that it has become difficult for journalists like me “to digest the progress of the country through the efforts of the present regime.”

To these critics, I can only regretfully plead guilty of the charge of allowing the prime minister to run away with a greater chunk of column space than lesser mortals, including the aforementioned (Sitaram) Yechury. One can focus on many other subjects, of course – and one does – but with Prime Minister Modi having emerged as the central pole of reference when it comes to Indian politics (I suspect he would not have wanted it any other way), it is difficult to ignore prime ministerial words and action in what are, after all, intensely political times. As a wise one once said, “Criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society”.

While I am grateful to my interlocutors for their responses to this column, my fear is that they – having been weaned on the daily drip of pro-government syrup that many television channels pass off as news today – have actually come to believe that promoting the ruling elite’s interests is the journalist’s prime function.

The newfound pastime of unleashing defamation suits against independent and autonomous media institutions is reflective of how any scrutiny in the public interest has increasingly become an anathema for the powers that be. Fortunately, we have had judges like justice G.S. Patel, who had observed in the Moneylifecase, “I do not believe that a defamation action should be allowed to be used to negate or stifle genuine criticism, even pointed criticism or criticism that is harshly worded; nor should it be allowed to choke a fair warning to the public, if its interest stands threatened in some way.”

The news media in the country are not DAVP Plus Noise. The DAVP, for those who don’t know, stands for Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, and no one knows better than the DAVP that its primary job is to tell the world that the PM and his government are “doing such a great job”, while blowing a pretty hole in the state exchequer in the process. The media cannot, or at least should not, attempt to rob the DAVP of its reason for existence by embracing its mandate as their own.

The Wire, not being an extension of the DAVP, prefers to fact-check the PM’s utterances instead. Fact-checking in these days of post-truthism, information bubbles and alternative facts has acquired the dimensions of a journalistic specialisation all by itself.  In the old days, media houses would hire proof readers, today they hire “fact-checkers”.

The Wire’s recent fact-check of the prime minister’s speech in parliament, put together by the desk (‘Fact Check: Modi on NPAs, Economic Growth and Democracy’, February 9), could perhaps have come a tad earlier – PM Modi spoke in parliament on February 7 – but it had many positives, including a screenshot of a tweet put out by the BJP citing data from the prime minister’s speech which was later deleted after it was called out to be wrong.

I would argue, though, that fact-checking in a cyber portal should adopt a more graphic format with succinct text rather than adapted to a narrative style like this one did. Most readers would want a quick ready-reckoner on the prime minister’s clangers, along with the corrections. The narrative style is best left to the commentators. The piece, ‘Modi’s Attack on the Congress Reeks of Desperation’ (February 9), for instance, offered some informative glimpses into history that showed up the fictions in the prime minister’s intervention, including a telling quotation from Vallabhbhai Patel. As the writer points out, “Far from being against the Partition, Patel, whom Modi has elected as the patron saint of the ‘new India’ he is trying to construct, was its principal advocate within the (Congress) party.”

The prime minister, in fact, is a good subject for fact-checking given his propensity for off-the-cuff statements that may work well in an election rally, where a rhetoric force field tends to mask compromises with the truth, but are rather less effective in parliamentary speeches. One reader, in the spirit of the fact-check, wrote in to point out that it was not Benazir Bhutto who signed the Simla Agreement with Indira Gandhi, as the PM said, but her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Now this is not an “alternative fact”, it is a non-fact, plain and simple.

The other story that needs to be noted in this context is ‘The Platinum Touch of Nikhil Merchant’ (February 8) which, in the most understated manner, goes on to unpack the circles of influence and the trail of good fortune that have attended upon a low-profile Gujarat-based businessman. Nikhil V. Merchant, in fact, comes across as a rather pleasant individual, who actually took the trouble to answer the questions that The Wire put to him (‘Nikhil Merchant: It is Normal Business Conduct That You Happen to Meet Eminent Personalities’, February 8). Denying any wrongdoing, he argued his case saying, “It is [an] extremely imaginative and wild assumption to link any of these people for any gains and relating to my existing business venture.”

The Wire reader Manoj Puri also has no problem in dismissing this story out of hand, writing in to say that the reporter should have known that “no big capital intensive business providing huge employment and economic benefits to the country” could have been established “without support and contacts at all levels”.

One reason, among many, for why this story is important, came in a recent piece of news: for the first time in 20 years, the country’s biggest lender of assets, the State Bank of India, reported a loss of Rs 2,416 crore in its third quarter. As is well known, it is influence peddling at the highest levels that has brought Indian banking to its knees.  The Wire story points out how Merchant’s Swan Energy, for instance, found several public banks more than willing to open their coffers to it in the form of working capital loans. A retired senior executive from SBI is quoted in the story to say how this arrangement works: Swan’s success in lining up major oil PSUs as assured customers for its proposed liquefied natual gas (LNG) terminal at the Jafrabad port in Gujarat allowed it to secure bank credit without a problem. As the retired banker put it: “If cash rich oil PSUs are projected as your captive customers accounting for the bulk of your sales, it acts as a huge comfort factor for the banks lending to such a project.”  Thus, a gigantic, multi-crore LNG behemoth takes shape under the ownership of an entity that has no previous experience in running such a project, liberally funded by public sector banks.

There are a few typos in the piece that need to be attended to, including K.V. Chowdary’s name that appears as “Chaudhary” in one instance.

§

I loved the way the piece ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ Is a Textbook Case of How Not to Use Physics in a Movie’ (February 8), used a critique of a standard Hollywood movie to take us on an odyssey into the arcane (at least for some of us) universe of the accelerator and from there to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which gave us the Higgs boson, and from thence to a peek into “higher dimensions”, string theory and what not. Perhaps this is how they should teach physics to school kids.

§

Shantanu Javdekar writes that while The Wire boasts about being a neutral and independent news media network, it is actually becoming more like a “leftist mouthpiece” and coming up with many “pseudo” narratives. He hopes to see “better work” in the future.

Abin Varghese, as a huge fan of The Wire,  would like to add his voice to those wanting sub-titles for the Hindi content put out.

As if in reply to Abin, there was Abhishu Brahmecha – a Class 11 student and a regular viewer of Vinod Dua’s ‘Jan Man Gan ki Baat’ – who wants to  volunteer in helping to put out English subtitles for it, “so that non-Hindi speakers can also enjoy the show”. A very kind gesture, indeed Abhishu, thank you! Will leave it to The Wire team to decide on the matter.

Write to [email protected]

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.
  • Anjan Basu

    A refreshing read, as always! Being a regular reader of The Wire myself, I come across a fair number of Modi Bhakts in the comments columns all the time. One common thread that seems to bind all such ‘high-minded’ commenters is their spirited assertion that they are not bhakts at all, but only seekers of truth. It appears that the Public Editor gets to know a large number of such public-spirited crusaders rather well herself. Good luck to her!

  • Anjan Basu

    This is hilarious! You say, “…that’s ( presumably, critiquing the politics of the Congress Party) something lacking in (the) media….”. Really? This is ‘lacking’ in our India today, in the great modern Sanatan Bharat? This seems like talk from another planet, for as far as we, ordinary Indians, are concerned, most media platforms, print or electronic, seem today to revel in extolling the virtues of the Saffron agenda with the greatest gusto, and Congress-bashing is an usual corollary to this ‘mainstream’ business. In any event, hardly anybody is holding the ruling dispensation to account for its countless misdeeds. The Wire is an honourable exception ( in fairness, there are some others, too, none of them swimming with the main stream), and the Public Editor at The Wire has been discharging the duties of a moderator with admirable clarity and precision. Full marks to her!