Backstory: Journalists, Benders or Crawlers?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.

Two weeks is a long time in journalism and a great deal of news has been blowin’ in the wind, from Nobel Prize winners (all men, mostly white) to some spirited protests staged across the world (many by women). Yet if that proverbial Martian had come down to India this past fortnight and watched television, it would have gone away with the words “surgical strike” buzzing on its antennae. For the rest of us, unfortunately, there was no escaping the velocity of this verbosity, night after night, channel after channel.

Perhaps this is where news platforms that occupy a less powerful position in the media universe can play an important, even nationalistic, role, through the simple expedient of telling three kinds of stories: those left under-told; those left untold, and those that were discarded because they didn’t fit the framework of patriotic journalism – or, as a sharp comment in the Telegraph put it, “committed journalism”, much like the notorious “committed judiciary” of the Emergency days.

Over the last fortnight, The Wire did put out content that conformed to all the three categories. Let’s go to the first – the under-told story. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage given to surgical strikes by mainstream media, several important aspects of this story remained uncovered. How, for instance, does international law perceive such strikesThe Wire was also the first to raise the question of whether the surgical strikes could boost BJP’s electoral prospects in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections. I would also like to acknowledge, in this category, ‘Kabootar Jihad’ – a comic take on the summary detention of a pigeon caught in the maze of Indo-Pak ‘cross talk’ that would certainly have got a smile from Sadaat Hasan Manto. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t figure out why a humour column should go by the fancy, French term of  ‘Feuilleton’.

The unconscionable police firing on anti-mining protestors in Hazaribagh was largely ignored by the visual media. There are always reasons why stories of this kind end up untold’: this one highlighted the repression of a government ruled by the same party as the one at the Centre; it appeared anti-corporate in its exposure of the machinations of the mining lobby, using the agency of a state corporation to break the back of local resistance to mining projects; those who faced police bullets in this case have very little voice and visibility – it needed mayhem and death before even an incident like this gained national attention. The Wire did three stories on the Hazaribagh episode and was among the first to do so.

As for the third category, the discarded story, we had a graphic report on why one media house decided to censor an interview with former union finance minister P. Chidambaram, whose words under the earlier UPA dispensation would have been worth their weight in gold. Those who bring you the news should not, in normal times, become the news. But we are not living in normal times, it seems, when a major and respected television channel puts out an advisory, bombastically entitled, ‘India above politics’, and vouchsafes to protect “national security” by dropping interviews (Chidambaram rightly wanted to know how exactly had his words compromised “national security”). In fact, this story provided compelling evidence of the “committed journalism” referred to earlier. It also brought to mind the much paraphrased L.K. Advani comment on the Emergency, “Journalists were asked to bend, but they began to crawl.” The difference of course is that today, even without an Emergency, even without any overt instruction to bend, journalists seem eager to crawl.

Where The Wire could do more, I believe, is in the follow up to some of these stories. The aftermath of the Hazaribagh firing deserved attention but after the first few days it vanished from its columns. Are cases being filed on this issue? Has the Jharkhand government rolled back, or at least modified, its mining plans? How are the families of those killed coping? We are left with very little of such information. January this year marked a decade since the Kalinga Nagar firing. Clearly, India has learnt nothing from that horror story. How can it when the media either ignores such news, or lets it go too quickly?


To all those who wrote back over the last fortnight, a warm thank you. There is nothing like some commendation, some criticism – cryptic or otherwise – to get the public editor going (sometimes, alas, only in circles!). Readers’ responses work like a crank, that nifty ‘Z’ shaped device – now banished to the penumbra of human memory in an era of self-driving cars – designed to get recalcitrant cars in an earlier era revved up and purring, even if vertebral columns were set off-kilter in the process.

One careful reader was sternly encouraging, urging me to continue leaving my “Gutenberg-like body, so to speak” (loved this turn of phrase, although I don’t quite date back to Gutenberg), while casting “a wide and critical eye, removed from pushes and pulls”. The writer of this mail had a bone to pick with The Wire over its “op-ed equivalents” that go under the moniker “By Wire Staff”. These pieces, as opposed to “the branded ones”, he argued, only seem to be fillers to make the site look busy.

The Wire responded thus:

“The reader seems to have two major confusions.

1. Many Wire Staff pieces do very well and many “branded” ones do not (by ‘branded’ the reader presumably meant ‘bylined’)
2. Opinion pieces/opeds/commentaries are always signed, news stories are signed if they are special or exclusive, otherwise, as is the Indian and even worldwide media tradition, these are not bylined but run as staff copy. This particular reader may prefer the “branded ones” but as a news site we need to provide a lot more content than the 15-16 special or exclusive pieces we put out each day.

There are four kinds of Wire Staff pieces:

a) Where we want to share with readers an important story that another media outlet or social media has broken, and which the wire services have not covered, or covered properly, and where there is some possibility (though not always) of additional value add from our side. A recent example is the death of a man in custody after being arrested for a WhatsApp message on beef.

b) Reworking important news stories that wire services file but don’t do justice to. Here, we use The Wire Staff byline because the story is not exclusive or special even though our treatment offers readers much greater value than simply running news agency copy. A recent example was our wrap-up of the ongoing political controversy over surgical strikes.

c) Stories that are “routine” but which we want our staffers to cover. A recent example from the world of culture was this curtain-raiser on the Ignite dance festival.

d) Breaking stories: Sometimes stories break on social media and the wire services take a while to file them or don’t bother. In such situations, Wire Staff copy serves as a quick update to readers while we wait for a fuller story to come in. A recent example was the brief controversy over NYU prematurely publishing a press release on the Nobel prize for economics. Even though The Wire’s story had exclusive quotes from Amartya Sen and Angus Deaton that we added to a story that broke on social media and which the Daily Telegraph first carried, the staffer who put our piece together chose not to take a byline since the quotes were obtained by another colleague.

Hope this clarifies our thinking on this.”

This column could go on and on, but every backstory must back down at some point. As another diligent reader advised me: “Reflecting all details and depth of content carried in The Wire could act as a downer for many readers”, since this would make the column long. Consider being more concise, is the suggestion made. Point well made and taken.

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