A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.
Diwali began early this year with the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, and one of its largest business houses, the Tata Group, witnessing inter-generational fireworks of monumental proportions. The climacteric moments for both stories, playing out in Lucknow and Mumbai respectively, occurred almost on the same timeline. As turbo-charged members of the Yadav clan took to snatching mics from each other in Lucknow in a family feud of classical proportions, in came the breaking news of Cyrus Mistry being given marching orders as chairperson of a corporate giant valued at $100 billion.
Both developments were accorded blanket coverage in the mainstream media. In times such as these, when the full depth of coverage that professionally-run newspapers and television channels can muster is on full display, portals like The Wire, which do not have the news-gathering muscle of the former, could find themselves edged out of the action. This is precisely when three aspects can make a difference in their coverage: first, and most important, the ability to marshal the in-house capacities of the organisation in real time; second, the ability to co-opt outside talent to tell the full story; three, bring in the credibility of being unbiased in situations where mainstream media coverage can often betray their piper’s tunes. All these attributes were in evidence in The Wire’s coverage of the Yadav “pari-war” (the pun had its moment in the sun over the last few days) and in the “ta-ta to Cyrus” story as well. Value additions like quick wraps, expert video comment and Q&As also contributed to make the effort more visible.
Which of these two stories worked well for The Wire? On balance, I would say it was the Tata story that did better thanks to the greater depth of in-house analysis. On the very day Mistry was sacked there was a comprehensive introduction to the fracas, followed by an in-depth analysis that anticipated the Mistry camp striking back. The piece hinted that investors of the group may not necessarily be supportive of the return of the old order and how a weakened Tata Group may find itself even more dependent on the union government, a development that does not bode well for its future autonomy.
Former US vice-president Spiro Agnew once – effortlessly passing off the alliterative cadences of speechwriter William Saffire as his own – termed the editorialising classes as the “nattering nabobs of negativity”. Not an entirely unfair description, you could say. There is a distinctive “natter” to their writerly chatter; given the almost divine right to write they invest upon themselves, describing them as “nabobs” may also not be too far out; as for their “negativity”, it comes with the territory – carping is so much more trenchant than the singing of hosannas. Seriously, though, if a media platform wishes to take itself seriously, there is no way it can escape testing its capacity to provoke its readers to think and get them to pit their own viewpoints against those set down in its columns.
The Wire editorial, BJP’s Surgical Strike on Freedom in India (October 23) followed the Rs 5 crore payoff that Ae Dil Hai Muskhil director Karan Johar had to cough up after being threatened with the metaphoric carving knife by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). But do random acts of ransom in a scenario as cutthroat as that of Bollywood strictly fall within the purview of the classical editorial subject? It would seem not. The pre-poll political turf war in Uttar Pradesh could probably ace MNS’s shenanigans and Johar’s penitential posturing as a worthier theme in terms of immediate national impact.
I sought some clarity on this score from the editors at The Wire and was given to understand that they had been rather sparing in their editorialising, having just three editorials on the scoreboard thus far. Interesting, though, is the fact that each of these editorials had something to do with rights/freedom issues. The editorials, it was pointed out, came about “when we have felt really strongly about the issues at stake”.
Whether The Wire should strike a wider note in its editorialising is a matter best left to the judgement of its editors, but there certainly are crucial issues at stake in the present instance. When the state of Maharashtra, embodied here in the majesty of the Devendra Fadnavis government, discards its obligatory responsibility to protect its citizens against vigilante action, alarm bells must ring. Further, when instead of reining in the MNS lumpenocracy, the Maharashtra government actually chooses to expedite the unholy deal and thereby endorse it, warning signals must flash continuously. That another new normal is being set at yet another notch lower is a subject worthy of editorial comment. It reflects the broader reality of the media – in this case, commercial cinema – constantly capitulating to political power play. One concise reader response to The Wire editorial put it well: “Rohit Vemula,Una,Dadri, Uri politicisation,Karan Johar……..The Republic is drifting.”
The world is getting the general drift as well. The damning indictment pronounced by The Economist that the largest democracy on the planet now has a media far more craven than that of its military-driven neighbour, had the knickers of some “patriotic” Indian trollers in a twist. A piece carried by The Wire played interlocutor to The Economist piece pointing out how, even when the military and the attendant jingoism were not involved, sections of the media continued to pull their punches when it came to the central government. It went on to argue that the phenomenon went beyond the corporatization of the media and would need historians and social anthropologists of the future to really understand it.
Perhaps we won’t have to wait for future historians to dissect the phenomenon because the signs are all around us. Take, for instance, the extraordinary lengths to which the Modi government was prepared to go in order to protect its image when journalist and spunky author of The Gujarat Files, Rana Ayyub, was prevented from addressing a public gathering in Doha. Most media platforms did not find this piece of breaking news worth a mention, which in itself is evidence of how self-censorship has become part of the media’s DNA. In contrast, tall claims made by the union government are quickly aired without the benefit of a smidgeon of doubt.
The media piece just cited had in fact pointed out how economic data emerging from government sources are rarely subject to the customary vetting. The same, alarmingly, seems to hold true when it comes to reporting on ISRO, access to which is allowed only to a few select (carefully selected?) journalists. An analysis carried by The Wire, Where Does ISRO Stand on Surgical Strikes and Silica Aerogels? (October 27), scrutinised recent news reports on the agency that appeared in mainstream media. One of them was related to the claim that the organisation had invented an aerogel that was the “lightest material on Earth and which can be used to make special jackets for Indian soldiers labouring in extremely cold climes”. This was not quite the case, as this piece argued. Silica aerogel is neither an ISRO invention nor is it in fact the “lightest material on earth.”
What is disturbing is the new propensity of even an opaque agency like ISRO to court media coverage that has nationalistic overtones. Even more disturbing is the manner in which it is being allowed to do this through the agency of friendly journalists.
In times of paranoia and hyper-nationalism, journalism has its ways of reminding you that, ultimately, we are all in it together as specks of dandruff on the scalp of humanity. The surprising thing about The Wire piece A Hindu and a Muslim Started Living Together. What Happened Next Won’t Surprise You (October 15) is how a non-news story can sometimes become newsworthy, and how few are news stories of this kind at a time when living in silos has become a political statement. This is how, I believe, the piece J’Accuse…? No. I Confess. (October 22), with its satirical layers, should also be read. The reader responses to the piece were striking, some wrote back confessing to their own cross-border transgressions; others decided to deconstruct the content and point fingers. Either way, it certainly stirred the pot.