Backstory: Money (Demonetisation) Talks, But Did the Media Listen?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.

A man counts Rs 500 notes. Credit: PTI

A man counts Rs 500 notes. Credit: PTI

Money costs too much, said the wise man; demonetisation costs too much, say the last 18 days. The universality of currency means that a subject like demonetisation would have currency universally, and that certainly was the case in India over the last two weeks and more. Rich men/women, poor men/woman, beggar men/women, thieves, just about everybody is interested in money and the demonetisation story loomed over the media horizon like the super moon.

Not surprising then that a news report which broke on the day of the US presidential election could nudge even the overweight Trump news subject out of reckoning, or even something as tragic as the Indore-Patna train derailment, which has claimed over 150 lives and is already tottering over the abyss of national amnesia.

As academics who have studied media biases, John D. McCarthy et al have argued, once any subject emerges as a significant issue of public discourse, it results in an informational build-up, which has been defined as the “sudden ascendance of an issue from previous obscurity to a sustained prominence… that dominates the news for a period of time before once again fading from media attention.”

Unpacking the informational build-up around demonetisation is a tall order and will not be attempted here. What can be said as a broad overview is that mainstream media coverage, a few honourable exceptions apart, appeared trapped between the unassailable evidence of popular distress staring them in the face and the sophisticated ventriloquism of a gigantic government publicity machine. For at least the first ten days of this story, the second narrative was allowed to tamp down the first.

The coverage of public distress was largely confined to marooned souls outside banks and ATMs in city neighbourhoods, along with the occasional glimpse of elderly citizens in the queue suffering heart attacks.

The searing face of rural distress caused by unlit kitchen fires, because the lifeline of daily wages had been snapped overnight, took a considerably longer spell to come into view. When the cameras and scribes moved into the hinterland a week or two later, this face finally emerged but in the bits and pieces of a montage. Many of the narratives were enshrouded in a patina of faux courage. Stories of the ‘I don’t mind going hungry for days because I support prime minister’s attack on the corrupt rich’ kind were a legion. This seems to suggest three scenarios. One, reporters were so anxious to ensure that those behind this move could continue to enjoy an untroubled sleep that they doggedly searched for, and highlighted, such comments; two, that the people interviewed were so overawed by their interlocutors, especially those with television mics and other appurtenances, that they decided to flash their own chhappan inch ki chhati (and it is the men who were invariably quoted saying this) for fear of being identified and facing some kind of punitive action; or, third, that the prime minister’s legendary ability to ply his solitary been and communicate his lone struggle for the country’s security, prosperity and morality has once again got the country transfixed.

Certainly no effort has been spared to ensure the third scenario prevailed. Words like ‘masterstroke’ and ‘surgical strike’, now purified and infused with patriotism, were used ad nauseam. There was also a great deal of the counselling of patience. I have lost count of the number of times the ‘no gain without pain’ expression was let loose on the unsuspecting public.

Such versification apart, big ticket poet laureates were also wheeled in, the likes of Prasoon Joshi, whose paean to demonetisation figured prominently in the media. ‘Ek sachch kadam utaya hain… Mera desh aaj muskhaya hain’ (‘A true step has been taken… My nation is smiling today’) with the hurrah girls and boys in the media enthusiastically rising to recite. Hmmm… where have we heard this cadence before? Yes, “Main desh nahin jhukne doonga” (I will not allow my nation to bow before anyone), from another Joshi song that became the BJP’s anthem during the Modi election campaign of 2014. The more things change, the more they remain the same for this party and its leader it seems. This also holds true for impromptu public opinion polls with pre-determined outcomes – another old stratagem to win the opinion war. “Over 90% of Indians welcomed demonetisation?” How can you ever doubt that when a minuscule percentage of smartphone owners are now deemed “we, the people”.

The Wire called that app out (‘Don’t Worry, Be App-y: Thumping Win for Modi in Self-Conducted Poll on Demonetisation‘, November 23) and followed it up with a clinical dissection of the big data quest that it may have entailed (‘Is the NaMo App a ‘Surgical Strike’ By the BJP for User Data?‘, November 23). The last article drew a great deal of reader attention. While the number of views and shares a piece attracts should never be the criterion to judge its worth, it is striking nevertheless that the demonetisation stories carried in The Wire since November 9 did lead to a spike in the number of comments it received.

Some of these were sharply relevant and brought new information and perspectives into the debate, others urged the platform to stop pontificating and allow “views that do not support its party line”, and still others were just trolls of your regular garden variety.

Talking about pontificating, The Wire did not seek to strike a false balance in its coverage of the issue. In this it was guided by the stance of its editorial – the first one it did, incidentally, that went beyond freedom of expression issues – which did some plainspeaking (‘Government’s Demonetisation Shock Has Hit the Poorest the Most‘, November 11). The editorial was one of the early pieces to highlight an aspect that became clearer as the days went by: “the sheer magnitude of the ongoing exercise of replacing 85% of all currency in circulation was not fully thought through in terms of its logistical complexity.” It also underlined that it was political party funding that “truly nurtures the black money ecosystem”.

There is that apocryphal tale about Marx’s mother wanting her son to make some capital rather than write about it. Here we had a situation where everybody was talking about capital but knowing very little about it. If ever there was need for expert comment, it was now. The Wire did well on this score, bringing into the frame expert opinion from across the ideological spectrum from Day 1 (‘Expert Gyan: On the Government’s Decision to Make Rs 500, Rs 1000 Notes Invalid‘, November 9). Over the subsequent days other pieces were to follow (‘Why Demonetisation Could Fail to Make a Dent on Terror Financing‘, November 11; ‘Decision to demonetise currency shows they don’t understand Capitalism: Prabhat Patnaik‘, November 12; ‘Modi’s Demonetisation Move May Have Permanently Damaged India’s Informal Sector‘, November 16, as well as others).

While there may have been differences on the rightness or wrongness of the move, there was general unanimity that the manner in which the government went about it was seriously flawed – a point over which not many among the informed would have quarreled.

Demonetisation seemed to have unleashed reserves of The Wire‘s in-house energy as a small sampling would suffice to demonstrate. There was comment (‘There is a Rising New Contempt for the Poor and the Weak‘, November 19, ‘The Deep Shock of Demonetisation May Devastate the Economy‘, November 20); video coverage drawing on the advantage internet media enjoy vis-à-vis print; and good, old fashioned reporting where footwork is half the work (‘At Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi, Lack of Money is Slowly Choking Business and Also Workers’, November 18, was an outstanding example of this genre). Geographic limitations were also sought to be overcome by comprehensive desk compilations (‘The Strange Effects of Demonetisation in the Northeast’, November 18) or borrowing content from other platforms (‘Rural Tamil Nadu Shows Resilience as Currency Crisis Disrupts Life’, November 24).

More of such effort would be required in the days ahead, because this is a story that is not going anywhere any time soon. At its most profound, it will reside in spaces that lie below the mainstream media gaze. What is now being planned is a new series which aims to hear the voices of the ‘demonetised subaltern’ (‘Freedom Under Fire: Can the Subaltern Speak?’, November 25). For an urban animal like The Wire, going subaltern will have to carry conviction and it will be intriguing to find out whether it will be able to achieve this.

Write to [email protected].

  • kujur bachchan

    Two observations that stand out for their immediate relevance are – “even something as tragic as the Indore-Patna train derailment, which has claimed over 150 lives and is already tottering over the abyss of national amnesia”, and “whether ‘the wire’ would be able to make its readers hear the voices of the ‘demonetised subaltern’.

    I find distressing and deeply disturbing the insularity of ‘the middle class’. The sufferings of ‘the others’ do not shake or shock us. I have a nagging feeling that media’s and our reactions would have been more visible and audible if the ill-fated train was a Rajdhani or Shatabdi. Our collective conscience is not outraged when an Akhlaq is lynched; unarmed escaped under-trials are slain in cold blood or; poor tribal villagers are abused and murdered. Is it the ‘New-Normal’ our venerable Finance Minister was referring to? Perhaps it is.

    For the last two weeks, I have constantly been thinking of our marginalised poorest of the poor tribals and how are they managing their frugal life in the aftermath of demonetisation. I shall commend ‘The Wire’ if it is able to record the real and convincing voices of the tribals of the remotest villages of Jharkhand. (I am of tribal lineage from Jharkhand)

  • Varun Bhargava

    On the topic of crossing the geographic limitations and urban focus, is anyone on the team working on impact of this move on internal extremism in the red states perhaps?