Backstory: Media As Pinocchio – Here Lies 2016

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A fortnightly column from The Wire’s Public Editor.

Invasion of Fake News. Credit: Free Press/Flickr CC 2.0

Invasion of Fake News. Credit: Free Press/Flickr CC 2.0

The season of retrospective analyses in the media is upon us, and The Wire promises to do its bit to recall and memorialise the year 2016. Among the first off the block was a cogent assessment of Indian foreign policy (‘The Modi Government Has Dismantled India’s Foreign Policy’, December 23). The piece, though, did not refer to another dismantling that occurred almost simultaneously – of the Ministry of External Affairs and its minister – possibly because this phenomenon did not strictly fall within the ambit of 2016. It happened on the very day the prime minister ascended high office, and the last 12 months have only brought more conclusive evidence of it.

On my part, let me focus on another trend – that of Indian media platforms becoming not just economical with the truth but also prolific with the lie. Here, of course, the Indian media is completely in sync with fashion trends – the Look of the Year, as it were. The Trump election campaign, we now know, rested on a firm foundation of falsehoods (‘Facebook’s Problem Is More Complicated Than Fake News’, November 11).

Among this year’s fabrications in the Indian media was the manner in which Kanhaiya Kumar was seen as mouthing slogans like “Pakistan Zindabad” on mainstream television channels. It was a classic case of lies, damn lies and videotape. Fake videos masquerading as news led to JNU, one of the country’s best-known institutions of higher learning, being framed as a hot bed of insurgency against the Indian state. They also seriously compromised the academic careers of some of the country’s brightest students and led to a near murderous assault on Kumar himself (‘English Translation: Full Text of Kanhaiya Kumar’s Electrifying Speech at JNU’, March 4). None of those who projected these lies in the national media was brought to account, neither did they bother to issue a minimal retraction for their gross violations of journalistic ethics.

In fact, many of them just carried on with their mass manufacturing of dubious news content. One among them casually labelled the poets participating in a prestigious mushaira held in the national capital in March as “anti-nationals”, and went on to blithely inform the nation that the new, fuchsia-coloured Rs 2,000 note that emerged in November was embedded with a special chip to stop black money. State of the art nano technology, or NGC (Nano GPS Chip), based on a signal locator connected to a satellite, will track the special NGC number on each currency note, even if it is buried deep in the ground, the network’s most prominent anchor claimed with a spectacularly straight face.

Stuff like this requires either genuine unintelligence or an inordinate dependence on intelligence sources. A great deal of fake news emerges from the latter source. The story on the ‘jailbreak’ of eight men owing allegiance to SIMI and their subsequent killing (‘Watch: Bhopal Encounter – What We Know and What We Don’t’, November 2); ‘Madhya Pradesh Police Has a Lot to Hide in Bhopal Encounter, Says Fact Finding Team’, December 1) came loaded with what appeared like content straight out of B-grade Bollywoodia. Keys made from moulds fashioned out of soaps, prison plates flattened into knives, prison sheets used to scale steep prison walls, messages threatening “We are coming on Deepawali”, would strain the credulity of the most chronically naïve amongst us but yet went on to seamlessly feed the breaking news cycle, no questions asked.

What does this say about the most basic of journalistic requirements: fact checking or, if that is not possible, at least an injection of a healthy dose of skepticism and interrogation into the reporting, instead of the police version of events being accepted as an article of faith and passed on to unsuspecting audiences?

And who knows who will pick up this thread of fakery and give it yet another life? A meme that went viral on social media of an elderly man begging for alms presenting a card-swiping machine to a motorist on being informed that she had no change to give him was picked up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi no less during a public rally at Moradabad to shore up his demonetisation argument. Beginning with a disclaimer that he cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, Modi nevertheless proceeded to tell a large election crowd that even beggars are using swipe machines these days. A simple Google search would have indicated to the prime minister that this very same clip – part of a promotional video –  had been circulating on YouTube since 2014 and the present discourse on online cash transactions just gave it another airing.

Can we hope then that days ahead will see the media enter a post-post truth phase? Bury, once and for all, the pernicious Pinocchio-like legacy of 2016, and rediscover the craft of professional, responsible and credible information gathering? Have we gone too far down the dark alleyway of fibs, falsehoods, fabrications or can we declare 2017 as the Year of the Fact Checker?


The story of the year was, of course, the one that broke at the tail end of 2016. Few policy decisions – the emergency and the forced sterilisations it brought was certainly one – have had such a wide and damning ramification on lives of people across the country as demonetisation, now termed ‘demon’ for short. Its impacts will continue to unspool well into the next year and if it is indeed the media’s job to recover the voice of the subaltern – the anonymous subject, (Freedom Under Fire: Can the Subaltern Speak?, November 25) – then the media will also be judged by how well it can read the emotions writ on the faces of those most impacted and how compellingly they write about them (‘The Old Man and the Queue’, December 18).

The backlash, too, won’t be long in coming, if we are to go by the responses that came in to the last piece cited here. One reader wrote it: “STOP your whining about demonetisation and let me see if people like you can focus on the REAL issues that afflict my country. STOP your poverty porn to push your agenda. Start a new series of articles that hammer at India’s social ills, raise the decibel level on each and every issue of Human development. But journalists will never do that. There is no professional capital in that. As there is in stories that favour those you want to favour.”

In reply one can only say demonetisation of the kind that we are witnessing is a “REAL issue” and there are readers of The Wire searching for words to define what it actually means for us, as this poem by Satya Arikutharam would indicate:

Cash and Scurry

In the cat and mouse game of the government and the rich
The rest of us are motley underlings hurt by the policy scattergun.
Demonetise!! The government decreed to fix the black money glitch.
Instantly, panic pervades, and all, mostly poor, are on a frantic run.
Economists weigh in with the sophistry of short, medium and long-
Term implications on the economy, and in rare unanimity
Agree it is too complex and early to know the right from the wrong.
Helpless, people face up to the situation in docile equanimity.
On misplaced hope, some are happy; and in grimaced mope, some
Unhappy to pay the price for the corrupt and privileged coterie’s fault.
The Government promises good days after this inconvenient scrum
As the startled economy splutters, coughs and threatens to halt.
The realm of the country’s complex macroeconomics
Sadly held hostage to politicians’ compulsive histrionics.

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