Big Media's Take on the Aadhaar-LPG Savings Saga Highlights Why We Can't Trust It

While the government painted a highly exaggerated picture of savings from the direct benefit transfers for LPG, the mainstream media played along with this portrayal.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Representative image. Credit: Reuters

Are you one of those who bought into UPA-2’s shrill sales pitch on the wonders the Aadhaar would do for welfare schemes? Were your beliefs confirmed by the current government’s claims on savings in LPG due to Aadhaar direct benefit transfers (DBT)? If so, @databaazi, a new twitter handle with its 101 ‘tweet-thesis’ is for you.

In a nutshell, the conclusion of the tweet-thesis is as follows: there’s been a bit of a Mahabharata about the savings through the Aadhaar-LPG-DBT.

On the one hand, we have government press releases and articles by senior government functionaries making rather big claims about the savings.

The chief economic advisor (CEA) played a key role in churning out these estimates.

Each time these press releases are issued, they get wide coverage in mainstream media – Indian Express/Financial Express, Business Standard, The Hindu, Times of India/Economic Times, Livemint and the like.

On the other hand, there have been rejoinders challenging the government’s numbers. The main challenge has come from the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and, more recently, from the comptroller and auditor general (CAG).

Facts vs Charms

As things stand, the government is losing. But it is losing only the facts-game. As far as the public impression of Aadhaar-LPG-DBT is concerned, the government is far ahead in the race.

For instance, the tweet-thesis documents how soon after Business Standard and Wall Street Journal question the government’s claims (which originate in the CEA’s office), the CEA begins to express doubts and soon clarifies in the Indian Express that it was ‘potential’ savings they had in mind, not ‘actual’.

With the government in a difficult situation, the charm tap was turned on. Within two weeks of this major loss of face on the fact-battle, Shekhar Gupta did a congratulatory episode of ‘Walk the Talk’ on NDTV with Nandan Nilekani, with little mention of the controversy.

What explains this anomaly of public impressions being divorced from facts? It appears that the mainstream media’s current functioning must share much of the blame.

Lack of an editorial line

One interesting insight from the tweet-thesis is how many publications appear to have no ‘institutional memory’. For example, while Business Standard, The Economic Times and The Hindu questioned the government’s claims using IISD’s estimates, when they publish the CAG’s results, they do not refer back to their own IISD-based articles that corroborate the CAG’s stand (T#97-99). This is an important omission: for the reader, if two independent sources are saying the same thing it adds weight to the evidence.

Two, a worrying revelation from the tweet-thesis is that leading papers and their columnists cannot be entirely trusted to present a reasoned evidence-based analysis: the tweet-thesis points to several instances when papers unquestioningly regurgitate government press releases to perpetuate the impression that Aadhaar-LPG-DBT has been a grand success.

Headline-baiting is the third worrying element – for instance, when government claims are reported in the headline as facts.

We’re on our own

For the layperson who believes what is published in the papers, it comes down to the volume of articles coming from each viewpoint (no points for guessing who wins this battle). Opinion pages should provide space to a range of opinions. This can be seen as evidence of the continuing independence of the media.

Based on the evidence and the range of opinions, are readers not entitled to a reasoned editorial line on important matters? It appears not. If the layperson thinks that their favourite newspaper is doing some thinking on their behalf, this tweet-thesis clearly shows that that is not the case.

Role of political parties

The tweet-thesis also demonstrates the weakness of political parties in the opposition. To be fair, there are a few whimpers from some Congress leaders.

A couple of MPs raised questions about savings and the methodology in the Rajya Sabha, but these questions were not answered (see T#31, 38, 69 and 86). Perhaps it is naïve to expect anything from an opposition that was itself part of the propaganda machinery while they were in power.

False equivalence in the Aadhaar debate

“False equivalence – the practice of giving equal media time and space to demonstrably invalid positions for the sake of supposed reportorial balance – is dishonest, pernicious and cowardly,” Bob Garfield wrote in The Guardian.

‘False equivalence’ afflicts reporting on Aadhaar big time. A journalist documenting the exclusion from the public distribution system and social security pensions due to Aadhaar recently got in touch asking for some positive stories: the editors to wanted “balance”. The benefits from Aadhaar, if any, pale in comparison to the damage it is causing to welfare schemes, the privacy threat, the potential for mass surveillance through it. It is a shocking that such demands (for equal weight to the pros and cons) are being made when reporting on Aadhaar even when the damage has no significant counterpart.