Backstory | The 2019 Elections Just Got a Significant Talking Point: Unemployment

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

When numbers turn “seditious”, when they begin to speak inconvenient truths, what does a government as paranoid as the present one do? The same thing it does to human rights defenders who speak inconvenient truths – as the ham-handed arrest of Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde has again demonstrated (‘Despite Supreme Court’s Protection, Pune Police Arrest Scholar Anand Teltumbde’, February 2). Lock them up is the general formula. Incarcerate every single digit; drape the windows to ensure that sunlight doesn’t fall on the ledger.

The fact is that numbers, like murder, will out. Even when large sections of the media are prepared to look the other way, there will always be a few good people prepared to speak up (‘Statistical Commission Experts Resign in Protest Over Jobs Data, Govt  Attitude’,  January 30),  a few good academics willing to  file RTI petitions to understand the ground reality a bit better (‘A (Failed) Quest to Obtain India’s Missing Jobs Data’, February 1), professional journalists willing to dig deeper, (‘NSSO Data Puts Unemployment at 45-Year High in 2017-18: Report’, January 31), a few courageous media platforms happy to put out “seditious” stories.

What was exceptional about the Business Standard story, which revealed the trends on the jobs front that the government was so anxious to hide – most significantly that the unemployment rate has now scaled a 45-year high in the wake of demonetisation – was how it doesn’t really matter which media platform breaks a good story. The sheer pressure of credible facts burst into public awareness like an unstoppable force of nature.

Also read: Backstory: Good Journalism Highlights the Veil of Secrecy, Great Journalism Pierces It

Media reports (‘How Piyush Goyal evaded India’s jobs crisis, by mentioning “jobs” nine times’, Quartz) have discerned the clever way in which interim finance minister Piyush Goyal neatly vaulted over the BS story.

Instead, Goyal promised “massive employment” sometime in the future by “expanding rural industrialisation using modern digital technologies”. But what takes one’s breath away is what he says next: “Job seeker is now a job creator. Now, government offices and factories are not the only employers. The definition of employment and self employment is changing now.” 

In other words, in Modi’s “New India” every job seeker becomes a job achiever, every job lost is a job gained, and unemployment becomes re-defined as employment. Pakodanomics at its finest (‘Watch: Pakoda-wallahs respond to Modi’s statement about them on Zee TV’, January 25, 2018).

This disturbing penchant for redefinition and rejigging that the Modi government displays time and again should put the media on high alert. It is in that context that the various attempts of the media, including The Wire, to fact check the information put out by the interim finance minister during the interim budget presentation is really welcome. 

Farmer Income Support Scheme? “The Rs 6000 a year support for farmers is less than both Telangana’s Rythu Bandhu – Rs 8,000 per year – and Odisha’s Kalia – Rs 10,000 per year”. MGNREGA? Allocation less than what was spent last year (India is) the “fastest major growing economy in world today, with an average GDP growth of last five years, higher than any government since economic reforms”? “Yes… but the manner in which the Modi govt revised GDP numbers is still quite contentious…”

The Wire’s fact checking hat needs to remain firmly in place as we cut through the fog of data in the election season ahead. One word of caution though: fact checking, since it has to stand up to extraordinary scrutiny, needs to be fully fact compliant if it is not to be quickly discredited and this demands diligence and effective systems that go beyond the Google search.

Congress in the crosshairs

The Wire has been a vigilant critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often inviting the jibe that its coverage is being driven by its biases against the present government. Power, absolute and corporatised power, has to be mistrusted and critiqued, and the media seem to have forgotten this old principle in the years since the last general election.

The question is this: does The Wire pull its punches when it comes to placing other political entities under the scanner? I don’t think so. Should we have a non-Modi sarkar after general election 2019, the vigilant eye and critical mind should prove to be The Wire’s most valuable assets, as they have been during the course of the present dispensation – notwithstanding the innumerable defamation case notices piling up at the door.

Even in this election season, there have been some sharp commentaries which have not spared the Indian National Congress. The piece, ‘By Going Solo in UP, Congress Demonstrates Its Penchant for Suicide’ (January 25) alerted us to a disturbing “revival of overweening ambition within the Congress” and the Priyanka Gandhi launch was, far from symbolising a new energy within the party is, was actually “an admission of despair”, given how late the move was made.  The piece, ‘With Priyanka Gandhi’s Induction, Rahul Proves He Is Also a Pragmatist’ (January 24) recognises what could be two fatal flaws in the party: a lack of strong regional leaders and a top-heavy organisation.

Also read: Backstory: A Once-In-Five-Years Chance for Media to Understand India and Its Politics

Priyanka Gandhi’s record of electoral strategising was also put to the reality check in the piece, ‘Priyanka Gandhi Is Embarking on a High-Risk Mission in Uttar Pradesh’ (January 24), which recalled that it was she who “who finally swung the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance for the UP assembly election in early 2017 by personally prevailing on Akhilesh Yadav to part with 100 seats”.

It was a move, the writer argues, that in hindsight was a conceptual disaster, with upper caste voters deserting the Congress the minute it allied with the SP.  The Gandhis Will Now Hunt in Pairs’ (January 24) saw the induction as “principally about the atmospherics of the election to follow and the ability of that theatre to regain the support of groups that the Congress has lost in recent years”. There is no guarantee however that this would work and the writer goes on to argue that the Congress would need to tread warily in this endeavour.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Credit: PTI/Files

The Congress has also drawn sharp criticism from The Wire on the way it had discarded concerns that touched Muslim lives during its electioneering in Madhya Pradesh (‘As ‘Shiv Bhakt’ Rahul Comes to MP, Congress Campaign is Firmly in ‘Hindu’ Mode’, September 17, 2018). It has also been fiercely critical of the manner in which the party and its leader shrugged off responsibility for the 1984 riots (‘If Rahul Gandhi is Asked About the 1984 Killings Again, This is What He Should Say’, December 18, 2018). The article argues that “if Rahul Gandhi were really serious about being in politics and about making a positive difference, he would stop repeating worn-out denials to a truth the whole of India knows.”

The party’s investiture of Kamal Nath as Madhya Pradesh chief minister also drew sharp comment (‘Rahul Gandhi, Your Words Are No Longer Enough’, December 27, 2018). The fact is, as this piece highlighted, having come to power in three states “it is inevitable that the Congress will find the going tough in some ways – more questions will be asked of its conduct in government, and Rahul Gandhi will have to show concrete action to contrast against the BJP. Words will no longer be enough.”

How much more will this expectation be, if the party emerges successful in May 2019?

Also read: Backstory: Will 2018 Be Seen as the Year of the Unravelling?

Norms on media coverage of rape: CEHAT

In a public mail, Sangeeta, from the Mumbai-based Centre for Enquiry Into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), highlighted some problematic aspects of media coverage, particularly with regard to acquittals and convictions in cases of rape and related crimes. The CEHAT team has been supporting the child and her family. I am carrying it here because it provides useful insights on where the media goes wrong in reporting such cases:

“A  front page news on January 24, 2019, in a major Mumbai newspaper was headlined, “3 teachers acquitted of rape after 3 years in jail”. It followed no norms of balanced reporting and fed into a common notion that acquittal of accused means that rape did not occur and that women and children fake rape. Such reporting is perhaps the reason why survivors stay away from accessing legal redress.

“This particular case was that of a 9-year-old child sexually abused by three teachers at a private school. The trial went on for three years with four or five public prosecutors being changed in the intervening period. The court arrived at an acquittal on January 22. The judgment had not even arrived, so we were appalled at the way in which the case has been reported. The second line in the article stated that “medical report established that sexual assault did not take place”. This conclusion is misplaced. It is important for not just the defence counsel and judiciary, but also for news reporting to recognise the scope and limitations of “medical evidence”. The report does not dwell into reasons for lack of medical evidence at all. In fact it seems to essentialise medical evidence. In this particular case, the child was subjected to repeated sexual abuse over a period of time. Threats from perpetrators led to a delay in disclosure by the survivor, so, there was no scope of finding any medical or forensic evidence due to this delay in disclosure.

“Inferences like “It is unlikely that a 9 year old would have been repeatedly raped and wouldn’t have complained of any pain”, “the girl gave inconsistent statements”, “she was tutored” are seriously problematic and not evidence based. The intent of these inferences is to falsify the survivor’s testimony. The entire report is based on information offered by defence lawyer.

The report has equated acquittal of the perpetrators/ accused to being innocent. It speaks of how the perpetrators lost three years of their lives and employment and they languished in jail.  The tone of the news article projects this case as a false case. This is seriously problematic as acquittal does not mean the case is “false” at all, it only means that evidence was not adequate for a conviction.

 “With such damaging reporting it is a challenge for survivors to pursue legal redressal. The survivor and her family are already facing an ordeal not just due to these acquittals but also due to lack of community support and suspicions of “false case” thanks to this article!

Also read: Backstory: Journalists as Witnesses Have Become Easy Targets for Murder

“There is no call out on violations by the school under POCSCO. This dissuades the child from reporting abuse and prevents the family from pursuing the case – both of which are clear violations under the law.

“Several efforts were made to discuss these concerns with the reporter concerned, but the editor simply said “We will now report if and when the family appeals in the high court”! It prompts us as an organisation to seek suggestions from the public on how to deal with the media when they report court proceedings.”  

Readers’ responses

The Ambassador of Poland, Adam Burakowski, wrote in with regard to the piece,In Holocaust Study, a New Attempt to Measure the Pace of Nazi Genocide’ (January 12). He points to what he characterises as a ‘politically sensitive mistake’ in the article: “Terms, used in the article, such as ‘camps in Poland’, ‘deporting to Poland’ or ‘Poland’s General Government area’ may cause confusion and be misleading for readers since at that time being Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany. So the correct term would be ‘Germany-occupied Poland’ which was once mentioned in your article. Could you please change all the mentions about Poland to ‘Germany-occupied Poland’?”

I am happy to note that The Wire has been prompt about carrying out these changes.

Shubham Soni, a software developer based out of Pune, thanks The Wire for all the work that it is doing, and wants to contribute to the cause. He believes there are aspects that can be improved on its website and expresses willingness to help on the software side of things, should The Wire want such assistance. One suggestion he puts forward is to use a minified version of React, which will help it decrease the page load time. 

Over the last two weeks, I received two mails from readers who wish to subscribe to hard copies of The Wire. Prateek Batra, based in New Delhi, located at Lodhi Estate, for instance, wants “hard copies” to be delivered at his office in Lodhi Estate. So far The Wire has no plans to print hard copies of its content.

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