Backstory: Only Good Journalism Will Steer 'The Wire' Out of the Meta Thicket

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The past fortnight must have been a nightmare for the young, intrepid editorial team of The Wire. To them, I can only paraphrase Maya Angelou, poetry’s great survivor: one may encounter many defeats but one must not oneself be defeated.

The history of journalism has recorded several instances when organisations far larger and better resourced than this one have fallen victim to hoaxes or been led to make monumental blunders of reportage and editorial opinion.

On its 200th anniversary, The Guardian put some of its “errors of judgement” on the page: ‘What we got wrong: the Guardian’s worst errors of judgment over 200 years’.

When the time comes for The Wire to set down its misjudgments, the Meta story will surely figure high on the list. The one solution to this dilemma in the immediate term, short term and long term, is to keep plugging away, keep plugging away, keep plugging away. Only good journalism will steer The Wire out of the Meta thicket.

Many important conversations on journalism in India have ensued from this imbroglio. How does the credible newsroom cope with the pressures of the news cycle even while taking the necessary steps that would ensure, if not guarantee, that their news reports are not fabrications? How much confidence must an editor place on junior colleagues who are doing the news gathering and who may be driven by agendas contrary to that of the organisation?

How much trust must a news gatherer place on their sources? How do editors, reporters and those on the desk protect themselves and their organisation against deception in a millennium steeped in disinformation; a millennium that is seeing the emergence of leaders who rise, capture power and rule on a foundation of fraudulent information; a millennium that is witnessing the use of technological tools which use an argot that is beyond those who have honed their craft on the bellows of legacy media?

How does the public play a critically engaged role to ensure that what they read and see can be trusted?

The questions multiply; the answers are complex.

Meanwhile, it has also been a fortnight of stunning solidarity that could only have arisen from the social and journalistic recognition that The Wire is an institution worth defending at a difficult time. Many have, as they should, called out its failures, but their support and encouragement have been patent. Such backing came from press and media organisations – including the latest kid on the block representing digital media, Digipub – which have been doing the long, lonely and sometimes difficult job of defending media freedoms in a country where they are increasingly in jeopardy.

Amongst them were international organisations that work to protect the rights of media personnel across the world. Human rights organisations, recognising how intrinsic an independent media is to the articulation and defence of civil liberties, have also issued statements and one of them painstakingly put together the major news breaks of The Wire. Eminent journalists have tweeted their concern, as have citizens from across the country.

International media carried commentary pieces while mainstream Indian newspapers have done first edits on the issue.

Also read: Several Journalists’ Bodies, Others Speak Out On Searches At ‘The Wire’, Its Editors’ Homes

Interestingly, these editorials appeared shortly after the Delhi police conducted an evening-to-night seizure raid on The Wire office in Delhi and the homes of four editors and the business-cum-product head in Mumbai and Delhi, taking away their communication devices without the mandated safeguards. The seriousness of this police assault on media freedom was rightly recognised in these comments because the threat is not just to The Wire but the entire Indian media.

Such extraordinary police action on a complaint filed by a private person, powerful though he may be within the ruling party, was perhaps last seen on such a scale during the days of the Indira Gandhi emergency.

The statements of support taken together constitute a serious pushback against a vengeful system weaponised to punish and castigate those they consider media deviants and dissenters. The empire struck back through the agency of their many minions within Big Media.

At a time when elections were imminent, when 135 people had lost their lives in the Morbi bridge disaster, when Delhi was fast becoming a gas chamber, some channels decided to focus their institutional and lung capacities to bringing down The Wire. Between October 28 and November 3, Republic TV must have carried at least four prime-time shows and additional reports on the subject, with Times Now playing catch up.

Even as the story became increasingly thin and repetitive; even as the number of those engaging with it in any direct way (going by comments and likes) was sluggish, Wire-centric programmes spanning 30-50 minutes became the bill of fare.

Night after night, every manner of invective was hurled at this news portal: “a culmination of a whole decade of calumny”; “Wire, the Liar”; “pen wielding naxals”; “biggest fabrication in the world”; “perhaps the gravest case of journalistic malpractice”; “Lutyens media”; “fake news fountains”; and so on and so forth. Clearly this was not about gaining viewership engagement (after all, TRPs have and can be manipulated), but for something far deeper.

They commended the police action and demanded more; and hurled denouncements at The Wire for “throwing the reporter under the bus”. They decried “The Lobby”, the “Ecosystem” for launching “a sympathy campaign”; and attacked the international media for not falling in line. The Wire’s founder editors, in particular, came in for abuse, with their photographs splashed on the screen: “hypocrites who do not do an honest day’s journalism”; “garbage heaps spewing methane” who ask people to “throw pennies in their pisspot”. Have these people even heard themselves speak?

At one point, Times Now’s Rahul Shivshankar tried to rein in his assembled team of Furies, saying, “A lot of things are being said, viewers. It’s rather unfair when the editors are not here to defend themselves…I am not here to take down another media organisation but…”

This collection of invectives, by the way, came from both channels – after all, the guests were often the same. So much so that at one point, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sanju Verma made the cardinal mistake of calling Arnab Goswami, “Rahul”.

The fact is that both organisations, in their familiar and deathly ratings combat, are following the same template: crush any media that are seen to oppose the Modi regime. The prime argument raised by both was that The Wire through its reporting was defaming “our country”.

The Freedom House ratings that lowered the image of India’s democracy were continuously referenced. The irony that they had put, and were putting, India and its media in very bad light through their intemperate television was lost on them. Anchors of both channels had the same technique of shutting up guests who went against their narrative by calling upon favourites to butt in with counters.

Whether it was Suman C. Raman on Times Now who tried to highlight how the Delhi police did not provide a hash value of the devices they took; or Sanjay Jha, who stoutly reeled out a list of themes that were really sullying the country’s image; or indeed Tauseef Rehman and Nilanjan Das on Republic TV valiantly pointing out how the BJP party and its ecosystem were, in fact, the real source of misinformation, each one was firmly silenced. As Pierre Bourdieu observed presciently in his essay series ‘On Television’: competition homogenises the media, creates uniformity so that journalistic products begin to look like each other.

“Collective pressures, and particularly competitive pressures, are so strong that one is led to do things that one wouldn’t do if the others didn’t exist…”

Watching the recent exhibition of high-pitched televised rhetoric drove home the relevance of Bourdieu’s reading.


Morbi coverage on television

What was striking about the media coverage of the human-made Morbi bridge disaster of October 30 was the great footwork of reporters, especially television journalists. Whether working for national channels or local Gujarati language ones, they rarely make it to national attention, but their work in unearthing the realities of Morbi was of international calibre.

I cannot disagree with commentators like Ranjona Banerjee who maintain that the post-Morbi media narrative is “pro-Modi pro-BJP nuance”.

At the same time, I also want to draw attention to the work of many young male and female media professionals who, from the very next morning of the disaster, tirelessly demonstrated how their medium could be used in such tragic circumstance to play to its strengths. They did this by presenting to the nation visible evidence of wrong-doing in Gujarat. These foot soldiers, microphones in hand, showed us how a manufacturer of clocks and CFL blubs – the Oreva Group – was given the contract to repair the bridge; how the owners, who were major patrons of the ruling party, made a clean getaway leaving their frightened, pathetically junior, staff to be hauled up by the police in the name of state accountability.

They also brought us the unedifying spectacle of a government hospital preparing its precincts to receive – not the tide of shattered survivors and the distraught relatives of the dead – but a prime minister who should have known that VIP visits are a huge drain on the limited capacities of small town hospitals.

We saw the painting of walls and re-tiling of floors, even as relatives of patients complained how they have been left high and dry. We even saw a water cooler placed in a hospital hall as a prop without the requisite plumbing that could render it useful. I was struck by how impactful this coverage was when an outraged Wire reader in Karnataka, Vivek Pinto, alerted us to the words he heard on television:

“No one is telling us anything. The hospital is busy painting their walls for the PM,” Vinod Dapat, told a local television news station as he walked through the hospital halls, unable to find his brother-in-law’s daughter and her fiancé, who had gone to the bridge for a Sunday outing.”

The courageous coverage of this young brigade also came as a reminder of the spirit of common humanity even in communally polarised Gujarat where neighbourhoods are marked ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’ depending the communities living in them. Both Hindus and Muslims lost their loved ones and helped each other.

Can we hold on to the enormous human dimension of this disaster to create a less hate-filled landscape?

The stories told by journalists at Morbi should not be forgotten.


Fireworks on the front page

Virat Kohli’s knock of 82 not out, powering an India win over Pakistan, happened to coincide with Diwali. This of course gave headline hunters the opportunity to come up with a cracker of a header on the front page. The Diwali mood was inherent in most headlines. Some had xenophobic undertones but they were thankfully muted.

The Indian Express went with ‘Kohli’s Diwali Gift’. The Times of India and The Hindustan Times, even while it referenced Diwali, avoided overstating the national pride bit. The former went with ‘Kohli’s back as king, lights up WC with cracker of an innings’, while the later had ‘Diwali celebrations kick off with a win for the ages’.

The Hindu left out the Diwali mood completely and stuck to cricket: ‘Vintage Kohli does it for India in a thriller against Pakistan’.

Newspaper clippings of headlines after India’s win. Photo: The Wire.


What kind of gifts can journalists accept?

The Karnataka government is desperate for a makeover after the terrible press it got for its handling of the floods and its general shabby and communalised model of governance. In a bid, possibly, to get the media on its side before a big investors meet (much of the media is already firmly there, so I don’t know what the worry is about), the state government came up with the idea of a really impressive Diwali gift for journalists in which crisp currency notes add to the colour of the conventional Diwali sweets.

Some say it amounted to nothing less than Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh. The fact that journalists rejected this and went on to embarrass the government over its effort to buy them drew much praise, but as one columnist commented, there may have been many in the press corps who rued this act of integrity, given the lousy salaries most get.

The story brings me back to the various ways in which journalists were bribed in earlier days. Suit lengths and Parker pens were par for the course, but the Maharashtra state-run Sahakari Bhandar – now in an unholy alliance with Reliance Retail – used to win many hearts among the pen pushers of the 1970s and 1980s by handing out large black umbrellas that were guaranteed to take on the most fearsome Mumbai downpour.

Rajdeep Sardesai received a good piece of advice from the late Outlook editor Vinod Mehta. Speaking journalist to journalist, Mehta revealed his thumb rule when it came to accepting gifts: he took only those kinds of gifts that could be consumed in the short term – sweets and dry fruit!


Readers write in…

Meta scapes

Over the last fortnight, the Ombudsperson received a great deal of mail both critical and supportive of The Wire. Several of them were responses to the last column, Backstory: Getting to the Heart of the Meta’ (October 22). We are thankful for the interest these readers have taken in the Meta stories and their aftermath. We also apologise to those who sent letters on other topics. They will be carried in subsequent columns. Persistent questioning made the difference

Sundeep Dougal tweeted:

“There is much to agree with @pamelaphilipose when she says: “Its process to shore up the credibility of the story actually contributed to undermining it. The question then is: when do you stop defending yourself, take a step back and start considering corrective measures?”

“On the other hand, had it not been for @pranesh’s persistent questioning, and with Meta’s credibility being zilch, not only we outside of the Wire, but also for those like @svaradarajan, there would have been room to not be sure between two sets of claims. This needed to squarely be about the lapses in the editorial process as have been well flagged by @pranesh and @PySamarth. The manifest complicity of Meta with BJP, schadenfreude, bad-faith right-wing trolling and glee, and much else besides, could be written about separately.”


Disappointed in your response

Pranesh Prakash had this to say in a tweet:

“Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed with @pamelaphilipose’s analysis. Even though she could question The Wire staff about the reporting, she opts to rely on the same public documents we all have access to. And she chooses to cast doubt on Meta’s rebuttal of the Stone email. Really?”

“Would a person reading @pamelaphilipose‘s article w/o any background realize that the Wire has been accused of fabricating documents & sources, and not just of “misquoting” them, and that it didn’t just fail in its “effort to correct public perception?”


What The Wire should do

Superhumans’ Archive of Cringetopia:

“Hi, we read your column, and we would like to highlight this particular comment:

The Wire’s story failed certain foundational tests, most patently in its citing of sources.

Many of these sources:

1) either did not stand by what The Wire put out,
2) or were misunderstood, or were wrongly quoted,
3) or possibly had second thoughts . . .”

So we strongly believe that public denials of experts, KK and Ujjwal Kumar (UK), who were referenced in the last report The Wire published, has damaged The Wire‘s reputation.

There are two things that The Wire must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt:

A. Documents – PIR report and Andy’s mail –are true. The Wire may access PIR of anti-Hindutva posts –we suggested some accounts: @drunk.journalist, @lotuswatch; their posts were flagged – deleted by Instagram to prove (A). [CONFIDENTIAL] B. UK’s statement is false (3). The Wire may release Devesh’s chat with UK to prove (B).

Also, time really matters. If they don’t utilise it efficiently, then it will be more difficult to counter the narrative of RW and pro-Meta bloc.”

N. Jayaram:

“Do an information security audit of your IT infrastructure. Retrain all your existing journalists in matters tech and collaborate with external agencies on tech stories. Never forget that the IT ecosystem in India has the largest number of right-wing supporters.”


Problematic handling of evidence

Sateesh Kumar B.:

“I have been donating to The Wire since its initial days and am I writing this to you with a bit of concern about your Meta exposé. I am no Meta fanboy and never had FB or Insta account. I laud your effort to take on practices of a behemoth that is not really held in high esteem for its privacy practices, or acting in a socially responsible manner. At the same time I think there were chinks in your reporting and handling of the questions raised about the evidence you presented to the world.”

“I do understand your concern about protecting your sources and the constraint you have to do full disclosure. But at the time some of your reactions have been ad hominem attacks than addressing the points others have raised about the evidence that was presented, which serves no good. It is also a tad disappointing that the statement posted by The Wire makes no effort to address any of the credible reactions that came out in response to the exposé. I hope you continue to practice good journalism, uphold the standard and are more thorough with your daring exposés.”

Ombudsperson failure

P.M. Bhat:

The Wire mess is partly factcheck failure, shoddy reportage, editorial laziness and actually Ombudsperson failure. The Ombudsperson slept, sorry snored and ignored, reader feedback. Wish-washy cover via the Backstory.”

The Wire is no different


“I feel greatly let down by the whole The Wire-vs-Meta controversy. I have been a long-time supporter of The Wire contributing annually. I had expected better from you. This incident has shown that you are no different from other ideology-driven media. I had mistakenly assumed such ideology-driven media houses exist only on the right-wing, but you have proved me wrong. Unless you do a thorough review of both the current Meta articles as well as the earlier Tek Fog reporting, I will not be able to support you with a clear conscience. I will no longer contribute towards your journalistic reporting or recommend you as an unbiased journalism website, till you prove yourself clear in both these episodes.”

Tek Fog stories

There was also this mail from Suman Kar, founder of Banbreach, a cybersecurity startup, on the Tek Fog stories:

“I have some experience of working with digital forensics and incident response. I have a few comments to make on the evidence that we find in the Tek Fog stories published by The Wire between January 6-21, 2022. I compiled my observations in a document. You can access the document using this link (valid for the next 30 days). “I am keenly aware of the role journalism plays in shaping our thoughts. I respect the work The Wire team does. I will be more than happy to answer your questions. I look forward to better understand the Tek Fog story from you.”

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