Under normal circumstances, journalists who expose corruption in the government and subject its policies to objective scrutiny and analysis, are a valued lot. But not any more. Today, under the unwritten law that several media organisations tacitly follow, news becomes newsworthy only if it is government friendly or fits into the larger narrative being propagated by the party in power. Given this situation, it is inconsequential if the information being disseminated is fake, unsubstantiated, poorly researched, misleading, beyond reason or deeply embarrassing in the long run. It only has to be pro-government.
Last week, two mainstream news channels, Times Now and Zee TV, aired what they said is a video of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, allegedly opening his speech with the salutation “Jai Siya Ram” at a spiritual event conducted by the guru Morari Bapu in the UAE last September. The video clip, which went viral instantly, was timed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit this week to the UAE and was perhaps shown to illustrate how an invocation to Lord Ram was acceptable even to the royalty in an Arab state.
Unfortunately for Times Now and Zee TV, their push for Hinduism was short lived because the video was proven to be false. The Crown Prince had not attended any such spiritual event. In fact, the person in the Arab dress shown in the clip was a UAE-based columnist and not Shaikh Mohammed Bin Zayed! Both news channels took their time to withdraw the fake video from their news mix following protests from discerning viewers. But by then, the damage had been done. Regional news sites Kannada Prabha, Dainik Bhaskar, Jansatta, ABP Ananda and 24 Ghanta carried the news. So did websites like India.com and postcard.news. The cumulative result of this misinformation drive was that lakhs of people consumed and believed the news. Worse, they further propagated it by sharing it on social media.
Understandably, the story came in for criticism in the UAE. The Dubai-based Gulf News carried a report in which it censured the “mainstream Indian media” for carrying news that was blatantly false. It noted that the entire episode raised some disturbing questions about the credibility and intent of sections of the press which was falling “prey to propaganda and fake news, whether by choice or as acts of commission.” The paper also pointed out that the digital footprints of the viral videos show a clear pattern that “all the stories were uploaded between a similar time period: just ahead of Modi’s arrival in UAE.”
Such an embarrassing cock up would have led to heads rolling at the top of any news organisation. But as of now, one hasn’t heard anything about action being taken against any editor in Times Now or Zee TV. In fact, going by the recent record of these two channels and several others who have been dishing out dubious information, it is safe to assume that no one will ever be pulled up. Fake news, one must unfortunately conclude, is acceptable provided it dovetails with the larger vision of the government or of the Sangh Parivar.
The news agency, PTI, reportedly found itself in trouble for tweeting a picture of BJP supporters wearing masks of Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to mark Friendship Day. The agency had to withdraw the photograph and apologise after it was censured by none other than I&B Minister Smriti Irani
Transpose this with the intolerance shown towards someone critical of the unethical media practice which allows fake news to flourish. Angshukanta Chakraborty lost her job as the political editor of the DailyO, an online opinion and commentary platform of the India Today Group for a tweet she posted on February 4. Her tweet had upset the Group's management no end.
Here is her offending tweet: “Promoters turning a blind eye to hate-mongering, fake news spreading news anchors, editors, reporters and writers, or hiring them in the first place, must be tried in court as hate speech enablers-profiteers. Must be boycotted socially by secular politicians & industrialists.” The tweet received 52 likes and 43 retweets and had sunk in her timeline when she was asked by her bosses to delete it. When Chakraborty refused, her services were promptly terminated.
It is likely that her management may have been upset because two of its news channels, Aaj Tak and India Today, and the daily tabloid Mail Today, have been caught out spreading fake news. Its editors and senior staffers have also indulged in hate mongering through social media. Perhaps the management felt that Chakraborty’s tweet was an attack directed at them, although she did clarify that it was a general statement about the media and didn't take names or target anyone.
Sidelined for doing their job
Forget fake news and tweets. Even those pursuing honest and simple journalism can get themselves into a mess for no fault of theirs. The February 2 issue of Frontline reports on an emerging trend where spokespersons of ministries have begun to form Whatsapp groups to interphase with journalists on the beat. Those not toeing the official line or guilty of adding their own inputs deemed unfavourable, are taken off the group and denied access to information. This form of boycott has serious implications for a reporter who will be found wanting in basic newsgathering skills and is not alerted even about press briefings or important announcements. This also sends a message to other reporters of the price to be paid for straying from the government line.
Sometimes it is difficult to draw a distinction between what may be perceived as favourable and unfavourable. Even an innocuous photograph is enough. The news agency, PTI, reportedly found itself in trouble for tweeting a picture of BJP supporters wearing masks of Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to mark Friendship Day. The agency had to withdraw the photograph and apologise after it was censured by none other than I&B Minister Smriti Irani. Senior staffers at the agency are still puzzled as to why the photograph had caused so much offence—was it just because it had shown a BJP supporter wearing the mask of the PM?
Similarly, the Indian Express was recently pulled up by someone highly placed in the government for a primer it carried on the Rafale deal. “The story merely explained the controversy and the issues involved. It looked at what was already in the public domain and did not include any editorial comment or raise fresh allegations. It was a news feature but it still upset people in the government because of the angle taken and was brought to the notice of the editors,” says a senior staffer who feels that no story which is being discussed animatedly in Parliament can be reported without touching upon what the Opposition is alleging.
Increasing collateral damage
Given the atmosphere that currently prevails, such complaints have increased in frequency. It is also not uncommon for reporters to receive calls from government officials or BJP point persons to change their tweets, alter the tone of a particular story or kill a report from the web edition of their newspapers. Those working for TV news channels speak of requests to black out or play down press conferences of Opposition leaders. Very often these are complied with to keep those in power happy.
Nowhere was this playing down of negative news more visible than in this year’s Budget. Most mainstream newspapers relegated to the inside pages news about the lack of funds budgeted for the many schemes announced with much fanfare, including the free health insurance scheme. The inherent contradictions between the Budget promises and allocations were noticed but were not played up as this would have upset the government.
As Sevanti Ninan, media analyst and editor of the media watchdog The Hoot put it in her assessment: “Budget 2018 announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was instantly framed as a political exercise ahead of a big election next year, by both TV channels and newspapers, and all its announcements taken at face value thereafter. That was perhaps the obvious thing to do. It was left to the politicians, not the journalists to look closer at the actual numbers, though a few did.”
Meanwhile, the fake news industry is thriving. From stories on love jihad to ISRO’s plan to mine helium-3 from the moon to solve India’s energy problem, the media seems to be in a race to outdo each other to prove its fake credentials. Truth and their own credibility are the natural casualties in this exercise. Political patronage certainly comes with collateral damage.