Media should redefine role before relentless waves of false narratives deal a terminal blow to its credibility

A worrying trend is afoot in India where entire narratives based on flimsy evidence, misleading reports or fake news are capturing the news cycle. Before these stories could be sobered down or confronted with facts, they have given rise to elaborate spin-offs, a larger political narrative has been fed and the news has moved on to the next egregious cycle.

In the recent past, starting with the outrage over Gauri Lankesh's killing, we have been witness to a relentless churning of misleading information, erroneous assumptions, loaded insinuations, half-truths and post truths dominating news cycle that have one common refrain — a political narrative against the ruling dispensation.

A point to be noted here is that political parties are justified in propagating their agenda. That's what parties do in a democracy. In a political fight, narratives are frequently built based on oversimplifications, half-truths or even total misrepresentation of facts. The electorate is conditioned to take these narratives with a liberal dose of salt. But people expect neutrality from media. It is expressly the media's job to not let itself be used as part of any political agenda. When that happens, the credibility of media stands eroded and its role is brought into question.

File image of journalists and social activists protesting to demand justice for Gauri Lankesh. Firstpost/Sachin Gokhale

File image of journalists and social activists protesting to demand justice for Gauri Lankesh. Firstpost/Sachin Gokhale

The motivation of the media in propagating such news may not always be malicious and could well be stemming from a confused understanding of its role in a democracy. There is a world of difference between speaking truth to power and taking on the role of the Opposition. While the media is expected to perform the duties of a watchdog and ensure that the powers-that-be are kept honest, it cannot go into such an activism mode that its role becomes inseparable from that of the political parties.

A few examples should suffice to see how often the lines between the message and the medium are getting blurred. No sooner did the brutal killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh came to light, elaborate theories were spun on how these are linked to similar killing of rationalists and inexorably linked to the Hindu right.

A bevy of intellectuals including historian Ramachandra Guha said the murder was "part of a pattern that links the deaths of (Narendra) Dabholkar, (MM) Kalburgi and (Govind) Pansare." Guha blamed it on a "climate of hate and intolerance that has been promoted by this current (BJP) government," according to an Indian Express report.

We were also told, amid a nationwide condemnation for the murder, that "five persons linked to the right-wing Sanatan Sanstha organisation… have emerged as key suspects," by another report in The Indian Express.

Soon, more details emerged. The Times of India reported that "Lankesh and Kannada scholar Kalburgi were killed with the same pistol", citing "preliminary findings of the Forensic Sciences Laboratory."

Political parties were quick to react. Congress president-designate Rahul Gandhi tweeted:

CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury said: "the Sangh Parivar is fostering a climate of bigotry, hate, intolerance and violence in India."

A little over a month, let us now check the facts of the case. The special investigative team probing the case said on Saturday that no link has yet been discovered between Lankesh and Dabholkar or Kalburgi's murder.

"We have so far found no link to the Dabholkar murder. There is also no confirmation on whether weapons used were the same as that in Kalburgi murder," SIT chief BK Singh told reports, according to News18. According to the report, "one of the suspects sported a 'tilak' on his forehead, but that might have been done to 'mislead' investigators," said SIT, while releasing the sketches of suspected murderers.

The Times of India reported that "There is no FSL report that says that the weapon used has matched with the one used in the Kalburgi case or any other case. While the cartridges from the Kalburgi case has now arrived, we haven't yet requested for the cartridges from the (Govind) Pansare and (Narendra) Dabholkar cases."

To sum, the SIT, formed by Congress government in Karnataka, has said that there is nothing yet to show that Lankesh was killed by members of Hindu right-wing groups and earlier reports about Lankesh being killed by the "same pistol" that was used during the murders of rationalists have been denied.

By the time these facts came to light, Wall Street Journal raised a question whether "a journalist’s shocking murder marks an authoritarian turn for her country?" and The New York Times warned India that "If Mr Modi doesn’t condemn her murder forcefully and denounce the harassment and threats that critics of Hindu militancy face daily, more critics will live in fear of deadly reprisal and Indian democracy will see dark days."

Let's now turn to the state of the Indian economy. The slowdown in GDP growth and lack of jobs and private investment (all realities) have been coloured by a political narrative that the economy in irrevocably damaged because of Modi's mismanagement of policies.

Some economists such as Sajjid Chinoy of JP Morgan or Vivek Dehejia of IDFC Institute made sober points about the transitory costs of demonetisation and GST and observed that there is no need to panic, and no time for complacency, these were largely ignored in favour of a raucous narrative, fuelled by BJP's own dissenters, that Indian economy has crashed and Modi is doing a bit of a Nero.

This narrative was picked up by Rahul in his campaign trail, where he savaged the prime minister's policies and demonised big businesses. Congress proclaimed that GST will be reviewed once Rahul becomes the prime minister.

It appears that the Bretton Woods institutions are more optimistic about Indian economy than Indian media or its politicians. The World Bank has given a ringing endorsement to prime minister's policies, suggesting that the slowdown is a 'blip' and growth will be back on track and more stable soon.

"The reform process has been significant. We think that certainly in the medium and long term, the growth will reflect the seriousness of Prime Minister Modi's government in making those reforms,” World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim told reporters in Washington, adding that "we've been very encouraged with the reforms that Modi has already taken. He knows that there are more to do."

Close on the heels, IMF chief Christine Lagarde on Saturday said that Indian economy is on a "very solid track". Speaking in Washington, she said, "We have slightly downgraded India, but believe that the country is for the medium and long-term on a growth track that is much more solid as a result of the structural reforms that have been conducted in the last couple of years."

The World Bank's opinion about Indian economy has been consistent. In May this year, it had said while releasing a report that "the fundamentals of the Indian economy remain strong, with robust economic growth, strong fiscal consolidation, low current account deficit, higher agricultural output, growing FDI, low inflation and higher wages in rural areas."

A Morgan Stanley report on India's digital future said: "The country’s drive toward digitization may put it on track to be the world's fastest-growing economy over the next decade."

While this was happening, we saw erroneous reports surface on other topics. A Global Hunger Index report prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute revealed that India is still unable to feed many of its poor and the country is ranked amid the "serious" category. While that should have justifiably caused alarm, we found outrage over wrong interpretation of data, that India's ranking has slipped by 45 points, which soon gave rise to another political narrative.

This prompted IFPRI to categorically state that "India's 2014 GHI rank of 55 and 2014 GHI score of 17.8, as published in the 2014 GHI report, are not comparable to the 2017 GHI rank of 100 and corresponding GHI score of 31.4. Concluding from this comparison that India slipped 45 places in the GHI ranking is not only erroneous but also a gross misrepresentation of facts."

Similarly, another row erupted over Dadri incident-accused youth "getting contractual jobs at NTPC." The Hindu carried a report that "15 of the youths accused of lynching Mohammad Akhlaq in Bishahra village of Dadri in September 2015 over suspicion of storing beef in his house have landed contractual jobs with NTPC Limited. Tejpal Nagar, the local BJP MLA, facilitated their recruitment in a meeting with senior NTPC officials on 9 October."

National Thermal Power Corporation has since dismissed the reports as "false and baseless." In a statement, it said, "NTPC Dadri management categorically denies the content of various media reports regarding contractual employment in NTPC Dadri to the accused of Akhlaq lynching case of Bisahda village, as such reports are false and baseless."

NTPC Dadri PRO Pankaj Saxena told NDTV "that his comments had been misinterpreted by the media."

In most of these cases, the debate veered to a political corner when its cause could have been better served if it stayed closer to facts. For instance, all political parties must be held accountable for the fact that seven decades into Independence, we rank a shameful 100 among 119 countries in hunger index when China, against whom we benchmark ourselves, has left us far behind. But due to the political nature of the debate, this was lost in the din.

Freedom of the press cannot be lightly worn. If media's credibility has taken a heavy beating, there are very good reasons for it.

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 18:14 PM

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