Decoding the fake news debate

Smriti Irani has an uncanny knack of giving it back as good as she gets. Last month, in parliament's central hall as her fellow-MPs gathered around to wish her on her birthday, I too stepped up with a mischievous smile: 'Happy birthday ma'am. I won't of course ask your age today!' Pat came the reply: 'thanks, but don't worry, I am 42 today. Unlike journalists, I have nothing to hide!'

The sharp witted response was typical Ms Irani: a talented and charismatic politician but an increasingly polarising figure who is seen as rude and arrogant by her critics but looked upon as feisty and self confident by her admirers. As a BJP spokesperson, her punchy sound bites make her a much sought after leader on television and public meetings; that she has been a big star on the small screen attracts instant eyeballs and crowds. She is even being projected as a potential rival to Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Amethi next year. As a minister though, first in HRD and now in Information and Broadcasting, the very qualities that made her stand out once are now seen as her weakness: effective ministers, after all, are expected to be nuts and bolts administrators first and not just high profile celebrities; their role is often one of conciliators and bridge-builders, not of confrontational and divisive political warriors..

Take the most recent controversy over a 'fake news' circular giving the I and B ministry the power to instantly and arbitrarily suspend a journalist's accreditation on receiving a complaint of alleged 'fake news'. The circular appeared mala fide in intent and law, a transparently ill-conceived and brazen attempt at controlling the media narrative in a crucial election year. That the circular had to be withdrawn within 24 hours following the intervention of the prime minister's office only reflects how a unilateral decision taken without due consultation with stakeholders can only end up embarrassing a seemingly all-powerful government that otherwise rarely owns up to its mistakes.

It isn't as if 'fake news' isn't a major editorial, technological and ethical challenge or that Ms Irani shouldn't kickstart a meaningful dialogue on the issue. The key question is: does the government come into the debate with clean hands? This, after all, is a regime which has made every attempt to build an unrelenting propaganda juggernaut with the mushrooming of right wing websites, openly aligned television channels and a cacophonous social media presence that seeks to virtually intimidate any dissenting voices into submission. When ministers spread falsehoods, follow abusive twitter handles or defend
a toxic website that is consciously spreading communal hatred, then they surely lose the moral high ground to determine what constitutes 'fake news'.

For example, a right wing website, Postcard News, was recently in the eye of a controversy when its Karnataka-based editor was arrested for posting a story claiming that a Jain monk had suffered injuries as a result of an attack by a Muslim man. The story was proven to be false; it wasn’t the first time the website had put out a patently false story designed to stereotype Muslims as criminals. Journalists do make mistakes but when an individual or organization is a serial offender and is deliberately inciting trouble, then the legal machinery must act. Unfortunately, instead of ostracizing such media platforms, the BJP top brass chose to defend the website: the Mysore BJP MP, Pratap Simha, who was the most vociferous in condemning the police action against the editor, has been made a member of the reconstituted Press Council by Ms Irani!

The honourable minister is, in a sense, only following the not so glorious tradition of many of her predecessors in Shastri Bhavan, for whom the I and B ministry was designed to 'control' the media and make it an instrument of government propaganda. It started in the Emergency period in 1975 with VC Shukla, a minister who achieved notoriety with his ruthless clampdown on the media under Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay's explicit instructions. Since then, almost every I and B minister, with a few notable exceptions, have sought to manipulate the media discourse: I and B could well be replaced by P and P, propaganda and publicity in the service of the ruling class.

However, there is a crucial difference between 1975 and now. Then, the media universe was limited to a few major national and regional newspapers: there was no private television, no internet and no social media. Now, the media 'jungle' is a 'free for all' carnivorous eco-system in which it is virtually impossible to set any rules and codes of acceptable behaviour. For example, does anyone seriously believe that a gigantic data-devouring 'beast' like Twitter or Facebook can be controlled by a surveillance state monitoring millions of tweets and posts every hour? An 'open source' media platform has provided a virtual licence to every individual to transform themselves into citizen journalists overnight, with technology an enabling tool to blur the lines between 'news' and 'fake news' in the shortest and fastest possible time.

Regulating this maddening news space is beyond the scope of any individual or government, howsoever mighty. The best way forward therefore is not through executive firmans but by encouraging true journalistic values of credibility, integrity and independence within newsrooms. Maybe, we journalists need to introspect and ask why we have become such soft targets for netas and the public. Maybe, we need to name and shame those who, driven by political and personal agendas, are deliberately and constantly 'manufacturing' noise as news. Maybe, we need to have the self-respect and moral authority to show the
mirror to those who label us as 'paid media' and 'presstitutes'. Maybe, we just need to reclaim the space that allows us to tell truth to power without fear or favour. Because if we don't, we won't have anyone to blame but ourselves when the state comes knocking on our doors the next time.

Post-script: Which is the first recorded instance of 'fake news'? We could perhaps go back in time to the Mahabharata: remember, how Krishna forces the 'honest' Yudhistra to 'lie' to Guru Dronacharya on the 'death' of his son Ashwathama? Wonder what punishment would be meted out by today's rulers to Krishna for deliberate misinformation!

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