Smoke Signals

Anatomy of an ‘unrest’

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During my time away, a story that fascinated me — in a train-wreck kind of way, and as a cautionary tale of the danger of the media disseminating half-baked news — relates to the murder of one Paresh Mesta. The India Today channel and its consulting editor Shiv Aroor played a lead role in propagating the story; social media backlash then prompted Aroor to write an extended defense of his actions. Here it is, and it is worth reading in full as an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the media in general, and TV news in particular.

The first four paras are an extended ‘woe is me’ pity-party aiming to paint himself as the victim, and an attempt to stake out the high moral ground. Skip lightly over those, and consider the real story, which begins with paragraph five and the tweet that started it all:

This, says Aroor, was deemed a “story” worth following up because it was tweeted by an elected representative. And so, he says, the IT reporter in the area filed a follow up “quoting sources”. Here is the report he cites; read it carefully and see if you can find a single source being quoted. Also note, vide this report, how quickly a Union minister latched on to the incident and gave it a political coloration.

But most importantly, note this: In the follow-up report that Aroor presents as exhibit A in defense of his brand of journalism, the reporter has not spoken to anyone from police/law enforcement to find out what actually did happen. What follows is a startling abdication of every single journalistic norm (Emphasis mine):

Deciding that this would be our top story at 5pm, we invited both the police and BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje to join us on our show. Given logistical constraints on the ground, the option was provided to pre-record with both or either. While Shobha Karandlaje took our questions, the police did not join us on the show.

A tweet promoting the show carried the gruesome allegations of the BJP MP and sources on the ground – a tweet that I personally composed. Unlike my earlier tweet, this one didn’t carry quotes indicating that it was an allegation.

Starting at the top: On what basis did Aroor decide this was the lead story? At this point, 24 hours after the body was discovered, all he had was the intemperate allegation of a politician with a long history of fomenting communal trouble. Note that as soon as the body was discovered, Karandlaje began to talk of ‘jihadi forces’ and of the ‘targeted killing of Hindu activists’. Note also that even as she was busy using the killing of a young boy to further her party’s political ends, she latched onto another incident to light further fires:

In actual fact, however, the girl in question was attempting to escape the attentions of a stalker, Ganesh Eashwar Naik.

This, then, is the person on whose unsupported word Aroor based an editorial decision on. Note, further, that his focus is on “getting police on the show” — not first checking with the police to find out what the story really is. And he compounds his criminal error when he, in his own words, “personally composed” a tweet carrying the allegations — without quotes, or other indications to suggest they were merely allegations. In other words Aroor, who starts off with a verbose defense of his journalistic integrity, took an allegation and converted it into a personal attestation.

Much is then made of how Aroor in a subsequent broadcast asked Karandlaje if she had any specific proof to back up her allegations. Which begs the question: Isn’t that what you ask first, before you decide if the allegation deserves air time? Giving a fact-free allegation considerable air time, giving it your imprimatur by airing it as fact sans the telltale quote marks, and then asking if there is any proof is so far removed from basic journalism that it constitutes a sackable offense were it a tyro; when the “consulting editor” of a major channel does this, it is way beyond the pale. And then there is this:

Later that evening, the police, which had sparked its own controversy by declaring that the death was a “samanya saavu”, released a Q&A report with a forensics doctor, a document that appeared to fully contradict the BJP’s explosive charges. I happened to be among the first to tweet this out:

Wait, what?! How did the police “spark its own controversy”? The meaning of the police statement is clear — or would be, if you weren’t determined to see it through a predetermined lens: the police is saying, merely, that this is not a communal incident. Apparently Aroor believes he fully fulfilled his responsibility as a senior journalist by suggesting — some 48 hours after he decided to run a full fledged story based on an unconscionable tweet — that the BJP should now explain the basis of its charges:

And then, this:

The following day, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah tweeted that the death of Paresh Mesta was “unfortunate” – a curious choice of word. Just as the BJP was certain this was a gruesome murder, was he certain this wasn’t murder at all? Could a murder ever be “unfortunate”? Was he simply alleging that this wasn’t murder, but a natural death, much like the Karnataka Police had done the previous day?

Seriously, is this guy compos mentis? “Could a murder ever be “unfortunate”?”, he asks. Sorry, but what the actual fuck does that even mean? And then he goes on to parse the CM’s statement, and in the process put words in the mouth of the police — note that the police did not say it was a natural death; that is not what “saamanya saavu” meant.

And then there is this (emphasis mine):

The following morning, putting the spotlight on the political war that had broken out, we planned a morning face-offbetween the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP on the issue. While the BJP joined us, the Congress apparently declined, forcing us to plan a face-off between the BJP and a member of the CPI (considering the allegations were of a political killing). Here’s that full broadcast:

“…forcing us to plan a face-off…”?!!!! Really? By then, four days had passed; communal tensions had been created by an unsubstantiated allegation — and Aroor admits that the allegations are unsubstantiated — and yet this consulting editor is still riding the fake news for all it is worth. His focus is on the next sensational talk fest, the next “show”, the next spin.

Related reading: The Rise of the Pseudo-Event

Remember what he says at the outset?:

I’ve been branded a communal hatemonger, a rabble-rouser and a plainly bad journalist who deliberately picked up the Paresh Mesta story with the specific intention of, among other things, “scoring TRPs”, “fanning communal tensions before the Karnataka elections”, “currying favour with the BJP”. Calls have gone out from several quarters for my sacking, arrest or both. I stand accused by some of these sites of peddling fake news.

Net net, by his own admitted actions, Aroor has amplified an unsubstantiated allegation, which gave it oxygen, which led to communal tension; his journalistic choices have been irresponsible throughout. As for the allegation that this “story” has to do with the Karnataka elections, consider what is happening on the ground:

#1. Karandlaje in short order propagated a fake story of jihadi rape. #2. Even two weeks after the original incident, Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde was openly threatening violence in the state. Read that again, slowly: A Union Minister, sworn to uphold the rule of law, threatening violence and bloodshed. #3. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh continues to beat the drum of “justice” at a rally in Karnataka. Again — this is the central minister for Home — the man in charge of law and order in the country. #4. Tensions flare in Belagavi and every time some semblance of peace is restored, there is a fresh outbreak.

Do you need to be told that the next major state election is in Karnataka? Here, a clip from a story cited earlier (Again, emphasis mine):

Even after the state government handed over the investigation into Mesta’s death to the Central Bureau of Investigation on December 13, the BJP refuses to scale down its protests. For the coming week, it has announced a “jail bharo andolan”, calling upon people across Karnataka to court arrest to protest the Congress government’s policy of favouring Muslims. Chief minister Siddaramaiah has accused BJP of using Mesta’s death to create trouble for political gains.

The communal tensions come at a time when political parties are preparing the ground for Karnataka assembly elections to be held in the first half of 2018. In 2012, BJP had won in just one of the six constituencies in Uttara Kannada district and one of the eight constituencies in neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district. The 14 seats in coastal Karnataka will prove crucial in deciding the winner of next year’s election.

Connect the dots: Karnataka is Congress-ruled. Elections are due. The BJP, consistent with its win-at-all-costs methodology, has in rapid succession used two fake stories to stoke communal tension, and already begun to propagate its time-tested “favoring Muslims” allegation — the party’s go-to trope in every single election, in every single state. And all this is happening in the one region where the BJP is most anxious to gain a foothold.

Here is the part that should scare you: The dates for the Karnataka elections have not even been announced yet. And already, a former state-level minister, and two Union ministers, have done their damndest to light fires. Who knows what else is in store as the campaign actually gets under way?

All of which is why the “journalism” of the likes of Aroor — thoughtless, if I am being charitable; unprincipled, if I am being honest — is so dangerous; it is the oxygen that feeds the flames of bigotry, of hatred.

Elsewhere:

#1. BJP MP Kirron Kher joins the long line of politicians using fake photos to stoke faux patriotism

#2. A “fringe” outfit (I’ll have more to say on these fringes in a later post) in Karnataka is outraged that Sunny Leone, gasp!, is scheduled to perform at a New Year’s event in Bangalore. What will she wear?! Will she wear anything at all?!! Shock, horror!! And so the police — whose duty is to maintain law and order, not cater to every damn bunch of lunatics threatening the peace, decides to cancel the event. That is who we are today — a nation captive to every ragtag outfit that can say it with stones.

#3. Proving yet again that politics is the last refuge of the certifiably insane, a BJP MLA says that Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma chosing to get married in Italy is an unpatriotic act. The bit that should worry you?: “The crowd that had gathered there was seen applauding as the MLA was speaking.”

#4. The Hindu Jagran Manch — yet another of our ‘fringe’ groups, of which more here — threatened violence if Christian-run schools in Uttar Pradesh celebrated Christmas. Which is par for the course with the HJM. What should make you sit up and take notice is this: A Union minister saying, in support of the HJM threat, that schools are not religious places and people should celebrate only in their homes.

#5. A CAG report, which names Ramdev’s Patanjali in a list of polluters, provides a grim view of the Clean Ganga project.

Now, as per the CAG report, the river in the Prime Minister’s constituency of Varanasi happens to be along one of the most polluted stretches. In six cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal oxygen levels in the water have plummetted from the level it were in 2012-2013. Total coliform bacteria levels in all cities of UP, WB and Bihar was very high. The water quality in these cities was not even fit for bathing.

#6. In Rajasthan, a man kills a Muslim, videotapes the incident, and uses the videotape to raise money for an anti-Muslim campaign. Over 700 people from across the country deposit over three lakh in his account. A Hindu group supporting the killer clashes with police and raises a saffron flag over the area courthouse premises. And it turns out that the wrong man was killed.

Unpack this slowly:

During grilling, Shambhul told police that labourer Mohammed Afrazul, a resident of West Bengal’s Malda, was not his target.

He wanted to kill one Ajju Sheikh because he was in contact with a girl whom Shambhu regarded as his sister. But we suspect Shambhu had an affair with her,” said Rajendra Singh Rao, police circle officer of Rajsamand.

This hero on whose behalf people are raising funds and attacking cops brutally killed a man while meaning to kill another man he believed had eyes on ac”sister” he was having an affair with. Now what? Can the 700 idiots who “contributed to the cause” ask for their money back?

Tailpiece: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to TimesNow which, these days, is on a batshit hashtag trip, is engaged in Mission Sab Ka Saath. Per which Modi, on December 19, met fisherfolk in Kerala who were affected by Cyclone Ockhi and told them this:

“This is not the time for a lecture and I assure you that we will do everything to help you and that’s why I myself have come. We are all with you and will do everything. With Christmas round the corner, we wish all the missing return back,” he said in his brief remarks on the occasion.

But even that is nothing compared to what he said next:

“The cyclone hit Lakshadweep, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and many of the fishermen are yet to return. We have taken quick action by first sending Defence Minister (Nirmala Sitharaman). The whole country is with you in your grief,” he said to claps from the grief-stricken families.

“…claps from the grief-stricken families”? Where is that facepalm emoji when I need one?

The cyclone hit the Kerala coast on November 30.

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