Shouting fire in a crowded theatre

Time was, and that not too long ago, when there was media consensus about the facts relating to any particular story. What differed was the interpretation, the analysis. The average reader, therefore, could by reading a couple of accounts in different sections of the media get a broad understanding of the facts; he could then form his own opinions, or subscribe to the one that suited his own individual bias.

That time is long gone; we no longer even have consensus on what the basic facts are. And over the past 24 hours, nothing illustrates this problem as much as the story of AAP councillor Tahir Hussain.

Anubha Bhonsle, executive editor of CNN-IBN, in course of real time reporting from the ground, tweeted out this story:

Journalist and author Rahul Pandita, who was with Bhonsle at the time, also posted a similar story on his timeline:

The story then grew wings, with various media houses suggesting, citing Sharma’s father among others, that Hussain was likely responsible for the Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma’s gruesome murder. Other stories said vast quantities of petrol bombs were found on the roof of the councillor’s house. But in parallel to these narratives, there was this:

I have no personal knowledge of any of the above, nor have I an opinion about this one way or the other — expect that the riots that ripped apart the national capital over a three-day period need to be investigated with the full force and capability of the state, that every single person who is determined to have played a role in it, whether as instigator, or perpetrator, or abettor, needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, here is the inexplicable part: the story above hinges on one simple question. Was Hussain present at his home at the time in question, or was he not?

That should be easy enough to establish without all this back and forth. Those speaking in Hussain’s defence mention the name and designation of the officer who, they say, rescued the councillor when his home was under attack, and took him to safety.

How difficult could it be to ask DCP (North-East) Delhi Ved Prakash Surya to confirm or deny that he rescued Hussain from a rioting mob? One phone call, one question, one answer — is that too much to ask?

Bhonsle’s original post was at 8:54 PM last night — and the back and forth is still going on as I write this. Worse, it has metastasised on social media, with the usual suspects led by BJP IT Cell head Amit Malaviya making hay over this ‘evidence’ of Muslim perfidy — the kind of narrative that, over time, embeds in the collective consciousness and fuels the ‘righteous anger’ of those who seek to exculpate their own role in the violence.

There, in that one tweet by the BJP’s chief propagandist, is the lurking menace. In Malaviya’s hands, an unproved allegation has morphed, in the space of 240 characters, into a dangerous “iceberg”.

Surely a simple phone call will settle the issue? Surely it is the duty of the media to make the call, to verify the facts? Surely Bhonsle and Pandita, both of whom as journalists have the access and ability to make that call, could have done so? As could any of those who are speaking out in defence of the councillor?

Surely now, more than ever, the media’s allegiance should be to verifiable facts?

Elsewhere, this, from one of the most senior members of the media:

Radical Islam? On what basis does Sardesai frame this ‘versus’ narrative? And, what is worse, how does the Shaheen Bagh protest become a “trigger” for violence, for the killing of, at last count, over 27 people; for the property destroyed, the livelihoods lost, the immense pain and misery that has resulted?

Just what will it take to make members of the media — including the seniors, who should be setting the example — understand that words, the tools with which we all earn our daily bread, have meaning, and that their misuse has consequences?

What will it take for all of us whose words have reach and influence to think before we speak?