Links: On fake news, and an edit

Fake news damages public trust in news media.

Fake news undermines public confidence in our democratic discourse.

Fake news exacerbates economic pressures facing quality news organisations.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fake news highlights issues of responsibility and regulation in our fast-evolving media ecosystem.

Excerpted from a speech by Lionel Barner, editor of the Financial Times, that is worth reading in full. Bonus: Octavius Caesar.

On a tangentially related note, I’ve been thinking about and collecting examples of clickbait journalism — which, along with fake news, is metastasizing into a major problem for a media already shorn of credibility. My growing collection includes annotated examples from various media houses (all of which I’ll bring together into a post one day soon). Here is the example I picked to annotate today — see the comments appended to the highlights, and the summary story right at the end.


What rubbish!

Update“We are out here cleaning India Gate. Cleaning programmes are going on across the country. The message is we have to keep India clean. Everybody and not just government officials will have to participate in this. And it has to be an everyday operation, not just once in a year and not just for the camera.”

Alphons Kannanthanam, a recent inductee into the Union Cabinet, was doing his bit for the Swach Bharat cause — pity that he first arranged for cameras and the press, and then had volunteers litter the India Gate lawns so he could “clean it up”. That he then lectured about camera-ops is merely the ironical icing on the cake.

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Tracking hate

An important, and increasingly ignored, part of the journalistic process is connect-the-dots. Two connected developments of recent times came together to make this model extinct: 1. The need for speed and, 2. Depleting newsroom resources that resulted in the extinction of the beat journalist.

Because there is a premium on putting up a “story” within minutes of something happening, the newsroom no longer has the time to think, to find patterns, to look for context and backstory and nuance. And because the beat journalist — a reporter whose primary task is to focus on one theme and develop expertise in it — no longer exists, there is within the newsroom no specialized knowledge on tap.

Collectively, these two factors create a situation where much of reportage is akin to skipping a stone across a lake — the story skims the surface, and when it runs out of steam it dies, without ever penetrating beneath the top layer. Connect-the-dots journalism is important, though, because it helps to identify and distinguish patterns, to explore how a contemporary event fits into a larger whole.

Earlier this year, the Hindustan Times introduced a ‘hate tracker‘. It’s a good example of using technology to aid research-based journalism; it collects incidents of hate crime from around the country and displays them by location, by name of victim, by date. Spend some time with it and see what patterns you spot.

A note in passing: Aparisim ‘Bobby’ Ghosh,  formerly Time magazine’s World Editor and then head of Quartz, who was hired as editor in chief by the Hindustan Times about 18 months ago and who, during his tenure, has been responsible for HT investing in the newer forms of journalism, has ‘resigned’ for “personal reasons”.

PostScript: I’m off the blog for about ten days, during which I will be traveling in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on some personal work. I’ll be back on Sunday September 24. Be well, all. 

The domination game plan

This dates back to 2000 but is incredibly prescient and hence worth re-surfacing in the present context.

In a January 22, 2000 article, a soi dissant maverick wrote an explainer about the RSS gameplan for a total takeover of the country. He spoke of how an aging right-wing leadership, feeling that time was running out on them, planned to up the ante, to implement what the writer called the Final Solution.

The writer broke the plan down into a series of sequential steps. I’ll quote, extensively, with an apology to the publishers — the only reason I am doing this is because this piece, and the points it makes, needs to be brought back to the center of public consciousness at this point in time. Here it is, emphasis added where required:

THE first component of the game plan is to discredit the RSS’ opponents but protect its converts. The First Information Report in the Bofors case is a classic instance of this strategem. In that FIR, Rajiv Gandhi’s name figures in the list of accused (n ever mind the column). But those Cabinet Ministers who vetted and signed the deal, or had even held secret negotiations on the “financial parameters” with the Bofors company as representatives of Rajiv Gandhi, are prosecution witnesses. Naturally we can guess what they will say in the witness box….  The motto is: “Join us and be free. Resist us and see you in court.” By a series of such sham prosecutions and managed associate media leaks, the RSS expects to undermine the democratic Opposition in India.

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So hey, let’s talk about Kerala

Last night (Sunday, September 10) produced a remarkable display of histrionics by Arnab Goswami of Republic TV. In what was billed as a debate on whether the left or the right was more intolerant, Arnab focused his considerable energies on the ongoing cycle of political killings in Kerala. He referred to recent attacks that had led to the death of RSS workers, and segued into an attack on the “liberals”. Where was Sagarika (Ghose), where was Barkha (Dutt), where was Rana (Ayyub), he demanded.

He banged the table as he brought his peroration to a close. “Where were the Not In My Name people?”, he thundered as he flicked back an errant lock of hair.

It was an awe-inspiring performance that I watched with all the morbid fascination of a spectator at a train wreck.

Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is not given to such infantile histrionics. Speaking recently to the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, the minister was calm and reasonable as he condemned the killing and segued smoothly into an attack on “liberals”.

“Why is it that all my liberal friends who speak so eloquently and so strongly against the killing of a journalist, perfectly so entitled to, or even maoists and naxalites, maintain a conspicuous silence when so many RSS workers are killed in Karnataka or BJP workers in Kerala?” the minister asked.

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The fault, dear Brutus…

Music composer AR Rahman was asked for his comments on the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh. Three things happened in quick succession, and they are a window to our times:

#1. Speaking in the moment and from the heart, without pause to consider consequences, Rahman said: “I am so sad about this. These kind( s) of things don’t happen in India. This is not my India. I want India to be progressive and kind.”

#2. That unobjectionable statement, in which Rahman accused no individual, no party, no political grouping, drew a storm of protest from the right wing. Pause a moment to ask yourself this: Why, when no one was blamed, did those on the right try the cap on for size, and feel the need to go after the composer with hate-ridden vitriol?

#3. A day later, Rahman backtracked. He did not know, he reportedly said, that his words would create a storm on social media. He paid a tribute to the government of the day. And when he was asked specifically if artists should engage with politics, Rahman said:

“We all should just shut up and keep quiet.”

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Here be Dementors

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, and they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. … Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory, will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself – soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban


Last night, a journalist was shot dead in cold blood.

She was entering her home – the one place where each of us is entitled to feel we are safe from the pressures and cares of the workaday world. She was gunned down right there, at the threshold of her safe place. By persons who are as yet unknown, for motives that are as yet unclear.

And I sat up all night, because my own safe space – the mind – did not feel so safe anymore. It was filled with thoughts and feelings, with hurt and with anger, and none of it seemed to make sense any more.

Gauri Lankesh was a journalist, one of a select few whose work I have followed with admiration since I was a baby journalist seeking stars to plot my own course by. I’ve met her only twice, both times by happenstance, both times briefly – but that doesn’t dull the intensity of the grief I feel, and the rage, for she is her words, and it is through her words that I knew her, and her words were strong, and brave, and passionate. Now there is a black hole where a star used to be, and it has become just that bit harder to plot my own course.

Among the dozens who left comments on my Twitter feed last night, there was one who suggested that my reaction was so intense only because it happened to be a fellow journalist who had died, but what about Kerala? I blocked that person, as I blocked a couple of dozen others, because I wasn’t in the mood for whataboutism, for pointless point-scoring.

But afterwards, I found myself thinking about his words, wondering if there was truth to them. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” John Donne wrote, and that is fine and lofty if you are a poet, a philosopher. I am neither. My father passed away 21 years ago; my mother, four years ago; my aunt, the person who was a second mother to me when my own was off earning the means to put me through school and college, 10 months ago. Those wounds are fresh, those hurts cut deep, far deeper than any feelings caused by the many senseless deaths that have marked any 24-hour period in the months and years since. So maybe it is true; maybe you feel more intensely when the person cut down in her prime is one of your own – a family member, a professional peer, a friend you’ve broken bread with. And maybe that is just an integral part of being human.

But this morning the same question, seen through bleary eyes and a weary mind, produces a different answer. It is not that Gauri was a journalist, as I am; it is not that we were, to use the word loosely, peers. This dull ache, this directionless anger stems not from who she was, but what she was.

Gauri was a thinking, caring, reasoning individual, immersed in a world far larger than the one contained by the compound in which she was gunned down. She was a citizen of that larger world; its concerns were her concerns; its hurts and its angers were hers. Its faults and its fault-lines were her life-long preoccupations; the antidotes her constant area of study and introspection.

I read her writings; I agreed with some of her thoughts and disagreed with others. But even when I disagreed most vehemently, I could not help noting, and being inspired by, the courage of her convictions and her willingness to speak out, to put herself out there without fear.

Every civilization worth its place in the history books has been founded on the bedrock of speech, of debate and discussion, of disagreement, even. Just as every totalitarian regime confined to the dust heap of history has been characterized by the negation of that basic right, that ineluctable duty: free speech.

That is what Gauri was, in her essence – the principle of free, open, forthright words, made flesh. And that is what was gunned down last night – her words, and with them our freedom to fashion our own opinions, to frame our own thoughts, to articulate them without fear of reprisal.

There is a pattern playing out in our world today that is coldly calculated to stifle speech – and it is not restricted to India. Anyone who dares ask a question that inconveniences the powers that be, anyone who voices an opinion that differs from the echo chamber, is lit up with ruthless efficiency: fundamentalist, libtard, sickular, commie, pseudo-intellectual… The vocabulary of gaslighting is limitless, and vicious, and relentless.

For the establishment – the government and all its arms, for business houses intent on the bottom-line and the devil take the rest, and for their cheerleaders in the media — it is a calculated, cynical ploy. When a Donald Trump for instance talks of fake news, of this ‘failing’ newspaper and that ‘fake’ website, he seeks to distract from his inefficiencies, his failings, his serial lies and chicaneries. It is a well-thumbed playbook, even here at home, and its tactics have been systematically used by various governments down the years; what has changed in recent times is that practice has made perfect.

The danger stems from them, the pyromaniacs who seek to douse thought and light up those who dare speak. The dangerously incendiary rhetoric of those in power is amplified by the legions of the disaffected – the followers who, systematically desensitized by this ceaseless flow of vitriol, believe they are serving the cause of their ‘leaders’ and of the country itself when they lynch, and burn, and pump bullets into those who dare differ. That is the key to the strategy – by blurring the distinction between country and leader, a mindset is created wherein defending the leader becomes a patriotic duty.

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, an exasperated Henry II once asked in the midst of his conflict with Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was rhetoric, but it resulted in four of his courtiers murdering Beckett.

Today’s kings have surrounded themselves with equally amoral courtiers, willing to interpret every frown as a prompt for direct action. There is only one difference: King Henry later said he had never ordered Beckett’s death, but took the moral responsibility for it; today’s kings toss red meat to their base, then stand back and watch the deadly developments with a calculated, studied indifference.

And so a Narendra Dhabolkar is gunned down on his morning walk by two killers on a motorcycle. A Malleshappa Kalburgi opens the door to a knock – and is gunned down by two killers who flee on a motorcycle. A Gauri Lankesh is shot dead, outside her home, by murderers on motorcycles. A Ram Chander Chattrapati, who had the courage to take up the case of two women against a rapist masquerading as a godman when neither the government nor society would stand for them, is gunned down outside his house – by assassins on motorcycles.

Once, in words Ian Fleming put in the mouth of his most famous creation, is happenstance; twice is coincidence, thrice is enemy action. But who is the enemy? When Gauri was shot, fingers were pointed at the right wing, at the extreme left wing, at the BJP/RSS, at the Congress government in power in Karnataka, at Gauri’s brother…

Time will tell. But time already tells us one thing: The enemy is anyone who finds truth inconvenient; anyone who has anything to lose when truth outs. That is the world we have created for ourselves. Not so long ago, telling the truth about official malfeasance resulted in outrage and ended with the perpetrators being held accountable (Remember that the single reason for the Congress defeat in the 2014 election, to cite the most recent example, was corruption). Today, telling the truth results in whataboutery by armies of trolls paid to, with no sense of irony, attack ‘paid media’; in a numb indifference by the majority, and finally, in bullets pumped into the heart of that truth.

A brilliant teenager I know once said of the Harry Potter books that she saw them as more than fantasy; it is, she said, the lens through which she understands the world she lives in. Last night, as I re-read Azkaban, I finally understood what she meant – the Dementors of Rowling’s fiction are the demented who run riot today, the ones sucking out every good feeling and turning us, without our knowing, into replicas of themselves.

That same book also describes the antidote, the Patronus that we can summon if we are sensitive to the danger that threatens us. As I write this, people are gathering at various parts of the country to protest the killing of Gauri Lankesh, to demand justice. Protests are useful as an indicator that an atrocity has touched us, that we feel and we mourn and we seek justice. But they only go so far. We protest; our overlords look away; their foot-soldiers mock and ask, “ But where were you…?” and then we all go away.

There is only one true, lasting antidote. If the killings are intended to silence, then speech is the answer. Free, fearless, relentless speech, intended to hold power to account for its actions and inactions. If a Gauri Lankesh is gunned down because she spoke out, then the answer is for all of us to be Gauri Lankesh incarnate. To speak out – because silence is, ultimately, consent

RIP, Gauri. We will try not to let you down.