When the Soviet Union was around, and journalism was just state propaganda, Pravda (truth) and Izvestia (facts) were the two main news outlets. Among the cynical, hard drinking, dyed-in-the wool reporters across the world, the joke was there was no ‘pravda’ in ‘izvestia’ nor ‘izvestia’ in ‘pravda’. The spirit lives on in the form of fake news—a term describing false news hyped to damage an agency, entity, or person. Today, Indian journalism, mostly TV and social media, revels in fake news. After Nirav Modi fled the coop, channels promptly announced last week that Rotomac pen baron Vikram Kothari, allegedly involved in a `3,600-crore bank scam, has also escaped the country. Kothari was very much in India, and the erring channels did not even offer an apology—the ethical thing to do, scamster or not.
Until the advent of television, journalists and journalism had credibility. Language had grammatical fidelity and opinion had gravitas. Newspapers like this one took strong political stands based on actual information, which provided the parameters for analysis. They did not use propaganda and cooked-up news to gain circulation.Knowledge brought respect. Editors sent out reporters to gather facts, which were checked and cross-checked for accuracy. People featured in a news story were contacted and quoted on record. TV journalism changed all that.
Ill-informed news anchors, barely out of their diapers, now express opinions and analysis as if they are the last word. Insults have displaced investigative journalism. Faces disfigured by self-righteous anger and voices shrill with bully-power dominate prime time. To hell with the facts, WhatsApp journalism is here.
Recently a news anchor ‘broke’ a story about a fatwa against ‘wink sensation’ Priya Varrier. In reality, it was a parody trending on Twitter, which she mistook as fact. There was no attempt to cross-check before going on air. Another channel attacked the Jama Masjid for not paying the electricity bill: it tweeted, ‘Ïmam Bukhari has money to buy luxurious cars, but can’t pay electricity bills?’ Yet another channel read out a bogus rate card for religious conversion out of a Photoshopped image. Unconfirmed videos on YouTube are passed off as real. Indian journalism has entered a scary phase: forget facts, social media holds the secret to TRPs—the truth be damned.
The origin of this trend could have been predicted with the sting operation syndrome of the early 2000s. A government can be supported or attacked on facts, with exposes and sharp analysis. Whatever be the political stance of a journalist, these cardinal principles should not be abandoned. Fake news discredits whichever government the fake media is fawning over. Readers and viewers expect journalists and news organisations to tell the truth, not fake the facts. The Indian media is an institution that has stood up against tyranny, treated the powerful with disdain, held governments accountable and toppled corrupt leaders.
If the fake news trend continues, the profession will lose whatever trustworthiness it has left and people won’t believe journalists anymore. Credibility is the only true creditworthiness of a journalist. A word of advice to my colleagues—do not allow a bunch of ill-informed, ignorant, misinforming, fact-distorting, self-aggrandising foul-mouthed punks to hijack one of the four pillars of society whose canon is ‘pravda’ with ‘izvestia’.