Last week, the news-based portal The Wire published a piece on Jay Amit Shah, insinuating without proof that he was involved in shady business deals. Following a defamation suit filed by Shah, the piece has been hailed as a stellar example of journalistic courage, spearheading the media crusade for justice and accountability from the government.The story itself has several shortcomings. But while factually inaccurate, sensationalist pieces are fairly common at a time when the funding of the media depends almost entirely on eyeballs, it is not as common for people to hail as brave something that is essentially a pitch for an investigation rather than an investigation itself.
The Wire also emphasises the fact that the same reporter who has filed this story, Rohini Singh, must be credited with the DLF expose on Robert Vadra, as if to prove her political neutrality. But it seems strange that the Congress is as willing to testify to the courage and accuracy of a reporter it tried to discredit when the story on its President’s son-in-law broke. The party organised a press conference almost as soon as the piece was published, and took the insinuations for fact, accusing Amit Shah of corruption in order to enable his son’s company to get loans and crediting the BJP with the sudden manifold increase in the company’s turnover. And there are several problems with the facts as well as interpretations in The Wire’s piece. First, large fluctuations in turnover are not uncommon in the agriculture industry. An investigation into whether something suspect was going on during the particular years the piece evokes, 2014-16, could have been conducted by studying the commodities which were processed in that time, compared to the previous years. Political journalism as well as business journalism can be rather dodgy, with reports often quoting unnamed sources making significant disclosures which cannot be verified by the reader. However, documents can be verified. In a telling statement on the pitfalls of this brand of breathless journalism, several errors in the piece were pointed out by the pro-BJP OpIndia. These included a negative balance being misinterpreted as profit despite the fact that the figures were enclosed in parentheses, a rather rookie mistake for a business report. In a mocking postscript, it put up the original text of The Wire’s article on Scribd, suggesting the website may claim a “cyber attack” to retract the piece without losing face. I would hope The Wire would not resort to that. However, their reaction to the errors being discovered is less than satisfactory. A corrected version of the article is accompanied by a cleverly worded editor’s note, which contains no apology, but has a rider: “In an earlier version of the article, it was stated that the reserves and surplus of Temple Enterprise rose to 80.2 lakh in 2015-16, whereas it turned negative compared to the previous year. The reserves of the company at the end of the year are inconsequential for the larger investigation into the huge increase in turnover of the company.” This adjective-laden note is disingenuous. It is essentially a refusal to take responsibility for the errors. This refusal and the defensiveness of the last sentence speak to the checks (or lack thereof) that went into the piece, to say nothing of the thoroughness of the reporting itself. Most damningly, though, neither The Wire nor any other organisation has been able to do a journalistic follow-up that validates the insinuations in the piece. There have been columns, some elevating the report by comparison to iconic exposés; there was another column which tried, perhaps too late, to shift the focus to where it should really have been – the issue of the unsecured loan. Yet another article speaks about Amit Shah’s appearance on a television show. But no one has come up with hard facts that will pin Jay Amit Shah down. If the story were to have substance, there are several angles which ought to have been explored. Why is there no record of the “unsecured loan” in the books of the lending company, while there is a record in the financial statement of Temple Enterprises? Second, Amit Shah has been a force in Gujarat for a long time. If his son were using his connections for personal favours, he need not have waited until 2014. Is there any record of dubious dealings before this period? Third, it is not the closure of a company bolstered by the loan the previous year but the timing of the closure that ought to have been investigated. Since Temple Enterprises shut shop a month before demonetisation, can a credible link be established? What about the renewable energy venture to which IREDA lent money? Has a windmill been set up as intended in Madhya Pradesh? While the piece does not investigate any of this, it does contain several irrelevant details which point to smoke without fire. For instance, the financial company which gave Shah the unsecured loan belongs to Rajesh Khandwala; but how does his relationship with Rajya Sabha MP and Reliance Industries Group President Parimal Nathwani fit into this? Why was it necessary to publish photographs of the family? The reporter herself quotes a “source close to Amit Shah” saying that “neither Nathwani nor Reliance had any role to play in the facilitation of the unsecured loan.” The piece also quotes Shah’s lawyer saying Khandwala is an old friend of Amit Shah’s family. To bring in an irrelevant connection and imbue it with significance is not responsible journalism, surely? If the reporter and editors had reasons to believe there is more to the story, they ought to have devoted some time to the investigation, giving the various parties enough time to respond to their questions. They might then have been able to do a story to which they could proudly put their names. As it stands, the rushed publication of the piece smacks of poor research and poor journalistic practice. The reactions the report has got from the media as well as the government are troubling – it has been lauded by the one and condemned by the other, both disproportionately. The BJP is behaving now just as the Congress did – as if the government’s resources could be treated as a personal fiefdom, and ministers and government lawyers delegated to handle an issue concerning a neta’s family. But why has no media organisation or journalist publicly pointed out the problematic nature of a story which is factually insufficient and has an incorrect interpretation of an accounting balance sheet? If we as journalists close ranks and do not hold our colleagues to account, we are guilty of forming the same coteries as the bhakts we despise. It does more harm than good if a theory cannot be backed by proof, or even reasonable doubt. The story would not pass muster at a media organisation with international standards, because the defamation laws cannot be countered with enough facts. So why are we backing an incomplete story? It cannot be that “no one else takes on the BJP”. The BJP is being challenged on several fronts, and rightly so. And we cannot afford to give them a chance to portray themselves as the righteously indignant, besieged by a hostile media. In private conversations, several journalists agree that the story lacks substance. But why has none of us called it out? Why have those of us with reservations about it maintained a diplomatic silence? A friend calls it the “psychosis created by the BJP” – by stifling freedom of expression in various ways, the party has made the media and us hated “liberals” so keen to hold them to account that we latch on to anything that points to corruption in their ranks. But brash journalism is not necessarily brave; and it is not brave to succumb to this psychosis and blindly support anything that is written against the BJP, irrespective of flaws. Even as I write this, though, I worry about the fact that this will be adopted by the bhakts whom I detest. But an enemy’s enemy cannot be above rebuke. The only allegiance of journalism is to the truth. Our distrust of both the Congress and the BJP is rooted in truth, our dislike of them in their cover-ups. But by not acknowledging the significance of the factual errors in the piece, The Wire has done its own little cover-up. Yes, the corruption in any government must be exposed. But one cannot do so by laying out facts without connecting the dots. It is not hard to undermine the credibility of the BJP. The party has undermined its own credibility, and often, in the last three years at the centre – its credibility was in question when the Prime Minister appeared in a Jio advertisement on the front pages of national newspapers; its credibility was lost after the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report exposed demonetisation for a failure, for even conveniently functioning as a money-laundering operation in the face of inadequate checks by the government; its credibility is lost every time the powers that be have had their names linked to various scams. Of course, among the most chilling is the Vyapam scam, with allegations that it involved everyone right up to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and a series of “unnatural” deaths of prospective whistleblowers. In the case of the Krishna Godavari basin project, where Reliance India Limited claimed to have discovered the largest gas reserve in India, the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out irregularities that implicated politicians from both the Congress and the BJP. In 11 years, the project has blown up Rs. 20,000 crore which includes a chunk of taxpayer money, with no gas to show for it that is not metaphorical. At a time when the BJP is omnipresent, its trolls haunting the internet, its foot soldiers populating the country’s biggest literature festival, its adherents occupying positions of power in the media, it is important to correct the party’s narrative of incorruptibility. But poorly researched pieces could cost us dearly at a time when media is less independent than it has been in decades. And the reactions to it should make us question our own independence of thought – are we being truly honest to our profession if we take up the torch for an irresponsible story? All of us should exercise better judgement than the sanghis, and we cannot do so by closing ranks. India Shining: Of nationalism and oblivionWhy I support NEET in Tamil NaduDemonetisation has been exposed for a failureWhen it's judiciary vs. government