How mainstream newspapers viewed The Wire saga

Slam police action but call for some journalistic introspection

The Delhi Police action came on a complaint filed by BJP leader Amit Malviya against The Wire (Logical India)

Leading English newspapers, in their editorials, spoke out strongly against the manner in which the Delhi Police carried out searches at the office of the independent media website, The Wire, and at the residences of its founding editors Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu and deputy editor Jahnavi Sen on 31 October 2022, in connection with a series of ‘false reports.’

At the same time, the editorials also took a stern view of the way The Wire dealt with the entire episode. The Business Standard took a critical approach to what it called the “perils of campaign journalism,”’ while The Indian Express said The Wire breached an important line by blaming it all on a reporter.

The Delhi Police action came on a complaint filed by BJP leader Amit Malviya against The Wire over a series of reports in the publication related to social media giant Meta with references to the politician. The now-retracted reports alleged that Malviya, the BJP’s social media cell chief, used to enjoy certain privileges on Instagram. The Wire retracted the stories after “certain discrepancies” emerged in the reports.

The Business Standard editorial titled “Down to the wire” said, “The retraction by The Wire of a string of reports on social media giant Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, pending an internal investigation, raises a raft of issues concerning campaign journalism. Founded in 2015 by three senior and well-known journalists, The Wire website positioned itself on a “truth to power” platform, and it has rapidly become a beacon of gutsy journalism at a time when most media houses, including established groups, have succumbed to increasing repression of the press and personal freedoms without much pushback. But by its nature, campaign journalism of the kind that The Wire practices runs the risk of being caught up in its own sense of righteousness. In these circumstances, journalistic rigor can be a casualty. This seems to have been the problem with the Meta stories.”

Describing the chain of events that led to the controversy, the Business Standard editorial described how Meta took to Twitter to describe the claims of Malviya being allowed to take down the posts of others as fabricated, “prompting The Wire to publish a purported internal email in which Meta’s chief of communication is apparently berating his staff for the ‘leak’ and demanding that the website’s reporters be put on a ‘watchlist.’ Again Meta claimed the email was fabricated.”

The Business Standard editorial said The Wire should have gone for serious fact-checking after one of Meta’s chief critics, a former senior staff writer, questioned the email’s authenticity. The editorial questioned The Wire’s attempt to justify the reporting with an incorrect follow-up story.

The BS editorial, while acknowledging The Wire’s “courageous reputation,” said the news portal has to quickly re-establish its damaged credibility and explain why it tripped this time. “An organization is often judged by how it deals with a mistake and on that test, The Wire has failed. As a website that takes the high moral ground, following global best practice would be its best defence. On a larger canvas, an honest accounting will strengthen the cause of dwindling non-partisan media as well,” the Business Standard said.

The Indian Express editorial noted that “These are challenging times for the independent press, their work an inalienable part of the citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of expression and the right to know.” The newspaper recalled how “two years ago, on the watch of a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress dispensation in Maharashtra, policemen barged into the home of TV anchor Arnab Goswami after the government reopened an old case…”

The Indian Express, like the Business Standard, also noted “…the lack of journalistic diligence and rigor that the sorry saga exposed.” The Wire, it said, apologized, belatedly, to its readers, but not to those it had ostensibly called out. “On the very day the police filed an FIR on Malviya’s complaint against it, The Wire itself filed a police complaint against its own reporter or “consultant,” who had allegedly supplied the electronic documents that the stories had drawn upon.

This last act, of passing the buck to the weakest link, does not just belie The Wire’s own moral posturing. It raises a significant question – are The Wire, and others who model themselves on it, mere platforms for unreliable propagandists, or responsible newsrooms and, therefore, accountable for the mistakes that bear their name?”

The Indian Express said that “the police breached an important red line when it entered The Wire’s newsroom, seized the electronic devices used by its staffers,” but took exception to the news portal of passing the buck. “In a democracy, a newsroom’s exchanges with the world, many of which are and must remain confidential, the back and forth of honest journalistic practice, need protection. In its effort to distance itself from its own story, The Wire, which to its credit, most recently brought Pegasus to light, breached an important line too. It did not do its job, it blamed everything on a colleague, and, on record, invited the police and the powers in – playing perfectly to the latter’s script,” the Indian Express said.

The Telegraph’s editorial, “Claws out,” said The Wire was “subjected to a disproportionate retaliation.” “This anomaly – targeted punishment even after the media entity owned up to an error and retracted a story – must be one of the enduring features of press freedom under Narendra Modi’s watch. The episode raises an additional – relevant – concern for the media fraternity,” the Telegraph said.

The Telegraph noted that “news gathering is tricky business, with sensitive information often being obtained from anonymous sources and it is possible that such intimidatory action would …discourage sources from sharing crucial nuggets with the media.”

The Hindu, while pointing out the “perils of editorial laxity.” emphasized the need to decriminalize defamation and hints at a conspiracy, saying “…one cannot dismiss a possible conspiracy to discredit The Wire.”

“The absence of malice, a key defence in such cases, is quite obvious in The Wire case, as no one would wilfully publish a report based on fabricated proof and fake validation by experts under the clear risk of exposure. At the same time, media outlets should acknowledge the perils of the interplay between editorial laxity and confirmation bias in assessing a potential story,” the Hindu said.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

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