Ranjona Banerji: Times Now: Unprofessional or trying to spread communal disharmony?

27 Jun,2017

By Ranjona Banerji

 

One of the most interesting and useful forms of media available on the internet today are a set of “fact-checkers”. (My apologies to all of you who thought that Opindia and MediaCrooks and so on were fact-checkers: they were in fact nothing but hate-spewing fact-inventors.) These look at claims made in the media and elsewhere on the Net and get down to the origins of “information” that spreads far and wide, via Whatsapp and other social media.

Boom FactCheck @boomlive_in’s Twitter bio says “Fact-driven journalism” and works hard to counter all sorts of lies which float about the internet from rumours about film stars to claims about plastic rice to statements made by politicians. It is connected to the excellent IndiaSpend initiative founded by journalist (and disclaimer, former colleague, GovindrajEthiraj).

IndiaSpend is data journalism, using available open data to check governance and policy claims. By relying on facts and not on sources or opinions, IndiaSpend aims to “foster better governance, transparency and accountability” in government. It is a site well worth visiting for every Indian journalist.

Boom takes the mandate further, and focuses on the various bits of “news” of all sorts which float around on social media – entertainment, sport, bigotry, lies.

SM Hoax Slayer, which causes great unhappiness to those who spread hatred on social media, says it was formed in 2015 with the express purpose of curing the disease of “common sense deficiency syndrome”. It works at unveiling the lies and “pranks” which float about the internet and which are often used as a way of fomenting trouble or hatred or hardening biases. And @SMHoaxSlayer has been highly effective so far, often used as a source for traditional media, when it wants to report on facts and not social media lies.

The current bugbear of the rightwing is Alt News, run by the fearless Pratik Sinha, a social activist who comes from a family of well-known social activists, and his team. Alt News focuses solely on the propaganda and lies spread by the rightwing in India, from the current government to the various relatives of the BJP.

More than @boomlive_in, both @SMHoaxSlayer and @altnews_in really roil rightwingers and “patriotic Hindus”, “True Indians” and the rest of the Hindutva brigade on social media. Given the small limited rightwing bandwidth, their first move is to spread the story that both these websites are run by Muslims and funded by various Middle Eastern states. In the Hindutva world view, both being Muslim and having Middle Eastern connections are about the worst transgressions of Indian nationalism ever. I have heard the same stories in the pre-internet era about former journalist and current social activist TeestaSetalvad for instance, even from once reputable journalists. Interestingly – as an aside – these nationalistic voices are silent when a BJP prime minister hugs several Saudi and Emirati princes for instances.

The most damning story for the media, exposed by these fact-checkers is an “expose” done by Times Now. The TV channel – I balk at calling it a news channel any more – has been running a massive story over a conversion rate card for Hindu women used by ISIS in Kerala’s Kasaragad area, which is apparently the “Gaza of India” according to Times Now.

(What this makes of Times Now’s idea of history, geography and politics I don’t know but it implies that the people who live in Kasaragod have calved out a small self-governing entity within India while fighting for their sovereign rights over another nation (us?) which occupied land that first belonged to those living in the Gaza strip, by Western powers post the Second World War.)

Our intrepid fact-checkers have dug deep into this “rate card” to find that it first appeared seven years ago – no ISIS then by the way – on a blog titled “Sikh and Islam” in 2010. The image on the current rate card was then a Hezbollah flag. Times Now’s defence was shameful and disingenuous: “we made it clear we are still trying to contact the people mentioned on the rate card to determine its origins”.

In the traditional form of journalism that essential check to determine the rate card’s origins would have been done before running the story. What does this say about Times Now’s understanding of the profession it claims to belong to? When researching back to the source of the rate card was not so difficult all? If you take the channel at face value, then it is inefficient and unprofessional. If you decide that Times Now ran the story wilfully without simple research then the channel is responsible for trying to spread communal disharmony.

Sad times.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator and a former editor. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views expressed here are personal

 

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