When rhetoric trumps facts

June 27, 2016 01:01 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

The factors that led to >Brexit , the emergence of >Donald Trump as the >presumptive candidate of the Republican Party and a host of domestic developments within India have one common thread. They are the product of deliberate lies, calculated propaganda, the whipping up of xenophobic fears, and demonising the other. There is a particular intensity to the demagogues’ language where myths masquerade as the truth. During that carnival of democracy called the elections, these blatant untruths seem to have the approval of a large section of the people.

What is the role of the media in these circumstances? Should it abandon its cherished rules of maintaining the distance between news and views to call the bluff of the fear mongers? Should it indulge in editorialising in news reports? Is fact checking of a politician’s statement in reportage editorialising? Should it avoid reporting the provocative rhetoric? Will it amount to self-censorship? Holding people in power accountable is one part but how does one do it for people who aspire to wield power? Are the rules different? Can rigorous fact checking help to stem the tide of growing misinformation that flows from social media and other vested interests? These are not easy questions and they do not have easy answers. A referendum-like response to these important questions that have a bearing on our life, governance and information ecology will not only erase the crucial grey areas but also create a false dichotomy. Our reality is multilayered, and any answer must retain nuances and refrain from a reductionist approach.

Before venturing into what the media should do, let us look at some of the myths by the Leave group in the Brexit referendum, the Trump campaign and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Hukum Singh’s claims of a Hindu “exodus” from Kairana town.

Brexit and the truth The BBC has done some interesting fact checking about the claims made by politicians in the run-up to the referendum and I share just three instances from that rather rigorous journalistic exercise. Boris Johnson, one the leading figures of the Leave campaign, had said: “I remember vividly when the EU was given the task of trying to sort out what was happening in the Balkans… it was a disaster. About a million people died.” The fact check clearly established that though the Balkan war was bloody and nearly one hundred thousand people were killed, it was nowhere near a million. Another influential campaigner, Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, said that by 2025, the EU wants to see complete fiscal and political union of all 28 EU member states. Facts, according to the BBC, are: “This is wrong for two reasons: first, the report only makes proposals for the Eurozone countries, not for the 28-member states, and second, the presidents do not propose a complete fiscal and political union.” The Leave voice from Labour, MP Gisela Stuart, said: “We are spending £1.9bn of your money to accelerate the accession of Turkey.” But the reality is that between 2014 and 2020, £1.2bn of the U.K.’s contributions to the EU Budget will go to seven candidate states: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, to help them make political and economic reforms.

Trump’s attacks on HillaryThe Washington Post has done some excellent fact checking on claims made by Trump and his vitriolic attack on Hillary Clinton. He said: “Hillary Clinton accepted $58,000 in jewelry from the government of Brunei when she was secretary of state plus millions more for her foundation… The government of Brunei also stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Hillary's Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she would absolutely approve if given the chance.” But, The Washington Post clearly established that Ms. Clinton accepted a gold, sapphire and diamond necklace worth $58,000 from Brunei’s queen. This is because it is an official position where top U.S. officials may accept gifts on behalf of the U.S. government in circumstances where not accepting the gift would cause embarrassment to the donor and to the U.S. government. However, as per the federal law, the necklace was recorded in the Federal Registry and transferred to the General Services Administration.

Investigating the ‘migration’ claim In the case of Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, this newspaper did some excellent >follow-up reports to nail the polarising lie from a lawmaker in the run-up to the State elections next year. On June 14, the newspaper carried a report, “ >MP’s claim of forced migration disputed ”, that found persons named in BJP parliamentarian Hukum Singh’s ‘exodus list’ still living in Kairana, U.P. Another report, “ >A heart-warming truth in the heap of lies about exodus ” (June, 16, 2016), established the strong bonds, warmth and friendship among people belonging to different faiths and contradicted the claims of the polarising forces. But the newspaper also recorded the fact that despite these evidences, the BJP was pushing the exodus lies in its report “ >Kairana: BJP hardens line even as officials nail ‘exodus’ lies ” (June 17, 2016).

These are like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The amount of misinformation that flows from people who wield power and those who aspire to wield power is growing in an exponential manner. The digital revolution and the spread of rural telephony have given a sharp edge to the spin and distortion of facts. Given the profound impact propaganda has on our social fabric, at times journalists may think of editorialising in the field report as an answer. But that will only undermine journalism. The need of the hour is to establish a new section, in one of the prominent pages, like the Op-Ed page or the National page, called Fact Check, where rhetoric from political leadership is scrutinised closely so that people can sort the wheat from the chaff.


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