What happens when there is a grave lapse in editorial judgment and something false gets published? If the report is against someone who wields influence, and the media institution concerned is a known critic of the Government, the consequences might turn out to be disproportionately severe. Digital publication The Wire finds itself in precisely this predicament after a series of its stories has been discredited due to what it admits is fabricated evidence provided by one of its own consultants. Its reporting relating to the alleged privileges enjoyed by a purported beneficiary of social media giant Meta’s ‘XCheck’ programme — privileges that it claimed included the right to report any post and have it taken down with no questions asked — has turned out to be a major debacle. Amit Malviya, head of the ruling BJP’s national IT department, named as the one who had got an Instagram post removed, has filed a police complaint, alleging a conspiracy by The Wire to harm his reputation through forgery. The Delhi Police, with whom The Wire too filed a complaint against its consultant Devesh Kumar for allegedly perpetrating an elaborate hoax by submitting fabricated digital proof, lost no time in searching the residences of its editors and seizing laptops and phones. Even by the set standards of the present regime in dealing with vocal dissenters, the hurry shown and the seizures made by the police are shocking. The effort seems to be to make an example of The Wire.
Despite the element of forgery in this case, one cannot dismiss a possible conspiracy to discredit The Wire. Mr. Malviya has limited his complaint to its founders and the journalists whose bylines appeared in initial reports concerning him. Further, the complaint does not name Mr. Kumar, raising a doubt whether this is intentional. The police should not really be investigating the defamation angle, as Supreme Court judgments are clear that prosecution for defamation should only be at the instance of the aggrieved person, and there can be no police FIR. The case highlights the continuing hazard of having defamation on the criminal statute to be exploited by influential state-backed actors rather than a civil remedy to aggrieved individuals. The Court’s refusal to decriminalise defamation does add state power to the armoury of those waiting for occasional lapses in the media. 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.