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The Wire and its editorial leadership is under a cloud. They first put out a story on Meta saying that Instagram posts by a satirical account critical of the BJP and Hindutva are being taken down rather too quickly by Instagram. A follow-up article said, based on a purported internal document of Meta, that the posts were being taken down at the behest of BJP’s IT cell head Amit Malviya who had the privileges to do so under Meta’s XCheck programme.

The Wire also said that Andy Stone, communications director at Meta, had sent an email to colleagues asking how the internal document about the posts being deleted was leaked to The Wire. When Stone and others claimed the document and the email were likely fabrications and that The Wire had fallen for a hoax, The Wire put out another story that had two independent “experts” verifying the email and affirming the email was indeed true. The Wire even put out the names of the experts who it said had verified and validated the Stone email.

It turned out that neither of the two experts had validated the email. Nor were they approached by a reporter with The Wire. Further, the two documents — the email and the report about Malviya’s privileges — were likely fake.  The Wire was publicly identifying and naming the experts even though the staff member who was giving this information must have known it was fake and that the people who were being identified would deny it.

Based on a complaint by Malviya, the Delhi police searched the houses of The Wire’s editorial team including its founder-editor Siddharth Varadarajan and co-founder M K Venu. The Wire has meanwhile lodged a police complaint against its staffer Devesh Kumar, who supplied the information based on which the stories were written, saying he had a bad intent towards The Wire. The information he had furnished had turned out to be false.

Also Read: Why Modi government should save online journalism?

What sounds improbable is that The Wire was claiming verification by two experts and identifying them when they would be easily rebutting the claims and making The Wire an object of ridicule. It is impossible that The Wire’s editors would have willfully done this. It appears they had been led on, likely conned.

Such con jobs are not uncommon in media. In a society that is not quite committed to free flow of information, journalists often need to go out on a limb to ferret out information that would serve public interest. Some malicious actors take advantage of this and plant fake stories. Whether they have any agenda behind this is anybody’s guess.

Was a con job perpetrated on The Wire so it lost credibility? It’s a fair and legitimate question to ask.

Was a con job perpetrated on The Wire so it lost credibility? It’s a fair and legitimate question to ask.

The common fake story that journalists fall for is the NASA story. A student from somewhere would claim that he has a scholarship or an invite from the US space agency to study and work there, in recognition of his ingenuity and talent. He or she would show letters from NASA. Eager journalists have often fallen prey to such tricksters. This writer is guilty of allowing one such story to get published.

Another famous fake story in Tamil Nadu is the photograph published by The Indian Express, Dinamani and Junior Vikatan in 1997 that claimed to show Jayalalithaa, then in the opposition, with Rajiv Gandhi assassins Sivarasan and Dhanu. It soon turned out that the man and the woman in the photograph were AIADMK party folk from Dharmapuri.

In a functioning democracy, an adversarial press is necessary to ensure a check on those in power. An occasional mistake is a small price to pay

Mistakes in media are common across the world. During the height of Watergate, the two reporters uncovering the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, put out a false story in the Washington Post that then president Richard Nixon cited as an example of the lack of credibility of the Post. But the US government didn’t file a criminal case against the newspaper for making a grave but false allegation. Every day, The New York Times would put out half a page of corrections.

Also Read: Savukku Shankar: More sinned against?

The bedrock of the concept of freedom of press across the world is that honest mistakes committed without malicious intent are not a criminal offence. The famous New York Times vs Sullivan case in the US showed that the press should be allowed to be wrong if it is not intentionally so. The price the media outlet pays for such mistakes is loss of credibility and that, in and of itself, is damaging. Criminalizing honest mistakes, however, will damage freedom of press – a key guarantor of democracy.

The Wire has been adversarial towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. Siddharth Varadarajan’s apparent opposition to Modi was cited as among the reasons for his removal as the Editor of The Hindu by its proprietors. In a functioning democracy, an adversarial press is necessary to ensure a check on those in power. An occasional mistake is a small price to pay.

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