As the country lurches from one scandal-of-the-week to the next, there is a sense that this is a government that only reacts to the media. There is always a controversy brewing up in national politics, and reporters feel safe in the knowledge that they don't have to go after the news, the news will come to them.
The politicians have figured this out, and know just how to spin a story so their pronouncements at the Reporters' Club get prominent placement in tomorrow morning's paper or the evening news bulletin. Not happy with that, top politicians are now all regularly writing lengthy opinion pieces in the op-eds: mostly faulting others, but never themselves.
Last month, Dalit lawmakers across party lines obstructed the House over the murder of Manbire Sunar in a remote village of remote Kalikot district. They demanded the government to punish the killers, a Dalit group closed down Dang to demand the dead man be declared a martyr and his family awarded the mandatory Rs 1 million compensation.
The Prime Minister, perhaps the most hapless in history, has been giving in to everyone's demand to save his coalition. He was quick to agree to this one too. Editorials and articles were written shaming the government and 'elite' groups for discrimination. Sunar's case fit nicely with the discourse of continued marginalisation of those at the bottom of the caste ladder. It had all the makings of a good story: a member of a historically ostracized community was 'lynched' in one of the most neglected parts of the country at a time when a new constitution was being drafted to stop precisely this kind of thing from happening. Some went even further to blame the state for deliberately hushing up Sunar's murder because it took place in a Bahun-Chettri dominated area.
All very normal, except that the truth was slightly more complicated than that. A human rights investigation showed Sunar and his murderers were both Maoists, they were good pals, often ate and drank together, caste was no bar in their past. On the day of the murder, both were drunk and got into a fight.
But none of this fit the accepted narrative, so the media, activists, parliament and government all fell hook, line and sinker. But the biggest failing was of the media, the role of which is always to exert skepticism, play the devil's advocate and an adversarial role especially in stories that just sound too pat. 'Everyone loves a good famine' is the title of a media book by Indian journalist P Sainath. One can say the same thing, it seems, about murder.
A credible INSEC investigation concluded that Sunar wasn't killed for touching the fireplace, and although derogatory casteist remarks were made during the drunken brawl, it was not the main reason for the murder. The case, tragic as it is, goes on to show again how easily an entire nation can be fooled by a few unexamined facts.
The mainstream media failed in its duty of cross-checking facts, and this is not an isolated case. A lazy media parrots the loudest voice, the hottest quarrel, the most controversial headline-grabbing incident. Over time such untruths hurt the media's own credibility, the culture of healthy skepticism and undermine democracy.
When facts are bent to suit one's argument, real issues are left to languish while public debate is distracted by issues that are not just misinformed, but plain wrong. The media then becomes a part of the problem, instead of offering solutions and showing the way forward.