Breaking Down News: Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones

Breaking Down News: Sticks and Stones and Broken Bones

If an Indian news site analysed its comments, what do you bet that the top honours for most abused would go to a woman liberal? Or Dalit liberal?

The evening Gurgaon regressed to Gurugram, someone at HT Media dusted off, turned on the lights, shined up the server and dusted off the cache. Soon after, the domain, which the Hindustan Times group booked in 2014 with motives unknown, was commanding over $2,000 on the internet. How refreshingly unusual to find a media institution in the squatting business. Especially when the main news is so depressing — the flying visits to Kerala by Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, lent special urgency by electoral interests. The media is complicit in this fine tradition disaster electioneering, happy to provide cameras on the spot to cover random visiting dignitaries.

The trouble with Delhi state politics is that these disgruntled AAP guys hurling ink and footwear at Arvind Kejriwal have despicably poor aim, and the capital’s bystanders are so innocent that they allow these martyrs to ineptitude to be led away in chains without demur. This is disheartening because since the beginning of civilisation, it has been important to register dissent when the monarch loses the plot.

AAP’s trademark plot element is responsiveness — connectivity with the last mile and the last person, especially the last child, has been important. Their government began with school inspections for sanitation and over time, government schools in Delhi are quietly acquiring a reputation for reliability. When the AAP government launched its odd-even traffic scheme in January, schools were closed. Odd-even reloaded has just started, and the government knew that since schools are open, ferrying children would be the main issue. It assured parents that cars containing a uniformed child would be exempt. Twitter went wild when parents worked out that they make four trips every day to school and back. On two out of four, the car contains no child. Arvind Kejriwal, who has been running syrupy-cheesy spots on TV and FM, read the tea leaves and declared that mothers generally pick up children. He did not venture to wonder if they all drive and anyway, he cheerfully told fathers they could lump it. Apart from being reverse sexist, this is the first time that AAP has found a constituency too small to bother about. Politically, the monarch has lost the plot but the media seemed to have missed the story.

But events in the fifth estate are much more gripping than the faltering of the fourth. With the Panama Papers, leak journalism has become a direct, immediate factor in politics and world affairs. Iceland’s prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson could hold on to office for just two days after news of questionable dealings broke, opening the door to the Pirate Party. Arab Spring took weeks to gather critical mass, while Panama immediately toppled a European government and had the Indian finance minister threatening transgressors with “sleepless nights”. And there is no anxiety about journalistic principles being flouted, national security being compromised and lives being put at risk, which had accompanied the leaks anchored by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Leak journalism now appears to be routine, acceptable. Even when the leak is actually a theft, as it was in this case.


Swami Swaroopanand, Shankaracharya of Dwarka Sharda Peeth, has popped up again on news TV, promising a dizzying rape graph because women have entered the sanctum of a Shani temple. He also attributes the drought in Maharashtra to the “unworthy fakir” Shirdi Sai Baba, about whom he has an unhealthy obsession. Earlier, he had released a postershowing Hanuman pursuing a fleeing Sai Baba with a tree-trunk. Provocative stuff like this turns on news producers who spend too much time watching the religious channels when they should be making an honest living. And up pops the babaji on national TV.

The Guardian published the results this week of its most interesting big data project: trawling 70 million comments left on its site since 2006, it finds that of its 10 most abused writers, eight are women. The two men, very much a minority, are both black. If an Indian news site analysed its comments, what do you bet that the top honours for most abused would go to a woman liberal? Or Dalit liberal? Or minority liberal? Being liberal is a necessary condition but for sufficiency, you need to be something marginalised, too.

But let’s be optimistic, like Sweden. The country now has its own phone number, which is a first. Anyone can call +46 771 793336, a number set up by the Swedish Tourist Association, and get connected to a random Swede who has signed up via an app (Kejriwal, you listening?). This leap of faith projects Sweden as a real destination full of real people, rather than a huge, cold tourist trap loaded with fish and caviar. But while optimistic, the idea of being connected instantly to random Swedes is alarming, too, isn’t it?