Journalism can be an effective warning system only when society decides to act on its findings
Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges made an important observation during World War 2, which also rings true in the second decade of the 21st century: “Exclamations have taken over the function of reasoning; it is true that the scatterbrains who carelessly utter them give their slogans a discursive air, and that this tenuous syntactical simulacrum satisfies and persuades whoever happens to be listening”.
Readers must remember that the critical distance between a news organisation and the ruling government is not only an ethical obligation but a democratic requisite. The society pays a huge price if truth is sacrificed for the sake of claims. Take the case of the East German newspaper, Neues Deutschland, the official mouthpiece of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. In its edition dated November 10, 1989, the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it did not have a report on this historic event. Propaganda may serve a limited purpose for a limited time, but it cannot prevent the course of history. Whatever their ideological positions, leaders crave for some version of Neues Deutschland. Citizens want credible information for them to make critical choices.
One of the effective journalistic tools to confront propagandist drivel has been data journalism. But what happens if the government suppresses data? How do we understand the current state of data poverty? While we may not have a direct correlation between data manipulation and the democratic deficit, the economic slowdown and the resultant hardship are starkly staring at us.
On November 15, the government decided not to release the household consumer expenditure survey results of 2017-18 due to “data quality issues”. The unreleased survey showed that consumer demand had declined in 2017-18 for the first time in more than 40 years, validating the anecdotal evidence of the sad state of the Indian economy. The official statement said that the government is “planning the next consumer expenditure survey in 2021-22 after data quality refinement in the survey process”. We have to remember the government did the same with the NSSO data on employment, using the weak defence that the study leaked to the media was a draft and should not be considered final.
We have not done a systematic survey of citizens to understand their reaction to data manipulation and data suppression. Most policymakers are disturbed by the lack of credible numbers from the Indian government. Economist A. Vaidyanathan wrote a timely reminder in this newspaper, “Why the integrity of data matters” (May 30, 2019). In two of my columns, “Discussing an editorial” (December 3, 2018) and “We need a validation of good reporting” (February 4, 2019), I looked at the issue of data manipulation and its impact. I quoted the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Ronald Coase: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything.”
The importance of follow-ups
In the ’80s and ’90s, the general practice in Indian journalism was to do a systematic follow-up of major scoops. It did not matter who broke the story. But despite the proliferation of media outlets, we hardly find the idea of follow-up being taken seriously by journalists today. This newspaper carried an important article in August 2019 about an International Monetary Fund report (“IMF report flags several delays in India’s data reporting”). The IMF report showed that inconsistencies have crept into the dissemination of fiscal datasets as well. The news report records how India failed to comply with multiple requirements prescribed in the Special Data Dissemination Standard, a practice mandatory for all IMF members, whereas comparable economies comprising the BRICS nations maintained a near impeccable record in the same period. The decline really began from 2016.
Journalism can be an effective early warning system only when society decides to act on its findings and not exhibit ostrich-like behaviour whenever uncomfortable truths emerge. In March, 108 major economists and social scientists from across the world issued an appeal to convince the Indian government to stop suppressing uncomfortable data, restore access to public statistics and re-establish the independence and integrity of institutions. If the government had not turned a deaf ear to the observations of economists in March and to The Hindu’s August story, we may have had some real policy measures to stem the economic slowdown.