Blown by own bomb. William Shakespeare has ‘hoist with his own petard’ for people with a penchant for scoring self goals. The Wire, a strident critic of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, aka bjp, got into hot water it had boiled for searing its political bugbear. Coming as a terrible jolt, reports of The Wire implicating the bjp proved to be manufactured lies. Caught with blood on their hands, The Wire editors shifted the blame to a staffer, apologised to their readers and withdrew their reports, after 13 days of much to-ing and fro-ing. At the end of it,, the Indian non-profit news and opinion website had become a disquieting global political news of the year.

A brief recap of the details here. In October, The Wire published an incendiary report suggesting bjp’s IT Cell chief has been granted carte blanche to flag Instagram posts inimical to bjp, pull them down and post anything he likes. The report went on to assert the power to do these emanated from having special privileges through Meta’s XCheck program. The report went on to suggest the privileges included placing own posts with immunity from content moderation.

The story, the report, the emails and the email addresses proved to be fake, forged and fabricated. Meta stood its ground saying its XCheck program had “nothing to do with the ability to report posts to seek the removal of content.” Meta added The Wire was sitting on ‘fabricated evidence.’  Meta went on to express its anguish by lamenting it “is the victim of this hoax, not the perpetrator.”

As The Wire saw its credibility crumbling fast, the beneficiaries of the unsavoury drama sat smug, salivating at this sordid spectacle. Having crashed down from its made-no-mistakes perch, The Wire withdrew its Meta stories, tendering a self-shaming public apology.

The story may be a tad dated. Nevertheless, the six political lessons it holds are priceless and timeless. These six lessons hold good for anti-establishment parties and opposition media anywhere on this planet. Reasons why this story on The Wire’s tragedy and the damage it has done to global democracy is here.

Lesson 1: Be neutral and non-partisan. Avoid political biases. Partisanship is no substitute for objectivity

By any yardstick, embracing editorial slants is the height of idiocy while creating political stories for public consumption. Political biases and party orientations are no substitutes for party-agnostic rigour and research aimed at satisfying users of political content. Sensational political dramas, which are stage-managed by political parties, cannot become firm props for credible news reports.

Editorial expediencies and marketing compulsions cannot replace the bias-free due diligence needed for reporting political developments. Facts are sacred. In credibility-building, sanctity of facts assumes primacy, not camouflaged partisanship. Welcoming ideas, no matter where they are from, is the first step towards neutrality. Taking these ideas with liberal doses of salt can work wonders for neutrality. Unfortunately, The Wire failed to follow this rigour of bias-free due diligence, maiming their editorial credibility in the process.

Why did The Wire run the Meta story without doing their basic pre-publication due diligence of asking Meta a few simple questions? As a part of its public apology, The Wire confessed later: “To have rushed to publish a story we believed was reliable without having the associated technical evidence vetted independently is a failure ……..”. Why this rush to publish?

Many believe this rush was because it was an anti-establishment story. This is where the questions of bias and neutrality butt in. When everything is political today and when polarisation defines love and lives, across people and nations these days, it was editorial felony on the part of The Wire to have been biased, or for appearing to have been biased.

Is this bias responsible for The Wire’s failure to check the neutrality of the Meta reporter, the story and its contents? Blaming the reporter finally, before withdrawing the story, does not wash away the stains of bias. Scapegoating a reporter does not absolve The Wire editors from bias and partisanship.

Lesson 2: Believe after questioning. Do a political-orientation test on political reports and their authors. Respect the dictum ‘Ideas are free, Checking is sacred’

Believing is a must for the fidels. Being an infidel is a death-deserving sin in many theocratic nations. In political issues, believing is necessary, checking and cross-checking are paramount. Again, as everything is political and politicised today, doing the required checks is due diligence, perceived credibility of the author notwithstanding. Political compulsions cannot take over the process. The process is not a punishment.

Bad luck for The Wire, this cardinal rule was given the go-by. Not surprising, the Meta story boomeranged, exploding on its face. Neither did The Wire editors ask the mandatory questions on the source of the story nor did they check on the reporter’s integrity. Finally, The Wire editors appeared to have chosen sensationalising expediency over pre-publishing editorial checks. Editors did admit this in their public apology: “The Wire acknowledges that the internal editorial processes which preceded publication of these stories did not meet the standards that The Wire sets for itself and its readers expect from it.”

The confession underscores the harsh realities and the dire consequences of casual publishing. The story’s explosion potential and its sensation quotient, which were not critical to its veracity, appears to have prevailed. However, The Wire is promising now: “Another obvious learning is that the editing process for any investigative story should involve multiple layers of editors. We are instantly putting in place appropriate protocols to ensure this happens.” Learning the hard way.

Lesson 3: Take criticisms seriously. Pay heed to the critics. Appreciate reviews are integral to the process. Act on positive suggestions and course-correct where needed

Despite repeated attempts, Meta has avoided fresh examination of its relationship with the bjp or the special privileges it is said to have extended to political personalities in India. As is its wont, Meta has failed to respond to questions raised by digital news publications on its XCheck program. As the party in power, bjp too is not saying much on this aspect. Sure, The Wire’s predicament could be pleasure for many, because it is seen as an anti-establishment platform. A good reason why The Wire should have paid heed to its critics. Such openness would have enabled The Wire to remain guarded and avoid eggs landing on its face.

Lesson 4: Technology is a means to an honourable end. Use it responsibly with utmost sensitivity. Understand technology is not a magical Aladdin’s Lamp

Technology is a potent weapon. More so for the digital news media. Add to this the reach and the virality of digital news platforms, technology equips editors with lethal assault weapons capable of causing extensive damage to reputations. Reasons why the digital news media should treat technology with fearful respect. Intensive soul-searching goes before the deployment of digital weapons on the news landscape.

Sure, internet and social media connectivities are instruments which need careful handling. They are a means to an honourable end. Sadly, The Wire was wanting on this score. The online news platform used technology as if it is their Aladdin Lamp which can conjure up imagined results from thin air.

Editors of The Wire thus geared the platform’s social media presence to meet pre-determined goals. Geared social media presence and  manipulated technology blew up finally on their faces. Grave dangers are inbuilt in such strategies. Blinded by belief and faith in their technology, their hope was somehow they would be able to manipulate to show the results they wanted. What happened in the end is history.

Understanding the intricacies and the complexities of technology is a must. This is why the editors of The Wire should have used technology, padded with layers of tech-vetting. The Wire confessed saying: “This combination of not fully grasping the complexities of technology and a slippage in editorial assessment of tech-related matter resulted in the publication of stories which did not eventually hold up. For this we owe an apology to our readers.” This was avoidable.

Lesson 5: Doubt sources. Doubt the authors and their sources. Question every time a story is conceived 

Political spaces across nations are teeming with polarising parties and propaganda. In this divisive environment, fake news and falsehood reign everywhere. Political parties and their herdsmen generate today endless streams of news aimed at misrepresenting facts, in varying degrees. No place for saints in their spaces and so check the sources. Check both the primary and the secondary sources. Check everyone.

To operate with success in this toxic environment, put in place healthy political news protocols, based on unambiguous doubting-questioning norms. This is irrespective of where the stories come from and whether the sources were checked, verified and vetted earlier. The doubting mechanism should get triggered the moment a story is commissioned. Again, The Wire faltered on this score.

Throwing up hands saying “deceived by a member of our Meta investigative team” did not save The Wire from losing editorial credibility in one swift self-blow. Publisher-editors are expected to doubt their staffers. This is pre-publication due diligence, which The Wire failed to do. Later, shifting the blame to its Meta team makes the news platform look sheepish and naive.

The Meta reporter’s political affiliations were not doubted and audited by The Wire. The reporter’s story and its contents too were not doubted and cross-checked. Surely, auditing and vetting would have exposed the gaping holes in the Meta project. Worse, The Wire reporter could be a victim of a dirty sting operation. He might have trusted his source in utmost good faith and exposed himself to manipulation by vested political interests. Probably, The Wire-Meta saga could be ‘vendetta journalism’, a well-planned and a well-executed sting operation. A diligent doubting protocol would have confirmed whether it was one.

Lesson 6: Let the ‘explosive’ tag not carry authors away. Neglect not the global and domestic political implications of skipping fact-check due diligence

This sordid Meta saga concerns not India alone, the entire globe as well. In many nations, the far-right is gaining ground. As such, the entire planet is watching with immense concern India’s place dip alarmingly, both in the World Press Freedom Index and Freedom of the World rankings. As  the Indian media ecosystem lies hurt, The Wire episode marks a watershed moment for free speech on the World Wide Web. If this ends up stifling the voices of opposition media in India, the prospects of overseas Indians getting both the sides of Indian political stories will turn bleak.

Not that The Wire is a habitual manipulator of reports. The news platform has authored great anti-establishment stories in the past. The three Indian journalists behind The Wire venture are acknowledged media professionals in their own right. However, of late, many users have been feeling weird over The Wire going overboard on many occasions and being not up to the snuff.

Besides the political journalists at The Wire, Indian journalists are sure to think now more than twice while handling negative stories on reigning political parties. Worse, negative political reports emanating from India henceforth may not strike the same credibility chord overseas. As The Wire episode snowballs into a credibility crisis, the road ahead for the opposition media in India looks dark. This is a great uninsurable loss for Indians and Indian democracy.