One of the most used, rather abused, term in journalism is “sources”. Sources are supposed to be those informers who prefer to be anonymous. On most other occasions, journalism is either opinion or analysis by an individual or collection of pieces of information credited to various sources that are not anonymous.
It is somewhat natural to trust information that comes from a non-anonymous source. There are exceptions, such as WikiLeaks or some hackers, but in general we dismiss information from anonymous sources as “rumours”.
However, those rumours suddenly become ‘news reports’ when published in a newspaper or distributed through some other mainstream media platform. Because then, for an average reader, the “source” becomes the media itself.
As a result, journalism has been being used as a tool to convert rumours into credible information by many, just as some banks these days are being used to convert black money into white.
Let’s be clear that not all information credited to anonymous sources are worth dismissing as rumours. Broadly, the need to use anonymous sources can be divided into four categories:
- Revealing the identity can jeopardise safety of the source: There could be cases when a source is exposed to risks of physical assaults or other hazards if his or her identity is publicised. Say a whistleblower revealing the details of corruption in an organisation, or a common man revealing some information about a local gangster. Internationally famous example is of Deep Throat, who forced a US President to resign.
- The source is not authorised to speak but information is credible: This especially happens when rigid protocol or bureaucracy is involved. It will take too much time for the information to be dispensed in an ‘official’ way but the nature of the information is topical. We at OpIndia.com took this route when one official at PMO didn’t want to be identified but confirmed that PMO had not given any permission to Reliance for using PM’s pic in the Jio ad. The same was confirmed officially in the parliament 12 weeks later.
- The source wants to manipulate things in his or her favour by planting news: This often happens in party politics or corporate games. Readers would recall how letters and other boardroom developments got ‘leaked’ in media in the ongoing Tata-Mistry tussle. Same happens when some politician wants to manipulate public sentiments – selected materials are leaked and news reports planted with information often credited to anonymous sources. The journalist is either complicit in this manipulation or is stupid to be used as a tool – both are not desirable.
- The source is the journalist’s wild imagination: Yes, it happens. We recently saw a case where a journalist created sources like an imaginary rape victim and her mother, and claimed to have talked to them; that journalist could face prosecution. But what is rare is this risk of prosecution, not this type of journalism. Journalists know that they can make up some stuff easily without getting caught as no one will bother going to courts or forcing any inquiry.
So whenever you see a report that extensively quotes “sources” or uses phrases like “on conditions of anonymity” or “who didn’t want to be named” – apply the above four standards, in that order, and you will know what kind of journalism you are consuming.
And that is what we did to a reporter of the leftist propaganda blog Scroll, whose entire reportage, especially those about the BJP or the RSS, is based on quoting anonymous sources.
This reporter is someone named Dhirendra K Jha, whose political acumen and understanding is reflected in his analysis of 2014 general elections. He wrote the following articles, none of which quoted any identifiable person:
- Caste politics neutralises Modi wave in Bihar, BJP in race for only 9 seats – the article by Jha predicted a maximum of 9 seats for entire BJP alliance in Bihar; BJP alliance won 31 out of 40 seats
- Has the Modi wave run into a Maya tsunami in eastern UP? – yes, the dude saw a Mayawati tsunami in Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati’s party couldn’t win a single seat of out 80 seats in the general elections.
- Simmering tensions between Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh dent Modi’s mission in UP – the article quotes three BJP leaders – all wanted to be anonymous – and claims that Amit Shah was not getting support of local leaders and BJP could not do well in Uttar Pradesh. BJP alliance won 73 seats out of 80.
One can still give benefit of doubt to this reporter in love with anonymous sources because not many people got 2014 right. But it is not about getting the elections right, it is about using the tool of quoting anonymous, rather imaginary, people to push forward an agenda.
You have to go through the recent articles of Jha and apply the aforementioned standards wherever – and that’s like everywhere – he has quoted anonymous sources, and you can safely discard the first two cases, which are legitimate reasons to use anonymous sources.
For example, among his latest reports is this one on how RSS has found out that public support for demonetisation is waning. The article quotes a “senior RSS office bearer” but doesn’t identify him. Only time an RSS affiliated person is named is when Jha’s article quotes a report by The Telegraph. If The Telegraph can name an RSS person, why can’t Scroll? Because Jha never talked to any such person and just imagined things up based on what he read in The Telegraph?
In another of his recent articles, this Scroll journalist claims that Modi’s rally was cancelled because party feared that people are angry with demonetisation. The article quotes three BJP leaders, none of whom wanted to be identified. You can safely discard the first two cases of legitimate use of anonymous source even here because the state BJP spokesperson – the official channel to dispense information – said on record that “There is no doubt that people are facing problems”. Why does Jha need to quote anonymous people then?
In yet another article trying to push the narrative that BJP is worried over lack of popular support on demonetisation, Jha quotes four BJP leaders in his article, none of whom wanted to be identified. So convenient, and so frequent.
These are just a few recent examples. If one goes through the entire “work” of Dhirendra K Jha for the leftist propaganda blog Scroll, one would find numerous and nauseating usage of crediting quotes or information to anonymous BJP and RSS functionaries. And all of these quotes help drive an anti-BJP or anti-RSS narrative.
Since the first two cases of legitimate use of anonymous sources are simply discarded in his case, either this reporter has some special access to unhappy BJP and RSS leaders, or he is just happily imagining things. Take your pick.