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The art of lying: How ThePrint spread fake news about who is paying for Shramik trains while reporting SC proceedings

It is pertinent to note here that Shekhar Gupta's ThePrint had categorically suggested that opposition parties spread fake news about the Modi government in order to counter the work done by them. It seems ThePrint led by Shekhar Gupta has gone a step further and taken up the mantle itself, and is spreading fake news not just to discredit the Modi government but also give credence to lies spread by the opposition parties.

With the Coronavirus pandemic raging on and the media finding not much else to attack the Modi government with, the stated line of the media seems to be to discredit the Shramik trains service that the government has started to transport migrants back to their home states with lies, conjectures and downright misreporting. On the 28th of May 2020, the Supreme Court heard a Suo Motu case regarding the miseries faced by migrant labourers during the lockdown period which was imposed to arrest the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. The reportage of the SC case regarding the migrant labourers and Shramik trains only exposes how ThePrint, after telling the opposition parties to focus on spreading fake news against the Modi government is now focussing on spreading fake news itself.

The headline of ThePrint article suggested that the Government has ‘finally’ clarified regarding the ‘confusion’ surrounding the question of payment of tickets for travelling migrants.

Headline article by The Print reporting the SC proceedings in the Shramik Trains case being heard suo motu

The insinuation in ThePrint article was rather simple – After misleading the people of India, the Modi government has finally clarified to the Supreme Court that it is not paying the Shramik Express fare, rather, it is the State that is footing the entire bill. Mind you, the word ‘entire’ is of operative value here as we will see later in this article.

The first paragraph of the article also indicates that ThePrint is clearly insinuating that the central government and BJP spokespersons lied earlier when they claimed that ‘85% of the ticket cost was being borne by the Central government while the states were footing 15% of the ticket cost’. It is to be kept in mind that at this point, ThePrint is claiming that the Central government claimed it is paying 85% of the TICKET fare.

ThePrint article covering the SC proceedings on Shramik trains

In the first part of the article, ThePrint says that the “clarification” by the central government, saying that they are not paying the bill for migrant workers but it is the state that is footing the bill, comes after several statements were made suggesting that the central government is “bearing 85% of the fare and the states are paying the remaining 15%”.

For any lay reader, ThePrint article is essentially saying the following:

  1. The central government lied.
  2. The entire cost of transporting the migrant labourers are being paid by the state governments, which is limited to the ticket. This assertion can be made based on their headline as well as their first paragraph.

However, later in the article by ThePrint, they include the following explanation from the Railway ministry:

Portion of The Print article where they run the clarification by the railways but also give space to opposition lies without any counter

The Railways explained to ThePrint that the central government has always maintained that the Railways is paying 85% cost associated with transporting the migrant labourers and the ticket fare per se, constitutes 15% which is being paid by the states.

However, even after this clarification, which is nestled at the very end of the report, ThePrint starts its reports with blatant lies and ends its report reiterating those lies by the opposition leaders.

How ThePrint and other media houses lied blatantly

ThePrint hyperlinks to a Business Standard report that has the same lie. The headline of the Business Standard report says, “Railways to pay 85% of train fare for workers, says govt after controversy”. However, in the second para of the article, it quotes the Railway authorities saying exactly what the railways is now claiming to ThePrint – that it was 85% of the cost that is being borne by the central govt.

Quoting the health ministry spokesperson, Business Standard wrote, “We have given the permission to run special trains on states’ request. We are dividing the cost in 85-15 per cent (railway: states) as per the norms. We never asked states to charge money from the stranded labourers,” said Agarwal at a media briefing in Delhi.

Clearly, even the the Business Standard report quoted the officials accurately, however, misled its readers in the headline. That same trope was then picked up the ThePrint and misrepresented the facts to paint the Modi government in terrible light.

What is the break-up of the 85% cost being incurred by the centre?

If one sees any railway ticket, it is mentioned as a standard disclaimer that the price any passenger is paying for the ticket covers only 57% of the cost incurred for the travel. This is under normal circumstances and for every ticket sold by railways. For the Shramik trains, only 2/3rd of the seats would be filled to ensure social distancing during travel. So the right seat and the left seat would be occupied with the middle seat being empty. Or the top birth and bottom birth would be assigned with the middle birth being empty. As such, due to this, the chargeable fees would come down to 38% (to the passenger, which is supposed to be paid by the state). The trains, since they are special trains, would come back completely empty, thus, the cost to passenger is further divided by half, which would be 19%. After taking into account passenger services like food and sanitation, the state governments were asked to pay 15% of the total cost with the remaining 85% being borne by the central government. 

A 15% cost has been imposed on the state government to ensure that the state government too has skin in the game. As such, if the travel was made completely free by Railways and the Central government, passengers other than migrant workers would have also been boarded on those trains and the result would be chaos like we saw in states like Maharashtra, during the protests near Bandra mosque or even the chaos at Anand Vihar bus station. It was because of this that the states were given the responsibility to come up with a list (after screening) of passengers and central railway is to provide tickets and trains. To impose responsibility, the Railways asked the states to cough up 15% of the travel cost while the central government would make good 85% of the travel cost.

What did the SG says, based on whose statements, The Print lied

The Solicitor General during the hearing answered a very specific question asked by the Bench.

The question was regarding the FARE for the migrant workers, to which, the SG said that it was being paid by the states. The fare alone constitutes only 15% of the cost as even quoted by ThePrint. Hence, to use his statement to peddle a fake narrative reeks of an agenda.

ThePrint should perhaps read and understand its own reports

Let us post a riddle to Shekhar Gupta – who is President of Editors Guild and has a long and allegedly respectful career in journalism, bulk of which was in newspapers.

A long-standing newspaper, like The Times of India, has 48 pages. The newspaper is sold for around Rs 5 and about 40 per cent is taken by distributors. The media organisation gets around Rs 2.40. Now each page costs Rs 0.25 to print and printing 48 pages costs Rs 12. A very conservative cost of paying employees and news agencies etc is Rs 3. So, if newspapers are produced at Rs 15, while the consumers pay just Rs 5, will it be logical to say that only consumers are paying for news? Obviously not. This information is, in fact, taken from a report published by ThePrint itself.

Shekhar Gupta himself knows that advertisers pay and that the government also pays indirectly not only through ads, but through subsidised newsprints, etc. And if a newspaper is running into losses, essentially the promoters of the newspapers are “paying”. However, this logic, which is applicable to running newspapers goes for a toss when it comes to running trains, evidently. Then Shekhar Gupta’s website assumes that whatever is being paid as the final fare is the only price being paid to run a train, and whoever is paying that price is the only party paying. In the case of Shramik trains, the final price of the tickets are just 15% of total operational costs like the final price of the newspaper is just 33% of the total operational cost. Yet, Shekhar Gupta’s website dishonestly reports as if the final price is the only thing that matters.

It is pertinent to note here that Shekhar Gupta’s ThePrint had categorically suggested that opposition parties spread fake news about the Modi government in order to counter the work done by them. It seems ThePrint led by Shekhar Gupta has gone a step further and taken up the mantle itself and is spreading fake news not just to discredit the Modi government but also give credence to lies spread by the opposition parties.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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