This is one government leak that has not caused any storm in the media. No questions have been raised about how it happened or who was responsible. Normally, when misinformation comes via the establishment, the press does not take too kindly to it being collectively tricked into believing a blatant falsehood. But what happened on October 30 was quite remarkable.

On that day, reporters who cover the Union Ministry of Home Affairs were suddenly informed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had cleared the allocation of an additional Rs 5 lakh as compensation for each of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The news was conveyed over the phone to a few reporters by a home ministry official and it spread like wildfire. Those who later sought confirmation from the home ministry were told in no uncertain terms that the information was authentic. This convinced many editors that it was worthy to be taken as front page lead of newspapers and given top billing on news channels.

The timing of the “official leak” could not have been better – a day before the 30th anniversary of the anti-Sikh riots on October 31. Newspapers and television channels, which had been building up a bank of stories on the ghastly pogrom in Delhi and other places, suddenly found a lead story to hang their package on. And television discussions on the riots now had a new angle – the Rs 5 lakh compensation from the Union government. As the news broke, the Congress, embarrassed about the riots because of the involvement of several of its leaders, felt the government had outsmarted it.

It was not news that could be missed. Or you missed it, as one reporter put it, at your own peril.

Scepticism discarded

Of course, there were the sceptics who wondered why no official press statement was forthcoming from the home ministry. Others found it strange that such an “announcement” had come five days after the Election Commission notified by-polls in three assembly constituencies in Delhi. Did the additional relief for riot victims then not violate the model code of conduct? Such questions should have, under normal circumstances, curbed the enthusiasm shown in newsrooms, but on that day they did not.

According to a television journalist, the manner in which the whisper campaign gained momentum was amazing. “No one was saying that sources were telling them that a relief package had been decided upon,” he said in retrospect. “They were saying that the home ministry was officially confirming it. This was never a speculative story with question marks when that is what it was.” Three officials in the ministry he contacted told him the information was correct. Another reporter on the beat said he was informed that “this was confirmed news and that he could go ahead with the story”.

The pressure on reporters to file the report was such that many simply joined the herd. “Everyone had the story so you simply had to go with what the ministry officials were telling you. In any case, no one was denying it,” is how a journalist explained his position.

People hoodwinked

The Election Commission was forced to write to the ministry since it “did not come across any denial from the government in the electronic media” although it added “it cannot be denied that (the news) gave an unmistakable impression to the electorate that a decision to the above effect (the compensation package) was in fact taken by the government”. Incidentally, the poll panel had communicated its displeasure to the ministry on October 31, although it took several days for the news of the home ministry denial to appear in sections of the media. Some publications and channels even chose to ignore it.

Very clearly, whoever planted the story achieved his or her objective. The average citizen in the national capital believes Rs 5 lakh has been graciously awarded to the riot victims by the Modi sarkar. This message, now out, will not be erased easily. It will at least sustain till the assembly elections in Delhi are over, helping the BJP (Polls are shortly due after the dissolution of the assembly in November).

Lesson for journalists

There is of course a lesson in this for journalists. Whisper campaigns should not be taken seriously and confirmation of any important decision will always come through a formal public statement or an official release. Otherwise, a story coming from unnamed officials, however senior they may be, remains in the realm of speculation. The compensation story belonged to this realm and would have gone better with a headline suggesting that the Centre was considering a relief package for 1984 riot victims.

The compensation tamasha happened at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been asking his ministers, MPs and bureaucrats to be circumspect in sharing information with the press. “Work hard, don’t holiday, avoid media leaks” is reportedly the mantra that he spelt out. Of course, he said nothing against selective government friendly leaks.