In the story of an assassination plot, India decides to shoot the messenger

Screen shot of the Washington Post story, 29 April 2024, via www.washingtonpost.com

DANIEL FLITTON

Whenever anonymous sources are cited in media reports, it’s open to the audience to assume that a leak is deliberate, part of a strategy to send a message. The old saying goes that it’s often not the content of the leak but the fact of the leak that is more significant.

Last week, the Washington Post had quite the scoop. “An assassination plot on American soil reveals a darker side of Modi’s India”, read the headline. And while this extraordinary story has been unfolding for some months now, well before voting started in India’s election, this latest story filled in some important gaps.

Naming Vikram Yadav, for instance, as the alleged Indian intelligence agent who had directed the operation. Attributing culpability to India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. Also revealing that a “nest of spies” from India had earlier been kicked out of Australia.

How did the Washington Post know all this? They used sources described among the following ways:

… “according to current and former US and Indian security officials” … “a Western security official said” … “Australian officials confirmed” … “German officials said” … “current and former British officials” …

The recurring word “officials” is a strong description for a person who chooses to speak to a reporter but declines to be named. Best practice in reporting is to always strive to put a name to a person. But sometimes people won’t speak unless they can remain anonymous, particularly where there might be a threat to their job or, in extreme cases, their safety. So, reporters find a trade-off to get the story while still being descriptive for their audience about where they have obtained information.

The risk for the journalist when citing a source in this fashion is being seen to be part of the story. Questions can be raised as to whether a reporter is being used.

If anything, the story of alleged Indian hits targeting dissidents abroad has been underplayed here in Australia.

The Post’s story has sparked wild speculation about what led to the latest revelations, playing into claims from Prime Minister Narendra Modi down that “there is an attempt by some in the world to influence our elections”. India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was asked during a media roundtable this week, “Are the Five Eyes targeting India?”. One commentator in the Indian press put it this way:

When the US wants to deliver a message to an ally that is not part of the Anglo-Saxon Five Eyes or the broader Western alliance, it uses newspapers like The Washington PostThe New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

This list ignores the Financial Times, which originally broke the story about the alleged Indian plot in the United States back in November. It also ignores a more charitable interpretation, which is that these newspapers value, and invest in, breaking news. Not all media organisations do. Investigative reporters are expensive. Dogged reporting gets the job done, but it can only be built on time, trusting relationships and lots of questions.

And that appears to be the case with the Washington Post’s story. The reporters said that they had interviewed “more than three dozen current and former senior officials in the United States, India, Canada, Britain, Germany and Australia”. That allows a lot of cross-checking. “Officials” conveys authority and legitimacy yet is vague enough to protect the identity of individuals. An official could be anyone from the president to a police officer, a diplomat or a defence attaché. Paired with a further descriptor, such as “White House official”, the audience gets a sense of where information is being drawn from.

True, source description can involve word games. The Post story includes a phrase that is common in explaining the use of anonymous sources: “Citing security concerns and the sensitivity of the subject, most [officials] spoke on the condition of anonymity.” This can sometimes be a hint that a person has been allowed to speak to a reporter, on “background”.

But it could also be just what it says. People talk. Even those with security clearances.

The Indian government might dismiss the report as “unsubstantiated” but that’s cheap criticism. The material presented in the reporting goes well beyond anonymous assessments and recollections, drawing on a Department of Justice indictment, court documents in the Czech Republic where a suspect is being held, and more.

It’s also clear that the reporters were unhappy that the White House forewarned the Indian government that the story was soon to be published. Gerry Shih, one of reporters, explained in a subsequent interview broadcast in India that they had put questions to both the US administration and the government of India and given them “ample time” to respond. Checking information before publishing is standard journalistic practice, but this courtesy also reveals what the journalists have been able to ascertain, with the risk that public relations teams seek to get out in front of the story.

“When we did that with the US side, we certainly did not expect that their knowledge of what was to come would then be given to the Indian government,” Shih said. “This is not something we’ve seen before.”

Shih attributed this unusual step to efforts by the administration to contain the fallout as part of a “geopolitical balancing act” – keeping India on side, particularly in the contest with China, while making clear that the US is shocked by the allegations that India would intend to carry out a deadly operation on American soil.

That diplomatic dilemma, to me, is the biggest aspect of this story – how to get along with a rising India in those instances where purportedly shared values collide.

If anything, the story of alleged Indian hits targeting dissidents abroad has been underplayed here in Australia. Not ignored, but as ABC’s Media Watch noted this week, none of the commercial television broadcasters carried the “nest of spies” allegations. And using a somewhat old-fashioned measure, from what I can tell no newspaper carried an article about the latest revelations on their front page. It was page one news back in 2021, even though back then the nationality of the spies was unknown.

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