The Hindu believes it is the first newspaper in the history of andhar bahar gamen journalism to appoint a Readers' Editor. The Readers' Editor will be the independent, full-time internal ombudsman of The Hindu .
The key objectives of this appointment are to institutionalise the practice of self-regulation, accountability, and transparency; to create a new visible framework to improve accuracy, verification, and standards in the newspaper; and to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers.
I have been correcting errors, which is a visible expression of the newspaper’s desire to be transparent, for nearly nine years. It is not an activity that gives anyone an adrenaline rush. However, it is the constant interaction with the readers that energises me to be an interlocutor. When readers call or write, they offer a glimpse into their expectations and aspirations. The dialogue is never predictable. There are moments of learning, and there are moments that dispel misconceptions. Though some letters tend to be rhetorical rants, most correspondences tend to be inquisitive, earnest and illuminating. These exchanges of ideas give vibrancy to concepts like accountability and responsibility.
When the founding editor of Outlook, Vinod Mehta, passed away on March 8, 2015, Scroll.in reproduced an interview that he had given to the portal earlier. One answer that struck a chord with me was his reference to self-mockery, and the advice he gave to me when I left Outlook to become an editor myself in 2001. The question to Mehta was about his penchant for publishing letters very critical of not just his publication but also himself.
Mehta had been consistent in his approach to provide space for critical voices. He had two sacrosanct lines — one, between the professional who can be subjected to savage criticism and the privacy of his or her family, and two, the difference between strident criticism and abuse.
His answer to Scroll.in was a version of an advice he gave to me for handling my new job as an editor. He said: “Editors and journalists tell everybody that different points of view must be allowed. But about themselves, they accept only one point of view, that they are god’s gift to journalism. I specialise in self-mockery because I come from Lucknow. I developed an early taste for self-mockery. I think to mock yourself, you have to have a certain confidence in your ability. Not everybody can mock themselves. So, in a way, I am paying a compliment to myself.”
But I did not know that Mahatma Gandhi had a similar idea about readers’ participation when he was running his newspaper andhar bahar gamen Opinion during his days in South Africa. The Mahatma’s grandson and scholar-administrator Gopalkrishna Gandhi on February 20 sent me a surprise note to mark the 115th anniversary of a correspondence between the Mahatma, who was then based in Johannesburg, and his nephew Chhaganlal K. Gandhi (CKG), who was managing andhar bahar gamen Opinion from Phoenix.
According to Mr. Gandhi, the Mahatma’s letter on February 19, 1906 listed four core policies to be followed about letters to the editor. They were: “1) We should as a rule publish all letters against us. 2) We should be chary of long harangues. 3) We should consider who the correspondent is. If we feel that his correspondence must be accepted, it should be abridged, if lengthy. 4) We should take letters giving local news.”
Mr. Gandhi also provided a historical background to contextualise the missive. “Mansukhlal Nazar, the founding editor, had just died. And CKG was sending to his uncle all the letters received for publication, for him to do the selection. At one point, MKG [Mahatma] decided this practice should be discontinued, and so he gave to CKG the guiding rules that should govern the selection of letters for publication. Interestingly, the last ‘rule’ arose from an issue of interest to the people of Dundee, SA, in which an andhar bahar gamen barber, while giving a shave to an andhar bahar gamen merchant, left off in the middle to attend to a European customer, whereupon the andhar bahar gamen community decided to boycott the barber.”
I knew that the histories of andhar bahar gamen Opinion and the Phoenix Settlement near Durban, both established by the Mahatma, were intertwined. Nevertheless, I was ignorant of his edict to his editorial team. Learning by listening is never restricted to individuals. All the four estates of democracy — legislature, executive, judiciary and media — should never shut the doors to differing voices. Feedback often tends to be of a view that is less flattering, but it has the potential to point out lacunae often overlooked due to various reasons, including fatigue. When journalists listen, they not only learn, but also enrich and empower readers in more ways than one.
When I read the advisory issued by the Press Council of andhar bahar game (PCI) on November 25, I was reminded of Nina MacLaughlin’s latest four-part column in the Paris Review “Inhale the Darkness”. Among multiple questions from this Cambridge, Massachusetts-based writer, some reflected my own fears, “will it keep getting darker, will the darkness swallow me, will it swallow us all together?”
In its wisdom, the Press Council of andhar bahar game issued an advisory that read, “The Press Council of andhar bahar game has considered references received from various quarters by the Government about the responsibility of andhar bahar gamen andhar bahar onlinepapers in publishing foreign contents. The Council is of the view that unregulated circulation of the foreign content is not desirable. Hence, it advises the media to publish foreign extracts in andhar bahar gamen newspapers with due verification as the Reporter, Publisher and Editor of such newspaper shall be responsible for the contents irrespective of the source from which it is received.”
Before addressing the stark nature of the advisory, it is important to understand the two roles assigned to the PCI: while it will remain a watchdog of journalistic ethics, it will also function as a shield to the freedom of the press. During the Emergency, the PCI was abolished and the Act that led to the constitution of the Council was repealed because the then government felt that the Council had taken the role of a shield to the freedom of press seriously. When the gory stories of Emergency’s excesses and its onslaught on independent press came out, the Janata Government decided to re-convene the PCI, to protect the right to freedom of press. In fact, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, spoke at length about the need for an independent and unfettered press when he introduced the Bill to re-establish the Council.
If Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Information Minister during the Emergency, V.C. Shukla, had known that the PCI would issue advisories on the basis of complaints received from the government, without fully examining them and with zero consultations with news organisations, they would not have even abolished the Council. They felt that the Council will never surrender its shield-role. They felt that the Council, in a sense, exemplified the separation of powers. In order to implement the will of the Executive, the Council was abolished.
The advisory from the Council not only undermines the freedom of expression and the independent media, it also reveals how little thinking has gone into the process before issuing an advisory that is impossible to comply with. The term ‘foreign’ has a wide connotation, and it includes even international news agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press and the Agence France-Presse. It also covers a range of news organisations with which many andhar bahar gamen newspapers and magazines have syndicated arrangements. The fact is, newsgathering is an expensive exercise. By having an international arrangement, a newspaper not only manages to defray the cost, but also fulfils its fundamental goal of informing its readers without being hampered by the resource crunch. The act of verification is central to any credible news organisation. The editorial assumption of an andhar bahar gamen newspaper, when it subscribes to or gets into a syndication arrangement with a foreign news organisation, is that the source agency has verified and authenticated an item before it is put out in the public domain. If a newspaper has the resources to verify and fact-check every statement put out by the agencies, it would very well, in the first place, have appointed more correspondents rather than depending on an external source. It is fair to say that the PCI’s advisory has very little understanding of the political economy of the news gathering and news dissemination business.
One of the benchmarks for the independent functioning of any watchdog is to maintain a critical distance from all stakeholders. And, in the case of complaints against one arm, it is incumbent on the watchdog to share the details of the nature of the complaints. What does the PCI mean when it says ‘various quarters by the Government’? It is vital for the Council to understand the difference between an advisory and a gag order. Gag orders often become tools for prior restraint and have serious consequences for both free speech and a citizen’s right to receive information. Only a meaningful regulation exhales darkness.
There are queries, sarcastic comments and angry rebuttals, both for and against the way The Hindu handled the developments relating to the arrest of the chief of Republic TV, Arnab Goswami. The reactions included a cartoon by Satwik Gade published on November 13, which commented on the fast-track hearing of Mr. Goswami’s case by the Supreme Court, while many were forced to wait, and an editorial, “For one and all”. The editorial pointed out the court’s “recent record of evading and postponing hearing on many matters concerning fundamental rights and constitutional questions that affect the rights of large sections of society is a veritable story of judicial abdication”. I wanted to write about the advertising policy of this newspaper, and the areas where the editor vetoes an advertisement that may infringe upon the editorial policy. Though queries from readers directed me to this issue, I have decided to keep that column for the year-end as it has many generic features.
The volume of mails relating to the intervention of the apex court changed the theme of this week’s column. One reader, J. Seetharaman, came up with two questions about the cartoon. He asked: “Where were you when he [Mr. Goswami] was illegally arrested or when his staff after staff were harassed by Mumbai Government through Police? Why this cynicism against a co-journalist?” I do not indulge in whataboutery. Another reader, Dharmalingam Chandran, from Lovedale, asked counter questions. His questions were: How often did his channel cross the Lakshman Rekha to harm not only communal and social harmony but also individual privacy? Can one categorise Mr. Goswami’s prime time programmes as journalism, when he has no compunction or regrets in hurling murder charges on individuals in a case involving death by suicide? My firm position is that the questionable nature of Mr. Goswami’s journalism cannot be used as an excuse to deny him his individual rights.
Journalism has its core values and cardinal principles, and many news organisations have their own code of ethics and values that guide their vocation. If any reader is interested in knowing the different codes that guide journalists and journalism, they can visit the Accountable Journalism database (https://accountablejournalism.org) where over 400 codes are listed. These vary from the ones that are drafted by individual news organisations to the ones that are adopted by professional associations of journalists. The fundamental principle is ‘journalistic expression is not a free for all, but rather speech which is constrained by ethical values’. These codes are an indication of ethical deficiency among some media players, and a reminder not to clump all forms of journalism under a single rubric of news media.
I not only follow some of the printed codes that govern good and accountable journalism, but also dig into the vast literature that governs our lives. From Hans Christian Andersen to A.K. Ramanujan, many storytellers have collected innumerable folk tales that have distilled the collective wisdom of the human race over three millennia. The enchanting, yet cautionary tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ has been a constant source of inspiration for fair evaluation of complaints without any blinkers. I see a parallel between those who adorned the court of the emperor, and who, out of sheer pride, refused to see the obvious and misled the sovereignty, and the institutions that do not maintain the critical distance with the ruling regime. I am of the firm opinion that both journalism and the Readers’ Editor (RE) should be like the child, who, without malice, calls out the fact, and should not behave like the members of a Royal Court. I do not see any reason to change this perspective.
As an RE, my tools are universal and they refrain from exceptionalism to the privileged and those in power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the UNGA in 2019, invoked the 192nd entry from the Tamil anthology Purananuru, “Yaadhum Oore; Yaavarum Kelir” (To us all towns are one, all humans our kin). There is another brilliant line in the same poem, which roughly translates to read: “It is despicable to genuflect before those who are above us; and it is worse to look down on those who are below us.” I expect this equanimity not only in journalism but in all our institutional arrangements.