A response to the paper’s 125th anniversary eve editorial.
With the weight of its 125 years of history of nonpartisan and restrained reporting and editorial writing, The Hindu compels reverence. It has survived the hearsay that it balks at committing to any line of political thinking. In its own words, The Hindu, ‘after 125 years of making news, has become the news.’ Most of the time for the right reasons. More than anything else, The Hindu will retain its place as the leading national media icon for two reasons: One, its undiminished editorial authority and two, its refusal to turn its readers into consumers. Its contents are unaffected by the influence of advertisers, who contribute to 80 per cent of its revenues. Its readership remained unweaned by the fallout of recent price wars. The Hindu century witnessed several generational shifts in social and political mores of the country, its highs and lows, communal convulsions, calamities, the tryst with destiny and the triumphs and tragedies that this tryst brought.
When I began reading The Hindu, it carried no news on the front page. It was full of single column ads. Then came the front page carrying news with single column headings. After a few years, followed double column headings with several decks. In the early eighties came the present 6-col. format with the text set in Roman and headings in Gothic or its inflexions. This design was the result of readability tests made by experts. That was a period that saw revolutionary changes in every aspect of the production of The Hindu. These changes were evident in its induction of new communications technologies and expansion of its reach and news networks. Today, it reaches a million informed and discriminating readers. Its worst critics admit that the quality of its readership is unmatched by newspapers that crow about their circulations every day.
When Ram became the editor-in-chief two months ago, he explained how he and other colleagues in the paper proposed to propel the great newspaper in the new millennium and to restore an editorial equanimity that seemed to have suffered in recent times. On the eve of the 125th anniversary, Ram spelt out in a long editorial details of the new news regime intended to achieve a ‘correction of course.’ The editorial was a new interpretation of communication theory and invites critical commentaries. Ram began with a reiteration of his paper’s commitment to ‘upholding and strengthening quality and objective journalism in respect of both news and opinion.’ Behind this reassurance is the knowledge that the commitment that Ram talked about raised enough anxiety in recent times to warrant a reiteration and a reorientation of its editorial operations. There is no newspaper in the country that can match The Hindu as a complete newspaper. Ram has rightly referred to how his paper had retained a relatively high degree of diversity and pluralism, reflecting the vast regional, linguistic, socio-economic and cultural heterogeneity of a subcontinent. This pluralism and diversity needs to be extended to other areas of public life like politics and economy. It is true that the long-term strengths of The Hindu have been independence, seriousness, newsiness, credibility, fairness, balance and critical spirit. However, the claim on fairness and balance is open to debate. A set of unbending ideologues seems to have gained access to the editorial columns with somewhat unhappy consequences for fairness, balance, diversity and pluralism. A few privileged voices are heard on the opinion pages.
Referring to social responsibility theory, Ram informed the readers that The Hindu had worked out for itself a set of five principles as a template for socially responsible and ethical journalism. This is laudable in view of the below-the-belt attacks some newspapers made against the Press Council suggesting the irrelevance of social responsibility and hence of a press council.
My article mostly is about these five principles. The first of the five principles is truth telling which simply means that reports should be statements of facts. Here Ram described the Scott dictum (Comment is free but facts are sacred) as old-fashioned. For that matter, as a value, truth too is as old a cliché as the Scott maxim. It is true that ‘all news writing involves an element of judgment and selection which might be called subjective’ and that all men are guided by the pictures in their heads. However, this cannot be a license to be deliberately subjective. Every reporting event consists of several facts. The truth of the event can easily be manipulated by the choice and structuring of facts. The desk is without the means to know what facts the reporter has omitted. Therefore, the commitment to truth must begin at the reporting stage. Ram has admitted that the virus of editorializing reports has affected his newspaper also. Since he is ‘determined to buck the trend’ he should not make light of the principle of separating facts from comments.
The second principle is freedom and independence about the need for which there are no two opinions. Ram called for decriminalization of defamation. Yes, this must happen as early as possible. But in some newspapers, there is an increase in defamatory content that goes unchallenged because the victims have sometimes no time and sometimes no money to sue the media. At the district and the high court level, the judiciary is too intimidated by the standing of the newspaper to award a punishment harsher than demanding an apology. This is serious injustice to the victims. The only way of disciplining errant newspapers is to award heavy damages as is the tradition in the United States. Besides defamation, Ram would have done well to draw attention to contempt of court law and the Official Secrets Act. Arundhati Roy’s one-day incarceration is a case of the worst use of the contempt provisions showing the court’s exaggerated view of itself. A lot of information is denied to the media in the name of OSA. It is also used to harass journalists.
The third principle of the template is justice, conceptions about which vary widely, according to Ram. True. To explain his version of justice, he used a number of words like progressive, fairness, acceptable standards of reasonableness etc. regarding them as self-explanatory even while he chose to parenthesize the words reasonable restrictions and in the interests of the general public in Art. 19(1)g. The Supreme Court must have fallen back on such vocabulary in convicting Arundhati Roy. But his reference to Amartya Sen’s concept of entitlements clears the mist covering the third component. Ram said, “Given Indian realities, this (Sen’s) concept can be a powerful tool for triggering journalistic interest in socio-economic and other forms of deprivation and in the development of specialized capabilities for covering deprivation in an informed, interesting, and accessible way. Thus constructive pressure can be put on the system and momentum generated for public action in a critical area where independent India has performed extraordinarily poorly in any international comparison.” The Hindu has done extremely well in the sphere of development journalism and in bringing to the notice of the government the vast areas of darkness outside the metropolitan fringes waiting for minimum infrastructures necessary for bare existence. This is an area that figures in other newspapers as some kind of a fashion statement.
Explaining the fourth principle of humaneness, Ram stressed the need to interpret and place news and public affairs information in context. Interpretation and context are two separate things. Interpretation is legitimate in news analysis, edit page matter and editorials. Context figures in news writing as background or supplementary information supplying the immediate setting. Interpretation supplies the historical background and is often aimed at supplying readymade conclusions for the reader. Discussing the principle of humaneness, Ram referred to national media’s coverage of Gujarat carnage. Having been in existence for seven decades at the time of independence, The Hindu ought to know better the wider context for the communal conflict in the country. The partition has divided the country not only geographically but also emotionally. Whether it is the Babri Masjid or the Bombay blasts, the Godhra outrage or the Gujarat carnage, Best Bakery or Radhabai Chawl, the source of unrest is the same: the forces behind partition and the ideological baggage they had left behind. The wounds have never healed, thanks to 56-year-old vote bank politics and partisan journalism. Gujarat reporting was a challenge to the concept of secularism. Humaneness in reporting cannot be selective. A victim is a victim. He is not a Muslim or a Hindu. So also an assailant. He cannot be a secular terrorist as Pankaj Mishra fondly calls him. Even while proclaiming loyalty to secularism, newspapers have managed to revive the partition-eve atmosphere of hatred and vengeance. If Ram is all praise for such reporting, we can only say Hey Ram. The Hindu is doing injustice to “truth telling” in spreading the word that secularism is under threat in India. As the Prime Minister said, inaugurating the celebrations, “there is also no need to be skeptical about Indian secularism.”
Contributing to the social good is fifth and last principle of the template. This has a sentence which reads as follows: “It is the social responsibility of a serious newspaper constantly to remind political leaders that the politics of hate, bigotry, communalism, and chauvinism is guaranteed to produce a vicious cycle featuring violence, tension and instability in society.” With a few changes, I think, it should read as “It is the social responsibility of a serious newspaper reader to remind the media that journalism of hate, bigotry, communalism, and chauvinism is guaranteed to produce a vicious cycle featuring violence, tension, and instability in society.” On the occasion of the 125th anniversary, The Hindu has received many letters reflecting the above sentiments. The writings that frequent the edit page in The Hindu, instead of offering solutions to social problems, aggravate social conflict. Even as points of view, they are inadmissible because they are not critical but quasi-abusive. The Hindu not only does not invite counter-points of view but also does not seem to have room for such articles. It grudges some space in the letters to the editor column for expressing disagreement. In the end, all the high falutin verbiage Ram used in his long editorial is in defense of a highly selective pluralism.
All this does not affect the truth that The Hindu has served the country disseminating information conducive to nation building. The exception is the recent phase of imbalance and indifference to fairness and pluralism that Ram has pledged to undo. Ending that is Ram’s first task because any extension of its tenure will add to the problems the country is facing. Let not journalism serve the ends of politics. I am sure Ram will not be as dismissive of my suggestion as Vinod Mehta who said, “It requires an internal debate and no outsider need tell us to re-examine our policy.”