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THE HINDU, FOUNDED on September 20, 1878, is the oldest surviving major newspaper of Indian nationalism, by which we mean the great socio-political movement that won freedom for India from colonial bondage and helped consolidate the gains of independence in every sphere of national life. The world has undergone a sea change since a President of India inaugurated the newspaper's centenary celebrations in Chennai on September 5, 1978. It is but fitting that in its 125th year, The Hindu has re-committed itself to its larger societal and public service mission. Within that framework, it has set itself the goals of upholding and strengthening quality and objective journalism in respect of both news and opinion, and continually achieving higher standards of journalistic performance in an increasingly competitive milieu. The long-term strengths of this newspaper have been independence, seriousness, newsiness, credibility, fairness, balance, and critical spirit. It has become clear to large numbers of readers as well as to those within the organisation who bear responsibility for the newspaper's future that these traits needed replenishment and reinforcement. In consequence, The Hindu has recently undertaken a restructuring and reorientation of its editorial operations, and indeed a correction of course.
The background and context of this editorial re-direction are important. By and large, the claim can be made that the Indian press retains its historical strengths and its soul. It also retains a relatively high degree of diversity and pluralism, reflecting the vast regional, linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural heterogeneity of a subcontinent. There are indications, however, that this diversity has come under pressure and could even be under long-term threat; and that concentration of circulation is growing in several market sectors. As a recent scholarly analysis of the economics of media diversity in India puts it, "in each market segment within each kind of media business there is a real threat of domination of a kind that dilutes the basic tendency towards diversity and pluralism characteristic of the Indian media marketplace," a trend that has "adverse implications for serious and good journalism." Revolutionary technological advances have made it possible for newspapers to be more attractively and speedily produced. They have transformed production values, including the use of colour and graphics, almost beyond recognition. They have given accessibility a new meaning by creating new news and information delivery vehicles and enhancing existing channels of distribution.
However, objective processes of socio-economic and media development, intensifying competition within the press and from the other news media, above all television, and other kinds of economic and political pressures have introduced serious problems. Higher levels of manipulation of news, analysis, and public affairs information to suit the owners' financial and political interests; prejudice and propaganda masquerading as professional journalism; the downgrading and devaluing of editorial functions in some cases; the growing willingness of newspapers in "the drive for dominance" to "tailor editorial styles to target the space created by... homogenising influences... in segmented markets"; Murdoch-style price wars and aggressive practices in the home bases of other newspapers to overwhelm and kill competition; and creeping corruption are deeply worrying tendencies.
The only answer to all this can be journalism of high quality, rooted in well-defined principles, clear-sighted, ethically and professionally sound, determined to put editorial values first, responsive to the needs of readers and the market within clearly worked out journalistic parameters, willing to transform its methods and practices to take full advantage of changing technology and times. The Guardian in England has proved that journalism of this kind can more than hold its own against Murdochism. It needs to be added that such a journalism cannot flourish by itself. It must go hand in hand with good, state-of-the-art business practice, which bases its long-term strategy on a balanced appreciation of the fundamentals and core values of journalism and the evolving needs of a dynamic society. The Hindu, which was launched 125 years ago as a weekly newspaper by six young nationalists who borrowed a rupee and three quarters to print 80 copies, is today a daily with a circulation of over 925,000 copies printed in 11 centres and published by a Rs. 400 crore company. Advertising revenue now accounts for 80 per cent of its total revenues. In the contemporary age, there can be no walls separating editorial functions within a newspaper. There can also be no walls between the editorial and marketing functions of a newspaper in the sense of ruling out exchange of information, insight and experience, consultation, and cooperation. Great newspapers with a soul know where to draw the lakshman rekha and how to give primacy to the editorial functions.
Convergence and the arrival of online journalism and generally the `new media' (defined as digital, interactive, and multimedia) are expected to revolutionise the field of journalism, although the direct impact thus far has been less than predicted. Newspaper journalism as well as the business side of news operations must grasp the opportunities with both hands and ensure that the online product is at least as good as the hard copy. What is already clear is that given the big problem of information overload on the Net, the virtues and core values of journalism will prove invaluable. This means that the capability to select, to distinguish between the important and the unimportant, the significant and the trivial, to interpret and place in context news and public affairs information, and to do all this to a rigorous deadline, will win out in the new media.
What is the conceptual or theoretical framework in which such a journalism can flourish? The idea that information, and especially the press, can play a substantive and even a crucial role in the formation of public opinion in society and in shaping public policy on major social, political and economic issues is an appealing one in intellectual and socio-political terms. The discovery that, on vital matters such as mass hunger, deprivation and a sudden collapse of entitlements, timely and relevant information makes a qualitative difference to the way public opinion is shaped and official policy is made to respond is a great boost to the self-image of professional journalism. The long-term Indian press experience, set in larger context, suggests a set of functions that serious newspapers have performed with benefit to society. These are (a) the credible-informational, (b) the critical-investigative-`watchdog', (c) the educational, and (d) the agenda-building functions. In addition, there is the well-known propaganda or `manufacture of consent' role played by the dominant news media, a negative function that harms society and the people's interests.
The credible-informational function, which has something to do with a rule of law tradition, can be seen as a pre-requisite for the critical function. On the other hand, it is this second function that gives the credible-informational function a new, substantive content in relation to society. Experience teaches us that if the critical function weakens or gets eroded, the credible-informational function might fade away through sheer disuse. The critical function can also be conceptualised as a `watchdog' role, which is to say it can involve either constructive cooperation or adversariality in the public interest depending on the circumstances. Under ideal circumstances, the purpose and tendency of press reporting, criticism, investigation, and even `watchdogism' may be to improve the government or reform the system. But under other circumstances, the more substantive and progressive function may legitimately turn into a `destabilising' role in the sense that the press tilts effectively against what begins, as a result of the communication impact, to be popularly and politically perceived as unjust or corrupt or otherwise unacceptable government policy. The Hindu's 125-year history illustrates, time and again, the role of an independent newspaper in the two contrasting sets of circumstances. It was founded with the proclaimed objective of helping to `reform' a British Raj that had, eventually, to be done away with for the simple reason it was inherently unjust, oppressive, and imperialist. The Hindu also took on a role of `constructive cooperation' in the first flush of Independence and during some other phases in recent decades. However, it played an adversarial as well as watchdog role in its detailed coverage of the Arbuthnot Bank crash scandal in the first decade of the 20th century. Eight decades later, it played the same role more aggressively in its sustained investigation of the Bofors corruption scandal.
A newspaper cannot claim to be great merely by performing the first two positive functions. It must also play a strong educational role in society. Over the long term, Indian newspapers have been performing this function, to an extent, in areas such as politics and public affairs, the economy, foreign policy, business, science and technology, school and higher education, literature, the arts, especially Indian classical music, and sports. However, this educational role has been performed far below potential. When the educational function is taken up systematically and imaginatively by Indian newspapers, exciting results are likely to follow. The fourth function involves socially conscious newspapers working hard to trigger agenda-building processes to help produce democratic and progressive outcomes. This function is derived from the first three functions. But when the agenda-building function attains critical mass, it becomes an autonomous, pro-active role vis-à-vis society a process in which The Hindu, as India's national newspaper looking to the future, would like to play its due part.
Conventional wisdom in the West, and especially in the United States, has posited a laissez faire conception of a libertarian press with unbridled rights that no government and no external agency could be allowed to touch. The social responsibility theory arose in reaction to this posture. For all the criticisms and objections levelled against it, the conception of socially responsible journalism has come to stay. Several theorists have formulated principles that should guide such a journalism. In keeping with the values of India's historical civilisation, which has respected, cherished and conserved diversity and pluralism, and the universal modern values of enlightenment, democracy, secularism, and justice, The Hindu has worked out for itself a set of five principles as a template for socially responsible and ethical journalism.
The first is the principle of truth telling. This essentially means that a newspaper must aim for factuality, accuracy, verification, `anticipating the likelihood of error', providing context, background, reasonable interpretation, and careful analysis. It means also probing deep and investigating in a tough-minded and resourceful way to uncover facts of significance that are either concealed or are inaccessible for some other reason. There are different categories of writing in a newspaper, especially in an all-round newspaper like The Hindu. The three broad categories are news reports, news analyses and interpretative pieces, and opinion pieces, including editorials and articles expressing various kinds of opinion. The C.P. Scott dictum, "Comment is free but facts are sacred," sounds old-fashioned in the contemporary journalistic context; we do know that all news writing involves an element of judgment and selection, which might be called subjective. However, the lines separating the three categories of writing have virtually disappeared in most newspapers, and editorialising in news reports has become rampant. This newspaper, which was also affected by the `editorialising as news reporting' virus, is determined to buck the trend, restore the professionally sound lines of demarcation, and strengthen objectivity and factuality in its coverage.
Freedom and pressures
The second principle is that of freedom and independence. Freedom of the press was not easily won in modern India, even if it tends to be taken for granted today. Denied before Independence by a battery of anti-press colonial laws and authoritarian practices, this freedom, which is enviable by the standards of the less developed world, flows from Article 19 of the Indian Constitution and has been put on a pedestal by judicial interpretation. The Supreme Court of India has held that freedom of the press is a combination of two fundamental rights, Article 19(1)(a), "the freedom of speech and expression," and Article 19(1)(g), "the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business." The first is clearly the principal component. It is subject to "reasonable restrictions" that can be imposed by law for the purposes specified under eight heads in Article 19(2) and for no other purpose. Article 19(1(g) is, however, subject to "reasonable restrictions" that can be imposed by law "in the interests of the general public." The restrictions must also meet judicial standards of reasonableness. In practice, some of these "reasonable restrictions," notably those provided for in the criminal defamation and criminal contempt of court laws, have become unreasonable and illiberal, constituting pressure points and even encroachments on the freedom of the press. This newspaper is determined to oppose and resist all unreasonable restrictions on a free press. It is of the considered view that statute changes have become necessary to eliminate the mischief. To safeguard Article 19 freedoms, defamation must be de-criminalised, and the sky-high powers assumed by the higher courts to act as `judges in their own cause' (not allowing even truth as a defence against criminal contempt of court) must be taken away by Parliament and the people.
The third component of the template is the principle of justice. Conceptions of justice vary widely, from the classical liberal to the Rawlsian to the radical and revolutionary. No professional prescription can be laid down for which conception a journalist or a newspaper must follow. One level of justice is fairness, judged by widely accepted standards of reasonableness. A fairness doctrine can be laid down in a quite precise and enforceable way; it can indeed be codified in terms of professional ethics. But justice is much more than `fairness' in this sense. A progressive approach to justice that can be of real value to a serious newspaper is the theoretical concept of entitlements, human capabilities, and functionings developed by Amartya Sen. Given Indian realities, this concept can be a powerful tool for triggering journalistic interest in socio-economic and other forms of deprivation and in the development of specialised 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 fourth principle is that of humaneness. To ask for this consistently from the news media is not to aim too high. National media coverage of the 2002 Gujarat carnage has been justly praised for its "honesty, integrity... and humaneness." However, the coverage of the same experience by some leading newspapers in that State lacked both truth and humanity. Covering a severe drought, starvation deaths, and mass distress tends to be, at the same time, an exercise in truth telling, independence, and humanity. The Hindu believes that a journalism of social responsibility must make its commitment to the principle of humaneness more explicit, more immediate, more wide-ranging, and more nuanced.
For the social good
The fifth principle is that of contributing to the social good. Professional journalism must not become agitation and propaganda, but there is strong ethical and social justification for a journalism that contributes, within its constraints and to the best of its ability, to peace and to the resolution of conflicts in society. Thus journalism that stands for the social good must take a clear stand against raining down death, anarchy and chaos, with high-tech weapons, on masses of innocent people and devastating a country under the pretext of bringing about a `regime change'. Opposing communalism as a political mobilisation strategy and also every form of fundamentalism and extremism; advocating the principles of secularism the equality and non-discrimination principle as well as the principle that religion, however significant it may be in the life of the people, should not be used to incite hatred or exploited for political gain and the path of uniting people for development and social transformation tasks; resisting chauvinism and divisiveness in the name of caste, language, ethnicity, river waters, and so on; improving relations with neighbouring countries; arguing for democracy, rationality, science, and education; demanding that all children of school-going age should be in school and that the unconscionable practice of child labour should be eliminated; demanding that female foeticide through sex-selective abortion not be tolerated and comprehensive measures be adopted to improve the sex ratio in the population in the eyes of most reasonable people, these are ways of contributing to the social good. However, there are bound to be disputes over what is socially good, as divided reactions to such horrors as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat pogrom, and terrorist atrocities in Jammu & Kashmir show. 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.
Is it too much to demand from the socially intelligent media that they must discern or discover in a free and independent way what is true, what is democratic and just, what is humane, what is socially good, and to avoid the traps that abound in the professional arena and the marketplace? The Hindu is clear it is not.
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