In the early 1980s, I did a series of interviews with writers. It was an interesting exercise in more than one sense. Apart from their writing techniques and their literary preoccupations, some of them were able to disarm an inquisitive mind, bordering on interrogation, with a rare sense of humour and self-deprecation. One of them was Ashokamitran. When I asked him to succinctly summarise his view of life, he softly said: “How I wish I were an indoctrinated parrot to answer this question?” Now, nearly three decades later, that response seems to be my answer to some of the questions I have got regarding the open house.
While I did anticipate a good response for my invitation to an open house session, I did not expect that some readers would start a dialogue electronically even before we could finalise the date for the event. At one level, this is an indicator of the level of their engagement with this newspaper in particular, and with the affairs of the world in general. I am grateful to all those who responded enthusiastically. We are still getting letters. But, I may not be able to answer questions regarding the outcome of the open house, as it would amount to putting the cart before the horse. However, let me try and respond to some of the questions regarding the logistics of the proposed open house.
One of the readers wrote: “The heading ‘You are invited’ is misleading when, after all, some twenty or twenty five readers would be sent admit cards from among those who desire to come: a mass-circulated and popular newspaper with a devoted following is sure to receive scores of requests. It is also not clear as to how the selection will be made: computer randomised? In which case, those who are selected may not be able to make any effective suggestions. No assessment can be made of the personality/education of a person from a mere ‘call me’ email, so what criteria will be followed in selection? On the other hand, if a selection had been made from among the articulate section of the readers who were writing to you regularly out of their volition and motivation in the past that might have been useful. Finally, if the meeting were to be dominated by the so-called secular and non-secular sections of your readership or nuclear and anti-nuclear lobbies, that would be sad, with many other vital topics given the go-by.”
The reasons for inviting a limited number of readers are purely practical and functional. I want to listen to their views. I am not interested in a numbers game. If one has to have a meaningful conversation, hear out the other views, and not restrict the participation to a token presence, I need to provide enough time for the readers to express themselves. Within a limited time frame, in this case, half-a-day, keeping the number of invitees at 25 seems to be an optimal choice.
What will be the selection criteria? My idea is to invite a wide range of readers. I know this will cause some heartburn among those who are left out. The selection is not going to be technically a demographic or social representational model, but it is an effort to see that most sections of the readership are covered. It will be a mix of regular writers, whom the earlier reader calls the articulate section, and others. This first attempt is a learning experience for myself as much as for others. Hence, the focus is on a lean, workable model with an idea of replication across various cities in the near future.
To find common ground
The discussion will be held under the Chatham House Rule. The rule reads: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” Why the Chatham House Rule? It enables people to speak as individuals and to express views that may not be those of their organisations, and therefore, encourages free discussion. Speakers are free to voice their own opinions, without concern for their personal reputation or their official duties and affiliations.
This open house aims to build bonds in the current environment where digital platforms are becoming anonymous. The legacy media, with its physical presence can retain the space for the classical four ‘d’s of democracy — discussion, dissent, debate and, finally, informed decision. I believe that despite all its possibilities the digital platform tends to be an ideological silo, where finding common ground is an elusive proposition. The open house will be structured in a way to find a common ground.