I respond in three ways to queries from readers — generic questions are answered in my weekly column, errors are corrected and clarifications given on weekdays, and in specific cases, I reply to the readers directly. About three weeks ago, one of the senior readers of this paper, Mr. M.G. Devasahayam, a retired bureaucrat, and I exchanged a few emails. He has gone public by publishing those e-mail exchanges in a blog, giving me an opportunity to talk about some more elements of journalism.
One of the key lessons in journalism is the ability to draw that subtle line dividing a studied standpoint and an overt bias. While it is imperative to eschew bias, it is inevitable to live with divergent standpoints. It is nearly impossible for any publication to write in a manner that gets unanimous approval. From the federal character of our body polity to the role of market in our economy, we, as citizens, have a range of opinions. And newspapers, too, have their own wisdom on issues of public importance. It is within this framework that a newspaper tries to provide a platform for dialogue.
Mr. Devasahayam’s criticism of the paper was on two rather emotive issues — the Indian nuclear programme with specific reference to the Kudankulam power project and the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. On both these issues, Mr. Devasahayam had a firm view. He is opposed to the Russian nuclear reactors, especially on the questions of safety and safeguards, and his stand on Sri Lankan Tamils was closer to that of the Eelamist diaspora. Amidst these surcharged issues, he also took exception to jacket advertisements in this newspaper, calling them a violation of “Living our Values.”
There was conflation of issues in his mail. My response was to disaggregate them and address each one of them. Carrying a full-page jacket advertisement is not a violation of the values and codes. In fact, article 6 of Living our Values is emphatic: “The Company recognises that good journalism cannot survive, develop, and flourish unless it is viable and commercially successful.” Isn’t that a fair business practice?
On the two other issues, I do see both continuity and a shift in the paper’s position over time and I conveyed this to Mr. Devasahayam. The areas of continuity are: a) nuclear power remains an option for addressing the energy needs of the country but it is imperative to have robust safeguards and safety features, and b) on the Sri Lankan Tamil’s issue the paper’s stand is that Tamils should live with dignity and political rights but not at the cost of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity.
The shift is palpable in giving space to the protest against the nuclear plant and constantly raising the safety issues. In fact, a separate section is available in the paper’s web edition under the section “in depth” on the Kudankulam nuclear power listing all the stories published so far dealing with both sides of the argument (Click here for Kudankulam power project In-depth page). In post-war Sri Lanka, the focus of the paper shifted from terrorism to the acts of omission and commission by the Sri Lankan state. It has been pointing out the failure of the current regime in Colombo to bring about reconciliation and offer a credible political solution. It is a different matter that these arguments are not to the expectations of a few who want radical results.
The issue may look tricky when one confuses the personal opinion of the Readers’ Editor, for instance, with that of the newspaper. Indeed, I am sceptical of the Indian nuclear establishment and my opinion is similar to what physicist M.V. Ramana meticulously put out in his book The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.
But my working credo as the Readers’ Editor is to recognise that there are many points of convergence as much as there are points of divergence between the newspaper and its myriad readers, and, within the newspaper itself. These multi-nodal conversations cannot be torpedoed by an ideological prism. I do share the readers’ opinion with the editorial and convey the editorial’s standpoint to the readers on a regular basis so that one can know where the paper stands on various issues.
My role as the Readers’ Editor is not that of a pre-censor, but a post-publication evaluator. I do get complaints about the editorial policy, which is defined by the editor and his editorial team. I may explain their policy but not interfere with it. It is vital to support the independence of the editorial. The acid test for the Readers’ Editor is how he conducts himself when his own opinion is at variance with that of the paper. Can he be an effective advocate for free speech, tolerance and plurality if he lacks these democratic traits?