It is not easy to be an ombudsman for a national newspaper during election time. Millions of readers have myriad opinions about who should win and what a newspaper should do to ensure that their favourite party or candidate occupy positions of power. I get letters that reflect a multitude of opinions. I recognise the desires of the readers and this actually proves my pet theory that newspaper ownership is never confined to the shareholders of the publishing company. Every reader who buys a copy of the newspaper has an organic sense of ownership. Here the ownership is not over the title of the newspaper but the collective desire to be part of a larger democratic process.
This sense of ownership exhibited by the readers is simultaneously the strength and challenge of the editorial team. Editorial judgment is a tool used to navigate through these expectations and come up with a news mix that captures and reflects the fair opinions of the composite readership. My last column, ‘Not being prescriptive,’ explained some of the governing principles that guide this newspaper’s coverage of this election.Missing the main argument
However, some of the responses for that column seem to miss the main argument. I had not argued anywhere that the paper would give up its core function to critically look at key players. Nor did I claim that explaining the inherent contradiction of one front be read as supporting another front.
In this context, how do I respond to contradictory arguments from readers? For instance a reader called Prayas wrote: “This newspaper has always endorsed communists and more recently its modern form, [the] Aam Aadmi Party. And further it always demonised Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Till now [there has] not [been] a single article that [has] praised the BJP or its leadership. So mentioning that this newspaper has not endorsed any party is totally false.” On the same day, I got a mail from a Left intellectual accusing the paper of falling prey to the seductive charm of the market and not carrying any special story on April 11 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the split in the Indian Communist Party. Another reader wrote that excessive focus on Mr. Modi is giving him disproportionate media space and that other political ideas and aspirations are being edged out.
What can I deduce from the reactions of readers whose political affinities span across parties — and who feel that these parties are not getting enough editorial space in their newspaper? Does this not mean that the paper is being fair across the political spectrum? Does this not mean that the paper is a site for multiple ideas? Does this not mean that the paper is not permitting one political party to subsume others? Aren’t there reports from the field that cover candidates belonging to rival parties?
One of the readers from Bangalore claimed that The Hindu was supporting the BJP and cited its report on South Bangalore BJP candidate Ananth Kumar’s canvassing, which the reader said was similar to reports in other newspapers. The matter was looked into by the Editorial department which said that the two stories were products of independent efforts by different journalists. The correspondent of The Hindu, along with the staff photographer, was witness to Mr. Kumar’s campaign in the South Bangalore constituency on the same day as reporters of some other newspapers. The same incidents and personalities have appeared in different newspapers because of simultaneous coverage of the same event. The Hindu carried the report on a later date owing to spatial constraints this election season.
An election is an important political event and I understand that individuals are passionate about their preferred political candidates and parties. But this passion cannot come in the way of editorial judgment of a newspaper. The goal of the newspaper is to rise above emotions and moods to provide better insight into the process. The moment the focus shifts from personalities to processes it tends to cover a larger canvass. This is what is meant by not endorsing a candidate or a political party. Social media trolls have some impact on the manner in which some readers tend to respond to critical articles.
It was former U.S. president George Bush who came up with a theory that you are either with us or against us. Indian democracy is too vast, its requirements too varied and falling into an either or binary is not desirable. We need a layered, nuanced and multi-nodal argument that tries to capture the complex Indian reality in its totality. This is not an easy task.