I was a member of the team of journalists which looked at the developments in Afghanistan from a trilateral perspective since the United States launched its war on terror. We believe that the implications and the fallout of this military expedition are more profound for India and Pakistan, as much as it is for Afghanistan. In this context, when writer William Dalrymple wrote a provocative piece last month contending that Afghanistan’s old ethnic conflict has become a proxy war for the bitter feud between the region’s two nuclear powers, some of my friends in this trilateral group wondered whether I miss the excitement of field journalism. They wanted to know whether the job of the Readers’ Editor could provide enough stimuli to substitute the buzz of reporting, analysing and commenting on major developments in our region.
The answer is not simple. Yes, the fact that you are no longer a part of something that is unfolding is a dampener. But, the sense of satisfaction in being the Readers’ Editor also comes from one of the first principles of journalism — listening. I listen to a range of voices and a multitude of opinions that constantly remind me of the complex, plural world in which we live. The fact that I am outside the editorial process gives room for reflection. The deadline pressure does not hurry me, giving me both the time and the space to take a considered view. Listening does not stop with me. It extends to the editorial team. Every communication from my office is listened to carefully, and the editorial team effects appropriate changes when necessary. The endorsement of the “right to be heard” — both of the readers and the readers’ editor — by the entire team that constitutes this newspaper is the biggest compensation for missing the buzz of writing on key issues.
Let me give a specific example. Dr. Ashwin Motha, Assistant Professor, Family Medicine, Christian Medical College, Vellore, drew my attention to two medical stories, where the reporters were uncritical of certain claims and did not qualify them properly. The reports looked like an endorsement of the claims. When this issue was taken up with the Editor, he acted swiftly. He came up with an internal circular on reporting medical news.
After clearly listing out the process to be followed, he laid the ground rules for reporting, vetting, and publishing health stories. He wrote: “Medical stories should be complete and carefully verified; cutting corners for whatever reason, including competitive pressures, is impermissible. Please run such stories by the Science Editor or senior health writers before pitching them to the editorial desk. Do not mail these stories to the net. If you are not a designated health reporter in a bureau, all stories on press releases on medical claims must be routed through one of our senior editorial experts and not filed directly by general reporters. If such a process takes time, so be it: a story could be held over to check the claims made.”
Listening is not a frivolous act. It marks the beginning of a dialogue process, the bedrock of democracy. Scholars who worked on oral testimonies have captured the essence of listening elegantly. One of the manuals on oral testimony says: “Listening is an art, based on certain fundamental principles which are also at the heart of any notion of just and cooperative development. Listening needs the human skills of patience, humility, willingness to learn from others and to respect views and values which you may not share. As a listener, your sources are not dead documents or statistics, but living people and you have to be able to work together. And most importantly, listening to an individual acts as a counterpoint to generalisations and provides important touchstones against which to review the collective version.”
The proposed open house with readers will take the listening process to another level. We have identified about 30 readers, and have sent out formal invitations. The open house is on July 20, 2013 in Chennai. My sincere apologies to all those whose requests for participation could not be accommodated this time. There will be more opportunities to meet, sooner rather than later. Based on the experience from this meet, I plan to institutionalise this interactive session and take it to other centres too.
While the Chatham House rule will govern the proceedings, individual participants are encouraged to go on record, if they wish so. The members of the editorial, management and the readers’ editor office will be present to hear your views, ideas and suggestions. Speaking out is an act of proactive agency. I assure you that there would be an equally proactive agency of attentive listening. Looking forward to welcoming you this weekend.