Opinion » Readers' Editor

Updated: June 30, 2014 02:09 IST

Maintaining a critical distance

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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu
A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

There are two strident critics of the Office of the Readers’ Editor — Devraj Sambasivan from Alappuzha, Kerala, and Felix Moses from Chennai. Mr. Sambasivan after reading my last column, “Free media and good governance,” wondered whether I was still the Readers’ Editor (RE) or if I had become an independent columnist. In his opinion, some of my columns were of general, world view opinions and hardly fit my job description. Then without offering any material basis for his criticisms of the comment section of the paper, he makes a sweeping statement: “In recent weeks, several of The Hindu’s lead, op-ed and election pieces abounded in nonsense, for which many a better intelligent commenter savaged both the pieces and the paper.”

Dr. Moses went a step further and said that the column, ‘From the Readers’ Editor,’ was a sheer waste of precious space. In his opinion, the newspaper failed to practise what it claimed to be its principles. In a way both of them were of the opinion that the Readers’ Editor was playing a cheerleader role rather than a critical role. Dr. Moses also took serious exception to the size of my photograph that appears along with my column, without even realising that the Office of the Readers’ Editor is outside the editorial process and that we come in only in the post-publication stage.

Misplaced belief

What prompted these two erudite readers to take such a contrarian view is beyond my means to know. At some level, they have come to believe that the role of the RE is to unequivocally support the views of the readers. This is a misplaced belief. The mandate of the RE’s office is to ensure that a self-corrective mechanism instituted by the newspaper works within a larger framework of media freedom, freedom of expression, access to critical information and making sense of the complex reality that is unfolding in front of us at maddening speed in a socially responsible manner.

As a part of this mandate, I need to provide vital background information about the media sector. This includes a range of issues. The legal framework, the regulatory framework, the issues of ownership — state, private and public, the ethical issues, the challenges from emerging technological innovations, the market, the demographic shifts in reading habits and the appropriate news narratives for each of the emerging new platforms. In a sense, I try to provide a context for the texts published by this newspaper.

Aware of divergence of ideas

This newspaper does not function in a vacuum but in an ever-changing reality. It is important for readers like Mr. Sambasivan and Dr. Moses to realise that there is a fully thought-out editorial system in place that makes a crucial distinction between news and views. While the newspaper is unwavering in its commitment to accuracy and fairness, it recognises the importance of debate, opinions and commentaries. It is acutely aware of the divergence of ideas and world views that constitute the democratic media space.

In this context, how can one back a sweeping statement like Mr. Sambasivan’s “in recent weeks, several of The Hindu’s lead, op-ed and election pieces abounded in nonsense”? May I draw Mr. Sambasivan’s attention to nearly 50 of my columns and our weekday “Corrections and Clarifications” column where every single error is corrected, and where it warranted a clarification, a detailed one, is provided? The Editor-in-Chief and the Editor of this newspaper do take their responsibility seriously and are transparent to acknowledge any failing with an open regret. It is a recording of a fact by the RE’s office and it is certainly far from being a cheerleader.

Dr. Moses needs to look at his facts more closely. For instance, on May 19, 2014, he wrote a mail questioning a report on Prince of Arcot. He wrote: “why do you still address ‘Mr. Muhammad Ali as the Prince and Nawab of Arcot?’ He is neither a statesman nor a politician, so what actually are you trying to imply by calling him a ‘prince’ and a ‘nawab’?... you write one thing in your column and do exactly the opposite in actual practice, and that is why I feel that it is time you discontinued this column.” Dr. Moses should know that the Nawab of Arcot was not one among the many to lose the privy purse in 1971 when Mrs. Gandhi abolished the practice. They lost it to the British in the 19th century. But, the government of India has recognised the title of prince and has accorded a protocol by the Government in the Warrant of Precedence, under Article 15-A, and his rank is on a par with State Cabinet Ministers. What was carried in The Hindu was factually correct and it was the right description. Does Dr. Moses want the RE’s office to introduce an error or find fault with a reporter who got his story right?

I have consciously refrained from writing on issues that do not directly concern the media, freedom of expression, rules and ethics of journalism and the Right to Information. One thing that has emerged in the nearly two years of my functioning as the RE is that on some occasions the readers were right and the reporters were wrong, and on some the journalists were right and the readers were wrong. I try to bring out both these realities in my column.

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