The debate over an editorial, “The hangman’s justice” (November 22, 2012) is refusing to die down. Some readers are against the line taken by the paper and some find that the paper was the lone sane voice that failed to be swayed by the growing hysteria. The arguments against the editorial invoke the idea of popular sentiment and say that the editorial was against the prevailing sentiment. Some have wondered whether the Readers’ Editor is with the section of the readers who oppose the editorial or with the editors who authored it.
I must thank the readers for raising these questions. The Readers’ Editor seat is a vantage point that helps understand the diversity of readers’ concerns, taste and their expectations. The sheer plurality of expectations from the millions of the readers makes my job exciting. Apart from being an effective interface between the paper and its readers, this also gives me an opportunity to discuss a range of issues governing the very functioning of the media in general and this paper in particular.
It is true that the institution of the Readers’ Editor is free of the editorial processes of the paper. Being a custodian of readers’ interest has a much wider definition. It does not mean, by any stretch of imagination, endorsing just one view and rejecting others. Nor does it entail a right to reject the independence of the editorial judgment on major national and international developments. The role of the Readers’ Editor cannot be reduced to George W. Bush’s doctrine of “you are either with us or against us.”
The trap of populism
Before getting into the tricky area called popular sentiment, let me spell out my opinion of “The hangman’s justice.” I consider it to be a bold, principled editorial written with enormous conviction and ethical vigour. It needs courage to take a principled stand against popular tide. Endorsing what is popular is not a sign of good journalism. It is just populism. I felt that the paper displayed leadership by explaining what is right and was not caught in a popularity trap.
Is it possible to contest the basic thrust of the editorial that reads: “No loss of human life, however despicable the individual might have been, ought to be a reason for celebration. Instead, this should be a time of national reflection: reflection about crime, about punishment and about that cherished bedrock of our republic, justice.” What is wrong in asking: “is the hangman’s justice the only kind we can conceive of?”
What should the Readers’ Editor do when a section of readers invokes popular sentiment to find fault with the editorial content? Can the newspaper be faulted for upholding its own principles because some differ with its opinion? Will the Readers’ Editor become an extension of the editorial team if he finds the editorial content in question to be of high quality?
The office of the Readers’ Editor is equidistant both from the editorial process and the readers. If the newspaper fails to maintain a high level of accuracy, standards of reporting and give a balanced coverage, I, as the Readers’ Editor, have no problems in flagging off those failings. Journalism is not a narrative meant for a targeted audience or a specific socio-economic category. It is an act of public engagement to address the concerns and the aspirations of the society as a whole. One cannot invoke the idea of sentiment to measure the quality of journalism. At a deeper level, good journalism plays a transformative role. It is important to remember that every major affirmative action over the last two centuries was implemented by going against the sentiments of a few. Hence, the issue before the Readers’ Editor is not the sentiment but the principle.
I will certainly take it up with the Editor if any writing violated the Code of Editorial Values. The paper’s view on faith and secularism is clearly spelled out in article 3 of Living our Values: Our editorial values are rooted in the guiding principles The Hindu set out with and communicated to its readers in ‘Ourselves,’ the editorial published in its inaugural issue of September 20, 1878. The world has changed but the principles remain vital for us: fairness and justice. The founding editorial also announces the aim of promoting ‘harmony’ and ‘union’ (unity) among the people of India and a secular editorial policy of maintaining the ‘strictest neutrality’ in matters relating to religion while offering fair criticism and comment ‘when religious questions involve interests of a political and social character.’
I believe “The hangman’s justice” exemplifies the finest spirit of this code.