In the creative world, irony and coincidence are cousins. But these enchanting devices rarely help journalists to do their work. On the contrary, they have the potential to torpedo good journalism. The first column of a new year gives me some leeway to reflect on the larger world before returning to the core business of journalism.
Many literary critics believe that Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a story based on fatal coincidences aimed at something opposite to what its title implies. Gerald Martin, in his biography of Márquez, says: “Chronicle of a Death Foretold is perhaps García Márquez’s most influential title, used in a thousand newspaper headlines and references in magazines. The reason of course is that it implies that whatever is announced can be prevented and that human agency can predetermine the world (though the novel, ironically enough, seems to give the opposite message).”1947 and 2014
For us, Indians, this is a year of an amazing coincidence. The calendar for 2014 is exactly the same as the calendar of 1947, the year of Independence. To a journalist and a student of Indian history, 1947 always evokes a complex picture. While the end of colonialism and the birth of a free nation are ideas to be cherished, the writings on the communal carnage that followed Partition and forced migration send shivers down my spine. If 1947 represented the transfer of power, 2014 is going to be witness to India’s democracy at work for the sixteenth time in 67 years proving both the internal and external critics wrong. Billion and more people have repeatedly shown that they have the agency and the power to choose their rulers.
The Indian media sported a different picture in 1947. Apart from a credible-informational role, it also assumed a nation-building agenda for itself. However, the critical-adversarial role came to its own only after the brief but stark period of Emergency. The post-liberalisation era has rewritten the rules once again where the media no longer represents only the news producing organisations but also includes the entertainment sector. Though every media scholar is able to sense the attendant problems of this twinning of two intrinsically varied narratives, we are yet to understand the full import of some terminologies such as infotainment and edutainment that have crept into mainstream vocabulary, and whose guiding principles are neither precise nor strictly within the remit of public interest.Dilemma before media
The FICCI-KPMG media and entertainment 2013 report is an illustrative example of the dilemma before the news media. It projected the size of the Indian media and entertainment industry to touch Rs.1.66 lakh crore by 2017, growing at a healthy compounded annual growth rate of 15.2 per cent. But, when it looks at news media, which is advertisement-dependent, the spending has come down. There was a dip in growth to nine per cent in 2012 from 13 per cent of 2011 and 17 per cent of 2010. Though the final figures of 2013 are still being computed, it is expected to be as low as five to six per cent.
It is in this context that the news media tries to deliver on two fronts: providing credible information and serving as an adversarial critic of institutions to make them accountable and transparent. To be effective and purposeful in this atmosphere, it is important for media organisations to uphold the core values and cardinal principles of journalism, and an ombudsman is expected to see that the news media does not deviate from this high moral ground.
Karen Rothmyer, the first public editor of the Kenyan daily, The Star, has come up with an insightful paper on the beneficial role of ombudsmen titled “Giving the Public a Say.” She explains how news ombudsmen ensure accountability, build trust and add value to media organisations. She examines three areas of ombudsmen’s work: relationship between the media and government; relationship between ombudsmen and the public; and relations between ombudsmen and the newsroom. In our context, despite many flaws, our media is far more free and the relationship with the government is not our immediate concern as gag attempts by our own state apparatus were successfully resisted over a period of time. However, the other two issues are important to evaluate my own performance as an ombudsman. To the tricky question, who watches the watchdog? My answer is: the readers.
So, in the footsteps of the Observer newspaper in the U.K., let me pose the following questions to the readers: Does the existence of the Readers’ Editor make you feel that the paper is responsive to your views and opinions? Are you satisfied with the “corrections and clarifications” section that appears on weekdays? What is your opinion of the weekly column of the Readers’ Editor? This institution is nearly eight years old in this newspaper. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? Your answers will certainly give an edge to my work in this year, which seems to be as defining as 1947.