I am energised by the quality and the quantity of responses this paper gets from its readers. The readers’ communications are not mere inputs to a feedback mechanism. They are key indicators of the dynamic relationship between high quality journalism and committed citizenship. In this context, it would be a misnomer to call a newspaper a brand. Brand does not encapsulate the organic nature of the relationship between a newspaper and its readers’ ability to make informed democratic choices on a range of issues. The compact between a newspaper and its readers is the notion of a shared conceptual universe where relevant information and erudite interpretations create a vibrant public sphere.
It would be pertinent here to recollect Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s attempt to locate a free and vibrant media within the larger notion of Justice. His 2009 book titled, The Idea of Justice, shows us a way to absorb divergent points of view in constructing a theory of justice. The Idea of Justice builds on the work by the American philosopher John Rawls but goes much beyond Rawls and has a few important pointers to understand the dynamics of media.
Freedom of expression vs. quality of life
Prof. Sen places media at the centre of public reasoning and separates out five distinct contributions an unrestrained, healthy media can make. First, of course, “is the direct relationship between free speech in general and of press freedom in particular to the quality of our lives”. In an emphatic manner he declares, “the absence of a free media and the suppression of people’s ability to communicate with each other have the effect of reducing the quality of human life, even if the authoritarian country that imposes such suppressions happens to be very rich in terms of gross national product.”
Informational, protective roles
The second and the third elements in Prof. Sen’s thesis concern the ‘informational role’ and the ‘protective function’ of an independent media. He celebrates investigative journalism and says it “unearths information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or even unknown.” On the question of the protective function, he says that media give a voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged, thereby contributing to human security. He further elucidates this point: “The rulers of a country are often insulated, in their own lives, from the misery of common people. They can live through a national calamity, such as a famine or some other disaster, without sharing the fate of its victims. If, however, they have to face public criticism in the media and confront elections with an uncensored press, the rulers have to pay a price too, and this gives them a strong incentive to take timely action to avert such crises.”
While Prof. Sen’s first three postulates were widely shared by other media theorists also, his cutting edge insight comes from his fourth and fifth postulates about the role of media. He clearly establishes the role of media in upholding some of the finest principles of democracy, which are beyond the number count. For instance, the idea of protection of minority rights in a majority rule and the space for important affirmative actions. His fourth postulate, formation of values, recognises media as the fulcrum in creating the space for public discourse, public discussion, creation of new norms where all these contribute towards “mutually tolerant preferences and choice in making liberty and liberal rights consistent with the priority of majority rule and of being guided by the unanimity over particular choices.”
Prof. Sen’s fifth postulate is truly a path-breaking one. He places the media within the overall narrative of what constitutes justice. He says: “The evaluation needed for the assessment of justice is not just a solitary exercise but one that is inescapably discursive. It is not hard to see why a free, energetic and efficient media can facilitate the needed discursive process significantly. The media is important not only for democracy but for the pursuit of justice in general. ‘Discussionless justice’ can be an incarcerating idea.”
The Hindu and its team of journalists are constantly striving to fulfill the five roles set out by Prof. Sen, sometimes with success, sometimes with partial success and sometimes in vain. The readers’ response and engagement make this journey a worthwhile endeavour.
The article has been corrected for a factual error. John Rawls, the American philosopher, had earlier been identified as British.