It was an inspiring coincidence. When this newspaper celebrated its tenth anniversary of the Office of the Readers’ Editor (RE), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose Spotlight, which celebrates investigative journalism by tracing The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests, for best picture.
It is heartening to note that the Catholic Church did not rubbish or carry out a smear campaign against either The Boston Globe or Spotlight, but acknowledged the power of the investigation. Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley issued a statement saying that the film “depicts a very painful time in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and particularly here in the Archdiocese of Boston.”
We too received numerous letters stating that the RE is an experiment that has proven to be successful. A few voices also questioned the functioning of this office. Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao from Vijayawada wrote: “Questions criticising news coverage and the editorial tilt towards a particular ideology were never answered directly despite writers writing reams on the right to freedom of expression in sections of the daily. A ‘buffer’ may help the Editor duck some inconvenient questions posed by readers but it certainly does not boost the credibility of the newspaper.”
A reader from New Delhi, Anoop Suri, wanted to know how the Office of the RE would help in addressing the question of ideological alignment of the newspaper. I also received letters that said that the cartoons are mostly against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, revealing the ideological slant of the newspaper.
Before venturing to answer the question of bias, I wish to restate the broad framework that guides and informs my work. As I have mentioned in some of my earlier columns, we are bound by two written documents — Terms of Reference for the Office of the Readers’ Editor and Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values. I also draw from the rich oeuvre of journalism literature that explores the core values and cardinal principles of this profession that is dedicated to informing the public.
The five key journalistic requirements are truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. Its two central functions are the credible-informational and the critical-investigative-adversarial. It operates to fulfil two social requirements — what is in public interest and what the public is interested in — in a manner where issues of public interest is not subsumed by the dictates of what the public is interested in.
Philosophically, I draw from two major theoretical works: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice and Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. Prof. Sen 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.” I always pause for a minute when I get a complaint to ponder the question brilliantly posed by Prof. Rawls: “First, there is the question whether an intolerant sect has any title to complain if it is not tolerated; second, under what conditions tolerant sects have a right not to tolerate those which are intolerant; and last, when they have the right not to tolerate them, for what ends it should be exercised.”
It is in this broad framework that I am embarking on a content analysis of this newspaper to examine the complaints of bias over the next three columns. Given the limitations of space, I am restricting my analysis of the cartoons, the editorials, the reportage, and the investigative reports from the days of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership.
In 1996, R.K. Laxman said: “A century ago no one could have guessed that our political leaders, social workers and public figures would have taken lightly to their images being distorted and bedevilled through cartoons in the newspapers. There could easily have been a sense of outrage, protests and indirect pressures on the cartoonist, to smother and suppress him. Surprisingly there was not a single instance of this happening!” A sample fare of how this newspaper’s cartoonists depicted earlier Prime Ministers vindicates Laxman and the viewpoint that is slowly losing ground to hagiography seekers.