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Exercising editorial prerogatives

A.S. Panneerselvan.   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

If the elements of journalism are universal and its governing rules common, then how does one explain the differences among various mainstream, broadsheet newspapers? Who is responsible for the uniqueness of each newspaper? What are the driving motives that bring about the differences? Are they purely personal? These were some of the questions that were posed to us over the past three years.

Journalism, like filmmaking, is both an art and a science. The science part of journalism is that of common good and is determined by its core values and cardinal principles. The five defining elements of this science are: truth and accuracy; independence; fairness and impartiality; humanity; and accountability. If the director is the auteur in filmmaking, responsible for its unique identity, inimitable style and distinctiveness, then the Editor is the auteur responsible for providing a newspaper or a magazine its own identity to stand out in the crowded information market. This is where the rubrics of art come to play.

The auteur theory, developed by French filmmakers and theorists in the aftermath of the Second World War, implies that best filmmakers leave their indelible signature on their films and the narratives have unique identification markers that distinguish one director from another. Any long-time observer of media would not miss the Editor’s signature in a publication. It manifests itself in an unambiguous manner in the cover story of a magazine or in the front page of a newspaper. Ironically, the crucial attribute of an Editor — the social responsibility to minimise harm — manifests in the absence of stories and reports that have potential to conflate and compound issues. The editorial judgment plays at two levels simultaneously — the process of selection and rejection. At a fundamental level, the act of rejection is an affirmative action to reduce destruction and impairment of democratic institutions.

I would like to share a recent decision of the Editor of this newspaper to reject a right of reply plea from a reader. The reason behind this decision answers many questions. What informs the editorial judgment? What are the crucial editorial values that are upheld in denying some forms of counter-narratives the right of reply? Why is it offered to others who too have a different perspective to the newspaper? Is it possible that rejecting a spurious request becomes an act of defending freedom of expression?

In early July, there was a plagiarism charge against Rajiv Malhotra, a New Jersey-based writer, that his book Indra’s Net used extensive material from Andrew J. Nicholson’s Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. On July 22, 2015, social scientist Shiv Visvanathan wrote a lead article, “ > A battle without winners” ( in which he spoke about how the rituals of scholarly debate — the process of critique, the acknowledgement of error, and apology — were abandoned and gave way to melodrama in the case of Rajiv Malhotra and his Western critics.

Right to reply

Mr. Visvanathan pointed out two things: “This is not a debate between the colony and the metropolitan centre. Rather, it is a struggle between Western academe and diasporic people flexing their intellectual and financial muscles. Second, a lot in this war was very different — online portals became the sites of intellectual struggle.” He stressed that “dissent must retain the codes of scholarship and learn to debate openly, seriously and systematically.”

Rajiv Malhotra wanted to invoke right of reply to this article and wrote to us: “ The Hindu has posted a major article about me... I request that you kindly allow me an article to express my side of the story, so that readers are informed in a more balanced manner.”

I requested Editor, Malini Parthasarathy, to explain how she arrived at a decision to reject Rajiv Malhotra’s request to reply. Her response dealt with three important aspects. First, about the article published in The Hindu: “In the specific context of this article by Shiv Visvanathan, his discussion was focused on the rituals of scholarly debate and how he felt these were abandoned in the controversy over whether Rajiv Malhotra had committed plagiarism. Shiv’s critique of Malhotra was particularly trenchant but so too was his criticism of Malhotra’s Western critics and the Indian liberal left. His point clearly was aimed at both sides of the debate with his concluding that both sides showed ‘arrogance’ and ‘unfairness’.” Dr. Parthasarathy’s second point: “When Visvanathan’s points were centred on the failure to construct a scholarly debate around this controversy as in many others, there was no editorial requirement to seek Malhotra’s reply which would in turn fuel another round of contestation between him and his critics.”

Then she explored the third theme that the right of reply becomes morally and editorially compelling only when a specific allegation was made that has defamatory or legal implications and was published in the newspaper’s columns. “The newspaper’s right to exercise its own judgment on the need to give space to a self-proclaimed impugned party, must be protected especially in a climate where frenzy is building up on social media virtually dictating an agenda of political and cultural priorities to the media, demanding compliance. We must be careful not to feed into this frenzy or to legitimise it in any way,” cautioned the Editor.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 12:56:58 PM |

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