Not dropping the vase

This is my last column as the Readers’ Editor (RE). Of the various farewell write-ups I have read over the last four decades, Alan Rusbridger’s reflections after he stepped down as the editor of The Guardian are what resonate deeply with me. He wrote that he was overawed by the responsibility when he was entrusted with it. His fear was: “Please, please let me not drop the vase.” This was my fear, too, when I was invited to become the RE. I agree with Mr. Rusbridger that editors “just pass through” but readers are the “real carriers of the flame”. I thank each one of you for your constant engagement and arguments, which were an integral part of my role over the past nine years. I was ably assisted by A. Shankar and R. Lakshminarayanan in running this office. I thank Srinivasan Ramani, Murali Krishnaswamy and Radhika Santhanam from the editorial pages for their constant support.

Role of Readers’ Editor

One of the issues I tried to address upfront in my weekly columns is the nuanced relationship between a news ombudsman and the newspaper. It is neither adversarial nor promotional. When I was appointed as the RE, some readers asked: “Will you have the courage to rock the boat?” My answer was nuanced. I agreed with the boat analogy, but agreement stopped there. I said my role was not to rock the boat and undermine journalists working for this paper but to be an effective tailwind that ensures high quality journalism. I said I would be fearless in pointing out mistakes, shortcomings and inaccuracies but would refrain from naming the individual journalists. I said that there would be no gain in stigmatising individuals for their inadvertent mistakes and occasional lapse of professionalism. I said that the RE should exemplify the idea of a soft touch mechanism, which is central to self-regulation.

The second issue that came up for discussion was that of visible mending. The visible mending process is a sign of accountability and transparency. When this office was created, it was widely seen within the profession as an enviable job. But soon, I realised that I had to battle perceptions too. As the pointsperson to receive complaints, to effect redress, and to ensure adherence to core values, I had to not only be fair but also be seen to be fair. The first RE of The Guardian, Ian Mayes, once said: “Being visible and accessible means you are a sitting duck”. It took time for me to understand the real import of Mr. Mayes’s statement.

Everyone involved in journalism appreciates a mechanism for course correction. But when the mistake is laid at someone’s door, the person feels hurt. Reporters, sub-editors, designers, data journalists, and readers share this perception. Some readers always asked me whether the RE was with the section of readers who opposed the editorial or with the editors who authored it. When I found some of the readers’ objections to be unfair, they felt that I was justifying the newspaper. One of the pithiest comments I received read: “You are employed by the newspaper and it is quite natural not to bite the hand that feeds one.”

An active listener

Drawing from the wise saying of Elbert Hubbard, I learned to endure criticism without resentment. I knew that an evaluatory job would never fetch admirers. Being a custodian of readers’ interest does not mean, by any stretch of imagination, endorsing one view and rejecting others. I would like to share what Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, former executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, said about this conundrum: “Until there is some disinterested party who is willing to pay, all news ombudsmen are obliged to receive their paychecks from their newspapers or broadcasters. The onus is on the ombudsman to prove to the listeners that he/she can still be equal opportunity shin-kicker — going after the journalists, the management and occasionally the listeners, as appropriate, even though we take the King's shilling.”

An ombudsman is an active listener. I was not relying only on the mails that we receive daily. I read the comments that appear below the line for most of the stories online, to understand the readers. My task was to not only listen to the readers but to also convey their opinions with all their textures, layers and complexities to the editorial team. I hope I have not dropped the vase.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 5:10:40 AM |

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