Last week, a score and five senior journalists and editors from across South Asia were in Kathmandu for two different events. One was on borders and the other was on labour migration. The journalists were from different platforms: print, radio, television and online. But they were curious about the efficacy of news ombudsmen in this region. They wanted to know about The Hindu ’s decade-long experience in having an independent news ombudsman.
A journalist from Sri Lanka, a thorough professional and a friend for nearly three decades, cited my former editor Vinod Mehta’s book, Mr. Editor, How Close Are You to the PM? — which had argued for maintaining an adversarial relationship between those in power and those who are mandated to run news organisations — and posed three main questions and a supplementary one. What is the nature of the relationship between the Editor and the Readers’ Editor? Whose decision is final? Do readers gain from this institutional mechanism? If yes, what do they gain and how?
The answers for the first two questions are self-evident. The equation between the Editor and the Readers’ Editor is neither adversarial nor convivial. In this relationship, the governing code is to respect the remit and not to indulge in overreach, one where the principles of journalism are upheld without undermining the authority of the Editor.
Once the perimeter is clearly drawn, the decision-making process becomes clear to all stakeholders. The Editor is the final authority in deciding what to publish. And, in post-publication, the decision of the ombudsman is final and binding.
“What readers gain?” is a difficult but unavoidable question. The gains are both tangible and intangible. The obvious tangible gain is that there is a mechanism that enables a visible mending process to correct any errors that happen in this deadline-driven profession and to retain the position of this legacy newspaper as a paper of record.
The intangible gains are trust and credibility. An ombudsman is an active listener. In my case, I do not rely only on the mail we receive on a daily basis or on comments that appear below the line for most of our stories to understand the readers. I realise that most readers write only when they strongly approve or disapprove of a particular story. But, the readers do engage with the newspaper as a whole. They are the raison d’être for a newspaper. Their views are nuanced and varied. Very often I receive conflicting and contending views from readers. How does one decide which reader is right?
Despite the fact that my livelihood is dependent on written words, I rely on the grand old oral tradition to understand readers. I take poet and storyteller Joseph Bruchac’s words to my heart to do my work: “The image of an oral telling may be caught on paper, film or in digital format, but recordings are not the word shared live. The presence of teller and audience, and the immediacy of the moment are not fully captured by any form of technology. Unlike the insect frozen in amber, a told story is alive. It always changes from one telling to the next depending on the voice and mood of the storyteller, the place of its telling, the response of the audience. The story breathes with the teller’s breath.”
My task is not only to listen to readers but to also convey their opinions with all its textures, layers and complexities to the editorial team. The idea of an Open House between readers and the senior editorial team of this newspaper flows from this unfailing faith in oral tradition. The physical presence of readers amidst the editorial staff becomes a silo-breaker. The fifth Open House is scheduled in Delhi this weekend. The warmth in this dialogue can never be captured by any innovation of Silicon Valley.
In his novel Identity , Milan Kundera talked about the need to maintain the wholeness of the self. For him to ensure that the self does not shrink, “memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say with friends.” He wrote: “They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.” Readers are our mirrors and we invite them so that we can look at ourselves in them.