Recusal of a Readers’ Editor

In the judiciary, judges sometimes recuse themselves from hearing cases listed before them. The reason for their recusal is either conflict of interest or prior association with one of the parties involved in the case. It must be kept in mind that there are no written rules on the recusal of judges from hearing cases listed before them. Judges use their discretion in making the decision of whether or not to hear the case. As the Readers’ Editor of this newspaper, I have often wondered what would be the case from which I would recuse myself.

The individual views of journalists

I have participated in protests defending freedom of expression and the rights of journalists to perform their work without fear of intimidation. I have been part of teams that defended democratic rights, raised voices against jingoism, and supported the idea of pluralism. I am aware of editors and media managers who are wary of journalists expressing their views publicly. On the other hand, there are also editors who have taken the view that individual views, as long as they conform to the foundations of ethical journalism, should not be curbed. The Society of Professional Journalists has distilled journalistic ethics to four operational principles: seek truth and report it, minimise harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.

In the case of public media organisations such as the NPR of the U.S. or the BBC of the U.K., the rules for public engagement and demonstrations are more stringent but layered. For instance, the BBC makes it clear that accuracy, evidence, facts, transparency and informed judgments are constituent parts of an impartial approach. The NPR, which started as a national radio but has now transformed into an important news media organisation across multiple platforms, tweaked its long-standing policy last month. Its new ethics policy, which was unveiled on July 7, has given more elbow room for journalists to express their personal opinions on a range of issues. The policy, in part, reads: “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

NPR’s policy has already become a subject of debate. The public media organisation has been a witness to some of the defining developments in the U.S. such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Pride parade. NPR’s chief diversity officer Keith Woods explained the factors that led to the changes. While he agreed that it is important for journalists to keep many of their personal views private, he also argued that “there are things in the world where we are not torn about where we stand. We are against bigotry, we are against discrimination and unfairness.”

NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride said the recent policy “confronts the generations-old question in newsrooms: Where does the journalist end and the citizen begin?” NPR lists its guiding principles: “honesty, integrity, independence, accuracy, contextual truth, transparency, respect and fairness”. It adds a new reference to its “democratic role as watchdogs”. NPR also has a section on universal values such as human rights, a free press, anti-discrimination and anti-bigotry.

The question that haunts Ms. McBride is the one that forces me to retain my ambivalence. She asked: “What if a journalist wants to picket an abortion clinic or demonstrate in support of women’s autonomy over their bodies? What about a journalist who wants to express her general support of the Second Amendment?” The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms”.

A blurred line

In the Indian context, the line that divides the professional creed of a journalist from her democratic anxiety as a citizen is getting blurred by the day due to executive excesses. When institutions that are supposed to provide checks and balances become an extension of the executive or an apology for it, is it fair to expect journalists not to express their anguish as citizens? When constitutionally guaranteed rights are abrogated, and bills are pushed through without any discussion in Parliament, silence becomes an unbearable burden.

As the Readers’ Editor, I would recuse myself from hearing any case that asks me to draw the line that divides journalism from citizenry.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 11, 2022 10:05:18 am |