The difference between credit-taking and blame avoidance

Where does reporting end and prediction begin?

Updated - November 25, 2019 10:35 am IST

Published - November 25, 2019 12:15 am IST

Mumbai, 23/11/2019: CM Fadnavis greet Maharshtra Governor Koshyari soon after swearing in ceremony at Rajbhavan on early Saturday morning. Photo: Deepak Salvi.

Mumbai, 23/11/2019: CM Fadnavis greet Maharshtra Governor Koshyari soon after swearing in ceremony at Rajbhavan on early Saturday morning. Photo: Deepak Salvi.

On November 23, the lead headline on page 1 of this newspaper was “ Uddhav to be Maharashtra CM ”. However, by the time the newspaper reached most readers, journalists were already reporting a new development: in an unexpected twist, Devendra Fadnavis had been sworn-in as Chief Minister that morning, with Ajit Pawar as his Deputy. Following this, Jagadish J. Hiremut tweeted saying The Hindu ’s story showed how the newspaper is “so out of touch with reality”.

Reporting reality

Is this criticism fair? Can reporters conjure up a script overnight, one that is fit for a film, about political machinations and the subversion of democratic processes? Where does reporting end and prediction begin? Isn’t it the duty of the press to report what it knows till the time the newspaper is put to bed? Can subsequent developments render earlier reports meaningless? What happens when there is a twist in the story every few hours? If reality itself keeps changing, don’t those shifts need to be reported? These are important questions that social media ‘warriors’ need to ask themselves before expressing their views in public.

There is a difference between the way people who wield power act and the way a responsible news organisation works. It is true that a news organisation is expected to report on those who wield power. But it does not mean that news organisations need to imitate those in power. News organisations hold people in power accountable for their acts of omission and commission, they are accountable to their readers, and they have a visible mending process when there are mistakes. Their rules of engagement are transparent. To put it succinctly, a respected news organisation displays a sense of ownership and takes credit for its reports, which is different from the politics of blame avoidance played by those in power.

The American academic, R. Kent Weaver, who works on governance studies, wrote an essay titled “The Politics of Blame Avoidance” in 1986, which said, “Politicians are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid blame for unpopular actions rather than by seeking to claim credit for popular ones”. He explained how “incentives to avoid blame lead politicians to adopt a distinctive set of political strategies, including agenda limitation, scapegoating, ‘passing the buck’ and defection that are different than those they would follow if they were primarily interested in pursuing good policy or maximizing credit-claiming opportunities”. Professor Weaver also pointed out that avoiding blame is not restricted to political leadership but extends to political appointees and bureaucrats in government agencies too.

Comprehensive coverage

It is important for readers as citizens to understand the difference between the act of credit-taking and the politics of blame avoidance. The Web edition of this newspaper covered the developments in Maharashtra as news emerged from the Raj Bhavan, and the print edition did a comprehensive coverage on Sunday. The front-page carried a timeline titled “Action-packed thriller”. Another report, “ President’s Rule revoked via PM’s special powers ”, reported how the Centre invoked Rule 12 of the Transaction of Business Rules, 1961, empowering it to revoke the proclamation of President’s Rule in Maharashtra without prior approval of the Union Cabinet. It read: “Rule 12, pertaining to ‘Departure from Rules’, says the ‘Prime Minister may, in any case or classes of cases permit or condone a departure from these rules, to the extent he deems necessary’.” The report clearly established that the notification was digitally signed by the official at 5.47 a.m. indicating hectic political activity in the wee hours of Saturday.

Given these facts, it is clear that the newspaper was right in its reports on both days. The Saturday paper reported the events that took place on Friday till the paper was put to bed. It said that the Congress, the NCP and the Shiv Sena had agreed on Uddhav Thackeray being the new Chief Minister. The Sunday paper covered the midnight-early morning events that led to the bizarre situation where the administration of oath to a Chief Minister became a closely guarded secret.

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