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A mail that sparked reflection

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I have been correcting errors, which is a visible expression of the newspaper’s desire to be transparent, for nearly nine years. It is not an activity that gives anyone an adrenaline rush. However, it is the constant interaction with the readers that energises me to be an interlocutor. When readers call or write, they offer a glimpse into their expectations and aspirations. The dialogue is never predictable. There are moments of learning, and there are moments that dispel misconceptions. Though some letters tend to be rhetorical rants, most correspondences tend to be inquisitive, earnest and illuminating. These exchanges of ideas give vibrancy to concepts like accountability and responsibility.

When the founding editor of Outlook, Vinod Mehta, passed away on March 8, 2015, reproduced an interview that he had given to the portal earlier. One answer that struck a chord with me was his reference to self-mockery, and the advice he gave to me when I left Outlook to become an editor myself in 2001. The question to Mehta was about his penchant for publishing letters very critical of not just his publication but also himself.

The art of self-mockery

Mehta had been consistent in his approach to provide space for critical voices. He had two sacrosanct lines — one, between the professional who can be subjected to savage criticism and the privacy of his or her family, and two, the difference between strident criticism and abuse.

His answer to was a version of an advice he gave to me for handling my new job as an editor. He said: “Editors and journalists tell everybody that different points of view must be allowed. But about themselves, they accept only one point of view, that they are god’s gift to journalism. I specialise in self-mockery because I come from Lucknow. I developed an early taste for self-mockery. I think to mock yourself, you have to have a certain confidence in your ability. Not everybody can mock themselves. So, in a way, I am paying a compliment to myself.”

But I did not know that Mahatma Gandhi had a similar idea about readers’ participation when he was running his newspaper Indian Opinion during his days in South Africa. The Mahatma’s grandson and scholar-administrator Gopalkrishna Gandhi on February 20 sent me a surprise note to mark the 115th anniversary of a correspondence between the Mahatma, who was then based in Johannesburg, and his nephew Chhaganlal K. Gandhi (CKG), who was managing Indian Opinion from Phoenix.

Gandhi’s four core policies

According to Mr. Gandhi, the Mahatma’s letter on February 19, 1906 listed four core policies to be followed about letters to the editor. They were: “1) We should as a rule publish all letters against us. 2) We should be chary of long harangues. 3) We should consider who the correspondent is. If we feel that his correspondence must be accepted, it should be abridged, if lengthy. 4) We should take letters giving local news.”

Mr. Gandhi also provided a historical background to contextualise the missive. “Mansukhlal Nazar, the founding editor, had just died. And CKG was sending to his uncle all the letters received for publication, for him to do the selection. At one point, MKG [Mahatma] decided this practice should be discontinued, and so he gave to CKG the guiding rules that should govern the selection of letters for publication. Interestingly, the last ‘rule’ arose from an issue of interest to the people of Dundee, SA, in which an Indian barber, while giving a shave to an Indian merchant, left off in the middle to attend to a European customer, whereupon the Indian community decided to boycott the barber.”

I knew that the histories of Indian Opinion and the Phoenix Settlement near Durban, both established by the Mahatma, were intertwined. Nevertheless, I was ignorant of his edict to his editorial team. Learning by listening is never restricted to individuals. All the four estates of democracy — legislature, executive, judiciary and media — should never shut the doors to differing voices. Feedback often tends to be of a view that is less flattering, but it has the potential to point out lacunae often overlooked due to various reasons, including fatigue. When journalists listen, they not only learn, but also enrich and empower readers in more ways than one.

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 2:36:30 AM |

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