Holding the newspaper to account

A decade with our independent news ombudsmen.

Updated - September 06, 2016 10:22 am IST

Published - February 29, 2016 01:29 am IST

“The inspiration to appoint a news ombudsman had come from the exemplary practice and experience of The Guardian, whose pioneering Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, had set the bar high.” File photo shows (from left): Ian Mayes; Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian; and K. Narayanan, The Hindu's first Readers' Editor, in Chennai in 2006.

“The inspiration to appoint a news ombudsman had come from the exemplary practice and experience of The Guardian, whose pioneering Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, had set the bar high.” File photo shows (from left): Ian Mayes; Alan Rusbridger, former Editor of The Guardian; and K. Narayanan, The Hindu's first Readers' Editor, in Chennai in 2006.

Newspapers continue to play an important role in society and politics. In some respects they play an enhanced and widening role in this digital age, even as they have come under disruptive pressure of varying degrees. Typically, in India as well as in most other countries, daily newspapers have become contested, at times bitterly contested, sites where various extraneous as well as internal factors and interests are at play, often having it out. The rise of social media — its positive, corrective, and value-adding side as well as its trolling, noisy, and truth-distorting side — has increased in no small measure the daily pressure the mainstream press and professional journalists face in the increasingly contested space.


Demand for regulation There is a new challenge newspapers face in many countries, including India, and this is the increasingly heard political demand for regulation of the ways of an allegedly irresponsible, wayward, and venal press. There is little question that in many cases the demand reflects, or at least draws upon, public dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the performance of influential sections of the press (in juxtaposition with the noise, froth, and mindless chatter generated ceaselessly on news television, with which the press’s performance is, from time to time, confused by the public). There is nothing wrong with regulation per se. But regulation is of two kinds — external and internal — which from the standpoint of professional journalism is like chalk and cheese.

It is in this stressful context that the institution of a news ombudsman becomes not just a virtuous option but an existential necessity and even a priority for Indian newspapers.

The Hindu is the first newspaper in the history of Indian journalism to appoint a news ombudsman — an independent, full-time, empowered professional, known as the Readers’ Editor (RE), with a clearly defined daily role in the newspaper and transparent terms of reference. And this happened in 2006, when the newspaper was 127 years old. The inspiration had come from the exemplary practice and experience of The Guardian , whose pioneering RE, Ian Mayes, had set the bar high.

Over the past decade, The Hindu has had three Readers’ Editors, all of them journalists but with different backgrounds and experiences within the profession. The first, the newspaper’s vastly experienced former chief News Editor, K. Narayanan, gave shape and meaning to the office, winning the trust of a legion of readers. The second, S. Viswanathan, a veteran correspondent with considerable field reporting experience, helped consolidate the office of the news ombudsman, focussing as much on socio-political and media and society issues as on professional matters. The third and current RE, A.S. Panneerselvan, a versatile writer with a multi-media background who has published 177 RE columns so far without missing a step, has re-energised the office and expanded the RE’s role by taking on the challenge of looking into the newspaper online in addition to the printed editions.

The Terms of Reference for the Readers’ Editor, which are the same as The Guardian ’s, can be read at The Hindu ’s website (http://bit.ly/ODhIGQ). They go hand in hand with the newspaper’s Code of Editorial Values, adopted in 2011 (http://bit.ly/QlODhS).

What in essence is the RE’s job?

It is, to quote Ian Mayes, to work independently within the newspaper “at the interface between readers… on the one hand, and journalists and editors on the other” — with a position like that of “a referee in a football game… that can get pretty rough at times.” He adds that the news ombudsman represents “a form of self-regulation… the only kind of self-regulation that has the effect of building trust between a specific news organisation and its readership or audience, through the systematic, impartial and public handling of complaints, and through the open discussion of issues raised by readers concerning the journalism.”

What deserves emphasis here is that The Hindu ’s RE, who is appointed for a fixed term by the Board of Directors of the company owning the newspaper, is totally independent of the Editor and the editorial team, yet works in their midst and with their cooperation, which is mandated by the Terms of Reference.

In practical terms, the RE oversees the process of publishing corrections and clarifications on a daily basis; attends sympathetically to readers’ complaints and concerns that his or her office receives; writes a weekly column on a range of subjects related to the newspaper’s performance, various aspects of professional journalism and best practices, the newspaper industry, the media and society, and ethical issues; and inquires into, and recommends appropriate action on, specific cases of plagiarism, other ethical transgressions, and inappropriate or unprofessional journalism that are referred to him or her by the Editor.

The RE’s is a post-publication job; he or she rarely comes in pre-publication, and even then only when the matter is referred to him or her.

The data available at the office of The Hindu ’s RE reveal that between March 2006 and February 2016, as many as 70,519 communications (by email, telephone, regular mail, and fax) were received from readers. During the same period, 8,236 corrections and clarifications were published in a prominent demarcated space — the opinion page opposite the main editorial page. This is important because readers need to know where precisely to go to see the RE in action, which means visibility is the key (“visible mending” is a term of art in the RE’s trade). Not all corrections came from readers; many of them were made suo motu by the RE’s office and, interestingly, the newspaper’s journalists began to send in corrections before anyone else could point them out. In other words, self-correction has become an objective process in this newspaper, making it unlikely that major factual or contextual mistakes would escape public attention.

During the decade, close to 400 columns written by the three Readers’ Editors have been published on the same page. In effect, the REs have owned the space demarcated to them for publishing corrections and clarifications and also their independent views, findings, and, whenever they deem necessary, criticisms of the newspaper’s journalism in their columns. At the same time, care is taken not to personalise the issue by naming the journalists or other contributors, unless there are ethical transgressions or major mistakes suggesting irresponsibility.

Benefits of self-regulation What have been the benefits of institutionalising over a decade the practice of this distinctive form of self-regulation through the work of the Readers’ Editor?

First, it has sent out the message to readers that The Hindu , which constantly attempts to hold various institutions, actors, and ideologies to account, regards itself as responsible and accountable to readers when it comes to living up to the highest professional standards and to the editorial values it proclaims.

Second, although a vocal section of readers continues to send in its complaints and concerns about the newspaper’s coverage of issues, sometimes accusing it of being “anti-Hindu,” there is tangible evidence of a shared feeling among the larger body of readers that here is a real institutional mechanism to correct serious mistakes and remedy inappropriate journalistic practices whenever they arise.

Third, I have the sense that the newspaper’s reporters, who took their time to get comfortable with the news ombudsman’s active refereeing role that some of them would have considered meddlesome, have generally come to the view that this empowered office protects them from motivated attacks, especially from the trolls in the social media.

Fourth, although there is no direct evidence on this point, it stands to reason that this form of unilateral and quick-acting self-regulation — which is not mandated by law — brings down both the incidence and the risk of litigation against the newspaper by those who feel aggrieved or offended by something it has published. The Hindu ’s Vice President (Legal), for one, is of the view that the RE’s office has been able to absorb the anger of a section of readers “like a sponge.”

The Hindu as an institution committed to the highest standards and values of journalism remains firmly committed to continuing and strengthening the office of its Readers’ Editor. It takes pride in being the first Indian newspaper to have this office and make it responsive to the needs of the time. However, it has mixed feelings about being the only Indian newspaper to have an independent and regularly functioning news ombudsman — for the simple reason that this does not seem to reflect well on the priorities of the Indian newspaper industry.

(N. Ram is Chairman of Kasturi & Sons Limited and Publisher of The Hindu .)

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