The difference between a listening post and a hammer

Dialogues, discussions and debates are crucial in a democracy

At ‘The Huddle’, The Hindu Group of Publications’ annual thought conclave, participants invariably convert interactions on the sidelines into open house sessions. They compare how the topics that were discussed at The Huddle were covered by the newspaper in its pages. Some of them thought that the newspaper and The Huddle were a perfect fit as both share the idea of dialogue, debate and discussion. One them said that my definition of my role “where I begin from a position that all complaints are made in good faith and that no journalist comes to work to mislead readers” was limiting. He thought my columns worked well when I found fault with the reporters or the newspaper, but read defensive when they explained journalistic terms and theories. He was delighted with my column, “Journalism in the time of an epidemic”(February 10), and felt let down by the subsequent column, “Strident nationalism and rigorous journalism”(February 17).

Over a cup of coffee, I explained to him that as an internal news ombudsman, I always remember the saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Many instances of overreach happen because of this attitude where there is little space for critical evaluation. My job is to critically evaluate complaints using journalistic yardsticks and examine whether or not the newspaper did a fair job of addressing them. It is neither about vindicating the newspaper’s writings nor about rejecting them.

Exchange of views

The session on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) gave me an opportunity to explain the newspaper’s approach to contentious issues. I drew the attention of this reader to a study by Meltwater India that pointed out to the fact that “NDTV, [The] Hindu, Dainik Jagran [are the] biggest drivers for online conversation on CAA”. This study put The Hindu on top in the print category as it led the mScore based on editorial mentions, reach, and tonality for CAA-related stories.

When Yamini Aiyar, President of the Centre for Policy Research, pointed out that the CAA fundamentally upended the Constitution by creating two very distinct pathways of citizenship on the basis of religion, and how problematic it is to decouple the CAA from the proposed National Population Register and National Register of Citizens, as both are intrinsically intertwined, the reader who raised questions earlier acknowledged that there is a clear method in this newspaper’s approach to both reporting as well as debating issues. On the question of citizenship, he was able to see why I mentioned the case of the plantation Tamils of Sri Lanka and their statelessness in an earlier column, “The enemies of writing” (January 27, 2020). It was an exchange of views where a reader who did not agree with the editorial stand on some crucial contentious issues accepted later that there was a clear thinking behind the editorial judgment and that it was not guided by narrow partisan considerations.

Listening to diverse voices

The question of the “other” came up through the discussions. There were two panels in which the theme of “othering” came up for intense scrutiny. The first panel was on the Kashmir conundrum and the second one was on the age of the strongman and the rise of illiberal democracies. The participants realised that there is a need to listen to diverse voices rather seeking confirmation bias. They realised that critical voices against muscular nationalism are the ones that keep the space for plural society intact. The role for the media in this task, despite a lot of external pressures, is immense.

If the newspaper has to remain the site for a democratic mediation of ideas and to hold those in power accountable, the fundamental requirement is empathy. President Ram Nath Kovind said that The Hindu sticks to the five basic principles of journalism: truth-telling, freedom and independence, justice, humaneness, and contributing to the social good. These five pillars are raised on the foundation called empathy.

At the end of the conclave, the reader said that though his heart is with what BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar said about the CAA, and what BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav’s said on Kashmir, he also realised that the opposing viewpoints had some rationale. He said that the government should be open for dialogue rather than implementing decisions without seeking people’s opinions. He said, “Please remain a listening post and never become a hammer.”


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