Friday, October 18, 2013

A critique of The Hindu's Readers' Editor

The following article was written for Niti Central. Reproducing it here for reference.
Recently, my Twitter timeline was abuzz with an ombudsman for NDTV. Former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee was appointed as the ombudsman of NDTV and one conversation he had with a viewer on the Radia tapes set the timelines on fire. In this context, I want to bring forth some views on the ombudsman office of The Hindu. Established back in 2006, this office is called the office of the Readers’ Editor.
Recently, when questioned on the newspaper’s blatant slant against Narendra Modi, the current RE had this to say: “In its opinion pages, the newspaper helps to contextualise and provide a variety of opinions, and some of them are critical of Modi. Some of them? Really? Does he take the reader to be so naive as to believe that some of the articles in opinion pages of The Hindu are critical of Modi? Where do we begin to counter this point?
The RE also has this to say: “These are not just opinions but are backed by facts and figures. So far, nobody has been able to find factual mistakes in what was carried.”
I found a factual mistake in this article by Justice Katju. Justice Katju repeated the lie that 2000 Muslims were killed in 2002 post-Godhra riots. The Hindu carries it without any problem. I sent more than 10 emails to this RE. I sent mails till April 29, a full two-and-a-half months after the article was published. He did not respond. Nor did he print any clarification regarding the query I had.
I asked him to clarify in this news report as to where and when Modi claimed he rescued 15,000 people. No response. No clarification. I found another factual mistake in this article by Shanti Bhushan. No response. No clarification.
Or take the latest rant by Harish Khare - “…He (Modi) has already scared sober and sensible middle-class Indians.” I wonder what the RE feels about this blatant passing off of an opinion as an irrefutable fact?

Addendum: The RE responded to my query on Harish Khare. And not the others. 
Not just the opinion page articles, even the news reports are heavily editorialised when it comes to the BJP or Sangh Parivar. In another one of his recent columns, the RE told readers about this code. “The editorial code of this paper says that “The Hindu shall, as a rule, maintain a clear distinction between news, critical analysis, and opinion in its editorial content and shall not editorialise or opinionate in news reports.”
The context was an opinionated front page article on Rahul Gandhi’s recent incoherent outburst. The RE has indirectly declared that the article was indeed editorialising a news report and therefore, is a wrong thing to happen. The RE goes on to explain that it is difficult not to editorialise but one should be careful before editorialising! One lost track of whether the RE was supporting or opposing the idea!
 Before you suggest that the “editorial code” need not be taken seriously, I strongly urge you to read the responses of the then Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N Ram, to a variety of queries that the then RE forwarded it to him. Prominent amongst them is this reply to a query by Gopi Maliwal: It is true that Neena Vyas and some others used to do it (editorialising). I am opposed to editorialising in the guise of news — in all daily newspapers and on television as well. We have done our best to eliminate editorialising in the garb of news.
This response was in 2006 (barely two weeks after the first RE took office). So for quite some time now, various reports in The Hindu have been editorialised in nature – more so if the report had anything to do with the BJP or Sangh Parivar. The editor himself has agreed to it, and yet the practice continues. We are reminded that the paper has an editorial code NOT to do it. Yet, they are forced to do it. Why bother advertising this code if it is anyway being broken on a regular basis? However, the articles of the RE were not always so bland.
The concept of an ombudsman was welcomed by one and all when it was introduced in 2006. The office of the RE was set up by The Hindu, and some of the key terms of reference were:
1. “To write a regular column addressing one or several aspects of readers’ concerns, suggestions, and complaints,”
2. “To use this column as a platform and forum for readers’ views.”
3. To publish clarifications as deemed necessary (am paraphrasing this, because a ‘clarifications’ column appears four days a week in the paper. Many a time, factual errors are corrected in this column. Even grammatical errors are corrected some times).
The first RE of the newspaper used to follow these guidelines on quite a regular basis. His weekly (and later bi-weekly) articles had many queries and comments by the readers. One of they key examples is the discussion quoted earlier. Another link here, where the RE tries to answer questions posed by churumuri. The key point to note is that the first RE did make attempts to address concerns raised. I have sent him nearly 40 emails on various issues, and most of them were addressed promptly (including some doubts on grammar, context, and definitions).
At times, he agreed with the readers and at times he agreed with the editor. In fact, I even remember reading that N Ram once was not happy with the RE giving too much importance to ‘counter’ views of the readers – but couldn’t do much except to tell the RE – It’s your column! (I am not able to retrieve the article in which the RE said this.).
The downfall of this office started during the term of the second RE. He turned out to be exact opposite of the first one. His columns were laced with how the media in general covered a particular event.
I had sent nearly 12 mails to the RE over a period of 12 weeks asking why he doesn’t discuss readers’ concerns (as envisaged in the terms of reference). Most of his articles ended with complimenting The Hindu on their fine coverage. I asked N Ram on twitter, on this sea change in the approach. He had this to say:
1. The Readers’ Editor is an independent, critical, reflective voice. The remit is not to parrot or ‘reflect’ other voices!
2. If an RE confines his or her role to providing excerpts from readers’ mail or currying favour with them, I won’t applaud.
3. The RE’s role under the terms is decidedly not to serve as a lightning rod for ideological homilies, slant or flak!
I’d urge you to take a look at the entire conversation to get a full context of the conversation. Regular followers and serious observers of the RE since its inception might have easily noticed the sea change in the approach of the first and second RE.
The reader knew his concerns regarding slant of the paper were also being addressed by the first RE. With the second RE, all we got was factual clarifications. And N Ram provided enough material for us to arrive at the conclusion as to why the change in approach has taken place! The RE should also follow the newspapers slant, and yet be independent!
The third (and current) RE’s approach is not very different to the second RE. Prominent space in his weekly column is provided to give us a quote by some intellectual and an explanation of why the quote is relevant. It is not just my personal observation — other readers too have felt the same. The RE had this to say about the concern — “They felt that it was a digression. It was a conscious decision. A free, independent, vibrant media was the product of nearly three centuries of struggle and commitment by countless men and women.
In the few times that this RE has decided to respond to readers concerns at length, he has emphatically taken the side of the newspaper (sample another one here.) It is safe to conclude that the future occupants of the RE office will continue to justify the slant of the newspaper, while the editors might be busy deriding the slant of the readers!
The concept of the RE is a very good one — even today, many factual, grammatical and statistical errors are rectified and published. What is sorely disappointing is the approach of the RE in discussing the slant and ideology of the newspaper. One would expect the RE to view the paper critically, not parrot the ideology of the paper often.


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