10th October 2012
By Alexandre Leclercq

A Letter to Readers

The new Readers’ Editor at The Hindu, India’s most distinguished daily newspaper shares with the EJN his welcome address to readers in praise of an enabling self-regulation.

A.S. Panneerselvan

I am embarking on this journey to be the custodian of the readers’ interest of this highly respected newspaper with a sense of excitement. The decision to shift from being a journalist to being an ombudsman was not easy. There are compelling professional and personal reasons for accepting the offer from the board of Kasturi & Sons, the publishers of this paper, to be its third Readers’ Editor.

Like many young journalists, I joined the profession with an idea of changing the world. Journalism was then a means towards an end — reducing poverty, fighting caste discrimination, ensuring gender equality, and holding the state accountable to its citizens and specifically in my case, working towards a global nuclear disarmament. In my youthful exuberance, I did not realise that media was a site of commons, and it should not be reduced to an instrumental use.

But, without saying this in so many words, various editors gently tweaked my copy, got rid of the adjectives and brought out the facts leaving the final judgment to the reader. It took nearly five years to understand what was happening to my copy. The campaigning element, which had the arrogance of I-know-it-all, was replaced with a narrative that respected the intelligence of the reader. It was the celebration of journalism for its intrinsic value rather than a narrow instrumental value. And, strangely media becomes an agent of change when it operates on the principles of commons and provides multiple voices and opinions, and its ability to influence wanes whenever it permits the instrumental nature to take over its narrative. This understanding helped in shaping my own writings in the last twenty years. The role of the Readers’ Editor is to celebrate the intrinsic value of journalism, which is the finest marker of democracy.

In the early nineties I started to look at the larger regulatory framework that was guiding the media industry. It started out of compulsion rather than choice. There were a slew of court cases involving the state legislature and media. The media, at that time of crisis, rightly pointed out that the legislatures in India were invoking an idea of privilege, without ever codifying what constituted that privilege. The Supreme Court of India provided relief for the media professionals and the media houses, but the questions that came up around that time became a subject of personal interest.

The Indian media is for self-regulation. Has it ever defined who constitutes the “self” in the self-regulation? Is it the newspaper owner? Is it the editor? Is it the individual journalist? Do newspapers have a code? If so, how binding are they? Are these codes shared with the readers so that they can come to an independent assessment about how news is processed in the publication they are reading? Is media, which is rightly critical of an atmosphere of intolerance, tolerant to criticism?

Readers’ trust

At present, Indian media is bucking the international trend of decline, and is still in the growth mode. The long-term survival of media is not going to be determined by the market or by the technology, but by a crucial, qualitative element called the readers’ trust. Unethical practices like paid news, the stories of corporate lobbies controlling the news flow and the emergence of multiple informational platforms, including social media, have brought in a sense of scepticism about newspapers. The Hindu, though always adhering to strict professional standards, realised that the erosion of the prestige of the profession among the citizens is a real issue and that it needed to be addressed head-on.

The Hindu always strived to live up to the core values and the cardinal principles of journalism. Earlier in 2006, it created the office of the Readers’ Editor to address some of these issues. The Terms of Reference, for the Readers’ Editor, a public document that anyone can access from the website www.thehindu.com , laid the first firm steps towards an enlightened self-regulation.

When Mr. K. Narayanan assumed the office of the Readers’ Editor, The Hindu did not have a formal editorial code but it had recognised the importance of such a code. Last year, it adopted a well-defined code titled “Living our Values: Code of Editorial Values”. I, as the third Readers’ Editor, am fortunate to start my tenure with two neatly spelt out documents that are binding.

The Terms of Reference defines my role and the Code of Editorial Values defines the role of the editorial team. The readers’ concerns, complaints and suggestions shall not be evaluated in an arbitrary fashion, but within a rigorous framework set out in these two documents, as they provide for an institutional framework for a mutual dialogue between The Hindu and its millions of readers. My job is to see that this dialogue takes place for mutual benefit.

Photo Credit: A.S. Panneerselvan (DWAkademieAsia)