The Hindu, Hindus, and Hindutva

IN Media Practice | 01/01/1900
The Hindu, Hindus, and Hindutva

 

The most respected newspaper in the country, respected chiefly for its objectivity and balance, came close to losing that respect.

 

Dasu Krishnamoorty

 

 

The Hindu has a new editorial boss. Denied easy access to the Indian print media, I tried to monitor the changes in the Hindu on the net (domain_b.com). I chanced upon an article by a Venkatachari Jagannathan that does not say much, but his interview with N.Ram provides food for thought. If what Ram had told Venkatachari is a harbinger, the Hindu is all set to restore the primacy of a fundamental truth in journalism: that fact and comment, like fire and water, do not mix. In the last five years, the most respected newspaper in the country, respected chiefly for its objectivity and balance, came close to losing that respect.

 

Facts are important in news because, beyond adding to the information base of the readers, they have the additional function of supplying the basis for history writing.  The reference to history is relevant because chroniclers and media share a cause and effect relationship. Journalists write history as it happens every day and their reports form one of the bases for historians to compile history with the advantage of hindsight. Both the journalist and the chronicler deal in history based on facts. If there are distortions in the media accounts of events, they are likely to be enshrined in the history that will come to be written later.  Therefore, facts become crucial to ensure an unassailable account of history.

 

And it is to facts all journalists are wedded. C.P.Scott had said long ago (1921) that `comment is free but facts are sacred.` Information and interpretation are two major functions of mass-mediated communication. Two distinct groups assume charge of these functions in media organizations, each zealously guarding its domain from encroachment by the other. News (facts) and editorial content (comment) representing these two functions claim separate spaces in the media through unambiguous editorial devices enabling the audiences to distinguish between fact and comment. Any convergence of news and editorial comment results in an incestuous alliance like the one between market and socialism.

 

This is a premise that fortunately has not been contested so far. The rash of media seminars that followed the recent communal convulsions in the country confirmed that there is a consensus among journalists that reporting is essentially `a homage to verisimilitude.` Participating in a panel discussion on `Communalism in India and the Role of the Media`, at the Kolkata Press Club (20 Feb.2003), N.Ram, editor of Frontline (now of the Hindu also) praised the national media for playing a truth-telling role (presenting facts) in reporting the post-Godhra carnage. Rajdeep Sardesai of Star News told a seminar at St.Xavier`s College of Communication, Mumbai, "Tell a story as you see it."

 

Newspapers like the Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar flaunt openly and with misplaced pride their bias and contempt for objectivity. But the vast following of the Hindu is not prepared to settle for anything from the Hindu even remotely resembling the performance of the Gujarat press. This is what Ram had in his mind when he told Venkatachari that "There will be no room for opinions and comments in a news report. The job of a reporter is to write news. There will be objectivity and integrity in journalism.`` Ram also mentioned the resolution passed by the board of Kasturi and Sons (publishers of the Hindu) stating that it had nominated Ram as the editor-in-chief to promote quality and objectivity of journalism.

 

Venkatachari says, "While no official reason is given for the change, journalistic circles cite various reasons. They include newsroom lapses, human resources and the newspaper`s anti-central and state government stance." There is nothing wrong in being anti-BJP or anti-Jayalalithaa. I am sure that the changes took place for reasons other than BJP or Jayalalithaa baiting. They have more to do with editorial prejudice or conviction surfacing in news reports, providing readers a genuine ground for complaint.

 

The most familiar way to separate a news item from a feature, analysis, editorial, advertisement or other forms of non-news writing is using dateline, creditline and sourcing. If these elements are absent in a news story it must be considered non-news where facts have no sanctity. Any text that begins with a dateline and a creditline/byline must conform to the definition of news and abjure comment or bias in any form. We can assume that Ram`s comment on objectivity has its origin in the frequent appearance of bias in the news columns of the Hindu in recent times, especially on minority/majority issues. I give just two examples.

 

1. The following lines are from the first paragraph of a news item by Harish Khare (10 Dec. 02) on the poll-eve Gujarat scene. "The Hindutva tide has turned. And is still turning. With each passing day, the BJP is losing out, and the Congress is inching close towards a workable majority in Gujarat." The words Hindutva tide have no place in a news item. They reflect bias in a news report. A Sonia Gandhi or Mulayam Singh Yadav or some political leader could legitimately use them. Khare has every right to write an anti-BJP article or an edit since he is a senior editor. This is a news item with all its trappings of dateline and credit line. His anti-BJP bias clouded his forecast. The words Hindutva in the text and saffron in the heading fail to conceal prejudice which has no place even in an editorial.

 

2. Neena Vyas files a report from New Delhi (24 Dec. 02) on Venkiah Naidu`s address to the BJP national executive committee. Among other things, she says, "The BJP`s `strategy,` as evident from Mr Naidu`s address, is to aggressively capitalize on the terrorism factor in India and the world by equating the Hindutva ideology with `forces of nationalism`, and therefore suggest that those against the Hindutva (the secular parties, especially the Congress) are somehow soft on terrorists, even anti-national." Ms Vyas can always quote Naidu if he had said so. Are the readers not intelligent enough to draw the conclusions she had drawn from Naidu`s speech? Those lines of Ms Vyas have no place in event-reporting.

 

It is relevant here to refer to this sentence in Venkatachari`s article: "While the daily is known to be anti-BJP, there is a general feeling that some reports are even anti-Hindu." It is legitimate for politicians to use words like Hindutva or saffron. But for journalists to use them to identify the BJP or anyone in a news report is unpardonable unless the reporter is quoting someone as having said those words. Is it right to use words like pseudo-secular to identify the Congress or the left parties? Both Khare and Vyas are not rookies but very experienced and senior journalists. Though these words are used to identify BJP or similar forces, they hurt the vast majority of the Hindus who have nothing to do with BJP, VHP or RSS or any other political party seeking votes in the name of religion. It is like using the term Islamic in a pejorative manner. Such nomenclature has no place in a news item.

 

Edit page is where views and opinions can be freely disgorged, apart from other pages where news analyses and other non-news texts can appear without dateline and other news accessories. However, even views and opinions amount to dogma if they are short on logic or statistics to substantiate them.  Simply to say a party is feudal without evidence of "why" is prejudice. Even while condemning the government for lack of pluralism in its policies, the Hindu lets a very small section of the academia dominate its edit page, to the exclusion of alternative opinion. 

 

If the alternative opinion belongs to a minority section, it is all the more necessary to encourage it. But if it represents the majority, it becomes imperative, not just necessary, to make room for it. Either way, a newspaper has an obligation to society to mirror its views. I have kept a tab on the number of articles that have appeared on secularism/communalism in the Hindu and found that nearly all of them represented a particular viewpoint. During December 2002 and January 2003 (the two months I stayed in India), I found that of the 27 articles the Hindu published on its edit and open pages concerning secularism/communalism, only four represented either an alternative or a neutral viewpoint. 

 

A lone rejoinder by the `other side` appeared on the news pages. Are there no choices for the people to make other than secularism/communalism? Both leftists and the RSS oppose globalization. Does it mean both have same ideologies? The Congress fought the British and the Communists supported the (second world) war. Aren`t they allies today? The worst insult newspapers can offer is to classify its readers as secularists or communalists. A great majority of the people is neither. The Hindu too participated in this labeling game.

 

The term majoritarianism has become equally offensive. The president of the world`s most powerful country is elected by a slender margin and accepted because in a democracy majority matters. The Supreme Court judgements on matters of national importance acquire their validity on the basis of numbers. From panchayats to Parliament, people are elected on the basis of majority. Use of such terms as majoritarianism, Hindutva, saffronisation, Islamic, Jehadi in news items hurts the majority and succeeds in keeping the minorities away from the mainstream.  Today, the contents of the media, including the Hindu, seem to say, "if you are not with me, you are against me." It is Ram`s onerous task to bring back to the Hindu its traditions of balance and objectivity in reporting news.

 

 

Dasu Krishnamoorty worked at leading Indian newspapers  before becoming a teacher at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com 

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