The Hindu being the only newspaper in the country to have an ombudsman there are perhaps no traditions or precedents in India to precisely define the role of an ombudsman. If one goes through the weekly columns of K Narayanan, Readers' Editor of The Hindu, also known as ombudsman in popular jargon, his office seems to be a dignified "Post Office" for after all he merely conveys how the readers react to journalistic lapses, if you leave aside complaints about grammar, typos and factual inaccuracies which, of course, are promptly corrected by the daily. Rarely have we come across strongly-worded disapproval from the Readers' Editor.
The recent instance where the Readers' Editor failed to come out with a clear indictment of the biased reporting of the Chief Election Commissioner episode by the daily, with its Editor-in-chief leading the fight from the front, was his column "Readers' right to a complete picture" (March 2, 2009). No doubt, he reproduced salient points of the letters he received from the readers which, when summed up, charge the daily with partisan coverage and mixing of news and views, particularly the expose by the daily's Editor-in-chief carried as banner story.
Yet another complaint was that the daily did not give enough space for the views that were not in agreement with the views of the daily. Of course, Narayanan felt that "fairness demanded that those voices should also be heard". What was the editorial response? "The denial of equal space to the opposite view has nothing to do with fairness; it is a matter of value judgement". This abrasive comment silenced the Readers' Editor. This is perhaps one of the reasons the old-fashioned editor would not be seen except in the print line. But these are the days of media activism, you see. The crux of the issue as raised by the daily's readers was that the "value judgement" of the newspaper is quite often flawed. And that was the point to be addressed by the Ombudsman. He did not. This is not a solitary instance. Whenever serious comment of bias has been hurled at the paper, the editorial response has always been dismissive and took shelter under "news judgement".
Not surprisingly, many of the readers complain that "critical" letters are not carried in the paper. It is possible, because most of the names of correspondents and the contents of their letters, as we could see in Narayanan's Monday columns, never find place in the Letters to the Editor column. This has made those correspondents forward such letters to the Readers' Editor. A correspondent wrote that N Ram's response to Gopalaswamy was dismissive, if not imperious and this was promptly spiked.
Be that as it may, what is an expose? As we all know it doesn't fall from the heaven. It has to be an inspired leak from an interested party to achieve a particular result. In the case of CEC controversy, there can be only four agencies from where the contents of the Gopalaswamy's letter could have been leaked. 1. The Election Commission itself which is most improbable as no political purpose will be served by such a leak; 2. Rashtrapati Bhavan - since the letter was addressed to the President of India. The profile of the present incumbent being what it is, even this source can be ruled out; 3. The Central Cabinet - the ultimate destination of the letter. The Union government is the only party that will be interested in kicking off a row over the contents of the CEC letter to anoint Navin Chawla as the new CEC, after painting Gopalaswamy black for tarnishing the image of a Constitutional office. And then there is the possibility that Navin Chawla himself came to know and leaked it to N Ram.
It is perfectly within the realm of journalistic ethics to pick up such "leaks" as there was a great public interest in the story. But while presenting the story you cannot be seen to be completely partisan and editorialise the news story. When a question was raised in the news report about the timing of the CEC letter, no questions were raised as to why the Union cabinet did not take a decision on the letter though it was before the government by the beginning of January. Obviously, the government wanted to drag the issue till the announcement of election dates so that no court can entertain a petition against Chawla's appointment once the poll process has begun.
Further, the quotes from the letter were very selective. They chose only to harp on the fact that the CEC was biased against Chawla and the main thrust was on the Article 324(5) of the Constitution and the suo motu powers of the CEC to recommend the removal of EC. But, before recommending Chawla's removal, the CEC might have built up a case against him in his letter by citing instances of Chawla's partisan approach. Why was that letter not published, especially when it has become fashionable these days for dailies or channels to claim access to vital and sometimes not-so-vital documents?
Two issues arise here. One is whether the editor's source has given him a copy of the CEC letter and if so, why he failed to publish the letter in such a manner without giving scope to betray the source. The second possibility is that he was not given a copy of the letter, but only selective excerpts that would suit the establishment; in which case he should have refused to oblige his source.
Fortunately, the Readers' Editor acquired courage to say that "the reader also had a right to know what were the objections to Mr Chawla's continuance in office, as raised by the BJP". Referring to page l expose, he also commented "That there were elements of editorialising, which the Editor-in-chief strongly disapproves, in the page 1 report is undeniable". There cannot be a milder rebuke.
The real clincher which bared the partisan mindset and lack of proportion of the daily on the CEC controversy was its full-length editorial (March 3) on the President's rejection of the CEC's recommendation for the removal of Chawla. Well, it is the prerogative of the Editor to decide on the length of his editorials. For example, he must have thought in his wisdom that the terrorist attack on Sri Lankan team was not significant enough to warrant similar verbiage. May be, misplaced priorities are inescapable when you run a crusade. But one cannot help wondering whether the Editor-in-chief would have applied the same tone and tenor in his coverage if the petition against Chawla was made by the Marxists instead of the BJP.
After this long digression, let me come back to the role of Readers' Editor. Is he just a pressure valve or punching bag for the readers? If he has no ability or the clout to change the practices of the news room or to pull up the erring staff so as to ensure journalistic ethics, what is the purpose in creating such an institution? It could at best be a captive version of the Press Council. If it is only to get a feel of the readers' pulse, the editor has enough fora.
No doubt, this is a catch-22 situation. If the Readers' Editor has penal powers to maintain journalistic standards, he will become another power centre besides the editor which will be most unhealthy. If he does not have any powers except to make some vegetarian remarks which are again dismissed by the editor, there is no point in having a Readers Editor.
The scenario in American newspapers like The Washington Post or The New York Times is no different. Deborah Howell, who preceded the present Ombudsman of The Washington Post says "All she can do is write her column which they can't touch. But they don't have to listen to it either".
The New York Times calls its Ombudsman as "Public Editor". Daniel Okrent, NYT's Public Editor in 2004 commented "Editorial opinion is protected opinion - certainly protected from an Ombudsman. I disagree with many Times editorials, but strongly believe that disagreement is not grounds for intervention or engagement in my professional capacity". An enraged blogger called him "a dunce", "a numbskull", and "a ninny". But our readers are more refined and sophisticated and they may not use swear words. But that does not mean Readers Editor should continue to be toothless.
There is only one possibility to ensure his independence. The Ombudsman should operate outside the management structure of the newspaper and his office should be financed by the readers. The newspaper can collect a very nominal cess (50 paise per month may not be unaffordable) from the subscribers along with the monthly subscription fee and make it available for running the office of Ombudsman. He should also be elected by readers out of a panel of 3 or 4 eminent journalists nominated by the newspaper.
My suggestion is no fool proof arrangement. At best, it can make the Readers Editor more forthright, honest and truly independent. Readers can also have a sense of belonging with him. But even here, there is no guarantee that editor would listen to him.