“People are asking, if you make a mistake, let there be a fair redressal mechanism. It is a fair request from people, which we cannot wish away.”

A. S PANNEERSELVAN is the readers’ editor of The Hindu, based in Chennai, India. He is also Executive Director of Panos South Asia. He was previously the managing editor of the television network, Sun, and a bureau chief for Outlook magazine. He is an adjunct faculty member of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai.

Public accountability brings rewards and risks

panneerselvam credit THE HINDU

Despite the widespread conviction that the media should act responsibly, few Asian countries have independent press councils to encourage ethical behaviour. Even less common are ombudsmen or readers’ editors, employed by individual news organisations as in-house watchdogs. One of these rare individuals is A. S. Panneerselvan, who plays that role for The Hindu, one of India’s largest and most respected newspapers. In this interview with Media Asia editor Cherian George, he explains why the press needs to empower its audience through credible accountability mechanisms. At the same time, he says, the media must stand up for inclusive democratic values and not give in to the growing pressure from intolerant groups that abuse commentators for not sharing their right-wing ideologies.

 

CHERIAN GEORGE:

You are the readers’ editor for The Hindu. Could you describe for our readers what this role is all about?

A. S. Panneerselvan:

Journalists are always wary of external regulations. At the same time, no regulation is not an advantage, because where is accountability? Part of having an effective self-regulatory mechanism is to have an in-house person, who would be employed by the media, but who is free from the editorial process. He has distance from the paper, but is paid by the paper so that there is somebody to address the concerns of the readers.
The Hindu’s in-house redress mechanism borrows heavily from the model of The Guardian. In 2005, Allen Rusbridger and Ian Mayes, the editor and then-readers’ editor of The Guardian, visited India. Their interaction with The Hindu gave us the idea.

CG:

Some would argue that, in the new media age, in these times of interactivity, readers already have a free say in criticising newspapers’ output. Many editors would say, that is enough. Why take this additional step of appointing a full-time internal watchdog?

ASP:

An internal watchdog is expensive, but an internal watchdog is not swayed by the bandwagon effect. In social media, there is always single-theme persuasion. People who work on human rights, most of their work on social media engagement will be on human rights. People who are interested in rural education, most of their information will be on rural education. Their concern becomes a sort of silo. The idea of having a moderator is to be a silos-breaker. That is where the ombudsman comes in. The role of the ombudsman is to see that not one interest is subsumed by the other interest.

CG:

How do these principles translate into how you do the job every day?

ASP:

The first thing we have to keep in mind is that it’s 40 editions, printed from 18 centres; 250 pages are made every day. We have a readers’ editor office. The editor, deputy editor and senior assistant editor receive complaints regularly. We forward it to the concerned desk or concerned reporter, unless it is something straightforward that anybody can correct, which we correct immediately. Otherwise, it goes to the correspondent because we don’t want to assume that the corre- spondent is wrong and the reader is right.

The corrections and clarifications have a fixed space, on the oped page, the first two columns, at the bottom. We can take up the entire two columns. Inadvertent errors are caught by the readers in no time.

Inadvertent errors can be typos, can be in sentence construction, or getting the gender wrong. For instance, the Indian parliament has 543 seats. When a reporter was typing, he made it 534 by mistake. The moment a reader points it out, it is autocorrected on the web and the memory caches are removed so that somebody accessing the memory is not misled.

CG:

What about allegations of bias, bad news judgement or sensa- tionalism? How would you deal with those?

ASP:

Twice, allegations of bad news judgement were totally right. Editors agreed that it was bad news judgement. N. Srinivasan was president of the Board of Cricket Control of India, BCCI. His son-in-law was accused of betting in the IPL (Indian Premier League) season. The correspondent went and interviewed him. The question about the son-in-law was pulled out and carried in the infographic on the investigation, on the front page. In the interview story inside, that part was not there.

Readers said that the interview was a whitewash and that he was not asked about the son-in-law. It was bad editorial judge- ment in the sense that it was carried only in the front-page infographic and not in the interview part. We immediately apologised. There are any number of instances where some readers are actually much sharper when we make an editorial judgment that is not the best one. They catch it.

In the case of the BCCI, I wrote a two-part series called ‘pack journalism’ because the entire media got into a frenzy over the cricket scandal without raising a single question as to why they were oblivious to this until the Rajasthan police blew the lid. There were any number of clues for journalists to look into. They failed. I listed a number of clues that the BCCI and IPL gave, that journalists failed to take up.

CG:

Are there cases when reader feedback actually caused a change of editorial policy, where the newspaper has decided that this is a systemic complaint that should actually change the way you do things?

ASP:

Two sections were introduced because of that. One section is called Open Page. Open Page is a page that is given to readers to write columns or essays. It’s one full page on Sunday. That came about because readers said, just because we are doctors, lawyers, you think that we have no opinion on something else. That was acknowledged. The Open Page is handled by a very senior person in the editorial hierarchy: the chief national news editor is the person who selects the content. His problem is, I am getting 180–200 pieces a day, but in a week I can only carry up to 6 or 7 pieces. He is having a problem of plenty. Some of the essays are brilliant.

The next interesting thing brought in because of readers’ feedback was additional pages for the city. They said, The Hindu might be a national newspaper, but you are also the newspaper for my city. The city pages must be increased.

We also received a very pleasant pat on our back, when this reader said, your literary page, book reviews, film reviews, your features are dealing with other aspects of life like theatre, performing arts, literature, travel—but nothing is fluff. You are not putting in a celebrity watch column.

CG:

Unlike the Times of India?

ASP:

Yes. She said it is so important to recognise other aspects of life need not have to be fluff and gossip. She made a comparison with other newspapers and presented it. It made us recognise that there is value in doing something with a certain amount of rigour.

That was an excellent endorsement and it came from a young reader. She came for the readers’ meeting and pointed out these things.

CG:

What is the readers’ meeting?

ASP:

I organise one readers’ meeting half yearly. I take the board members of The Hindu and the editors with me and we invite 50 readers to come to the office. For this, we ask readers to write to express their interest to participate. We also select the most frequent writers to the readers’ editor office. Beyond 50 it’s difficult to interact. The focus is on listening. We ask them to say what they like and don’t like. The editor replies on the editorial issues and the directors reply on the business parts, like late delivery.

CG:

These sorts of accountability systems, like a readers’ editor and readers’ meetings, seem like a sensible way for a quality newspaper to strengthen its credibility and to build its relationship with its readers. So, why is it not commonly done? Why are most newspapers not bothered?

ASP:

The fundamental issue is that it costs a lot. My office has one deputy editor. A deputy editor can actually handle two pages on his own.

CG:

If he wasn’t working in your office.

ASP:

Yes. And there is an assistant editor who can handle one page on his own. On top of that you have the readers’ editor who would be paid a salary that belongs to the senior-most positions. There are these three senior people, and then there will be editorial assistants. We are occupying prime space within the office, then we also take prime space within the publication with our regular column. A lot of people think that this is actually eating into revenue. Look at The Washington Post, a publication that had a wonderful people’s editor.

CG:

And they have just downgraded it.

ASP:

Yes. They said the social media can do it. So, there is the cost element. Some of the groups are not willing to get in because they are not essentially only media organisations. You have to keep in mind that quite a lot of Indian media houses are owned by people who have other business interests.

If you look at media-media interests, you have the Aveek Sarkarled Telegraph in Calcutta, you have Shanth Kumar-and-others-owned Deccan Herald in Bangalore, and you have The Hindu in the south. The Tribune is an interesting paper; it is a trust-owned. Barring these, all others have other business interests. The other business interests mean that you are not really looking at the media as a purely media entity. You are using the media as a vehicle to further your business interests, or to further your political interests, or as a front for somebody. But it is also difficult to generalise. Hindustan Times is a big newspaper which is part of a big business group called Birla. Hindustan Times brings out one of the finest ethical newspapers in the country, called Mint. Mint’s editorial values are as good as anybody else. If the Birlas can have Mint, can we call all corporate interests as diabolical? For every rule there is an exception.

CG:

So, it’s not unthinkable for corporate-owned media to give priority to media ethics.

ASP:

That’s why I don’t want to paint everything in the same brush.

CG:

If we are looking for media organisations with ombudsman across Asia, it would be a very small number?

ASP:

In India, there would be one TV company and one print or- ganisation with an ombudsman. New Delhi TV (NDTV) has gone for a high profile ombudsman, Soli Sorabjee. There are decent ombudsmen in Australia. Outside that, it’s not really growing.

It’s also a problem finding a media-trained ombudsman. NDTV have gone for a legal luminary rather than a media personality. If you are going to pull out a journalist who has the expertise to handle media issues on a general basis, then you are ‘losing’ a senior journalist.

CG:

Yet, these days, there are plenty of experienced journalists looking for a job.

ASP:

But these are the excuses you hear from other newspaper owners. The tragedy is that Hindi newspapers are still in growth mode. They can’t bring in the dirge of the Western media. That is the most disturbing element in the entire narrative.

CG:

You mean owners are using the Western trend as an excuse for underinvesting in journalism.

ASP:

Yes. All of them made profits in the last five years, except the broadcasting companies, which didn’t really make good money. The traditional media made decent profits and some, obscenely high profits.

CG:

Isn’t it short-sighted not to invest in their credibility?

ASP:

I think they are in a state of denial. They think all this buzz around digital platforms is enough to keep the system going.

There are big publications that are selling about four million copies, which have their websites unmoderated, and all sorts of personal abuses are uploaded as comments. Is it lack of money? They think that this is bringing in the younger crowd, but this is not true. The younger crowd is not as insensitive as they believe. The abusive groups, which are a small fraction, are known to be hyperactive on digital platforms. This is not what younger people want.

CG:

So you are in favour of moderated newspaper sites?

ASP:

I think every site has to be moderated, because at some level you have to take responsibility for what is being published. It’s as simple as having one more pair of eyes going through the copy. That happens even in a wedding invitation. You write it and ask somebody to read it. Why should one more pair of eyes be seen as censorship? How does this infringe on freedom?

CG:

When you argue for moderation or having a readers’ editor rather than trusting the self- correcting mechanisms of the market, you could be accused of making a very traditional, elitist argument. How would you respond to that?

ASP:

Conversation is essentially a dialogue; conversation is not cacophony. All I am trying to say is, retain the element of dialogue. Don’t have concurrent multiple voices, unmoderated blaring. If these things are true, then there would be no need of digital curators. Look at the various websites doing aggregation, like Huffington Post or anybody else. The aggregation is done through curators who decide the themes and the number of interesting columns. There are also academic websites that do the curation.

The bigotry that was so far camouflaged in middle-class civility is now actually coming out. South Asian societies are generally broad-minded and particularly narrow-minded. We are broad-minded about inter-caste marriage in general. but if your own daughter is getting married, it’s bad. We say racism is bad, but a lower caste fellow sitting and eating with you at your dining table, it’s a problem. This narrow-minded element that was so far camouflaged by societal niceties is getting play through the anonymity of social media. We are talking about an ugly side that is rearing its head.

CG:

There is a lot of concern about how this is playing out in national politics, that it is bringing a new intolerance into a country that has traditionally been secular and multicultural. Are you witnessing that in your role as readers’ editor?

ASP:

This is the second time we are seeing an assertive Hindu right in the media and in the articulating platforms, be it television or digital media. They were articulate in 2004 and now. They become articulate when they suspect that they are in striking distance of power. What they don’t realise is that they came to power in 1999 by shedding the exclusivity and widening the base.

CG:

Do you see this in the comments that you receive on The Hindu website and in letters to the editor?

ASP:

Yes, we can see this. The language is intemperate, sometimes bordering on personal abuse of the columnist. I, as the readers’ editor, don’t forward such letters to individual writers, the desk or the bureau because I feel it is so unfair. There is no cogent argument, only that this writer has not endorsed their god. For that, should an economist or political scientist or social scientist be abused in such fashion?

They have no patience now, and are so intolerant of dissent. And they are going against the principal grain on which the Indian media was built. The Indian media was built on the idea of hearing out the other. At the height of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian media invited (the viceroy) Lord Lytton to write about what forces them to look at India in this way. The Indian media asked Lord Curzon to explain why he went for Partition of India in 1945.

CG:

So you think the Indian media or the media in democratic so- cieties should be tolerant of everything except intolerance, and newspapers like yours should draw the line.

ASP:

We use a simple argument. If you are intolerant, you cannot invoke my idea of tolerance to get space for your intolerance.

CG:

So they have to play by the rules of tolerance if they are to enjoy the privilege.

ASP:

We have no problem with any dissenting voice. I have a simple guideline to my team. If they are coming up with ‘the’ idea, reject it; if they are coming up with ‘an’ idea, carry it. I don’t want a homogenised, hegemonic, singular narrative.

CG:

Do you see parallels between these troubling signs in India and the Tea Party in the United States or the Muslim right elsewhere?

ASP:

The Tea Party is a good example because they did everything, yet Mitt Romney couldn’t win. Because there is something called the common sense of the people, where you can capture
the dominant narrative, the media time, and yet you can lose. Because it goes against the common sense of the people. Look at the money Tea Party pumped into the US elections, yet why did Romney lose? The difference was huge.

CG:

Are you similarly convinced that the common sense of the broader Indian public would prevail?

ASP:

Yes. When the regime moves towards a totalitarian, homogenised imagination, people do not hesitate to vote them out. It happened to Mrs Indira Gandhi. I am not so sceptical about the final outcome but I am disturbed about the rising level of intolerance among the mass middle class. It is not a small number anymore. It is bigger than the population of many countries, between 300–400 million.

CG:

Based on what we have discussed, what do you think are the research gaps that graduate students and other scholars can help to fill?

ASP:

The key research question is about the media regulatory framework. You can’t have absolute freedom. When journalists are critical of state intrusion, they are talking about freedom and not accountability. But what have you done with your freedom?

The media is not a monolith; it oscillates between serious broadsheets to terribly sensationalist tabloids. But are we going to let the terribly sensationalist tabloids subsume the credibility of the serious broadsheets? Whether it’s the Eurozone crisis, a debt crisis or climate change or democratisation debates, it’s all taken up by the mainstream broadsheet media. Why should it be tarred with the same brush because both happen to be in the same profession? That is precisely why self-regulation becomes important. The research question would be: How can you make self-regulation really work? Self-regulation is not no-regulation. It will become meaningful only when people start respecting that it has a credible redressal mechanism. People are not asking for censorship. People are asking, if you make a mistake, let there be a fair redressal mechanism. It is a fair request from people, which we cannot wish away. To pretend that it is not fair and to expect them to subsidise me more, to commit more mistakes, is not logical.

originally published in media asia as

George, Cherian (2014). ” Public accountability brings rewards and risks”, Interview with A.S Panneerselvan, Media Asia 41 (1): pp. 8-15

PHOTO BY THE HINDU