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A picture out of the blue

A few readers said they found it strange that we had published a photograph taken by Uddhav Thackeray that had no apparent connection with any news item of that day. They wondered what lay behind the decision.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 19:20 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

A few readers said they found it strange that we had published a photograph taken by Uddhav Thackeray that had no apparent connection with any news item of that day. They wondered what lay behind the decision.

The photograph in question appeared on page 6 on Thursday, July 16. Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray had taken the photograph a year ago, in the summer of 2008 during a state-wide tour. It was evidently taken from high up, perhaps from a helicopter, and showed a lone farmer squatting on a field in Maharashtra’s Beed district. “Why publish a one-year-old photo out of the blue?” asked one reader. “What influences your decision to publish a photograph? Is it the relevance of the photograph to current events, its originality and quality or merely how well known the photographer is?”

This is a valid question. The decision to publish the photograph was not taken lightly; it was preceded by considerable debate. Moreover, a couple of senior editors did not support the decision, which was finally taken by Hindustan Times Mumbai’s resident editor, Soumya Bhattacharya. This is what he had to say about it: “It was a striking visual. It was offered to us exclusively. The Shiv Sena’s political stance doesn’t have much to do with it.” When a celebrity is involved, such decisions are particularly hard to take, because there is the danger of the person’s fame skewing the decision in one way or the other. One can either sub-consciously pander to the person’s celebrity status or go to the other extreme and penalise the person for being famous.

In this case, what is my evaluation as the Readers’ Editor? Judging the photograph purely on merit, I don’t think we should have published it.

First, as the reader quoted above pointed out, the photograph is a year old and therefore did not belong on the news pages. There might have been some justification for publishing it even if it were that old, if it at least it were connected to a current event or a burning issue. It was not.

Second, I don’t find the photograph particularly original or revealing in any way. A lone farmer sitting on a mudcaked field is, in fact, a rather clichéd image.

There is also another issue here. Even if the photograph were very topical and aesthetically stunning, would I favour carrying one taken by the leader of a party with selfproclaimed fascist leanings?

I would think very hard before taking such a decision. As a newspaper, we have to report the actions, decisions and announcements of all political parties, whatever their hue. Our responsibility is to tell readers what those who represent them are doing and saying.

But outside the arena of political coverage, one needs to take very careful decisions about how much publicity one should give to them. The decision becomes even more tricky when the political party has self-proclaimed fascist leanings. It’s very tempting to say all political parties are equally venal. One line of argument is that no matter what their stated ideology, all political parties on the ground are all equally corrupt, opportunistic and communal.

I don’t agree. I do think that the stated ideology is important, that there is a difference between parties whose avowed creed is tinged with fascist principles and parties that overtly espouse a more democratic and inclusive philosophy. Of course, to argue this convincingly will require way more space than this column will allow, but my belief is that a party’s public posture does act as a barrier to the extent of damage it can inflict.

Readers who are interested in the connection between fascism, politics and art might want to read an old but influential essay called Fascinating Fascism by the late American writer and critic Susan Sontag. It’s available online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/9280.