Last week, I responded to a readerwhohad expressed outrage that HT had carried on its front page the article, ‘Kasabwants to go for walks, wear perfume’.
In that article,wehad reported that the lone survivor among the militants who attackedMumbai in November had submitted a list of requests to the courtwhere he is being tried.
Among other things, he said he wanted some perfume and toothpaste and that hewished to take a daily stroll outside his cell.
That reader,GitanjaliGoswami,said the article servedtoevokesympathyforKasab andought not tohave been putonthe front page so prominently.Ihad responded that we did not intend to create sympathy or anything else for Kasab, and thought we were merely reporting the proceedings of a very important trial, whichon that particulardayprovidedaninsight intoKasab’s state of mind and personality.
I received several responses to last week’s column, including one fromreader Sunil Mukhi, who also criticised our headline and the decision to carry the article on the front page, but for exactly the opposite reason—that itwouldmake people loathe Kasab evenmore.
I excerpt here most of Mukhi’s letter, because I think he makes a very important argument, one that I ought to have made myself. I would also be very interested in other readers’ responses.
“A proper and fair trial for Kasab is of extreme importance, but unfortunately many Indians have misunderstood its purpose,” said Mukhi. “The purpose of trying him is not to create doubts or split hairs about his guilt, but the exact opposite: to establish his guilt and the circumstances surrounding it [his emphasis] with scientific and legal accuracy such that no reasonable doubts can be sustained now or in the future.
“Concluding this case without a full trial would greatly harm India in the long run: it would lower us to the level of countries that do not believe in law and scientific evidence, itwould tarnish the image we have rightfully earned of being a modern democracy, and most important of all, it would set a dangerous precedent for trials of other people in India in the future.
“Despite this,manymiddle-class people have been demanding that Kasab be executed without a full trial. Political parties are already fishing in these troubledwaters and one does not knowwhat the newgovernment at the Centremay be tempted to do for short-termpolitical expediency.”
Upto this point, I completelyagree with MrMukhi. But he goes on to say: “In this situation, [such] articles areprovocative and serve to aggravate people’s childish emotions. The news contained in the article should have been presented inamore responsible way.”
I presume MrMukhi is saying the articlewas provocative because he thought it served to increase people’s revulsion of Kasab and therefore would egg more of them to call for his summary execution.
But after all,manyother readers, such as Ms Goswami above, interpreted the article in just the opposite way. So rather than the report, which was just a dry recitation of what happened in court that day (no one has raised an issue about the report’s tone or language), it was Kasab’s request itself that set readers off in one or another way.
This raises an important question. If we suspect an event will evoke strong (if opposing) emotions in readers, should we somehow play down the report of the event by putting it on an inside page or giving it a bland headline?
Specifically, if we believe that carrying a report about an event may have repercussions we do not want, such as rioting or as in this case, intensifying calls forsubverting the rule of law, should we play it down?
My feeling is unless we stronglybelieve that publishing something will cause bodily harm to one or more individuals or lead to the large-scale destruction of property,we should not worry. If the articlemerelychanges the waypeople think, then we and others always have the option of arguing against them on our comment pages, and indeed through readers’ letters!
In other words, is being provocative up to a point a bad thing? One function of a newspaper is, after all, to “provoke” discussion, as long as this remains civilised, which this discussion has—so far.