Readers have accused us of many things in the past, but last week, for the first time on my watch as the readers’ editor, someone charged us of being “silly.” The reader in question was annoyed by our coverage last week of the 26/11 trial.
“Why was the Kargil story not given preference (over Kasab’s trial)?” the reader asked, referring in particular to our front page on Friday. “Sometimes your paper is silly.” He was not the only one who found us wanting on this count. Several letters popped into our email inboxes criticising the prominence we gave to the trial.
“Please stop giving him (Kasab) headline coverage,” wrote one reader. Said another: “I’m sick of that moron.” What did we do that prompted this outbreak of irritation? From Tuesday through Friday, we featured reports about the trial on the top half of our front pages. The trigger came on Monday, when, out of the blue, Mohammad Kasab, the only surviving militant of the 10 who attacked Mumbai in November, told the court, “I admit to the crime.” Even his lawyer was taken aback.
In my opinion, this was the most significant development in the trial since it began. It was unexpected, dramatic and promised to bring an end to a trial that many people felt was, in the first place, an overzealous exhibition of our dedication to the rule of law that was needlessly dragging on. Whatever one’s view, the prospect of this trial ending was hugely significant, was it not?
On Tuesday, the court kept up the suspense, saying that it needed a day to decide whether to end the trial. The prosecution was pressing for it to continue on the grounds that Kasab had not revealed in court much of what he had confessed to his interrogators and hence should be further questioned.
So on Wednesday, we carried this news as the “second lead” on page 1. Again, given that we still did not know how soon the trial would end, this was of huge interest, I thought. On Wednesday, the court had still not decided what to do. But in the meanwhile, Kasab and his lawyer began contradicting each other. When his lawyer tried to argue that his client’s admission had been the result of mental torture, Kasab denied it. “If anyone thinks I am pleading guilty so that I am awarded a lighter punishment...the court can hang me if it wants,” the militant said dramatically. While I understand readers’ distaste for the man, how can we ignore such drama in a trial connected to the worst post-Independence terrorist attack on Mumbai?
Then came Thursday, when the court decided to continue the trial. On Friday, this became our main front-page story. The other contender, a story looking back at the Kargil war, the first in a series, was not a news story. We could not have lead with it.
Perhaps the photo and data panel about the high tide, which appeared next to the trial report, could have been more prominently positioned as the main story of the day. But on the whole, I thought our coverage justified the developments in court on their own merit and in relation to what else was happening on those days.
Having said this, I do understand readers’ annoyance. Readers have criticised us before for giving prominence to Kasab. That was when we reported various trivia about his daily routine as well as his behaviour and utterances in court that had no bearing on the trial.
At that time, I agreed with the criticism, saying that although some of it did give us a window into his mental state, it was essentially in the same class as gossip. This time, the situation is very different. What more dramatic development can there be than when an accused who has pleaded not-guilty goes on to admit to his crime? I may not have been able to make up such drama if I had been forced to.