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The state of journalism

india Updated: Sep 20, 2009 01:24 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Unless a country is at war, my answer is “not at all.” Even then, newspapers must maintain their watchdog roles, instead of blindly toeing the government line in the name of being patriotic.

All would agree that a newspaper shouldn’t slant its coverage to suit a particular religion, region or socio-economic class. Then why should it make an exception when it comes to the nation-state? Why is nationalism kosher? It is admittedly a complicated question. In today’s world order, loyalty to the nation-state continues to be viewed as a more rational form of affiliation than others.

That notion filters through to newspapers, not only in India, but all over the world, to a greater or lesser extent. After all, Hindustan Times, too, has a proud tradition of being a nationalist paper. Yet that was in a completely different context, when India was under colonial rule. Today, when India seems to have developed more self-confidence, I think the rules of the game ought to be different.

Yet, even on topics that have nothing to do with a military conflict, I constantly receive letters from readers outraged that we have printed something that puts India “in poor light.”

Last month, for example, we carried the results of a countrywide survey as a prelude to a six-part series. The survey was not very flattering about the average Indian’s attitudes, finding them to be by and large regressive. For instance, more than two-thirds of those interviewed said they would support a ban on western clothes in colleges and an appalling 80 per cent said they believed rape and sexual harassment were on the rise because of the way Indian women were dressing nowadays.

Merely reporting that kicked up a small storm.

“The article, ‘India deeply conservative, resists change’ on your front page gives people a very negative image of India,” wrote one reader. “These are misunderstandings about Indians that are being propagated. We are not like that at all. Media persons are among the lucky people who have opportunities to build a positive image about India. As a citizen, I request you don’t let go of such opportunities in vain.”

Instead of being ashamed of the findings, this reader was ashamed that we had publicised them.

Last week, too, I wrote about a reader who was unhappy with us for having published the results of a poll about the state government’s plan to erect a Shivaji statue out at sea. Most of the respondents had said they thought the project was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

I would be the first to acknowledge the limitations of surveys, but neither can their findings be dismissed outright. If carried out meticulously, they often provide an inkling of social and other trends. Our duty is to merely report the results.

Newspapers often toe the government line on various issues or tend to play down certain negative national traits, partly because their staff are overwhelmingly Indian, and they internalise certain notions that to an outsider would sound parochial.

I would more than welcome letters from readers, Indian and foreign, pointing out such instances.

One measure of a person’s or nation’s self-confidence, and wisdom, is its ability to deal with criticism without crumbling to bits. Of course, one does not have to accept all criticism that comes one’s way: one can certainly refute it.

But if one wants to be considered civilised, it has to be done in a manner that respects the rule of law. Debate and argument are always energising, as long as they are intelligent and civil. Another measure of a nation’s self-confidence is its ability to laugh at itself. But how much of that do we do as a country? How much do newspapers do it? And how far will readers accept it?