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The tyranny of names

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:23 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
The tyranny of names

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

One reader emailed me last week saying that she felt HT was “attacking” Raj Thackeray, and went on to disagree with my view, expressed in this column two weeks ago, that our news coverage had been fair and balanced. More interestingly, she went on to say that she knew why I had defended HT Mumbai’s coverage of Thackeray’s street politics. “The answer lies in your surname,” she wrote.

“Ramanan.” Her conclusion was interesting, pregnant as it was with several assumptions.

For one, with absolutely no data about me except my name she seemed to have conjured up an identity for me.

(For all she knows, I may have been a Maharashtrian married to a south Indian.)

Second, her comment suggested that a journalist’s cultural background would inevitably influence his or her reportage.

Both assumptions are problematic — for far from having a monolithic identity molded entirely by my mother tongue is (Tamil), I draw cultural sustenance from a variety of sources, many of which are not even Indian. In fact, I have an aversion to nationalism itself, which is essentially religion by another name.

But what then is the solution to preventing such leaps of judgment? On our news pages (as opposed to sections devoted to opinion and comment), we could decide not to give reporters bylines at all. This is what the UK’s The Economist does. Except for its special reports, this weekly newspaper (that’s what it calls itself) does not give bylines. This way, readers would have to evaluate reports solely on their content.

I asked three senior editors at HT Mumbai what they thought. None thought eliminating bylines was the solution. Today, HT Mumbai has a policy of giving bylines to almost every news report, even routine press conferences, because we feel it fixes responsibility — reporters, we think, will be much more careful about what they write if they are named. It also acts as an incentive.

Third, it helps readers build a personal relationship with the reporter.

I largely agree with this policy.

But what readers should understand is that all reports are, as our Sunday Features Editor Shashi Baliga succinctly put it, “first HT’s and only then the journalist’s.” Indeed, every report goes through an elaborate vetting process that involves an array of people — from senior editors to the unsung heroes on the news desk, whose names never appear but who toil all through the evening, weeding out errors and biases, polishing the prose and providing crucial context and background to the reports.

So while a lot rests on the initiative, integrity and skill of the reporter, the system of checks and balances (some elements of which I described in last week’s column) is equally important.

It is not perfect. But we take its credibility very seriously.

Also, if one began making facile connections between a journalist’s mother tongue and his or her ability to cover an event, one could, after all, come to the preposterous conclusion that a reporter who speaks Marathi as his or her mother tongue cannot possibly cover incidents involving Raj Thackeray’s nativist agitations dispassionately!