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This one smells bad

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 16:19 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

“I am writing in response to the story on Kasab that made headlines on front page on Thursday, April 30,” wrote HT reader Geetanjali Goswami. “I am unable to understand how a story so frivolous can make it to the front page?

“Why are Presley Thomas’s first few lines seeking sympathy for Kasab if journalism should be unbiased and neutral?” she asked. “Stung bitterly by the gruesome attacks, I don’twant to read about Kasab’s wants on the front page. It does nothing but anger me.The headline too,was regretfully lame and futile.”

”May I request you to please establish a sense of editorial hierarchy on your front page?” she went on to ask. “Reading about his living conditions does not interest me.

On the day of elections, it simply reinforced my belief that our judicial system is frail.

The reader is referring to the article ‘Kasab wants to go for walks, wear perfume’, inwhich we reported how the only surviving militant from the group that attacked the city in November had asked for various amenities in a formal application to the court that his hearing the case against him.

The reporter,PresleyThomas,described how in his application, Kasab had said he wanted to read theNawa-e-Waqt, theUrdu newspaper he read in his hometown Faridkot in Pakistan; that he wantedsome perfumeandtoothpaste;andthathewished to take a daily stroll outside his cell. In the rest of the article, Thomas described the discussion in court about Kasab’s age.

I asked HT Mumbai’s deputy resident editor,Pravinchandran Nair,who took the decision to carry the story on front page, for his response to the reader’s comments.

“It was by no means an attempt to create sympathyforKasab,”Nair said.“We believe what is happening in the trial of the lone survivoramongthe terroristswho attacked Mumbai on November 26 is of interest to most, if not all, of our readers.”

There are two issues here. The first is whether the information we had was worth including in a story at all, wherever it appeared. The second is once we had decided to carry it as a story,whether we should have put it on the front page.

Let’s tackle the first question. I understand the reader’s repugnance at what seem to be frivolous requests by someone who almost all of us have seen on camera wreaking death and destruction (although technically, he is not guilty until convicted by a court). I also understand that by carrying such details, we end up humanising someone who most people think of as bestial and devoid of any humanity.

I want to assure readers that we had no a priori intention of painting Kasab in one or another lightwhenwecarried the story.

We believed that we were merely reporting the facts, which we learnt of from his application to the court. On the contrary, some of us actually felt Kasab’s requests pointed to the complete gall of the man, asking for luxuries like perfumewhen he is being tried for a large-scale massacre.

Moreover, I think that his requests give readers an insight into his state of mind and perhaps even into the kind of person he is. And should we not be interested in the state of mind and personality of the lone survivor among the terrorists who invaded Mumbai?

I am very sorry if we ended up angering some readers, but I do not think we erred in carrying the story.Like Nair said, I suspect the story was of interest tomany other readers. My view is that Kasab’s requests might have come across as frivolous, but the story itself was not.

Now what about where we placed it?

Was it important enough to place on the front page? This is less cut and dry, as always, because whether a story goes on the front page depends not only on itsown merits but also on what else is happening on that day. In this case, I believe there is high interest in the trial and developments related to it always merit being considered for the front page.

What does everyone think?