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Shout, and you shall be heard

At the height of the Shiv Sena’s verbal attacks on Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi earlier this month, a reader wrote in to criticise Hindustan Times’ coverage.

mumbai Updated: Feb 21, 2010 01:14 IST

At the height of the Shiv Sena’s verbal attacks on Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi earlier this month, a reader wrote in to criticise Hindustan Times’ coverage.

The reader was particularly upset about the newspaper’s front page on February 3 (see picture), which was when the war of words between the Sena on the one hand and Khan and Gandhi on the other had peaked — a fact we know in retrospect.

To summarise the events of the previous day, Khan had refused to apologise for saying earlier that the Indian Premier League ought to have had Pakistani cricketers, while Gandhi had said he would not remain silent if north Indians faced discrimination in Mumbai.

“The [front-page] headline, ‘Who will blink first?’, on February 3, suggests that the media is a voyeuristic bystander watching a reality show, [namely the spat between] the Shiv Sena and Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi,” she wrote. “It makes me feel incapacitated to do anything about undemocratic people like [Shiv Sena leader and former chief minister] Manohar Joshi influencing my fellow readers. Why could the newspaper not pass a comment on Joshi’s aggressive statement?”

I entirely understand the reader’s frustration. Many of us feel helpless each time the Shiv Sena and its breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, make intemperate statements, incite violence and hold the city hostage.

But I am not sure what a newspaper can do to assuage this frustration and helplessness.

It cannot stop reporting the parties’ utterances even though it knows that both the Senas thrive on this media exposure.

I asked Vaibhav Purandare, a senior associate editor at HT who helped steer the coverage, what he thought about how the newspaper dealt with the parties’ cynical manipulation of the media.

“Both Senas are major political parties, and the battle between them impacts society, so we may like or dislike them, but we cannot ignore news,” said Purandare, also the author of The Sena Story, a history of the party.

“It is a newspaper’s duty to report on social and political strife, and that is what we have done,” he added. “At the same time, in cases where utterances have been very intemperate, not just by leaders of the Senas but any party, we have made the distinction between what is publishable and what isn’t, and downplayed statements or left them out depending on their nature and content.”

Now to turn to the second half of the readers’ critique, which is that the newspaper ought to have passed judgement on the party and its political leaders.

While the newspaper rightly did not pass judgement in its news reports, it had several comment articles on the subject. On February 4, Samar Halarnkar argued on the Comment page that if Mumbai did not speak out now, it would be doomed.

Then, on February 6, Purandare himself wrote an excellent analytical piece about both the Senas’ cynical manipulation of the Marathi manoos.

In my opinion, even the news coverage had an unmatched depth, revealing the hollowness of the Sena’s rhetoric. One example was a poll, reported on February 5’s front page, which showed that the Marathi manoos wanted jobs, not hate campaigns.

Another was an in-depth article that appeared on February 14 about how neither Sena was doing anything to promote the Marathi language.