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The page 3 devil in disguise

Sania-Shoaib: HT should never have allowed them to infiltrate its front pages, says a reader.

mumbai Updated: Apr 18, 2010 01:36 IST
Sumana Ramanan

"I have enjoyed reading the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, for the past two years," a reader told me last week.

"But I was disappointed this month to find news about Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik on your front page.

"I can understand such news appearing on tabloids' front pages," he said.

"Also, I am a film financier, so I am not saying there is no place for news about film stars and celebrities. But I don't want to read about them on the front pages of a serious newspaper like yours."

Before I pontificate on the merits of his views, let me present the response of HT's Mumbai editor, Soumya Bhattacharya.

"Unlike some other newspapers and TV channels, we have been restrained in our coverage of the Sania-Shoaib matter," he said.

"We refused to speculate, put out salacious details or do gossip masquerading as reporting.

"We played the story big on the front page only on the day it became a national, diplomatic story," he added.

"At the same time, it was an event we could not ignore. So we covered the wedding and the run-up to it through intelligently reported stories on our inside pages."

News about the Indian tennis player marrying the Pakistani cricketer appeared in Mumbai newspapers on March 30. On that day, HT did not put the story on the front page. Instead, it carried a brief mention in the strip above the masthead, pointing to the story inside.

Thereafter, while other newspapers kept the story on their front pages, HT brought it back there only on April 6, when the Pakistani government stepped in to support Shoaib. It carried the article as the main story across six columns.

The story popped up again on the front page on April 8, with news of the cricketer divorcing his alleged first wife and on April 10, with news about the wedding ceremony being postponed.

Should the first story have been given such a lavish display on page 1? My short answer is 'no'.

Even though Pakistan did issue an official statement, I don't think there was a real chance of the controversy becoming a diplomatic issue.

The other two stories were even less convincing as front-page candidates. Having taken a dignified stance on the whole episode, the newspaper should not have faltered.

My long answer, however, is that I'd like readers to appreciate how hard it is to remain pure when muck is swirling around. Moreover, for every reader who is repelled by such news on the front page, there might be another who wants it there. It is hard to tell from the inside.

It would help journalism enormously if readers support a newspaper that does not, or at least makes a serious effort not to, succumb to the frenzy.

Expressions of distaste, such as this reader's, are also forms of support, for they strengthen a newspaper's resolve not to give in, the next time around.

In the battle to keep page 3 out of page 1, readers play almost as important a role as do journalists.