The readers' editor of The Hindu, K. Narayanan, has responded to the Churumuri piece Under N. Ram, the Hindu becomes a 'sorry' paper in his weekly column 'Online and Off Line' today. Titled Whys and wherefores of an apology, the column seeks to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the points made and questions asked.
Below is the full text of the column, reproduced here without the permission of the paper, the publisher, the editor or the author.
At the bottom is Arvind Swaminathan's 10-point riposte to Narayanan's response.
By K. NARAYANAN
Should the apology not have been in your corrections column, or on Open Page, asks a reader. The reference was to what was published in The Hindu on May 30, relating to an article that appeared on Open Page on May 21.
This is a point that needs clarification. So far there has been no occasion to include an apology in the corrections list. This was the first such instance since the Readers' Editor started functioning on March 1.
Two factors determined the placement of the apology. One was a letter on the same article from the Engineering Export Promotion Council (EEPC). The second was the request from the company whose product was adversely commented upon—that was the basis for the apology—for early rectification. It was decided to take them together.
The reader's query was a legitimate one and called for an answer. On a different plane were the insinuations and assumptions in a commentary by Arvind Swaminathan on churumuri.wordpress.com, the website run out of Mysore "by a bunch of talented, if somewhat obsessed Mysoreans," as Ramachandra Guha put it. For this was another opportunity to decry N. Ram, The Hindu's Editor-in-Chief. "Staffers in The Hindu," according to this commentary, were aghast at this surrender to corporate forces, represented by an automotive firm (factually inaccurate), with advertising clout. With glee, it pointed out that the Editor had not included any reference to the date of publication of the article in question, missing the fact that the date was in the preceding item to which the apology was tagged.
Even more amusing was the query whether before publishing the apology, Mr. Ram had consulted K. Narayanan, the Readers' Editor, "whom he touts as the panacea of [sic] all journalistic ills in the country." Why his "sources" in The Hindu, whom he cites again and again, did not give this information to him is a matter for conjecture. The barb aimed at me shows lack of understanding.
The question of apology was indeed discussed. Whether the remark in the article was defamatory was arguable. It was written by an Indian student in Germany: he presented a view of the Indian presence at the Hannover fair, which was totally at variance with the glowing accounts that one normally reads, presented by visiting journalists, sometimes sponsored by corporates or industry bodies. It should have been seen in that light and wrong impressions created by this writer could have been set right by a proper presentation. EEPC did well to do so, pointing out the factual inaccuracies in the article.
In the Editor-in-Chief's judgment, the Open Page article, already marred by a gross factual inaccuracy about the number of Indian stalls at the Hannover fair, made sweeping and baseless assertions about the Indian products on display. In fact, Ram had been there at the inauguration of the fair, as part of the media delegation accompanying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The legal challenge thrown by the corporate could have been faced but neither the article nor the issue was worth a fight. Contesting a charge of defamation takes a certain amount of time and effort; indeed, as one Indian legal scholar has observed, "the process is the punishment." It would have meant a diversion for the newspaper, and the Editor-in-Chief who is also the publisher has to face the music finally. My arguments were academic; his, practical. So it was accepted that it was wrong and misleading to have mentioned the company's name in this context.
This is perhaps the first time an article on Open Page led to the publication of an editorial apology. This forum for readers had its origin more than two decades ago. The then Editor, G. Kasturi, seeing the large number of good unsolicited articles that went unused—the only opening available then was the "junior" article slot on the editorial page—decided to allocate one full page a week to readers' contributions. In more recent times, with an increase in competing features and items, the space allotted was reduced by half and an 800-word limit for articles imposed.
The Open Page has proved immensely popular, judging from the regular flow of contributions from all over the country. A variety of topics is touched upon. The background of the writers is equally varied, as is the style of writing—scintillating, pedantic, provocative, plaintive, original thinking, academic, you have them all. (Interestingly, one of the senior correspondents in The Hindu owes his post to the Open Page. His writing on a constitutional issue so impressed Kasturi that he asked me to locate the author. I did, and he landed a job at The Hindu, as reporter, to rise high later.)
Readers complain to me about the choice and rejection of articles. That is the jurisdiction of the editorial wing of a publication. When a selection from many competing offerings takes place, complaints and some criticism are unavoidable. Especially from those whose submissions are turned down. What weighs is the style of presentation, the originality of ideas (not an academic paper) and the ability to provoke thinking or register thoughtful dissent. Political contention, of which there is plenty in the paper, is kept to a minimum on the Open Page.
Not only complaints, also good suggestions have come from readers. One was to include the e-mail ID of writers when they desired it. Another was to intimate acceptance or rejection of articles. These have been implemented. (An angry reader's objection to the curt wording of the pro forma response was also attended to!)
Some articles have produced lively debates, which the Open Page accommodates to the extent possible. Such reactions serve the purpose for which this readers' forum was created. To think of shutting it down, on account of one legal issue will be, as the Malayalam saw goes, to burn down the house to kill a rat.
ARVIND SWAMINATHAN replies from Madras: We must be thankful to the readers' editor for taking notice and taking the trouble of responding. It shows, if nothing else, that The Hindu as an institution is concerned of issues like these.
That said, though, the clarification does little to suggest that an apology of this nature is the "done" thing for a newspaper of the size, reach, influence and, above all, claims to independence from political and commercial interests as The Hindu.
In fact, the lengths to which the readers' editor goes to defend Ram and Kasturi, while thumping his own back, only lends credence to the question whether it was such a good thing to have an insider as readers' editor.
Be that as it may, if the readers' editor was consulted before the trajectory of the apology was decided, we stand corrected. Still…
1) There is still no explanation as to what was so sweeping or baseless about the offending paragraph on Kirloskar to merit an apology from the editor-in-chief, no less. Did Kirloskar say that only the editor-in-chief's apology would do? If so, is there a hierarchy for apologies?
2) If the editor-in-chief could take on the might of Jayalalithaa, just what was so damaging in the piece by R.S. Anand to merit such a grovelling apology? Are we to assume that the State is easy meat when compared to corporates?
3) The "offending" quote was made by a visitor to the Hannover fair, who was a fellow-German student of the writer's. Are we to conclude from the apology that free individuals in some other part of the world are not entitled to hold a view or express an opinion that might damage corporate interests back home? And should a writer excise such views/opinions because they might be damaging?
4) Astonishingly, the readers' editor says the student-writer's reflections were "totally at variance with the glowing accounts that one normally reads, presented by visiting journalists, sometimes sponsored by corporates or industry bodies. It should have been seen in that light".
What are we to make of this? That it would have been all-correct if the piece had been glowing? In that case, wouldn't that be advertising? Or are all business pieces meant to be glowing?
5) There is still no explanation as to why the whole piece had to be removed from the Hindu website if there was only one paragraph about Kirloskar.
6) The readers' editor would do well to see all editions of the paper to see what chronology the apology and the EEPC letter appeared. In the edition I received, the apology was above that of the EEPC letter.
7) There is still no rational explanation as to why the editor-in-chief should apologise for such a minor indiscretion, if it was an indiscretion, and why it could not appear in the corrections and clarifications column.
8) There is no factual inaccuracy about Kirloskars being in the automotive business. A different wing of the company may have displayed the engine in Hannover, but the Kirloskars are still in the automotive business.
9) OK, so the apology was published because the writer's version of events was at variance with the editor-in-chief's own eye-witness view. What if the editor-in-chief had not been present there to see for himself?
10) There is still no explanation from the readers' editor as why the editor-in-chief had to apologise for C. Manmohan Reddy's piece (which was part of the Churumuri piece).