As ideological fault lines have crystallised in the country, the media have come under more than their share of criticism for being biased towards or against certain political parties and standpoints. While most news organisations have maintained a studied silence on the issue, The Hindu has decided to take the bull by the horns.
A three-part series by the Readersâ€™ Editor takes account of readersâ€™ criticisms of the newspaperâ€™s â€śbias against the present governmentâ€ť, and responds with an analysis of the newspaperâ€™s cartoons, editorials and news coverage to refute the charge that the newspaper has been less harsh on the past UPA regimes as against the current BJP-led one.
The Hindu has always been known to be left-of-centre on the spectrum of political opinion. The newspaper put in place the institution of a Readersâ€™ Editor in 2006 to provide more direct and systematic lines of feedback from readers to improve accountability, accuracy and transparency.
The series, which comes around the 10th anniversary of the office of the Readersâ€™ Editor, takes on by turns allegations against its cartoons, its editorials and opinion pieces and finally its news coverage, particularly of the JNU row.
The first part began by addressing the charge that â€śthe cartoons are mostly against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, revealing the ideological slant of the newspaperâ€ť. The column was spent mostly in discussing the principles according to which Readersâ€™ Editor AS Panneerselvan was carrying out the content analysis of the newspaper.
The response to biased cartoons itself was more interestingly done, as the text was interspersed with cartoons from the past fifty years showing criticisms of every Prime Minister in that period. Reference was made to the cartoons only in the final paragraph of the article, when a quote from RK Laxman, which cited surprise that â€śIndian politicians would have taken lightly to their images being distorted and bedevilled through cartoons in the newspapers,â€ť was cited, adding that such freedom was â€ślosing ground to hagiography seekersâ€ť.
The second column moved on to the question of editorials and opinion pieces published after 2000 since â€śThis will give every reader of this newspaper a chance to verify the claims made in this column, as all editions of this newspaper since 2000 are online.â€ť It analyses 6,260 editorials and Oped/perspective articles and 3,130 columns and lead articles on the editorial page from the two terms that the UPA was in power.
The results, Panneerselvam said, showed consistent analysis that pulled no punches, and never slackened on a critical perspective. As evidence, he pointed to five editorials between 2004-2013 which critiqued the UPA tenure.
These editorials critiqued the Leftâ€™s alliance with the Congress in 2004, the Congress performance in 2006 and again in 2013, and the UPAâ€™s self-sabotage on Ottavio Quattrocchi in 2007. The Readersâ€™ Editor quotes the strongest lines from each of these editorials to make his point against allegations of bias towards the UPA.
The third and final part of the series published on Monday took up the most current accusation that the newspaperâ€™s focus on the JNU row has been disproportionate.
Panneerselvam cited a series of events that form a â€śpolitical designâ€ť. He started with the appointment of Y Sudershan Rao, â€śwhose reputation was questioned by many eminent historiansâ€ť, as the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research.
He then moved onto a list of others such as the banning of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT Madras, the dismissals of the Director of Indian Statistical Institute and the Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati, the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as Chairperson of FTII and other developments.
It was this design, he said, that prompted the kind of coverage that The Hindu gave to Rohith Vemulaâ€™s suicide in the University of Hyderabad, and the police action against student leaders in JNU. â€śIt was genuine anxiety over centres of higher learning being subjected to unnecessary strain that led to exhaustive coverage. If the coverage was of less intensity, history would term it as cheerleading and not journalism.â€ť
The series of articles can, of course, be faulted for being insufficiently comprehensive. After all, proof comes primarily in the form of anecdotal examples, and a proper statistical analysis of the newspaperâ€™s content is missing. Absent such analysis, the Readersâ€™ Editorâ€™s statements are still assertions more than facts.
However, even such an anecdotal exercise that treats readersâ€™ concerns with some amount of introspection, and openly declares ideological concerns is a rare enough occurrence in the Indian media, that every such effort begs notice.