Some readers felt that that my column on the communication blackout in Jammu and Kashmir, (“A disturbing downward spiral”, September 9, 2019), did not display the restraint that is necessary in these unusual times. I agree with them that we live in unusual times. How else can one explain the current situation where courts get to decide who should meet whom and whether the deliberations of such meetings can be shared with the larger world? On September 13, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court allowed two MPs of the Lok Sabha belonging to the National Conference (NC) party to meet Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, the president and vice president of the NC, respectively. The court ruled that the meeting of the petitioners with their party leaders should be restricted to a “courtesy call to know about their wellbeing” and should not be followed by interactions with the press.
I agree with legal scholar Gautam Bhatia’s contention that the Supreme Court has become “The absentee constitutional court” (September 12, 2019). Instead of deciding one way or the other on crucial constitutional issues following the Union government’s decision to downgrade Jammu and Kashmir’s ‘special status’ under Article 370 of the Constitution, and strip it of statehood, the highest court in the country “has dodged, ducked, evaded and adjourned”, and the judiciary “has simply vacated the field, absented itself, and chosen to walk away”, wrote Mr. Bhatia.
Guided by values
In this scenario, I am not surprised that some readers mistake the news judgment of this newspaper that is guided by a set of values to be directed, instead, by prejudice. A sensitive news ombudsman recognises the perimeter of his role and realises that any overreach would not only kill journalism, but also eventually undermine democracy itself. At difficult times, journalism must retain its ability to scrutinise the state rather than becoming a cheerleader.
As a news ombudsman, I evaluate complaints relating to journalism using three critical markers: fairness, balance, and accuracy. In a newspaper like The Hindu, news and views are clearly labelled. Citizens’ views reveal legitimate aspirations. They cannot be subsumed by the stranglehold of the ruling establishments over public narratives. In his judgment in Manoj Narula v. Union of India (2014), Justice Kurian Joseph observed: “When things go wrong constitutionally, unless the conscience speaks, it is not good conscience; it will be accused of as numb conscience.”
Bias is a nebulous term
When a news ombudsman makes its clear that he cannot be a party to numb conscience, a few tend to interpret his reading as bias. Bias is a nebulous term. Nathan Robinson, editor of the magazine Current Affairs, dealt with this vexatious issue in his column in The Guardian recently. He wrote: “It should be obvious that there can’t be such a thing as a neutral journalist. We all have moral instincts and points of view. Those points of view will colour our interpretations of the facts. The best course of action is to acknowledge where we’re coming from. If we show an awareness of our own political leanings, it actually makes us more trustworthy than if we’re in denial about them.”
If some reduce the moral compass of journalism to bias, journalists need to take a cue from the American Press Institute (API) in dealing with this exasperating issue. The API effectively argued that “draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life.” It then asks, “What if journalists acknowledged that bias does exist, that it is built into the choices they make when deciding what to leave in and what to leave out? That bias is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports? And that ‘news judgment’ does reflect the journalist’s background as well as the news organization’s mission and business model?”
Is it possible to be free of opinion regarding the situation in Jammu and Kashmir? Isn’t it a false balance if we equate the official narrative with the reality, as if they are two equal sides to the issue? Journalism cannot become a collateral cost to being oblivious to people’s experiences.