A question of accountability

IN Media Practice | 18/07/2005
With will, a newspaper or broadcaster can make itself professionally accountable.




                                Reprinted from the Hindu, July 17, 2005







Sevanti Ninan




THE state is powerful, the media is powerful. Elected politicians with the help of unelected bureaucrats run the first. To make the latter accountable, a right to information act is now being put in place. What of the media? Is it time to install some accountability mechanisms there? As expansion blooms, journalist salaries go through the roof and foreign investors get more of a look in, are we also going to import some of the accountability norms that the media is adopting abroad? And if media denizens bristle at that word, how about transparency and demystification? Will the day soon come when newspapers and TV channels in India will consider sharing with their readers how certain editorial decisions were arrived at? Or consider replying to charges of editorial bias?


Charges of plagiarism


After the Jason Blair episode in 2003, when a 27-year-old New York Times reporter resigned amidst charges of plagiarism, the Times launched a major internal review. Similar incidents here at both the Hindustan Times, and more recently at the Times of India, have drawn different responses from the two newspapers. The editor at HT resigned, but there was no institutional response from the paper. The Times of India (TOI) simply ignored the whole affair while charges of plagiarism by its film critic swirled around the Internet. Eventually the issue died down.


The New York Times did come up with an institutional response. Its review committee recommended the appointment of a public editor, a decision that had been resisted before this. Its earlier reasoning, as described by a Salon columnist, was "Every editor should represent the interests of the reader, and respond to complaints if they have merit. That`s what good editors do. We have good editors. We need no ombudsman."


Meanwhile, some three dozen other newspapers created such posts. Post-Blair, announcing the creation of the job, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. described it as a stepping-stone towards the goal of "making The New York Times less opaque as an institution." The first public editor, Daniel Okrent, was to operate outside the management structure of the newspaper`s newsroom and its editorial page. He was to address readers` comments about The Times`s coverage, to raise questions of his own and to write about such matters without any review of his commentaries before they were published.


A `readers` representative`


After 15 months, Okrent departed and has been replaced by Byron Calme who prefers to describe himself as the readers` representative. Readers` editors here and elsewhere used the Internet to receive reader complaints, publish some of the letters, and, in some cases, get editors and reporters to explain why the coverage was the way it was. The BBC does this too. After The New York Times killed a pre-election story on the Bush Bulge (did Bush used a prompting device during election debates as a photograph of his back suggested, or did he not), Okrent explained that it was because story had not actually established the presence of such a device. Not everybody swallowed that.


When The Guardian appointed a reader`s editor in 2002, his terms of reference were "to collect, consider, investigate, respond to, and where appropriate come to a conclusion about readers` comments, concerns, and complaints in a prompt and timely manner, from a position of independence within the paper". The editor in question, Ian Mayes, writes a regular column, and gave a blow-by-blow account last week of how The Guardian got its act together the day London was bombed.


At the BBC


The BBC has a separate url for that part of its website which deals with its performance and takes complaints. This one leads to the report of its Programme Complaints Unit on complaints findings: http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/pdf/pcu_janmar2005.pdf


We now have the world`s largest selling broadsheet, according to the TOI which claims this status. But public disenchantment with the media is growing here. The point is that if a newspaper or broadcaster has the will, it can make itself professionally accountable. Which one of our Indian stalwarts will take the lead?
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