It is one public denunciation that has not stung at all. On the contrary, ever since my young colleague, Salik Ahmad, wrote his condemnation of my recent editorial call to let a BJP leader write a column for Outlook on JNU, I have been spared the brickbats that routinely come my way and received bouquets instead. The reason for the unusual response is no rocket science. The argument that Salik made had substance and his writing was succinct. As his editor, I am mighty pleased with the effort.
Though meant to be a censure, Salik’s article has been taken in the right spirit, and far from being embarrassed, I am elated. A colleague has shown spine and spoken up and that is something we must acknowledge and cherish. None of us are infallible and not all decisions of ours are beyond reproach. And since we are all likely to come to wrong conclusions at certain times, scrutiny of what we do is always to be welcomed. To that extent, Salik was absolutely right and I sincerely wish more power to him.
But has his critique made me change my mind; or will I take an entirely different decision if the same editorial call was to be made in the future? The answer is a resounding no, even at the risk of coming across as someone thick-skinned and immune to criticism.
For one, Salik’s main grouse has been my supposed fanatical faith in ‘both-sides’ journalism which attempts to give versions of either side of any given story – primarily of the protagonist as also the antagonist. That we were told, when we were young, was the mainstay of objective journalism. But times have changed and many of the avowed principles that defined us earlier have withered away. The polity is divided and so are we. As positions become rigid, it has become somewhat fashionable to take a strident stand even if it means shutting down the voice of the other side completely.
A stand we must take. For, as the famous American journalist of Watergate fame Carl Bernstein reminded us during a recent visit, it should always necessarily be on the side of the best obtainable version of the truth. And how do you arrive at that best obtainable version of the truth? Of course, by not precluding any side and listening to all versions.
Imagine for a moment that ‘both-sides’ journalism had no place in Outlook’s playbook and we only voiced what we believed in. Would Salik’s contrarian piece have found a place then? Already hamstrung by a hierarchy that limits many colleagues in any organisation, he would have been left voiceless but for our endearing belief in the virtues of ‘both-sides’ journalism.
Now in a nutshell, what prompted Salik to write what he wrote and ultimately brought us to this debate over ‘both-sides’ journalism? Well, it was a government survey of educational institutions that adjudged JNU as the second-best university in the country despite years of calumnious campaign against it for being a supposed den of anti-nationals. The finding was certainly food for thought and we decided that we must dig deeper to explore why the university remained a divisive issue despite its academic excellence.
Since one could not have come to a better understanding without hearing all sides, we commissioned articles from either camp: Aishe Ghosh, president of the left-led JNU students’ union, and Abhisek Mishra, a BJP leader with a student activism background. For long, the right and the left had fought over the university and it made immense editorial sense to hear from a cross-section of the stakeholders.
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Both sent in their articles and one must admit that Aishe’s piece made far greater sense than that of Abhishek. We published both, though I personally remained unconvinced with Abhishek’s arguments, which seemed specious. Among everything else, he too like many a pro-government TV channel cited a CCTV footage from the day unprecedented violence rocked JNU this past January to claim that Aishe was seen along with others engaging in arson. The same footage had been aired on the loop by TV stations in the past for selling a similar narrative, though it did not show any violence. Besides this, the BJP leader peddled oft-repeated theories that leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid were anti-national.
The sweeping claims were definitely unsubstantiated, but why did we choose to carry it still? We did because the case that Abhishek made was representative of the argument that those in the right did and rejecting his piece would have meant shutting down a sizeable section amongst us, however ill-informed or misdirected their views are. As for mainstreaming and dignifying lies – well, our readers would also have seen the CCTV footage of that horrendous night and their views are not going to change about what happened just because some channels or one Abhishek is saying otherwise. As for some of the JNU students being anti-national, Outlook is proud to have featured Kanhaiya Kumar on the cover recently as a young leader worth watching out for. Accommodating a contrarian piece isn’t going to make him fall off anyone’s pedestal.
Censuring voices for what we believe are lies is fraught with risks. For one, who decides what’s a lie? And if we are to appropriate for ourselves the right to decide, let me say it would be a very bad choice. Newsrooms are politicised, journalists by nature are self-righteous and most editors have feet of clay. Allowing them to decide what you get to see, hear or read would only mean giving up on your right to an unadulterated world view, with warts and all. It has already afflicted our media and giving up on ‘both-sides’ journalism would aggravate its descent into partisanship.
For me, allowing Abhishek space, or the Rajasthan minister who attempted to cast doubt on cattle-trader Pehlu Khan’s murder, is not mainstreaming or dignifying them. On the contrary, it’s as much about holding on to a shrinking but independent middle ground in the media space as it is about measuring the deeds of those who matter against the best available version of the truth. A comparison that ‘both-sides’ journalism inherently allows is infinitely more trustworthy and credible than the one-sided ‘righteous’ fare some of us tend to force down on those who consume our news. And I prefer to stay the course, notwithstanding the criticism that may come my way.
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