Protecting editors

Mr Akbar and Mr Kalbag did not formally represent their cases as perceived by
them. Nor did the respective managements offer any explanation to the readers
for the sudden editorial changes at the top. B G VERGHESE’s report for the
Editors Guild

The Role and Status of the Editor

A meeting of The Editors Guild of India was held in Delhi on May 12, 2008
following the summary removal of Mr M.J.Akbar as Editor of The Asian Age. Prior
to that Mr Chaitanya Kalbag, Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times had found
his services abruptly terminated.

As an association of print and broadcast editors, Members of the Guild were
understandably concerned at these developments and felt that the matter merited
further study and deliberation. To this end it was decided to set up a committee
consisting of B.G. Verghese, Kuldip Nayyar and Pran Chopra to report on the
status, role and responsibility of the Editor.

In order to elicit a wider and more considered range of views and experiences, a
brief questionnaire was sent out by me on behalf of the Committee. This sought
responses on the following matters:

1. What is the role and responsibility of the Editor in relation to (i) the
proprietor; (ii) his/her colleagues and staff as a whole; (iii)
readers/viewers/listeners and society generally; and (iv) the law and the

2. Should he/she have any contractual security/guarantees.

3. Do the organisation and structure of media houses /Boards of Directors offer
the Editor any protection? If not, can this be introduced in any manner without
fettering legitimate proprietorial rights?

4. What is your experience regarding these matters?

5. Are there any other issues or aspects that should be considered?

Mr Nayyar and Mr Chopra were requested to add to these queries to elicit
additional information and views. They did not do so. Thereafter, since neither
was available despite several reminders, possibly for good reasons, I had no
option but to proceed on my own.

Sunita Narain forwarded me correspondence addressed to the Guild by Prof. Dinesh
Mohan of IIT, Delhi regarding reportage on the Delhi Bus Rapid Transit System
experiment. The grievance here was unbalanced reporting without reference to
experts who had been strongly criticized and the lack of redress. The complaint
does not seem to be without merit.

Separately, reference was made to the removal of a broadcast editor but no
material was forwarded.

A newspaper, journal or news channel is a complex organisation with both
editorial and managerial functions and responsibilities. While the editorial
function is at the heart of any news organization, it requires management
support in varying degrees in relation to finance and revenues, advertising,
circulation/transmission, personnel, stores and accounting. In earlier parlance
this marked the division between the Publisher (the owner or prime funder) and
the Editor. Very often the role of publisher and editor were combined, and
remains so today in the case of some small or family-owned establishments. But
with the growth of news organisations from being a family business or mission to
becoming an industry, a separation of functions and powers has become
increasingly necessary, though at the end of the day it is the publisher who is

However, news organizations derive their mission and mandate from the right to
freedom of expression, which is most often constitutionally guaranteed though it
is essentially an inalienable and precedent universal human right. Governments
may at best regulate but do not bestow freedom of expression. In a news
collective, print or broadcast, the publisher may exercise the right to publish
or broadcast words or images, but the professional custodian of that right or
freedom is the Editor who exercises the responsibility to gather, select, edit
and publish/broadcast “all the news that’s fit to print”.

This responsibility is reflected in the imprint line of newspapers and carries
with it a legal responsibility for everything that appears, including
advertisements and pictures. In any modern news organisation imbued with the
technological capability instantly to reach audiences anywhere, such
responsibility has increasingly and necessarily to be delegated under the
Editor’s overall oversight. All newspersons are, each in their own way,
editors, gatekeepers, reporters. They report to their departmental heads who
report to the Editor, with whom the buck stops. He/she is the collective
conscience of the media organization. The Editor is appointed by the Publisher
and is accountable to him/her but the relationship, apart from contractual and
legal obligations, is one that is expected to be governed by principles of
mutual respect and trust, natural justice and fair play.

The Editor should in turn recognize and respect the legitimate rights and
interests of the management and the editorial staff. He/she should regard
himself/herself as being first among equals, avoid being overbearing and be open
to discussion and persuasion while reserving the last word in the interests of
overall discipline.

Readers, listeners and viewers have a right to objective, fair and balanced
presentation, reflecting all legitimate points of view and the right to
correction and reply without delay. At the end of the day it is the media’s
credibility (integrity) and moral standing that is its shield and anchor. There
is a legal obligation to keep within the ambit of “reasonable restrictions”
prescribed under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Arbitrary restraints are
subject to appeal.

The Press Council has built up a code of conduct which has been codified and
published from time to time. This is a useful guide. Unfortunately, the
broadcast media is as yet without a regulatory mechanism and has not as yet come
up with an accepted code of conduct. Some media organisations have fashioned
their own internal codes of conduct and have established internal ombudsmen. The
Hindu has a Reader’s Editor who assumes that function and critically reviews
errors and omissions that are regularly published. The Indian Express has
recently started a “Corrections” column that takes note of readers’
comments. But the major channel of communication and feedback is the traditional
Letters/Reader’s Views column. Broadcast organizations have no corresponding
slot and would do well to consider providing time for listeners’/viewers’
comments on a regular basis.

Do or should Editors have contractual guarantees for security of tenure? It is
difficult to see what these might be and how effective they might prove. Some
journalists have qualms about contracts and take comfort in wage board
protections. On the whole, these make for lazy journalism and weaken the
position of the Editor to reward or punish as the case may be. The principle of
hire and fire has its negative aspects but total security breeds indolence and
evasion of responsibility.

Part of the weakness and vulnerability of news organisations is that Boards of
Management give exclusive or excessive weightage to family/proprietorial
interests. The appointment of men and women of standing as public interest
directors would introduce a level of participation that would normally be
expected to prevent narrowly partisan policies, excessive bias and unfair
practices. These Directors would be custodians of the public interest as opposed
to purely family/corporate welfare, if and when these collide. Trusts are a
different proposition Few exist and while the Tribune Trust, for instance, is a
model, the Statesman’s experiment in the 1960s with twin boards of management
and editorial trustees proved abortive.

The real problem lies in the steady growth of market driven media, all fiercely
competitive and anxious to grab readers or eyeballs. With honourable exceptions,
this has sometimes led to a spiralling down of standards and values, catering to
the lowest common factor with a fare of sensation and infotaianment. The reach
of the media has enhanced its power and political clout, with mass viewerships
and circulations bringing in huge income flows. The change over from mission to
market has also impacted on the relationship between Proprietor/Manager and
Editor, the latter often being content to assume second place. Horizontal
expansion, with multiple editions and channels in multiple languages,
multi-media conglomerates, local/district editions and multiple sections with
different editors has resulted in dilution of top editorial control. Managers
and “Response” Departments have cosied up to business houses and brands.
Advertising- for-equity bargains have been reported as well as the sale of
editorial space and sponsoring of supplements. At the other end of the scale,
reporters and, particularly, stringers have sprouted and have been known to use
their media calling cards as negotiable instruments to build or mar reputations,
facilitate or obstruct business transactions and clearances or act as piece-work
lobbyists. Such elements have little contact with Editors and operate under
another chain of command.

Some well known media organizations have no Editor but only page or section
editors. In other cases, Editors appear to have abdicated their authority,
spending more time outside their offices during critical hours, attending
seminars, appearing on channels or writing columns, delivering lectures,
appearing in the company of the big and the beautiful, acting as brand managers.
This appreciation is perhaps exaggerated but is sufficiently true to be cause
for anxiety.

The decline of the Editor is by no means universal. There are excellent Editors
and very good deputies. But a few rotten apples tend to affect the quality of
the basket. Many have allowed themselves to be trampled over.

Mr Akbar and Mr Kalbag did not formally represent their cases as perceived by
them. Nor did the respective managements vouchsafe any explanation to the
readers for the sudden editorial changes at the top. There was, moreover, little
internal or public protest or sense of media outrage. Maybe this signals the
need to introspect on the role and responsibility of the Editor in the wider
context of public concern over what is happening to media values and standards
in the country as a whole.

The Guild should consider preparing a Code for Editors as a guide for the
future. Some elements of that might be found in this note. But a wider
discussion could help fashion a Code for general discussion and adoption. This
is best produced by some of the Guild’s currently working Editors.

B.G. Verghese

The Editor’s Guild

July 23, 2008
The Hoot


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