K. Narayanan, Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, after examining readers’ complaints, has made a professional assessment of the newspaper’s coverage of Tibet developments in his fortnightly column “Online and Off Line”, published today. He writes:
I compared the reporting of the events in other Indian newspapers (English) and also The Guardian and the New York Times with that in The Hindu from March 15 to 19 and could not but note the wide gap which led to the readers’ protests. (The angles given to the stories and their display are not to be questioned; that is editorial privilege). Overall, these points struck me as noteworthy:
1. Reliance on Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Its reports should have been balanced by inputs from other news agencies, but their use was scanty and selective. No doubt they too would have had their angles and biases but that would have been another side of the picture. Why was The Guardian, otherwise used extensively, ignored (except for an eyewitness account which was not very informative)?
2. The Hindu’s perceptive correspondent in Beijing, Pallavi Aiyar, made no contribution, except to report Prime Minister Wen’s press conference.
3. The statements of the Chinese Prime Minister and the Chinese envoy in Delhi were fully reported. The Dalai Lama’s were truncated versions. Many readers noted that his remark on “cultural genocide” was edited out.
4. The most surprising feature was the total absence of Tibet in the “Letters to the Editor column” — in which otherwise comments appear even as events are unfolding and continue for days. A few letters appeared after an article and an editorial were published and ceased abruptly.
The Readers’ Editor has also included in his column the response of the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief N. Ram to the readers’ comments and to his observations on them. Here are excerpts from it:
We have an arrangement with Xinhua. We have also used western agencies and PTI. The violence reported and confirmed editorially was by Tibetan discontents, some hundreds of them. The Chinese authorities seemed unprepared at first but moved to stop the savagery in Lhasa and violence in some Tibetan areas. The riots were easily overcome. The violence in Lhasa, by every account, was by protestors, who included monks. No specific incident of violence by the police or paramilitary forces has been reported by any credible news source or eyewitnesses.
The comments in the column fail to look critically at the abundant editorialising in the guise of news. If the content in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Western news agencies is analysed, the problems of professional news reporting on the Tibet developments can be better appreciated. They were full of editorial judgments and loaded phrases and were often inaccurate (such as death toll). Their websites published wrong photographs or photographs with wrong captions. The Dalai Lama’s statements were edited because he is a separatist and tended to justify the savage and murderous riots in Lhasa. Not many letters were received other than what we published.
Nobody asked Pallavi Aiyar not to report in The Hindu on Tibet. She has been on leave during the relevant period.
The Readers’ Editor concludes the column with the following quotation from the editorial The Hindu wrote on August 27, 2003 (not August 23, 2003, as stated in the column):
The only answer to all this can be journalism of high quality, rooted in well-defined principles, clear-sighted, ethically and professionally sound, determined to put editorial values first, responsive to the needs of readers and the market within clearly worked out journalistic parameters .…
The Editor-in-Chief’s explanation that some observations of the Dalai Lama were suppressed because he is a separatist and tended to justify the Lhasa riots does not go well with his proclaimed determination to put editorial values first. He says nobody asked Pallavi Aiyar not to report on Tibet. He sidesteps some relevant questions: Did the newspaper ask the correspondent to report on Tibet? Would she have had access to sources other than the Communist Party-controlled Xinhua news agency if she were asked to report?
While The Hindu’s Tibet coverage fell short of its own illustrious traditions, let us salute the newspaper, the Editor-in-Chief and the Readers’ Editor for the transparent manner in which they deal with readers’ complaints on such matters.