In an age of digital disruption, digitally native websites The Wire and Scroll have caused yet another disruption in the news media space. The online publications have taken a lead in ensuring accountability and transparency by appointing a Public Editor. Last month, The Wire appointed Pamela Philipose as Public Editor and claimed to have become the first “purely digital publication” to do so.
Philipose will take charge in September end with the responsibility of looking into the grievances of readers. “She will function independently of The Wire’s editorial structure and her mandate will be to examine and where appropriate, investigate complaints and concerns that readers may have about its coverage. The Wire undertakes to publish her views on its coverage without editorial interference,” the website said.
Former Economic & Political Weekly Editor C Rammanohar Reddy has taken up a similar role of Readers’ Editor at Scroll. The website mentioned that his role will be that of an ombudsman whose findings will be published in a fortnightly column.
“S/he is expected to investigate readers’ complaints and publicly recommend appropriate action. The ombudsman is given space to present the results of her/his investigation to the readers,” Scroll announced. The publication also assured lack of editorial influence on the functioning of the Readers’ Editor who will be receiving a certain amount of remuneration from the organisation.
While these digitally native websites have certainly initiated the process of institutionalizing self regulation, the domestic mainstream media does not appear to be eager on appointing Public Editors. NDTV and The Hindu are notable exceptions with the latter continuously having an ombudsman since 2005. Currently, AS Panneerselvan is serving as Readers’ Editor at The Hindu.
“I don’t think the Public Editor at The Hindu serves any purpose,” said Rahul Pandita, former Opinion & Special Stories Editor at the Chennai-based newspaper. In January 2015, he resigned from the company after falling out with Editor Malini Parthasarathy. “To tell you the truth, it is just a waste of talent, as far as I am concerned,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
But Pandita lauded the efforts made by news websites in this direction. Describing the appointees of The Wire and Scroll as “wonderful people”, he argued that both the media organisations were “well equipped” to give their readers a Public Editor.
“In an era of social media where people have so much of opinion and grievances, I think it makes absolute sense to have a Public Editor,” he added. However, he maintained that most news organisations were not very keen on public accountability.
Without deriding whatever good is happening in journalism, Pandita claimed that he had stopped reading newspapers because of the nonsensical, cheap content appearing in them. Referring to such media, he stated, “The idea of a Public Editor is the last thing on their minds.”
The concept did not amuse Shekhar Gupta, Founder of The Print. “I think each newspaper makes its own decisions. If internal regulator is also a fellow traveller then it does not make much sense,” he said.
Speaking from experience, Gupta opined that most publications tend to appoint those as Public Editors who have an ideological affinity with the Editor-in-Chief. He asserted that the “concept had to be thought through”. The former Editor of The Indian Express does not expect any substantial alterations in the media landscape until Public Editors did “something effective” and “questioned” the media organisations they were associated with.
Senior journalist Vinod Dua felt that those organisations who were indulging in sensationalism and actually required an ombudsman were not appointing one. “The Hindu and NDTV 24*7 are neat and clean, family oriented with a good reputation. They don’t need an ombudsman yet they have done it,” he said. He also spoke highly of the journalists running The Wire and Scroll.
Dua emphasized that the creation of a Readers’ Editor should be made mandatory especially for Hindi news channels who are churning out content related to snakes and ghosts. But he stood firmly opposed to bringing in such a change through legislation and instead backed reforms from within the media fraternity.