Independent India at 60
A Hundred Years
Where national life becomes an arena for differing views to have it out, resulting in heated controversy, the role of the press becomes delicate
The independent and critical spirit must nevertheless be cherished as a newspaper’s breath of life
FOR a newspaper, a century is a memorable milestone in an exciting, ongoing adventure. Since that day a hundred years ago when six young men, fired by the ardent spirit of patriotism and fresh out of college, ran 80 copies off a treadle machine in Triplicane, Madras, after seeking the aid of friends to raise the rupee and three-quarters needed to buy paper, the character of the newspaper, its physical and social environment and the world at large have changed a great deal.
The nation has won freedom – along with numerous other developing countries – and gone on into a totally new era of development. Momentous changes have taken place in the fields of economy, politics, social life, culture and scientific and intellectual development and these have had their impact on the general condition of the people. The rapid advance of science and technology, in particular, has opened up bright prospects for making the earth a better place to live in and raising the quality of life of the people. The world of communication has been revolutionised, leading to speedier, more accurate, more sophisticated and on the whole better methods of processing and disseminating information about nature and society. These transformations have brought about enormous and yet-to-be-fully comprehended changes in the scope, approach and technique of journalism.
The most precious asset for THE HINDU over its first century has been the heart-warming expression of public confidence in the relevance and integrity of its role in national and social life. This has been a source of sustenance in times of trial and the real inspiration for development in the long term. Just as it gave the strength to the newspaper to survive the numerous trials and challenges thrown onto its path of growth by the colonial authorities, it has enabled it to withstand constraints and pressures from various quarters after Independence. During a particularly trying period, on June 4, 1919 to be exact, a resolution by the citizens of Madras that “public confidence in the policy of THE HINDU continues undiminished” provided a strong boost to the newspaper’s confidence in itself. To-day, on this solemn occasion, it has become clearer to us than ever before that it is the happy and stable relationship between the newspaper and the public – reflected in the large and enthusiastic response to this occasion – that is the real guarantee of its future. THE HINDU is honoured that the President, Mr. Neelam Sanjiva Reddi, has inaugurated the centenary celebrations with an inspiring message and that a very large number of distinguished men and women in public life, as well as representatives of the general public, have joined in its happiness and shared its sense of fulfilment.
Such a relationship with society is guided on our side by the desire to put the criterion of public purpose at the centre of our practice of journalism. For nearly seven of the ten decades of its existence, THE HINDU made its own contribution to the Indian people’s struggle for freedom. After Independence, it has had to function in a greatly transformed situation, with new perspectives and tasks. One of the key changes in its role has been professionalisation. In the early days, those who came to serve this newspaper entered a vocation and an opportunity to make their own contribution to the fight for freedom. Today, THE HINDU is part of a well-established profession where journalistic and technical competence has to be matched, in ways better than we know to-day, by new kinds of commitment to the public interest.
Practice over many a long and significant decade has made the Indian press conscious that public purpose encompasses a broadbased approach to national responsibility as well as larger and growingly complex social concerns. In our own practice national responsibility has come to mean a striving, in policy and principle, to help safeguard the independence and integrity of the nation. It has meant rising above narrow, sectional and sectarian concerns and forming and developing a well-rounded national approach. Such an approach is important at all times, but it becomes crucially important during times such as the present when what is public interest itself becomes the focus of acute contention from many sides. It might be contended perhaps that these consequences are inevitable in a developing society, especially as they have proved unavoidable in many developed societies also. In a multi-structural and multi-interest society such as we have in India, the full weight of myriad social problems – including those handed down by the heritage of the past – presses down on interpretations and analyses of the public interest and impinges with particularly stressful force on the practice of journalism. What sustains the independence and social relevance of a newspaper in this context? The generic function of a newspaper, it has been pointed out, is essentially to provide an accurate and reasonably comprehensive account of the day’s events in a context which invests them with meaning, and to offer a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism. It is the interpretation given to national and social responsibility that is all-important to the health of the press. Where national life itself becomes an arena for differing standpoints and views to have it out, resulting in heated controversy, the role of the press becomes ever more delicate. Quite often, it is subjected to the test of intolerance that demands support to one set of views and policy prescriptions to the exclusion of every other. This seems, in fact, to be an occupational temptation for Governments to lapse into periodically. The reason is the failure to remember that a newspaper’s responsibility to society cannot at all be equated with responsibility either to a political party or to the Government of the day. A serious newspaper is nothing if it does not preserve its relative independence and chart its course with the understanding that its duties and responsibilities are different from those of a Government – although there certainly come times when it is called upon to strengthen Authority in the national and public interest. Support or opposition to a set of policies, or a course of action, must be viewed in a sober perspective, especially by those who, being on a different or opposite side of an issue, disagree strongly with a particular editorial opinion. Here it must be remembered that a choice has to be made as between contending views – which is not at all a transgression of the principle of fairness since no personal prejudice or favouritism has any role to play. A newspaper, it has also been observed, thrives on disclosure and criticism. Although criticism tends to get pushed into the status of an unwanted guest (suffered at best behind impassive countenances) and sometimes raises feelings of indignation and pique, the independent and critical spirit must nevertheless be cherished as a newspaper’s breath of life. But then this right to criticism which is inherent in a democracy must be guided by larger considerations of public weal.
Above all, the practice of criticism must be guided by the realisation that a newspaper, being a part of society, cannot arrogate to itself any brand of superior wisdom, much less infallibility or claim any special privilege – apart, of course, from the legitimate rights and conditions that the press has won historically in order to develop its vital role. Any sound newspaper learns quickly enough to cultivate a sense of respect, closeness and humility in relation to the society and the public it serves. In a country of many languages where the literate sections of the population are still in a minority, the newspaper reading public is a much smaller proportion of the total population than it is in advanced countries. Considering the limitations, what we have found truly remarkable is the intelligence, the sensitivity, the zest with which our readers as a growing force have followed public issues. In relation to such a readership, the sound and healthy approach was taught to us by our predecessors. In an Editorial written on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in December 1939, they noted: “it is not by bludgeoning the reader’s mind but by reasoning with it that the soundest and most lasting results can be achieved…The ascertainment of public opinion (as different from the prejudices of the moment) and the evocation of the atmosphere favourable to its emergence are therefore tasks that a newspaper which is not content to adopt a purely hand to mouth policy must set about with circumspection as well as earnestness. The many and complex issues on which it has to pronounce in the course of the day’s work do not admit of a naïve directness of treatment, a simple Yes or No. Where the choice is not between black and white but between various delicate shades of colour, slapdash methods and the unstable impetuosity which discards opinion as lightly as it adopts them may work considerable harm. The practice of the best journalism the world over shows that honest and trenchant criticism is perfectly compatible with good temper and fairness to opposing points of view.” THE HINDU, which has now completed a century, stands firmly by this approach.
EDITORIAL : TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 05, 1978
Independent India at 60