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When inaccuracies hurt media pluralism

It is a self-defeating exercise for an ombudsman to plan his year-end column in advance. Last month, I had an opportunity to read excerpts from singer T.M. Krishna’s A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story and felt that it opened up space for interrogating not only our classical musical tradition but raised a few questions about how our media reports and reflects on culture and performing arts. Indian media in general, and The Hindu in particular, is good at covering events and providing reviews. But, this body of work does not translate into rigorous critical evaluation. The original idea for the year-end column was to identify the factors that prevent our reviews from becoming an erudite tour de force.

But, I never imagined that a contribution from a reader to “Open Page” would lay siege to my plans. My office was flooded with letters following the publication of the piece, “It is ‘nurture against nature’” by Dr. Mohana Krishnaswamy. Social media was hyperactive. In the ensuing din, many seem to have overlooked the newspaper’s principled stand on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
Readers react
Before getting into the details, let me share excerpts from some letters. Murali Shanmugavelan, a scholar from School of Oriental and African Studies, London, wrote: “I was shocked to read a hostile, ill-informed, unscientific and an unkind (to humanity) piece. Frankly I (disclaimer: a heterosexual) am speechless where to start my views against this bigotry. Thus, the outrage against this piece in social media, including Facebook and Twitter, is very well understandable. She not only mocks and criminalises the sensibilities of gay communities (around the world) but also sadly suggests that the intolerance (against the so-called au naturel) is acceptable. Dr. Mohana connects, without any scientific temper and evidence, Darwin’s theory of selection and Eugenics to propose criminalisation of Sec 377. Does she not know being gay is another real possibility in this real world? Hasn’t she read about the homosexuality practices in the animal kingdom? Will she apply Section 377 only to humans or the entire planet, I am curious to know?”
He does not stop there. He further raises a relevant question by pointing out a truly shocking sentence in the article: “If Hitler erred in correcting the human population by inhuman methods of eugenics, the idea of encouraging homosexuality...” and asked whether the author proposed another genocide in the name of sexual orientation?
His questions to the Readers’ Editor were: “I understand Dr. Mohana is entitled to her views but should The Hindu not have checked factual inaccuracies, of a topic that is highly sensitive and political? Why can’t we blame The Hindu for promoting bigotry by allowing an article that is factually and scientifically inaccurate? Can the rules of media pluralism and diverse perspectives be bent to promote intolerance and inaccurate (a kind of perspective, after all) information and opinion?”
Dr. Yogesh, a neonatologist from Bangalore, came up with a point-by-point rebuttal and questioned the proposition that homosexuality is a “nurture versus nature phenomenon.” Another reader, Raghu Karnad, wrote: “I’m using my words carefully when I describe the piece as garbled homophobia. In fact, the content of the piece is too far below any standard worth countering at any length … Its writer mixes poisonous pseudoscience, false logic, and a weird, wild-eyed invocation of eugenics, to weigh in on a current news topic that strikes at the rights and safety of millions of Indians. It is also full of typos, indicating how much oversight it received.”
The reactions from the readers are both legitimate and valid. It was an error in judgment on the part of the editor of Open Page, rather than any design on his part, to have this article published. The idea of Open Page is to extend the pages of this newspaper to articulate readers to express their opinions on a range of issues. It not only brings in new details but also explores areas that are often overlooked by the regular opinion writers. It is a site for new voices.
The Editor’s Note on December 24, 2013, clearly states that submissions on the Open Page are the extended comments of readers and in no way do they reflect the views of The Hindu . The newspaper, indeed, took a critical stand against the apex court ruling and even a cursory reading of the following articles will give an idea of what the newspaper stands for: “A retrograde decision,” an Editorial on December 12, 2013; “Going against the tide of history,” by Siddharth Dube on December 16, 2013; “The wrongness of deference” by Arghya Sengupta on December 16, 2013; “A punitive sexual security apparatus” by Ratna Kapur; and as late as December 24, 2013 it carried “The legislative court” by Tarunabh Khaitan. In this context, I believe, it is unfair to draw larger conclusions based on one misjudgment.

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