There are multiple reasons why we all write. A single, homogenised idea about writing reduces this form to a gazette. In a newspaper, the primary task of writing is to provide credible information in a language that is free from clichés and jargon and that is engaging enough to provide reading pleasure as well. The myriad strands of the legacy media offer each writer a method and style to be expressive in an unambiguous way. As a news ombudsman, I learnt to evolve a writing style from two great Latin American literary masters.
In an interview to the Paris Review, Gabriel García Márquez said: “When I’m writing I’m always aware that this friend is going to like this, or that another friend is going to like that paragraph or chapter, always thinking of specific people. In the end all books are written for your friends. The problem after writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was that now I no longer know whom of the millions of readers I am writing for; this upsets and inhibits me. It’s like a million eyes are looking at you and you don’t really know what they think.” Jorge Luis Borges, in his short introduction to his The Book of Sand, elegantly expressed the relationship between writer and reader: “I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as ‘The Masses’. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.”
When I assumed this job in 2012, I was worried about my ability to address the concerns of the vast readership of this newspaper. It was akin to what Marquez alludes to “million eyes” and I was really in the dark about what readers were thinking. I also share Borges’ idea that the twin categories of select minorities and the masses are abstractions meant only for demagogues. A closer re-reading of the masters gave me an idea to look at all readers of this newspaper as friends. This approach not only opened up my mind but also provided me the courage to engage both the readers and the editorial team with equanimity and fairness.
Editing for size
The reason for this preamble is to address one of the recurring issues we have been facing since this office was established in 2006. It is about readers’ right to express themselves in the pages of the newspaper. Readers write to this newspaper because they share a sense of ownership. Like anyone who puts pen to paper, letter writers too have a sense of justifiable pride about their work. They are annoyed when their writing is edited, modified and shortened because of space constraints.
In 2006, my predecessor K. Narayanan wrote about the finite space available for letters and observed: “The result, inevitably, is a sense of hurt among the readers. Complaints and allegations flow in: of dissenting opinions ignored; of bias against some writers; of ‘blacklisting’ some; of censoring of content. Even those whose names appear in print are never fully happy. The heavy editing — a necessary evil flowing from space constraints — is resented.”
Last week, in response to Narayan Lakshman’s article “Lured by the angry campaigner” (November 28, 2016), T.T. Ramesh, a reader from Chennai, wrote a letter which was carried in the newspaper. While the reader was happy to see his letter published, he was certainly not pleased with the editing of his epistle. “My understanding has always been that reader’s letters are carried verbatim, unless they are abusive or laboriously long, neither of which is the case with my letter. I am very disappointed that a newspaper of your standing, which stands for transparency and probity, should act in this manner,” he wrote to the Editor and to this office.
The Editor went through Mr. Ramesh’s original letter and the published version. He noticed that the letter was edited for size. The shorter version retained the core points of the letter, and the spirit of the argument remained. He wrote back to the reader explaining that it is the common practice in all newsrooms to reserve the right to edit letters before carrying them. However, he recommended that the writers specify whether their letter should be carried fully or not at all. This gives the editorial desk the option of either using or dropping a particular letter.
The desk in charge of Letters to the Editor explained that with the popularisation of the online edition, there is a marked increase in the number of letters in a day. The selection process follows three simple rules: to ensure that the package for the day represents diverse views and thoughts, to accommodate the views of writers who may not be very comfortable in expressing in English, and to give a fair representation to the four main regions of India. The editing process includes some strict guidelines: there is no space for intemperate and inflammatory remarks, care is taken to ensure that the content and flavour of the letter are not destroyed, and any paraphrasing of articles as letters is incised.
I am sure readers will agree that these are fair yardsticks. The space is open for readers to debate, criticise and offer different opinions. Editing is not censorship. It is a friendly act to generate room for many voices within the limited space.