Friday, December 31, 2010

On newspaper editorials and commentaries

Published in The Independent
January 1st , 2011
M. Serajul Islam

There is something unique that most newspaper editors do in Bangladesh. They frequently write columns that they call a commentary in which they raise issues that they consider are of national importance. In these commentaries, they often hold what could in plain words be described as a trial of top political leaders, often even the Prime Minister, raising questions that they think they have a duty to do this. Often, the assumptions on which they ask such questions are subjective and politically biased. I wonder what purpose these commentaries serve as the political leaders to whom they are directed pay no heed. However, there is little to wonder that these commentaries allow the editors to satisfy their egos for they just not only ask questions in their commentaries to the top political leadership; they deliver judgments too. In fact, the editors aside, there are none in the country who have such awe inspiring powers except when they care to take on the judges!

Newspapers outside Bangladesh perform this function that our newspapers do through commentaries simply with their editorial; but seldom as overtly as our newspapers and editors do in their commentaries. The editorial is an important part of a newspaper, in fact it is the most important one that makes or breaks a newspaper and is never taken lightly. In the editorial, the editor brings his experience not just to express opinions on issues of national and international importance; sometimes such opinions even set the political direction of the country. The editor has what is universal everywhere; a column of his own to bring such opinions before the politicians and the nation. The editorial does not merely tell the reader about the ability of the editor; it really sets the standard of a newspaper. The editorial is often the product of an editorial board that most newspapers have to make its quality and content beyond reproach.
Editorials are not sermons. The better editorials are focused, crisp and as objective as one can get. Editorials are supposed to be short so that it can hold the reader’s interest. Whether a daily is worth the paper on which it is printed is easily assessed by the readers’ interest in reading the editorial as an indispensible part of what he/she reads when he/she holds the paper. The credibility of a daily is also determined by the importance the government gives to what is said about its policies in the editorials.

In Bangladesh, editorials have not evolved in the way it has in other countries. Rarely has any newspaper in Bangladesh been able to reach that level of credibility where its editorial has left the government with no alternative but to accept the message in it and act according to it. Nor have newspapers been able to place a government in a predicament where it could ignore the message in the editorial at a political price. Our editorials have not reached that level of credibility or acceptability.

Editorials reach credibility and acceptability on the strength of their ability to influence and motivate the public. Our newspaper editorials have failed to achieve this either because editorials have generally taken political lines, which is generally not a negative factor. Unfortunately, in the context of Bangladesh’s politics, political lines in editorials end by dividing the people and hence losing credibility. The two years of Emergency have further diminished the acceptance of the editorials to the public. A number of leading newspapers that had acquired or were beginning to acquire the sort of acceptance that newspapers of merit have in many of the world’s capitals were caught with their pants down backing the Emergency.

These newspapers made the mistake that a newspaper should not make. The newspapers got interested in playing politics. They crossed the fine line between suggesting to the political leadership what is good for the country to getting involved in politics and forcing the changes themselves. They got interested in protecting the so-called Third Force and in the end what they achieved was the company and friendship of corrupt and anti-democratic elements of the society. It would take these newspapers a long time before they can regain the credibility in their editorials.

It does not seem like the newspapers of Bangladesh are going about the way to regain public confidence as newspapers do elsewhere. They still seem not interested to assist politics but to guide and control it. They still continue to indulge in partisan politics. It is their abiding interest to play politics that has encouraged newspapers to add a commentary to supplement in more details what they believe they cannot do through the editorial. With the commentary, a newspaper editor raises himself to the level of the political leadership and then holds court and delivers a verdict! These commentaries are often lengthy pieces where most of what is written is subjective and ends up annoying those for whom it is meant. In the end such commentaries reflect the anger and frustration of the editor but fail to move the political leadership towards listening to what the commentaries try to say, suggest and demand. Often editors write these commentaries from a misplaced sense of importance by placing themselves at par and often above the elected leaders.

Newspapers play a major role everywhere in shaping democracy by being a conduit between the public and the government. The role is a pro-active and positive one. Unfortunately, because of the history of our politics, newspapers have played a role of conflict with the government at times of extra-constitutional governments. The papers failed to adjust to the elected governments that they treated and continue to treat as they had treated the unelected governments. The newspapers also failed to build with the political leadership the element of trust and respect for which the political leadership too must take part of the blame.

As a consequence, our newspapers have lost a lot of their potential as an instrument of democracy. It is time that they make conscious efforts on their part to earn the trust of the political leadership and the people. They could do so by giving up their commentaries and concentrating on editorials. Commentaries are provocative or at least that is the way the political leaderships view them. There are a lot of people who also see the commentaries as subjective writings meant to accuse or embarrass the government. What the newspapers write in the commentaries would be better served if written in editorials because editorials are an integral part of a newspaper designed precisely to serve just such a purpose. A good newspaper or a good editor does not need a commentary to supplement their efforts. A good editorial can serve the purpose adequately provided the paper has earned the credibility and the editor, the capability.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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