Barkha Dutt must be complimented for her programme, “The Buck Stops Here” on August 10. Not so much for having got an ‘exclusive’ but for performing the journalistically correct gesture of acknowledging the person who actually got the exclusive.
The story that Dutt featured in her one-hour news programme on August 10 was the amazing letter written by a Pakistan Air Force pilot to the descendants of occupants on an Indian civilian aircraft that he shot down during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Qais Hussain managed through Indian friends to trace the daughter of Jahangir ‘Jhangoo’ Engineer, the pilot of an aircraft with eight passengers including the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Balwantrai Mehta that strayed near the Pakistan border at the height of the war. Hussain’s email was sent on August 5. But Farida Singh, Engineer’s daughter, became aware of this only after Manu Pubby of Indian Express ran a page one story on Hussain’s letter. Following this, Farida checked her mail, read the letter, and wrote a remarkable response to Hussain.
Dutt’s journalistic coup was in getting together on the same programme not just Hussain, who lives in Islamabad, but Farida Singh, who lives in Delhi, and the daughter-in-law and grand-daughter of Balwantrai Mehta, who live in Mumbai. Additionally, Dutt also invited Beena Sarwar, Pakistani journalist and filmmaker who is in-charge of the Aman Ki Asha campaign that her newspaper, The News, and The Times of India have run jointly for 20 months. It was Sarwar who first reported the Quais letter.
Incidentally, as has been mentioned in this column earlier, The News appears to be taking the Aman Ki Asha far more seriously than The Times of India. The latter ran out of steam shortly after the campaign for peace between India and Pakistan was launched. The News, on the other hand, under the able and imaginative leadership of Beena Sarwar, is constantly coming out with interesting stories, the latest being the letter by Qais Hussain.
Manu Pubby, however, made no mention in his story that this letter had first appeared in a story by Sarwar in The News as part of Aman Ki Asha. Not just that, but his story ran with a misleading headline: “After 46 yrs, the healing touch: Pak pilot says sorry for mistake.”
If you read the letter by Hussain, nowhere does he admit to making a mistake in shooting down a civilian aircraft. What he does say is that he hesitated because the aircraft gestured, pleading to be left alone, asked his command what he should do. “Instead of firing at him at first sight, I relayed to my controller that I had intercepted an eight seat transport aircraft (guessing by the four side windows) and wanted further instructions to deal with it. At the same time, I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot. There was a lapse of 3 to 4 long minutes before I was given clear orders to shoot the aircraft.” (To read the entire letter, click here)
He also clarifies that the reason he was reaching out to the families of those killed in the aircraft is because he wanted to set the record straight. “I did not play foul and went by the rules of business but the unfortunate loss of precious lives, no matter how it happens, hurts each human and I am no exception. I feel sorry for you, your family and the other seven families who lost their dearest ones.” There is no indication anywhere in the letter that Hussain thinks he made a mistake.
In a letter that Hussain has sent to Indian Express, which at the time of writing (August 12) had not yet been printed, he expresses his strong objection to the headline and clarifies, yet again, that he had sympathized with Farida Singh and others who lost members of their families in that aircraft and had said that he felt sorry for them. “I had not said anywhere that I had made a mistake and that I wished to apologize for it”, he writes.
Hussain’s gesture and Farida Singh’s amazingly gracious response constitute a touching and unusual story in the history of the fraught relations between India and Pakistan. It is a pity that some in the Indian media have failed to build on the main strength of this gesture and instead chosen to give their own interpretation. In contrast, it is worth reading Beena Sarwar’s story in The News following Farida Singh’s response and the NDTV show. It is accurate, picks out the relevant parts of Singh’s letter, and brings out the most positive aspect of the exchange between Singh, Hussain and Mehta’s relatives on Dutt’s programme.
Coming back to the issue of acknowledging the source, it is curious how often Indian media fails on this count. Another recent example that comes to mind was the well-written and researched op-ed article by Priscilla Jebraj in The Hindu commenting on a sensational lead in Hindustan Times on June 26, “Docs turn scores of baby girls into boys” in Indore. The story had claimed that the doctors were performing genitoplasty on newborn babies. The Hindu story exposed the fallacious basis of that story by speaking to doctors. Jebraj also got the responses of the editors of Hindustan Times who chose to run the story. Unfortunately, she failed to acknowledge that the original story pointing this out had already appeared on this very website, The Hoot several weeks earlier. Does media competition have to mean that we do not give credit where it is due?
I suppose it is too much to expect Indian newspapers to adhere to the code of ethics a newspaper like The Guardian expects its journalists to follow. But here is what it says about attribution:
“Credits: Staff must not reproduce other people’s material without attribution, other than in exceptional circumstances – for example where the source cannot be identified – and only with permission of the most senior editor on duty. The source of published material obtained from another organisation should be acknowledged, including quotes taken from other newspaper articles. Bylines should be carried only on material that is substantially the work of the bylined journalist.”