Truth-telling: An old-fashioned habit

As the Lahore edition of Dawn enters its twentieth year, we have much to look back to with a degree of satisfaction.
Published November 7, 2016

The age of globalisation has discarded with it some old-fashioned values which are tied to the equally old-fashioned principle of viewing the free press as a watchdog on governance on the one hand, and a vehicle to vent the legitimate grievances of a citizenry on the other. We at Dawn continue to subscribe to this often reviled notion of truth-telling. In the seventy-year-old history of this newspa­per, we have endeavoured to stick by this old-fashioned habit and have sometimes shouldered the force of blows aimed against us – by the institutions of state and political parties. But we have endeavoured to adhere to every rational means possible to this anachronistic habit – not least of all, because we are founded by the Quaid-i-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. To put it more simply, we have endeavoured to continue telling the truth in a relatively dignified way and by whatever legitimate means possible.

As the Lahore edition of Dawn enters its twentieth year, we have much to look back to with a degree of satisfaction. We remain the single largest English language newspaper in this country, somewhat larger than all the other English lan­guage newspapers in Pakistan put together. And that holds for the Lahore and Islamabad editions of the newspaper as well. But this national predominance clearly indicates a weightier degree of responsibility. We owe it to our wide­spread readership both in Lahore and across the country to continue in our endeavour and persist in this somewhat old-fashioned habit of truth-telling.

To persist with an old habit implies the need for a perma­nent and historically flexible institutional arrangement. At Dawn, like anywhere else, such an arrangement must be fired in the continuity of tradition. Additionally, we need to demonstrate a cast-iron commitment to continued values. All this might appear at first glance to be somewhat out of sync with the emerging values of a younger generation – the New Majority, created in the womb of a demographic bulge in present day Pakistan, that is categorised by a preponder­ance of citizens of under thirty years of age. But if this new generation is lacking in a fuller understanding of the heritage behind the newspapers' struggle for a free press in sev­enty years of Pakistan's history, it more than makes up with its libertarian and moral commitment to a freer society. Some would remark that this generation needs to be better educated. I would say that with this younger generation in Pakistan we probably have one of the most potentially dynamic resources to reshape our society. Hence, the continued need for more truth-telling.

What is the institutional arrangement at Dawn in terms of continuing the tradition of truth-telling? Essentially, when our founder, Mr Mohammad Ali Jinnah, established Dawn at Karachi in 1947, we created a dualism or a seperateness at Dawn between editorial and management decision making. In brief, professional editors would be appointed on the basis of their journalistic integrity, their competence and above all for their reasonableness and impartiality in the work of news-gathering and for their ability to generate fair comment. Once selected however the professional editors at Dawn (and at all her sister publications) must themselves take all operational decisions which directly impact on the editorial side of the news-gathering process. Management staffers within the corporate entity may not address edito­rial issues and thus may not influence the content of the news in any manner whatsoever. Contentious issues if any are to be sorted out in a consultative process between the editor of Dawn and the chief executive officer/publisher who stands at the apex of management – and this is after the publication of any news story – not prior to publication.

Any information that the management wishes to convey which will usually, though not invariably, be restricted to general policy matters, is transmitted and solved as a result of a dialogue between the editor and the chief executive officer/publisher. No other member of management except the chairman of the Board of Directors at Dawn would par­ticipate in this two-way dialogue, nor would any mere share­ holder or part-owner of the corporation, or indeed of the publishing family outside the corporation, would be granted access to or influence this dialogue. This implies a virtual sealing off between the editorial and management deci­sion-making structures at Dawn. The editor of Dawn himself naturally evinces a keen interest in the financial well-being of his newspaper, particularly with respect to circulation and advertising sales. But this occurs well within the tradi­tional parameters of the dialogue so as not to allow a conflict of interest between news and revenue generation. Both part­ners in this dialogue, the editor of Dawn and the chief exec­utive officer, must subscribe in theory and practice, to the principles of an independent and free newspaper, and to the struggle for a freer press in Pakistan.

I have attempted to draw aside the iron curtain that shrouds the secret of Dawn's success story. Clearly this is not rocket science. This was how a free press was designed to work over the last two hundred years. Whatever may have changed in this country, the need to implement this princi­ple clearly has not. And, at Dawn, we continue to respect this tradition – meaningfully. Which is why when we witness the ludicrous spate of stories extensively debated on some chan­nels in the electronic media about the way a recent news story was handled at Dawn – we can only respond with a repressed incredulity.

Today, when state institutions appear to be reprimanding Dawn for the sensibility of its editorial practice, we would do well to remember that governments and state institutions in Pakistan frequently exhibit a response that is not carefully thought out, and frequently misplaced. No one at Dawn can lay claim to perfect behaviour. As an editorial in Dawn earlier last month in the wake of the reporting of a high-level meeting on security issues, remarked: "While any media organisation can commit an error of judgement (and Dawn is no exception) the paper believes it handled the story in a professional manner and carried it only after verification from multiple sources... In accordance with the principles of fair and balanced journalism, for which Dawn is respected not only in Pakistan but also internationally, it twice carried the denials issued by the Prime Minister's office..."

Yes, I believe the Dawn editor when he says the story was verified and counter-verified as per our stated principles. Yes, the denials of the Prime Minister's office were also duly car­ried. This government, like any government, should proceed to sort out the matter with other state institutions, as indeed any democratic government should in a fair, free and trans­parent way. And, yes, we need always to be vigilant with respect to verification procedures, keep the news factually balanced and understand the demands of rationalised national security restraints which are attached to this kind of reportage. But, we at Dawn will, to quote the same editorial, "continue to defend ourselves robustly against any allegation of vested interest, false reporting or violation of national secu­rity".

That, unfortunately, is one of the short-term disadvan­tages arising from our old-fashioned habit of truth-telling.

The writer is the CEO of DAWN.