For Dawn to have a readers’ editor in this age of blogs is a unique experiment, full of possibilities and pitfalls. Because he has to deal not only with complaints but also with Dawn’s code of ethics, many critics, I believe, have sharpened their knives.

Blogs accommodate a large number of online comments in a way that is amazing. But that doesn’t cover the job of an RE — public editor, as the New York Times calls him. Stephen Pitchard of The Observer, London, challenges the view that “giving the readers online access to comments [...] removes the need for the ombudsman”. Readers may enjoy seeing their comments on the website, he says, but “that’s where it ends. There is no independent adjudication process and no critical analysis of their complaints”.

Doug Feaver quit as Washington Post’s RE after less than year, and Wapo insisted he quit it on his own. But Media Matters, one of America’s press watchdogs, implied that Feaver had not criticised the contents of the paper himself and that he rarely published “direct criticisms or reviews of the Post’s reporting”.

Jahanzaib Haq, editor of Dawn’s internet edition, makes a forceful plea for “a microscopic look” at the feedback coming to Dawn’s readers’ editor (DRE), and doesn’t believe his job is to address “minor daily complaints related to the website or the paper, as there are already systems in place for those”. Instead, he says, “DRE’s job should be to respond in print to readers’ feedback relating to policy and editorial decisions by taking feedback from editors within the paper”.

Five weeks is too short a time for DRE to evaluate Dawn readers’ preferences.
As announced in our issue of Aug 10, 2014, the idea behind Dawn having an RE is “to attend to our readers’ complaints, and to respond to them professionally in a manner that would address the matter that directly concerns the complainant”.

In most cases DRE will be responsible for pointing out to the editor or to the head of the concerned sections errors, mistakes and any violations of the code. But there will be occasions where DRE will act on his own, even if there is no complaint from a reader because his mandate gives him the independence necessary to investigate a complaint and advise the editor on appropriate action.

Personally I feel DRE’s institution will take time to mature. The ticklish issue for him is to criticise his own colleagues. We know, for instance, what happened to the ordinance on the right to information, which was intended to be the Pakistani version of America’s ‘sunshine law’.

The ordinance was never became an act of parliament because Pakistan’s powerful bureaucracy sabotaged it. Irrespective of its motives, I feel Pakistani society wasn’t ready for a law that assumed public and private attitudes existing in Western European and North American societies. Our attitudes are feudal. Over the decades, governments and politicians have come to accept criticism as a fundamental ingredient of democracy, but society at large has a long way to go.

Five weeks is too short a time for me to evaluate Dawn readers’ preferences. But here is something amazing — no section in Dawn is more popular than the letters to the editor half-page.

In December, when we switched over to the present layout, the strongest criticism from our readers centred on the shrinkage of space for letters. We respected our readers’ criticism by printing a large number of letters, but people continue to protest. Understandably, most readers protest why “my letter” has not been published and attribute many motives, some of them ludicrous. One reader protested that he had sent 10 letters, but not one was printed. But when I requested him to send me some of those letters, I realised the letters staff was right in not printing them.

I have nothing to do with the letters anymore, but when I rejoined Dawn four decades ago, the letters’ section fell to my lot, and I still vividly remember at least one letter because of the impact those few lines had. Those were pre-email, pre-fax days, and most letters were received either by mail or handed in personally.

A reasonably well-written letter from some students of a small town in Sindh complained that they had no playground, and the one that was there had been usurped by a herder, who had turned it into a sort of corral. I shortened it so that it occupied less than two inches of space in those post-Dhaka days when newsprint was available on government quota and every inch of space mattered.

The letter caught the eyes of some efficient deputy commissioner, the herder was made to vacate it, and the boys got their playground back. Within a week, I received a letter from the boys thanking Dawn for publishing the letter and ending with Dawn zindabad!

The writer is Dawn’s readers’ editor

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2014