This thing called duty

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 05 Nov 95


‘I said to myself that day in July 1990, that I was too intelligent to die for a cause. I wanted to live. I allowed myself to be rushed into a pick-up and left the 610 building. I knew as we drove away that I’d made an error.’

 

Journalists share the unenviable distinction with politicians of being a mistrusted group on the whole. It seems that we never tell the whole story, or only one side of it, or misinterpret it, that we can be softened with refreshments and are awed by power and wealth. As for politicians, one man summed them up on national television this week. He said that the only person he would vote for now is Jesus Christ.

 

Skepticism apart, I actually believe that journalists and writers remain the real watchdogs of this country. Our entire profession hinges (or ought to) on two things. The first is objectivity or as near it as we can ... so we mirror the ole talk on the taxi to you and show you images of poverty and quote the GNP. We disseminate information as faithfully as we understand it to be. The second is courage and integrity which go beyond the call of duty. These qualities are important both in politicians and journalists because our professions contain power - power to affect how people think, to change their lives. And power without responsibility is most dangerous of all.

 

Now coming from the mouths of practitioners of our professions, these words have about as much resonance as a damp squid. We’ve heard them so often, we no longer “hear” them. Now if you heard these words on a political platform, you would probably say yeah, right ... The cynicism is rooted, but it is sometimes misguided.

 

Wayne Brown wrote a longish article on this when he said people were always on the lookout for “where he coming from.” I understand why he devoted a thousand words to this topic. Mr Brown didn’t want to be trapped into an easy and banal stereotype which nonetheless is an effective tool to hammer him with. But I want to offer up to you an illustration of this thing called duty. It was the evening of July 28, 1990. I was in the by then filthy 610 building on Abercromby Street, which was already beginning to smell of stale food, where phones shrilled, where soldiers camped, and adrenaline and fear at the sound of gunfire was tempered with the community feeling all of us shared.

 

Then my mother phoned, tearful, wanting me home. Immediately after this call I was summoned downstairs. My then fiance (now husband) had managed to get past the security and burst into the building, reflecting mass hysteria ... he’d heard three hostages had been shot dead and at least 30 people killed on the streets, and that the 610 building was the next target. He had his pick-up outside and a special curfew pass and he had come for me. Fear thrashed at me. This man, who had asked me to marry him on July 27, minutes before the coup, was offering safety. He grabbed my arm. I said to myself that I was too intelligent to die for a cause. I wanted to live. I allowed myself to be rushed into his pick-up and left. I knew as we drove away that I’d made an error. I had taken the easy way out. I was at first furious with him, with my mother, but then a slow self-anger washed over me. A bitter taste would stay with me for months.

 

I recall the shrill and soaring highs of my life, the brazen moments, with glee. The risk, the relentless curiosity, the times I was going so fast I didn’t see the concrete wall coming at me. I sometimes ponder over my sorrows and wonder that I have come through relatively unscathed, still eager and hopeful. But that incident in 1990 is the only persistent regret of my life. I tried to make up for it by going back the next day - not that my presence made any difference to the situation - in that same pick-up and even the fact that a bullet hit a wall three feet away, while I was crawling into the building commando-style, didn’t help. This time I stayed for (it seemed) like days.

 

On the day the hostages were released, I remember walking down to St Vincent Street with a dazed colleague who could have gotten shot. (He was walking around dazed in Woodford Square holding up my puny 610 press pass and shrieking to armed soldiers on rooftops: “We’re from 610... don’t shoot”!). But that was not the real thing. It was the macho bravado I’d often ridiculed in the past.

 

However, I learned something from it - that sometimes it is necessary to perform beyond the call of duty. And maybe that’s what we need now from people who are supposed to work for the public good. This alone will temper the widespread disaffection of our people, the mistrust of our professions.

 

Maybe this is why the man on the street ... the only person he would vote for now is Jesus Christ. But he was not entirely serious. There was a hint of a smile there. And there I read hope. Perhaps in there somewhere is a kernel of belief in both professions. Journalists do protect the interests of people. Politicians have used their power to help. This is why people will continue to read the papers, watch television, listen to the radio and attend political meetings. This is why they will turn out and vote.

 

I have offered up this experience - obviously not because I am proud of it - simply to remind you in the excitement of it all, that votes represent hope for the man without a voice or power. Nourish it so that you will ultimately be able to live with everything you do on behalf of the people who believed in you enough to vote you into office.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur