Confessions of a Journalist - Part II


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Category: Reflections Date: 04 Dec 97

“One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink pot each time one dips one’s pen.”

Leo Tolstoy


In part I, I wrote of how, early in my career as a journalist, I learned the difference between rhetoric and practice, that the media is a fast growing and fiercely competitive industry.  Journalism is equally about selling newspapers and television and radio space as it is about ideals.


The market theory is that fiercer competition produces quality. What we choose to ignore is that it can also produce the opposite, a surfeit of glitzy mediocrity, aimed at the lowest common denominator. Nine years ago, having just left a trade magazine in which making money through advertising was the only consideration, I joined a news agency (Gemini) as a photocopier and post-woman (before the advent of e-mail) of articles.


It must have been while I was sorting the pieces in correct order that I absorbed what was to determine my focus as a journalist. They were about how hepatitis kills more children than anything in the world, the way pharmaceutical and tobacco companies worldwide palmed off their worst products onto the Third World, wars in Africa which had their genesis in Europe. Stories on breast cancer and how China’s one-child policy meant that it would soon have a smaller female population since so many females fetuses were aborted, on America supplying arms to whoever could pay, the rise of fascism in Germany, illiteracy and overpopulation.


To many journalists living in war-torn, poor or dictator-run countries, the news service was a lifeline, a plea for justice. None of these stories are startling but they contained facts which, if put in the hands of the right people, could affect change. The pattern that emerged for me back then was simple: humanity is the exception. The law of the jungle prevails, and there will always be the powerful and greedy who will exploit the weak.


I got a chance to write for Gemini, remembering my delight over a telegram from my grandmother saying my story on the Fiji coup was in Bangalore’s Deccan Herald. The service went out to more than 80 newspapers worldwide. On my return here I worked in several newsrooms - Radio 610 and TV6. It is ridiculous to say our job is simply to report the news.


First, we define news, and in the process of selection make judgments about what creates it. We cannot and do not report in a vacuum. Second, we operate in a market economy where the buck starts and stops with the bottom-line. In our business this means increasing circulation, getting the advertising dollar. All the ideals in the world cannot increase circulation. Most, if not all, medical practitioners specialise and are streamlined according to their ability and interests - manifested in “beats” or “desks” such as crime, sports, entertainment, finance, society, features. Put together, these stories reflect entire societies and are a vital gauge of ourselves as a people.


Every reporter or journalist wants to get the lead story or the scoop, the “hard” news. Often the only criterion for this is that it is startling or deviant. Murders make front page, as do heinous crimes, natural or man-made catastrophes, from volcanoes to earthquakes, industrial unrest, and statements by public figures, all the better if they are controversial. These news values are so firmly embedded that news editors of serious dailies would balk if it were suggested that they are created out of a need to provide the paper with a headline which will attract attention and sell. Why else would a psychic’s dramatic declaration that dengue was on the rise make front page, or that of a death row prisoner getting married?


Consider that the bestselling paper by far in the UK is the Sun, which is wildly sensational. (Which revives the memory of a man in an impeccable suit reading the Financial Times on the tube. He was too intent on staring at the page 3 topless girl featured every day in the Sun to notice that I spotted it tucked into his respectable paper.) But if a sensational headline forces people to buy newspapers which have serious stories inside - and there are many - then it is a case of sugaring the pill.


News features and investigative reports by many of this country’s sensitive and sharp journalists counter sensationalism. They operate as watchdogs, quick to pick up exploitation and empower the downtrodden. By writing about or broadcasting injustices, the media create an inquisition of the public, and make people answerable. For instance, an expose on sham products, bad employment practices or dishonest deals can lead to an inquiry where some sort of justice is done.


News selection practices aren’t as premeditated as governments or PROs suppose. Often a story is put in because it is the correct length, or another left out because it isn’t. A press release or a photograph may be a filler, and its omission is not deliberate but simply due to the fact that something more newsworthy, or a last minute ad, turned up.


News is a product like any other. The cost of the news is weighed against the benefits it brings to the organisation. The bottom line is advertising, which is why surveys are held and positive results highlighted - for the benefit of advertisers. News has a target audience and a niche. The arrival of Indian playback singer Kumar Sanu will make news on 103. David Rudder on 105. All media cover events which affect us all - such as crime or politics or sport. But a popular weekly will treat the story differently from a daily. Even if a reporter is objective, biases are built into the system and dictated by the market.


Which brings us to the question of objective political reporting. The British press from whom we inherited our journalistic tradition has for decades supported one party or the other. The British tabloid The Sun was in the 80s openly Thatcherite, anti-immigrants, anti-welfare state, anti-labour. Lines are more blurred with the daily quality papers but the Times was clearly pro-government while the Guardian (UK) steered towards Labour.


When I began working at NBS Radio 610 the NAR government had just hurtled into power. NBS is a statutory body, and in my opinion operates very much like the BBC, in that it strives to be objective but like the BBC steers clear of controversy. I remember being called up by an NAR minister who with a barely veiled threat denounced a call-in programme as biased. I ignored him since I knew that there was no basis to what he was saying. Like many children of the diaspora I am rootless, which works well for me as a journalist, since I have no strong feelings about any political party. (It also means I neglect my civic duty and have never voted.) What struck me at the time was that he felt he had control over the station and the news. In the following Manning years, a journalist was thrown out of a press conference by a PNM minister, and another dismissed from TTT over a call-in-programme. In the last two years of UNC rule the Government and the media have played ping pong with accusations.


The smallness of our nation and our dependency on the IMF and other international organisations have meant that successive parties have followed essentially very similar policies. Political parties have been formed not on the basis of policy but on those of race and personality. It was not surprising, then, that a strong headline or criticism of government was construed as racial and personal.


The Government believed the media were deliberately out to undermine it and the media felt their very freedoms were threatened. The ceasefire was a relief, and its sudden recent flare-up is an irritant, a distraction from the real issues facing this country. Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t changed much since I began working here eight years ago. Children are taught not to be creative or strive for excellence, or about human endeavour, but by rote, till the age of 11. And if they get enough mindless “true and false” or multiple choice questions wrong they are spat out of the system and deprived of education - the single tool that separates us from barbarians. Then these semi-literate children are plunged into a new world society (still struggling to define itself and grow back the skin which was ruthlessly stripped by our conquerors) which primarily defines itself by how much money you make or have.


At the top, the money culture breeds corruption. In the middle, cut-throat business, in the lower middle, apathy, as there is so little room for movement, and at the very bottom, crime. The only ticket out is education. The only avenue for mass education is the media. If it weren’t for a man I consider one of the media’s brightest managers, Dik Henderson, I would probably have never found my voice.


In the early days of Prime Radio and TV6 I was very much a misfit, as in the case of many immigrants and nomads (I had lived in three continents by the time I was 21). I was not accepted as part of the team, despite feeble efforts on my part. Vagueness and cultural differences were construed as arrogance. I would walk into a newsroom without seeing anyone, absorbed in the task before me, and begin working. I would not couch requests with gentle jocularity. I remember one video editor asking me if I was a “Brahman” in India! It took lots of knocks to get rid of the residue of “arrogance.” Today I nod and say “good morning” to everyone, from the cleaner up. At any rate I was unpopular. I did not have herding instincts. They wanted me out. There were complaints. Ironically, the most vociferous voice was one of a media manager who was not a journalist. But instead of firing me Dik raised my salary, made me freelance, assigned me “the special report” and then wrote me a warning letter. It was up to me to sink or swim.


In those years I did the television stories of which I am proud: adoption, rape, infertility, incest, poverty, the rights of homosexuals. The series should have been titled “the wretched of the earth.” With each one I asked myself, “How is this going to help anyone?” This made my enforced TV6 transition into public service broadcasting tolerable despite the fact that it is tarnished by the “propaganda” stigma. I have worked under three successive governments and have been able under all of them to do what I feel is my vocation as a journalist - which is to educate and give the downtrodden a voice.


The stories are not startling: the plight of the elderly, the disabled, homeless children, cancer, heart disease and domestic violence. I refer to these stories not for self-aggrandisement but because I truly believe that in a small country struggling with poverty, crime, illiteracy and self-definition, this is first and foremost the job of a journalist. So I don’t agree or disagree with Mr Duprey about crime. I simply find it irrelevant. As long as there are journalists and columnists (and there are many) who concentrate on real issues, journalism is in good hands.


It took a photocopying job and a media manager with immense vision to help me realise that power is useless without responsibility.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur