ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one’s flesh in the ink
pot each time one dips one’s pen.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
took a photocopying job and a media manager with immense vision to help me
realise that power is useless without responsibility.