Thar she blows the whistle on herself


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Category: Reflections Date: 08 Apr 99

The electronic media is a wonderful thing but, by God, it exacts its pound of flesh. It is the thousand-word document, painfully constructed, that disappears after a power outage; it is in the misdirected e-mail that rushes across cyberspace that destroys a delicate friendship; it is in the stored confidential letters that can cost you a relationship.


The easy way out would be to forget about the error I made last week - and press on. But the only currency of any writer or artist is that of integrity, of truth. And when there is even a slight question mark on a writer’s integrity, they may as well dash their computers against the wall and stare at an empty space. They may as well forget the life of words. Since words are my lifeline, I am willing to “bite the bullet” as it were and press on.


Last week I wrote a piece on NATO’s involvement in the war in Kosovo. My research is always thorough and the Net is my haven. The notes accessed from several searches ran into thousands of words. I accessed, cut and pasted pages of reference notes from the Net on to my document.


The issue was complex, but I was deeply interested and kept racing between the television and the computer to understand it better. It was a fast-changing story and I had to keep it current. It was late. My body was exhausted but my mind was whirring like a fan on full speed.


When at 3 am I put the final full stop in the piece, I was satisfied that not only had I done my research, but grasped the issue sufficiently well enough to comment on it. I was pleased when some days later some of my predictions were accurate. I erased all the superfluous pages and words, and kept my own copy. But I had made a fatal error.


I failed to delete five lines, and worse, I failed in my editing of my piece to recognise that two quotes belonged not to me but to The Guardian Weekly of London. They are as follows:

“Washington is as always indispensable. But if troops do go in, only 4,000 of the 28,000 will be American. Though command and control will be American, the risk of casualties and credibility will be European.”

And: “There are no winners here. In any case, it’s hard to see how, when the bombs stop, life without slaughter can exist in Kosovo.”


I ought to have sourced it or left it out. I did neither - not by design but by carelessness. Guardian Editor-in-chief Lennox Grant was kind. He was generous. He tried to spare me humiliation. He gave me the benefit of the doubt. In his e-mail he wrote:

“I believe that this error is one of structure rather than ill intent. As I’ve said to you before, I do value and respect the Ira Mathur column. That’s why I am blowing a whistle quietly in this form when it appears a violation of the rules of the game has occurred.”

Well, Mr Grant, I’ve blown the whistle on myself. I owe it to you and your editors and the Guardian readers. It was a violation of the rules but was more of a technical error rather than an editorial one. As unintentional as failing to cut, as careless as failing to put the information in reported speech or inverted commas.


Nevertheless, I recognise that, not only must there be transparency, and a need for integrity in journalism (otherwise it’s as useless as a crumpled-up piece of discarded paper), but it must be seen to be there as well. But I hope I can use my own error to make a couple of points, firstly, on the process of writing and, secondly, on the issue of mistakes made by people who are in the public eye.


Writing is a peculiar business, especially writing a column. Straight reporting is easy enough. You ask yourself who, what, where, when and why, and you’ve got your piece. But creative writing or commentary is something else altogether. It is a process so mysterious that no matter how many times you write, you never know how you’ve done it. But somehow it comes together.


The other thing about creative writing is that it leaves you bare, exposed and vulnerable. But if you don’t draw from your core then it’s worth nothing. But it is the only way to write, because a reader may not understand about the process of writing but he or she instinctively knows whether it’s real due to two reactions:  either it strikes an echo in the heart of a reader, or they react against it violently. Either way, it hits home. It’s real. Writing is painful, it is lonely, it is frustrating, but it is compelling. A writer’s block is tantamount to a small death, and a complete piece of work is like life-giving oxygen.


There are rules though. Always attribute quotes to their sources. Every work must be entirely original. You don’t send the same article to two separate papers, even if they are in a separate country, without copyright. You write for the public - the definition of originality is that it comes from within yourself. And what one has within oneself is the conglomeration of experience - both personal and public. You don’t reproduce sentences off the Net without attributing them to their source. Nothing - insomnia, deadlines, complexity - nothing excuses it. Just as a letter sent to the wrong person could wipe out a relationship or lose you a job, loss of credibility can wipe out years of hard work, and thinking. What I have learned is that there is no excuse for errors in journalism.


We have a responsibility invested in us to report objectively and truthfully at all times. No excuses. I know that writers exposing themselves to the public come with great compensations - the biggest one being able to touch people’s lives in some small way. And it can also leave you roughly vulnerable. However, I love writing sufficiently to allow myself to be courageous enough to be judged, as only you the readers can. It may be foolish but the muse allows no foolishness.


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