Journalism or artistry?

Published February 7, 2011

REMEMBER the Khabarnama at nine that used to be the main source of electronic news in Pakistan? It’s hard to believe now that it was barely a little over a decade ago. In an astonishingly short period of time, journalism in Pakistan has gone from being the world of the lean and the deadpan to that of the glitterati.

The hacks of the old days got along with salaries that were less than the lunch expense accounts of today’s journalism stars. They worked hours that prevented them from socialising with anyone other than their colleagues, chased stories that they meticulously but baldly reported in full detail: name, age, resident of, and so on.

How different that is from the current climate, when practically every bright young thing wants a career in the media. And yet, go to any gathering of an older generation of journalists and you hear many a hack — a term they use with pride to describe themselves — sigh that ‘journalism is no longer what it used to be’.

The young ‘uns often find themselves struggling to understand this nostalgia: why, given that today’s media landscape in Pakistan is more outspoken and more exciting than ever before?

Sure, tendencies have been evident towards sensationalism and rumour-mongering, but on the other hand, very little is beyond the scope of today’s journalists, unafraid as they are of any topic. Newspaper language is today far more lively and evocative than the deadpan reports of yesteryear, and television — well, we all know how exciting televised news in Pakistan is.

I found the answer in a book called Secrets of the Press, in a 1999 essay ‘Dumbing up’ by British writer and broadcaster Peregrine Worsthorne, who retired from journalism as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

He starts the essay talking about when he joined the profession, shortly after the Second World War. For the entire two years of that first job, he wasn’t allowed to write a single line, and was instead expected to content himself with subbing the writing of others, correcting grammar, fact-checking, etc.

For an aspiring writer such as himself, this was frustrating in the extreme. He likens it to expecting a future virtuoso pianist to concern himself with misprints in the concert’s programme.

This essay was written at the end of his career, however, and after decades of experience here is how he put the difference between then and now: “The most important qualification for being a journalist when I began 50 years ago was not an ability to write. That was even a disadvantage or a liability, since literary facility could so easily tempt a journalist into embroidering the tale which needed, above all else, to be told plainly and unvarnished.”

Worsthorne writes that in that age, raking up muck was considered unworthy of a quality press, for “an adversarial stance, while being the easiest to take, might not always be the right one”.

By the end of the century, the UK press was very different and as Worsthorne concedes, newspapers across the board have become more well-written, sophisticated and lively, as well as more adversarial.

“Journalism, instead of being the Cinderella of the professions, has become the most sought-after of all, attracting a quite disproportionate number of the brightest in the land,” he points out. This is quite similar to what has happened to journalism in Pakistan.

And as Worsthorne says, the influx of the best and the brightest ought, theoretically, to have led to the raising of standards. But in the UK, in Worsthorne’s view, merely the quality of writing has improved.

No advances have been seen, according to him, in the reliability of the news, accuracy in reporting and balance in comment.

This is because “the journalist as aspiring writer or intellectual, rather than as hack, has little concern with ‘mean’ facts, as the poet Coleridge called them, if they get in the way of a more ‘comprehensive’ truth that he is trying to make, either in his stories, if he is a reporter, or in his ideas and arguments, if he is a columnist. For the journalist as writer or intellectual fancies himself an artist, and an artist is by definition someone who has a skill which enables him to improve on nature, as much in words as in paint, clay or music.

There is an element of trickery in art — sublime trickery, at best, but trickery nevertheless.”

Worsthorne’s point is that “Increasingly in the media today, truth is being sacrificed to art (or at least artfulness); reporting to literature. […] Newspapers are far more sophisticated, far cleverer, far better written than they ever were before; incomparably more entertaining and readable.

[…] But therein lies the danger: the picture of the world presented by the media is both much more beautiful and much more ugly, both much more eye-catching and much more dramatic, both much more simple and much more complicated, than in actuality it ever is. […] When the ancient Chinese wished to lay a curse on an enemy, they said ‘May you live in interesting times.’

“Given today’s media, nobody can any longer escape falling victim to that malediction. Just as the painter excludes from his painting any colour extraneous to his personal vision, so does the contemporary journalist-writer-intellectual filter anything uninteresting from his story, leader, column or feature article.”

His comments are extremely relevant to journalists in Pakistan, whether in print or on television. Journalism, when held hostage to artistry and artifice, is in danger of becoming fiction — or, at least, fictionalised. On television in particular, there is often evidence of journalism that is the product of the purported journalist’s dedication to some higher purpose or truth, be it ideological or otherwise.

In such a situation — as we have unfortunately seen over the blasphemy laws’ issue in particular — the plain facts can be drowned out in all the shouting, or be forgotten by the way.

Former Guardian editor C.P. Scott observed that “comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Pakistani journalists must ask themselves: are they disseminating the whole truth or nothing but the truth, or merely presenting their own version of the truth?

The writer is a member of staff.


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