While continuing on the topic of newspaper column writing, it’d be useful to compare what we do here with how it’s done in another country. I’d like to take the example of Britain. While a critic might say that’s too high a standard, my position is that you must set yourself up against a high enough standard, or you’ll never improve.
Besides, our democratic political and press traditions are inherited from Britain. A comparison now would be an eye-opener as to how much, or how little, we have in common whereas politics and freedom of expression are concerned.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that all British journalism reaches a high standard. Their worst writing can compare with ours, but their best creates a standard we can aspire to. Since my idea of good British journalism is the Guardian, and not the Daily Mail, I’m going to quote from a pioneer Guardian columnist called Hugo Young who died prematurely ten years ago, at the age of 64.
He was the Guardian’s most respected political commentator (though he preferred to call himself a writer on public affairs) since 1984 till he died. The Guardian re-published last month a column he wrote in 2003, titled “What are we for?” Young makes several observations on political columns and columnists which are pertinent to us, working in a context when the threat to independent writing is greater than at any time since independence. Young says there were no political columnists in Britain when he started reading newspapers. It was in the 1960s that the first political columns appeared. By the new millennium, a survey carried out by Tony Blair’s office counted 221 newspaper columns, and the list was still incomplete. These included writing on sports, women’s and arts as well, but that shows a significant change from half a century ago.
What matters here is the content more than numbers. No count has been taken in Sri Lanka, but one shall find a significant number of columnists in Sinhala, Tamil and English. If we restrict ourselves to the political columnists, how much independence do they have?
First of all, the perimeters of the political column have to be defined. Interestingly, Hugo Young defined himself as a writer on public affairs rather than a political columnist. I guess many writers would fall into that category. But that definition would again depend on how much the politics of a given country are reflected in its public affairs.
If we take Sri Lanka, politics are not merely reflected in the public domain. They have come to overwhelm it. For example, when the national leader can decide on exactly how a film is going to be screened, in defiance of the existing ‘circuit system’ for their distribution, or when he can decide who’s going to head a specific sports body, or who shall be appointed as our envoy in a country which matters, or he can intervene and settle a public uproar which should normally be handled by the police and the courts – within the context of this reality, almost every columnist – regardless of their subject, which could be sports, women’s affairs or the arts – can be defined as a de facto political commentator, assuming that or she is willing to take certain risks, go the distance, and criticise the status quo, thereby testing the outer limits of that self-imposed ‘self-censorship’ which has been the principal fact of life in our journalism for so many years.
" It seems important, however, for journalists to know their limits. In the end we are not players. We’re not responsible for action. We criticise decisions but never make them "
This would be unthinkable in Britain, because the national leader cannot intervene in public affairs by appointing his choices for everything under the sun. He can’t decide which cinemas should run, say, a film about the life of Margaret Thatcher – or Jesus Christ, or King Richard the Lion Heart, as the case may be. Nor do writers, as specialists in their subjects, have to worry about self-censorship.
It is not that British columnists are above partisan politics. As Hugo Young writes in “What are we for?: “I can think of no more than three politicians I’ve regarded as friends. Such fastidious is not an advantage for a columnist. It cuts off some of the inside dope. But I think it keeps the water purer. It goes along with another piece of ‘outsiderdom’ – again a personal taste – which is a lifelong inability to form any political allegiance. In recent years, however, more political journalists than ever have been happy to associate themselves with a political party or political causes. I’m pretty startled by that. I think there should be more austerity – isn’t journalism enough? So it’s as the outsider that this columnist writes, paying whatever price that might entail by way of contact, engagement and agreeable illusion of being a player in the great game of government.”
" In Britain, no journalist will fall victim to a hit squad even if he or she doesn’t know the limits. They might get fired by their papers, or face lawsuits and bankruptcy, but they can go home in the evening without fear of being kidnapped "
Those words could have been written to describe me as a columnist, except that I have no friends at all among politicians. But then, I have never been a political columnist, except by proxy, in the way that we all get dragged into making political comment in this country by the way our politics invade every little space, public or private, we have. (If you have any trouble with that bit about private space, think a little about the way the ongoing project to ‘modernise’ Colombo’s pavements encroach upon personal lives, both in business and residence. You owe it to 12 years of free education, if that’s what you’ve had, to wonder if all the pavements need to be modernised, and if that decision isn’t purely political. How does this become an encroachment of your privacy? A pavement is certainly a public space. But the moment you occupy a square foot of it by standing on it, you have a private space and you are entitled to your privacy. If you occupy it for too long, it could be deemed vagrancy. But, as long as you are reasonable, it’s your private space).
"If we take Sri Lanka, politics are not merely reflected in the public domain. They have come to overwhelm it"
I don’t want to have any politician friends because I have been witness to the fate of prominent journalists who have had powerful political friends (Richard de Zoysa and Lasantha Wickrematunga, to name but two). If I’m on somebody’s political hit list, no politician friend can or will save me. It’s as simple as that.
But why do some regimes want to silence journalists? (It’s not always a question of using hit squads. Lee Kwan Yu, for example, filed defamation cases against them till they were bankrupt and no paper would hire them). It’s because they fear the power of journalism. Regarding that, however, Hugo Young has something interesting to say. He sees his job as more a matter of ‘explanation rather than persuasion’, and writes:
"A British journalist might wonder, after going through our national newspapers, why so little is written about human rights "
“For the most part, I’ve been less interested in influencing events and the ministers who make them, than in enlightening readers who may want to understand what is going on.
“On the other hand, a columnist can’t pretend that’s the whole story. Even if one doesn’t write for the political class, one can’t avoid being read by them, or sometimes profiting from their mesmerised belief that newspapers have great influence. Very seldom do ministers need to pay attention to what any columnist writes. But I’m happy to bask in the milieu that just occasionally says otherwise.
“It seems important, however, for journalists to know their limits. In the end we are not players. We’re not responsible for action. We criticise decisions but never make them.”
Words of hard-earned wisdom, no doubt, but one phrase in particular struck me as familiar: “It seems important, however, for journalists to know their limits.”
Isn’t that exactly what our politicians keep telling us?
To fully understand that, though, we must place what Young said in our context. In Britain, no journalist will fall victim to a hit squad even if he or she doesn’t know the limits. They might get fired by their papers, or face lawsuits and bankruptcy, but they can go home in the evening without fear of being kidnapped.
In our context, we live constantly with those fears. This is precisely why the more radical elements of our journalism insist on going beyond those limits, imposed by state or self. To paraphrase Marshal McLuhan, journalism is still a ‘hot’ medium in Sri Lanka, whereas it’s ‘cold’ in the UK. Over here, politicians as well as journalists believe, rightly or wrongly, that the press can influence and sway public opinion more than would be possible in the West.
In this regard, a British journalist might wonder, after going through our national newspapers, why so little is written about human rights. The problem as I see it why we don’t wonder about it. Almost all the writers on that touchy subject are usually outsiders, not staff writers.
A wiseacre commenting on this might quip that we are not British. That would be missing the point altogether. The idea is to work towards a common standard of decency and tolerance in politics, journalism, the arts, law, religious practice and business regardless of where we are and what we are. Otherwise, we shall be censoring ourselves ad infinitum, and living in fear when we fail to do so.