By Roger Beaumont
Being a proof reader can leave you with a brain that is constantly hot and full of other people’s mistakes. Much better to try writing and let someone else clean it up, says Roger Beaumont
It was Arthur Miller who said the sign of a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself. A shrewd observation. I once worked, albeit briefly, for an editor who told us that in journalism no lie was too outrageous, no gloss too preposterous, and that the media has made more liars out of people than golf.
We all knew the editor was a totally useless golfer (his swearing was heard all over the links) but also realised he was right, in that there are millions of readers who, rather than be bored with the truth, prefer to be entertained by lies. That worried me. It still worries me. So I quit.
Regrettably, aside from front page disasters and immediate news, what matters in the media in most countries are wealth and power. It’s a person’s status not their actions that count. They bask in the radiance of themselves. And usually get off extremely lightly. If a terrorist group wanted to hit Thailand, all they’d have to do is kill 17 “celebrities.” The country would have a nervous breakdown. Then again, the wonderfully sardonic Dorothy Parker said, ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.’ On one Australian provincial paper I worked, the editor had always been a devout pessimist, which is to be expected of one who was introduced early in life to German metaphysics. His paper had one creaking elevator where it didn’t matter which button you pressed, you always ended up in the grim canteen. I was also once employed by a very clever but rather moody female magazine editor who wore jeans so tight, I could hardly breathe. It was from her that I realised that women suffer in silence louder than any living thing I’ve met. She never knew what she wanted, until she saw someone else with it.
Working in the print media can be one of the most rewarding jobs on the planet. I know little about television, but I do know that when most people suffer, it is away from the cameras. It’s not what we’ve seen. It’s what we haven’t noticed. TV is now the heart of many Asian cultures – and far too much of it is total, dumb downed rubbish. The internet will be seen as a real evolution, but it is still, at heart, an immediate, precious and valuable tool for reflecting our values, both good and evil. Radio still seems too busy for lunch. I was once told I had a great face for radio and was slow to realise that wasn’t a compliment. At 19, I made a stab at doing voiceovers for commercials and was given instructions like, “More smile in the voice please.” The job was fun, but the wages were so low they should have been delivered by a priest. And I quit that too.
However, newspaper editors are often a breed apart; eccentric, demanding, irascible. I have seen grown men cry following some stormy editorial meeting, or having their hard won stories rejected. Many reporters burn out young. Deadlines aren’t called deadlines for nothing. If you want to be a journalist on a serious newspaper, be prepared to get yelled at. And get used to it. It might even do you good. And be aware that the print media often get it wrong. Adolf Hitler was Time Magazine’s Man Of The Year in 1938.
When I joined The Nation in Bangkok if it wasn’t one thing it was another, and sometimes both. My first tentative enquiry was: How many people work here? ‘About half of them,’ came the reply. My experience at that newspaper was unique, which means it was like everybody else’s, only different. I was employed as a proof reader, but all I really wanted to do was write.
After many years of struggle, I ended up turning in around 80 articles on politics, travel, society, history and whatever interested me at the time. At the editorial helm was the growling, fiery and infamous – let’s call him ‘’Mr Valance’’ – who once told a colleague: ‘’That Beaumont fellow thinks he’s a writer. He wrote a book about Thailand called ‘What’s Your Name I’m Fine Thank You’. And another damn book on Thai history. I haven’t read them, and don’t want to, but they can’t be good. If I’d given him a thousand dollars a week to sit alone in a room and do nothing, in five days he’d have six men helping him.’’ So shouts the editor. You get used to it. You have no choice.
Valance was such a rascal in his private life he could even make the word clean sound suggestive and yet he was scared of women, having no talent for intimacy. He was eccentric and a little dangerous; two fine qualities. He could also bring out the best in everybody only to bring out the worst in him. He could spot bad writing from a thousand metres and was an almost impossible man to work for – rude, ungracious, and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read; and I admire him more than anyone I have met in my professional life. Only perfection was good enough for him, and on the rare occasions he encountered it, he viewed it with astonished suspicion. In 13 years, I received one compliment from him: ‘’This article is good.” It’s framed on my wall and hangs above my desk. I came to realise that he didn’t really want to find perfection, whether he knew it or not; that the quest itself was what kept him going. He never seemed to know when a man had reached his limits. If you kept taking it, he kept piling it on. If there was anything more important than his ego around, he wanted it caught and shot immediately. It must be said that Valance was a difficult man to hate, though that doesn’t mean we didn’t try.
Valance didn’t like it all when he found out, bumbling into what we called the Chill Out room, that the girls there brewed tea and coffee every afternoon, and he was appalled when he bumped into a Soft Drinks machine that had been installed when he was away. “If we have a Thai food counter serving vodka here, I don’t want to know where it is,’’ he barked. He once wrote on the proof reader’s notice board: “Try to preserve an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.’’
Apparently, very few newspaper editors have ever been attacked by a shark, or any other deadly, venomous sea creature. Marine biologists attribute this to professional respect. On a more recent note, from where I come from the Wikileaks is the media story of the year. The revelations are all online, with many more to come. Whether people think Julian Assange, whose life is now under threat, is a thief or a hero, they are a wake up call for all of us. They have illuminated differences in what is publicly and privately said. Those who rule us have been caught in the fact. For too long a privileged clique have hidden their errors from our eyes and expected us to pay for their mistakes without any mention of the mistakes to us. The leaks are of unprecedented importance because, at a stroke, they have enlightened the masses about what is being done in their name and have shown the corruption, incompetence – and sometimes wisdom – of politicians, corporations and diplomats all over this world. More significantly, we have been given a snapshot of the world as it is, rather than the edited account agreed upon by diverse elites, whose only common interest is the maintenance of their power and our ignorance.
For most governments, their sole enemy is disclosure. Power loathes truth revealed. But the job of a journalist is disclosure and disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing; politicians are cowed, and lawyers fall silent. ‘’Accountability can only default to disclosure.’’ Please read that again, as I had to, at least twice, when I first heard it. As Thomas Jefferson remarked, ‘’…the press is the last best hope when democratic oversight fails,’’ as it does in the case of most international bodies.
As the fine English journalist, Simon Jenkins wrote recently: ‘’It was journalism that mediated and interpreted the raw data. It was journalism, and journalism alone, that investigated the antics of drugs companies, the alleged corruption of the World Cup governing body FIFA, the mistakes of climate change scientists, the depths of police misbehaviour, and the tax dodging and theft by British MPs. Nobody else did. When the public interest is undermined by the lies and paranoia of power, it is disclosure that takes sanity by the scruff of its neck and sets it back on its feet. So thank goodness for disclosure. Thank goodness for journalism.’’
The point is, Wikileaks are responsible for revealing the person behind the curtain. For that, the world should and will remain grateful for a very, very long time.
I may be a pervert but I love reading good newspaper writers, to be taught and instructed about the hidden things that are always just outside our knowledge, around the corner of our sight and comprehension, and to be shown something intelligent that gives us something to keep, that the knowledge was worthwhile and that we had received nutrition from a fine mind at work. It’s that clarity of discovery that is so precious. Let us pray there will always be a demand for excellence and good investigative journalism.
Although things are literally changing by the minute in the media, stories by writers are the starter for every other medium. They can be serialised for newspapers, adapted for television, read on radio, made into movies, themed for merchandising and filleted for computer games. Best of all, nobody has conceived of a way of cutting out the writer. Technology will get ever more surreal, but in so far as it depends on words, someone will have to write them.
So, if you want to be a journalist you better get used to hanging onto solvency by your fingernails and the test of this vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves. Don’t let this put you off. It will be complimented by stiff drinks and tall tales. And remember, it’s better to have one line of fire than six lines of smoke. When writing for a newspaper brevity is the sister of talent. Make every word count. Write as though your future depends on it. It does. In the print media, words really matter. For if you cannot say what you mean, I can guarantee you will never mean what you say. As Ben Franklin said: ‘’Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing.’’
As you mature as a journalist, you will be harder to impress but, hopefully, be constantly amazed by what the world delivers. Go for it.
Editor's NOTE-- Roger Beaumont is currently working at the Center For Bhutan Studies, and the article is republished from the Bhutanese magazine Drukpa
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