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      Volume 10 |Issue 29 | July 29, 2011 |


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Of Peccadilloes in the Press

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Sins committed in journalism often go unpunished.

There are the little sins we commit in our journalism every once in a while. When last week I spotted a letter in one of the English language newspapers in Bangladesh, I was quite surprised to discover that it was in fact a whole editorial purloined from the Daily Star and reproduced in that offending newspaper as a missive from someone named Mohammad Jashim Uddin. Now, you can either ignore such peccadilloes or you can take up the matter with the newspaper which, knowingly or otherwise, has committed the misdeed. I went for the latter and fired off a little polite note to the editor of the daily, pointing to the little misdemeanour. Amazingly and yet predictably (even as I write this piece), I did not get a response.

Ah, well! That's life as we know it in our social clime. Politeness has somehow gone fugitive from the land. And basic honesty is somehow cast easily to the winds by people from whom we have generally expected better. Some years ago, a pretty controversial figure in our journalism created a new controversy for himself when he sent in an article to a newspaper for publication. Nothing wrong, mind you, with despatching a write-up to a newspaper. The difficulty comes in when you stumble on the truth that the article has clearly been lifted wholesale from a foreign newspaper, with only the by-line changed in favour of the pilferer, and then submitted for publication. In this instance, it was a column lifted from The Times of London. Naturally, the pilferer did not get the satisfaction of his piece seeing the light of day in our Bangladesh newspaper.

Which reminds me. One of our well-known writers, an intellectual to boot, once had the satisfaction of seeing his article appear in a national English language daily. He was happy. Perhaps his readers too were happy, for a couple of days. It was then that a correspondent of Time magazine sent in an angry letter to the editor, the objective being to inform him that our intellectual had lifted, word for word, a report he had written and which had appeared in Time only a week earlier. Our intellectual was contacted. His response was pretty original: he cheerfully noted the amazing coincidence of language and facts uniting his article and the Time report! It took me back to those very early days in my journalistic career in the 1980s. A would-be writer had no way of knowing that an article he had sent for publication happened to be one of mine that had appeared in a weekly magazine a couple of weeks earlier. He called to ask about the fate of the write-up; and when confronted with the truth, quietly put down the phone at his end.

Basic honesty is somehow cast easily to the winds by people from whom we have generally expected better. Photo: AFP

In 1984, a senior editorial writer, one of those people who have this pretty disturbing tendency to shirk responsibility on a regular basis, swiftly produced an editorial on the need for black majority rule to be granted to Rhodesia. He then went home. In the middle of the night, the owner of the newspaper called me. You could feel him go apoplectic at the other end of the line as he related the story to me. The offender, he said, would be given the sack the next day. Well, in the event he wasn't, because he brought some good grovelling into his expressions of apology, enough to convince the management he would be a good boy thenceforth. But to this day I ask myself: how is it that this man did not know, in 1984, that Rhodesia had been transformed into Zimbabwe four years earlier, that Ian Smith was long gone, that Robert Mugabe now ran the show?

The editor of a newspaper in this country once entertained some rather high notions about a young journalist who turned up, once a week, to put the weekend magazine into shape. He had a wonderful way of doing it. He simply downloaded articles from diverse newspapers around the world, made a patchwork quilt of them and simply dished it all out as the weekend magazine. It was fraud at work, criminality which nevertheless left the editor of the newspaper impressed beyond measure. Naturally, the newspaper never took off. And that young charlatan has since been moving back and forth between different shores of the vast sea of journalistic experimentation. It is not merely the callow young who sometimes so gladly embrace dishonesty as a means to an end. There is the story of a veteran journalist who once held on to a good, scholarly article from a respected academic for weeks and then regurgitated it in his own name. All hell broke loose. In the end, though, the robber-journalist held on to his job, just.

In the early 1990s, the editor of a new English language newspaper cheerfully reproduced the columns published in a leading British newspaper in his daily. Anyone would have the impression that an arrangement was in place between the two newspapers on the matter of sharing articles. One fine morning, however, a long and politely indignant letter from the British newspaper landed on our editor's desk. It demanded payment for the articles that had been reproduced in violation of copyright laws. The offending newspaper did not have the money to cough up as payment. The editor, by now properly contrite, wrote an extremely genuflecting sort of letter to the editor of the British newspaper. He was sorry. And he promised not to repeat the offence.

What wonderful discoveries we come across at times! Wouldn't you agree?

The writer is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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