Simon Denyer

Reuters journalist, 1992-2010


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When the journalist becomes the storyteller

Debjani Ray

Monday, October 13, 2008  


The editors of the book, Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia, talk about what it takes to report history objectively and accurately

What are you supposed to do when a war starts and the cable office is closed, asked journalist Peter Kann, as he was stranded in Bangladesh during the Liberation War of 1971. And he gave the answer too: “Play poker. Go to sleep.”In between, Kann kept a diary that took communication to another level. His staccato posts from the war zone got him a Pulitzer in 1972. Kann’s Dacca Diary is one of the 80 pieces that are included in Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia. The book has been published to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Foreign Correspondents Association of South Asia (FCA) renamed the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in 1991.

“The aim of the book is to provide a broad sweep of history; to include pieces that would live 30 years from now.” says John Elliott, Fortune magazine’s India correspondent, and FCC president. Elliot has co-edited the book with Bernard Imhasly and Simon Denyer.

Most of the writing is likely to do that. For example, Reuters correspondent, Adrienne Farrell’s, brilliant, Indian Government Promotes Tiger Hunting, published in 1951, describes how “for $1,000, a visiting American can spend one month big game shooting in India, with the prospect of bagging not only a tiger or two, but also panthers, bison, antelopes and even bears”.

If journalism is the first draft of history, Peter Jackson’s Model of Team Work Beat Everest is a first-rate example. His is the first interview of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary after their conquest of Mount Everest.

This anthology is a primer for all those who want to acquaint themselves with South Asian history. It provides an immediacy that is rarely found in history books.

“When somebody writes a historical book, there’s a tendency to airbrush certain parts of history or build people up into great figures,” says Simon Denyer, Reuters’ chief of bureau of India. “Immediately after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, there was this kind of outpouring of journalism saying what a great women she was. What we’ve got here is an honest assessment of Benazir from somebody who knew her very well.”

He’s referring to Julian West’s Benazir Bhutto: Power, Men and my Regal Style. “That piece showed Benazir as she was,” says Denyer. “Charming, but at the same time full of herself and headstrong, as well as somebody who’s made a lot of mistakes. What we’ve got here is an immediacy of history by people who have really lived through it, and who were on the scene when things happened,” says Denyer.

Since journalism is about seeing things first hand, this book tells stories by people “who in the last 50 years went to the field and met some of the most interesting men and women”, says Denyer, who’s been Reuters’ India and Nepal bureau chief since 2004, and covered Pakistan and Afghanistan before that.

He recounts his coverage of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s referendum. “We saw returning officers stamping ballot papers to get Musharraf elected because the turnout was miserable. This shows the negative side of Musharraf at a time the West was lauding him as the golden boy who would help them with the Taliban. This showed him as an army dictator.”

Elliott met LTTE chief Prabhakaran early on in a hotel in Delhi, but was not sure it was him “because he looked so unimpressive”. Says Elliott: “He didn’t look like anybody who could lead anything and I eventually asked him, ‘You are Mr Prabhakaran, aren’t you’?”

These days, foreign correspondents cater to consumers who are mostly interested in reading business-generated stories, says Elliott, who was Financial Times’ first South Asia correspondent. “Earlier, most of the curiosity was political.” says Elliott. “First it was Nehru, later it was Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. There was political interest along with stories of mangoes and such, because these went with the interests of tourists.

Now the focus has shifted to Western India. “That’s because Tata buys things abroad, then fails in Singur,” says Elliott. “There’s much more interest in Tata now because he’s gone abroad and bought Jaguar and Corus.”

But some things don’t change: Immediacy, accuracy, and plain old reporting. And that’s what the stories in the Foreign Correspondent deliver with a gentle punch.




Written by simondenyer

October 14, 2008 at 7:20 am

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