by Tilak S. Fernando

On a broad generalisation a journalist's job is always to be on alert and look out for news. It demands listening to the radio news bulletins regularly, reading reels of newsprint, magazines and books in terms of research, lounging on a comfortable settee like an innate sack of Basmathi rice & filling the stomach with Lion Lager and watch television till eye balls go hexagonal.

To be a Sri Lankan journalist or a London Correspondent to a newspaper group in Colombo and get job satisfaction is the most arduous task on earth. Just forget the pittens one can expect in rupee-sterling conversions as rewards, which can hardly cover even one's expenses on printing cartiges. A Sri Lankan journalist's job based in London is an entirely different kettle of fish. He is not a conventional ' full-time retainer' on a fixed income. If he is writing to a local (London) Sri Lankan tabloid then one has to think of it only as a charitable service, not forgetting the politics involved and whether the editors like your face and not the material sent for publication!

The material to be despatched to Sri Lankan newspapers have to be viewed and reviewed to ensure that they are suitable morally, socially and politically to an authodox home-readership. What is norm and acceptable to a Western newspaper editor in the form of constructive criticism, hot gossip (not sparing even the Royals), or any saucy X-rated subject matter may often be regarded as too sensitive or exploitative for publication on Sri Lankan daily broadsheets or Sunday editions, as Editors' hands too are bound to a greater extent with numerous pressure from all quarters of the management, politicians and up to Chairman level of newspaper groups.

If one is not an accredited correspondent to London, one has to just forget about his attempts in getting his material published ( unless of course one is a friend of the Chairman or the Editor) even if the article is of national interest, a hot gossip or a merit demanding scoop! Accredited Correspondent's wings too are clipped from writing to any other group of newspapers even on a freelanse basis. London is a mine field for information covering many a subject matter from human stories (specially on Sri Lankans who are doing well here) to a whole range of miscellaneous subjects.

Journalists are trained in Universities and Schools of Journalism to be objective. Their aim should be to encourage what is sound in man and to discourage what is base, by often criticising. When the journalist is expending much energy on establishing the positive within the hearts of receptive readers, he is expending much energy on combating the negative simultaneously. Each time he makes a political statement, for example, criticising a Minister, big 'wig' of a Government Institution and skeletons in their cupboards are dragged out with force by the ' scruff of their necks', the Correspondent will be seen as a dangerous creature in the eyes of the guilty. Those top officials who are powerful and guilty will at least try to refrain from being exposed at first. But later when they realise that the wind is blowing against them, automatically they turn into revengeful enemies, shaking with fear, and try to muscle the journalist.

Human being is a funny animal. That may be why he was given only two legs ! Amazingly enough though, even among human beings there are some who behave like four legged creatures and in the old profession of journalism itself, dog eating dog's meat has been in existence from time immemorial ! It is, therefore, not unusual at all to see, among the Sri Lankan community in the UK the existence of this past time. The basic problem appears to be when some are seen to suffer from persecution, hallucination and delusions of grandeur and feel threatened at times by others who are totally different in their attitude & styles and boldly dipping their 'nibs' pulverished in garlic, when it demands so, with an overdose of sarcasm & wit combined to give an issue or a story the added flavour with a caustic effect, to a situation or an incident objectively, they begin to run helter skelter, upsetting many a hornet's nest with vengeance. Such excitement leads to character assassination, poison letters and even writing up to newspaper-group chairmen and influenze their buddies who fall innocent prey to the detriment of their own newspapers and unknowingly espousing egotistical delusions of grandeur of the hallucinated !

Personalities such as Jon of Arc, Abraham Lincoln & Mahatma Gandhi always kindled objective journalists. These great figures loved the constructive and the positive, but they also spoke out and struggled against the failings of even rulers. The objective journalists who are committed to their vocation may be poor followers of those great characters, but when ' old foxes' start to run about, half dazed, out of swallowing their own poison , what do the fearless so called ' cubs' who believe in the maxim, " Facts are sacred & the Comment is Free" do ? In this type if of melo-drama, a Sri Lankan London Correspondent's job becomes rather challenging and a wonderful experience ! Through such extra-ordinary experience, a London Correspondent will learn that to point out failings of another authority is not always healthy, helpful or necessary. But he wonders simultaneously whether to pronounce a diagnosis to a patient is not the same as curing him! Yet, if he feels, in certain tests bitter medicine is helpful then criticism becomes accommodating and necessary.

A journalist has a duty towards his vocation, towards his conscience, towards truth, towards his country to throw light on injustices and malpractices. Journalist is not concerned or worried about the nitty gritty or trivia surrounding a misconduct or how and why failings are taking place within an individual or an institution, but if he has hard evidence of any incident worthy of public interest, which affects the society or the State, he will only be too interested in writing about what actually has taken place. Then it becomes a journalist's prime duty to do so. Otherwise how are rulers to be helped if this is not done ? How do the general public find hope if no one does?

An objective journalist always sieves gutter journalism from the bulk. He understands that hatred and bitterness in the critic injures his best aims and sullies what he writes. An embittered journalist may, therefore, sometimes postpone a critical piece until the rancour has been washed off, with an honest effort. If the journalist is impelled by a wish to cast an image of courage his criticism would again be vitiated. Also when a journalist feels, after reflecting the pulls towards resentment, that criticism called for is in the public interest, has he the right to withhold it ? Even under severe Libel and Slander Laws in the UK, constructive criticism is not actionable if " that the words complained of were fair comment on a matter of public interest".

Journalist is an invaluable public servant and media is his weapon to expose (through constructive criticism) any authority, person, corporation or an institution, all of whom are accountable to the public, when they fall out of line; when there are flows in their organisations or even if they are seen to abuse their power and privileges. An element of error or an irreparable damage to a society or country could arise sometimes if a journalist is ' bought-over' and/or influenced by the corrupted personnel or authorities! After all, journalists are also weak human beings who are vulnerable to such bad influence, depending on their economic circumstances in the society. What a society expects of journalism would be unbiased , constructive and objective view points in the interest of the society. Such reports will always be appreciated and recognised as high standards of journalism. Undoubtedly, it will benefit the profession and humanity as a whole rather than the journalist himself becoming a liability to his society.

A journalist is committed to his Editor and the newspaper he works for, to discharge his duties to the highest standards expected of him by the Management. Public is glad, for healthy reasons rather than for selfish motives, when a journalist puts his unease or unhappiness into words. If around one, others find it increasingly difficult to do, what is a journalist's duty...? Surely it is to supply what is missing or going wrong and has gone wrong or at least to try, howsoever inadequately, to do so, and not to steal away from the battlefield.