CONFESSIONS OF A SHAMELESS EDITOR
The New Internationalist celebrates 25 years of publication this year. You would have got long odds in the 1970s against our getting this far. We asked PETER STALKER who worked for the magazine for more than half its life to lift the lid on some of the murkier moments in the NI's history.
'What are they saying?' The BBC producer is getting anxious. We are sitting in a field in Honduras alongside a full camera crew, with its meter running, poised to film a campesino land invasion and nothing seems to be happening.
'They are debating whether they should go ahead with it,' I reply.
'You mean they might not?' he asks, slightly horrified.
I ask the group when they will decide.
'First we discuss the facts. Then we have the analysis. Then later we have the resolution. Maybe in a few hours. Maybe tomorrow.'
All very democratic. But for us only one answer will do.
'Well,' said the producer, 'if they decide against it we need to find another group that will invade -- and quickly. We'll wait here. You go and find a back-up.'
Sitting in Oxfordshire this task had seemed fairly straightforward; I didn't realize it would require me to wander round Central America fomenting insurrections.
The NI in its early years (this was 1981) was forever teetering on the brink of a financial precipice. We only scrambled back to safety by attaching our grappling hooks to more secure organizations. In this case we had fixed on the BBC, offering our services as researchers. My task was to find ways of illustrating the inequities of food production and of arguing the case for land reform.
Central America seemed the ideal location. We had reports of peasants farming steep, rocky hillsides trying to grow corn, while rich landowners owned vast lush hectares on the valley floor raising cattle to supply the US with hamburger meat. When I got to Honduras I discovered not only that this was true (bit of a relief)
but that some farmers were also taking matters into their own hands through a spate of land invasions, or what they termed recuperaciones.
Perfect, I thought. Wouldn't it be great if we could film the action? So I went to one of the campesino organizations in Tegucigalpa to check out the prospects. At first, the President of the Campesino Union thought this was a great joke -- trying to predict a spontaneous act by the masses. But eventually he concluded that it might actually work. Maybe we could talk to some groups. In fact, he urgently needed to see some of their members the following day around the northern port city of San Pedro Sula. Did I have transport? 'Of course,' I lied, and rushed out to hire a jeep.
To most people's surprise, within a couple of days I did find a group farming a rocky hillside who were just about to seize the fertile land below them -- belonging to one Doña Luisa, who was indeed raising cattle. That was very good, but also no good. They needed to do it for the camera. I advised them not to be too hasty. Better think it over. Perhaps wait for a week or two -- while I summoned the film crew from London.
So there we all were, waiting. Except for me. I was rushing off again praying I could find the local organizer to see if we could discover another group of potential invaders. Amazingly, we did. It wasn't quite as picturesque as the original spot, and did not fit the stereotype quite so neatly. But yes they would cheerfully do it to camera, especially with a $200 'facilitation fee'. Sure enough, however, when I got back with the news, the original invasion was back on schedule -- and went like clockwork (they still have the land). I never did find out what happened to the reserve team. I hope they are not still waiting for me.
One the great advantages of these assignments was that they gave NI journalists the chance to see things at first hand. Otherwise, our travel budget was zero and we operated by remote control through a network of correspondents. These might be sympathetic journalists or employees of aid organizations who could be relied upon to write something that fitted our needs. Frequently this would be a description of a particular person or family that would serve to add a bit of colour to the drier theoretical analysis in the rest of the magazine.
Since such profiles would inevitably start with something like: 'Saraswathi tugged anxiously at her blue sari while waiting for her children to come home ...' such a piece came to be known within the office as a 'blue sari' job. These proved very popular and were frequently reprinted elsewhere. Indeed we often recycled them ourselves. On one occasion an NIeditor recycled a particularly apposite one in a pack of press articles that we were preparing for a UN agency (grappling hooks out again). When this pack appeared, another editor was suitably impressed, and assuming that this was a brand new 'blue sari', promptly re-recycled it into a later issue of the NI. It took a while for any of us notice this. And as far as I know, no reader ever pointed it out, which all goes to prove... something, I'm sure.
While it might look as though the NI was the product of energetic journalism and creative design it was as much the result of creative accounting. One of the first things thatPeter Adamson, the founding editor and original driving force, did was to recruit an accountant. At that point, few, if any, radical magazines ever considered having a full-time accountant -- and I imagine that few do so even now. Eric Rix was the inaugural holder of this stressful office, and his ability to navigate with great aplomb through some very choppy waters, shuffling real and not-so-real funds, did as much as anything to ensure the magazine's survival. We were still broke of course, but we always knew precisely how broke we were.
At that point the magazine was based in the village of Benson in Oxfordshire in a house which had rather less planning permission than desirable. I had been allowed to join on the understanding that I would somehow earn my own salary. One night I was doing just that, working with Dexter Tiranti into the small hours on a presentation to be made later that same day to sell our services to a UK-based aid agency. Normally I commuted from nearby Oxford by bus. But at this hour I had to resort to the battered old Morris Minor that we used to transport magazines and marketing leaflets. On the way to Oxford I stopped to give a ride to someone who had run out of petrol. Unsurprisingly, at 2am we could not find a petrol station open and I finished up tearing round Oxford faster and faster, increasingly aware of the need to catch a train in a few hours. Sure enough, there was soon lots of noise on my tail, and flashing blue lights.
'You were going rather fast, sir. What's the hurry? Is this your car? What's the registration number?' 'Er... no... company car... don't know... working late... petrol... etc.'
My passenger (what on earth did he say to them?) made himself scarce. Fifteen minutes later, arrested for car theft, I am in a police cell pacing around minus belt and shoelaces. And all I could think of was how to hold my trousers up and get to London in a couple of hours. Dexter, my partner in this as in many other enterprises, who was woken up to verify my story and get me released, thought this was hilarious. For all the various encounters with sinister military and police figures from Guatemala to Chile to the Philippines, the only time I was actually jailed on the magazine's behalf was for stealing the company car. I was of course scarred for life by this experience.
The NI has always struggled to make sense of the world -- with greater or lesser success. The process for the writer is straightforward. You admit you are an ignoramus -- then go to knowledgeable people, ask them what's going on, and write down a version sufficiently coherent that readers can extract some sense from it. The process is much the same whether you are talking to community leaders in the slums of Delhi, cane cutters in the Philippines, or economics professors in Oxford. It's amazing how patient and forgiving they are if you say you work for the New Internationalist.
This means of course you are always a part of the picture -- absorbing and filtering the information. And many issues of the NI have been deliberately written with the writer as a central actor in the story. I think, however, I can still claim to be quite the most shameless poser of all time.
After years of muddling through thickets of economics jargon, I decided that I should educate myself more systematically. To do this I would write an issue of the NI in the form of a conversation with a reader who was supposedly anxious to become economically more literate. I did this by immersing myself in economics books, writing the 'script' and then negotiating the result, line by line, with Peter Donaldson, an old friend of the magazine and an economics lecturer at Ruskin College.
But what could we have on the front cover? What about a picture representing that puzzled reader coming to terms with baffling concepts -- surrounded by a daunting pile of books. Good idea. But who should it be? Not a young person, since that would be ageist. Not someone from an ethnic minority, since that would imply that as a group they were ignorant. Not a woman, of any race, since that would make it look as though women needed educating by men. On the other hand, the reader couldn't be male either since that would imply that economics was a subject only for men. That seemed to exhaust the options.
Unless... unless... the ignoramus on the front cover was not the reader but the writer who was, after all, paid to act stupid, and in no position to take offence (see cover on previous page).
There's something very NI about that process of reasoning. Convoluted, politically correct, and yet by rapid sleight-of-hand producing a plausible solution. I had of course to be dragged kicking and screaming to the photographic studio.
Oh dear. I see the bottom of the page looming, which means now that I have to wrap up with a final paragraph. This was always a challenge. But yes, I think it's coming back to me. In times gone by, if the subject of the magazine was ____ , the default final paragraph of the keynote article often went something like this:
"The world's ____ problems remain complex and intractable. But ____ is something that cannot be considered in isolation. At heart, it is an economic issue -- and ultimately a political one. Unless and until there is a dramatic transformation in the relationship between rich and poor, both within and between countries, the global ____ crisis will never be solved. Individual communities have already set an example through their own creativity, determination and fortitude. Given the freedom and the opportunity, they have shown they can solve their own ____ problems. Now we have to create new patterns of co-operation which will allow this solidarity to resonate through the global community."
Like riding a bicycle.
Peter Stalker is now a freelance writer. He has edited most of the UNDP's Human Development Reports. His latest book is Global Nations: The Impact of Globalization on International Migration, shortly to be published by the International Labour Organization.
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