When the Journalist Is the Story

Cyril Almeida (Credit: northbridge.com)
Cyril Almeida
(Credit: northbridge.com)
AT the request of the overseers of these pages, I have been asked to write about myself today — my past week or so, really.

A request categorically not because there is any restriction on writing about the week’s events, but because there may be some interest in a personal perspective.

I found myself unable to decline.

When the story landed that Thursday morning, there was already never any question about any part of it being retracted by the paper or I.

Because nothing of the reaction had been unanticipated, nothing had been left to chance before the story was put out in print.

The story had arrived fairly quickly after the fateful meeting, but it was only published on Thursday. The gap was all about verifying, double- and triple-sourcing and seeking official comment.

Nothing about the process was left to chance.

For me, and for the paper, there were only two questions that mattered. Did the meeting take place? Could I verify through multiple channels what was said?

Yes, the heart races a bit faster when you do something out of the ordinary. Yes, there is always some concern for the self.

The second part is trickier than it would appear, but it is also not as hard as it is made out to be. Stick around long enough and you get a sense of how this place works. And the place gets a sense of you.

You know the camps, you know the divisions and splits, and you know at any given time who may be interested in selling what. They exist in civ as much as they do in mil.

With a meeting like this and a story like that, you sniff around until you get a bunch of overlapping facts from camps that have no obvious reason to overlap.

Sometimes that means leaving on the cutting floor a juicy quote or significant reference — but this paper stands guard over the editing process closely.
So what landed that Thursday was something that the paper and I were already very comfortable with.

Which meant little fear of the paper buckling or me retracting.

There was one underestimation on my part. In writing the story, I was aware that a grenade was being dropped in the news cycle. It has since turned out to be a surgical strike followed by a nuclear attack.

So do I regret doing it?

Not one bit. I have worked for two editors at this paper and from each I have learned a foundational thing about the business of news and analysis in this country of ours.

Abbas Nasir, perhaps the more reckless of the two for hiring me in the first place, gave me the courage: whatever you do, remember they’ll be gone one day, you’ll still be around.

Several prime ministers, chief justices, presidents and army chiefs later, Abbas has been proved right.

Yes, the heart races a bit faster when you do something out of the ordinary. Yes, there is always some concern for the self — you’d be stupid not to be concerned in a place like this.

But if you can just somehow remember that they will be gone and you’ll still be around, courage may see you through.

The current editor has drummed in a reporter’s message, one that he himself is an exemplar of: you’re only as good as your sources.

In a place like this, that is a two-way street: in return for not exposing your sources, you get a fair reading of the land.

Not impartial — fair. You always expect spin and you can’t always disaggregate it from the facts, but if you can build enough such relationships, a verifiable and triangulated truth can emerge when necessary.

That fateful Thursday was one of those necessary days.

But it’s usually the best-laid plans that are the most monumentally disrupted. By Monday, I believed the story was about to fade and the news cycle ready to move on.

Then came the ECL decision. At that point alarm set it — for personal safety and freedom. Because before the ECL decision it had not even occurred to me that I could be put on the ECL.
Once something new, unprecedented and unexpected happens, the old rules can go out the window — and that’s where real danger lies. Because then you just don’t know if there is a new game and new rules.

It was, I think, a combination of two things that rescued me and rescued me quickly. For all the global coverage, the system here ultimately responds to local concerns. First, and immediately, this paper swung into violent and fierce action.

Second, the wider media, battered and fractured by violent convulsions of its own in recent years, mostly united — perhaps as much out of self-preservation than indignation.
To both, my sincere gratitude.

So now what?

With the end of the ECL, comes relief. But with a pledged inquiry not yet under way, the matter is far from settled. Personally, I’d like it to be over with quickly — or as quickly as official process allows.

There is acute discomfort at having become the story.

Because it makes you radioactive and because the longer this stays a story — I stay a story — the more problematic it will become to separate spin from fact in future.

Getting tagged a certain way — leaning this way or that, pro-this and anti-that — means you attract a certain kind of spin and faux-information, and are at the risk of being frozen out from access to unadulterated facts, such as they can be.

But perhaps mostly a quick resolution so that the overseers of these pages do not ask me to write about myself again.

Normal service to resume next week, I promise.

The writer is a member of staff.

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