I got a call last week from an editor doing a reference check on someone he wanted to hire.
The lady in question had put down my name and number in her resume, although I had no idea she was doing so. She had worked for me for a few months almost a decade ago, and I had not kept in touch after she left the magazine I used to work for in those days. I had hired her because she showed promise (or so I thought), but things hadn’t worked out. As is usually the case with such exits, it was partly her, partly the magazine, and largely me.
I told the editor who called as much and he, in return, told me that he would probably hire the lady. I also told him that I had stopped doing reference checks for journalists with other journalists.
That’s because journalists rarely have good things to say about other journalists. My early attempts at conducting reference checks were met with responses such as: “He is a great guy, but... he does have a bit of an alcohol issue”; “She’s very bright, but... she is also extremely lazy.”; and, once, “She is good, but... if you are hiring for this position I think I would be a better fit.”
For a long time, that last response remained among the most inappropriate attempts at job-seeking I encountered until, a few months ago, Mint’s assistant Views Pages editor, a bright young journalist (we still miss him) called Aritra Pyne died in an accident and I received, a few days after the incident, a message from a lady. Now that Aritra is gone, the message said, would you have an opening for me? Even an overwhelmingly positive response to a reference check involving two journalists is certain to have a “but” somewhere.
It isn’t just reference checks that evoke such responses.
Earlier this week, I was in Bangalore and met a friend for lunch at a wonderful place called The Bierre Club. As we traded news, information and gossip over some dark (and strong) English ale, the man (let’s call him Mr Bangalore) asked me what I thought of a journalist who recently took over as the editor of a mainstream national daily. I told Mr Bangalore that I knew the gentleman we were speaking about slightly and that he seemed like a good man.
“I have heard he is all that but an editor I know says he is also...” said Mr Bangalore, referring to something that isn’t worth reproducing here. I said I had no idea about that and that it wouldn’t matter at all what he was as long as he edited a great paper.
I don’t know whether other professions are the same. Judging from the bitchiness that creeps in occasionally into a section in Mint where advertising copywriters review the work of other copywriters, I’d like to think so, but I am not sure. Do investment bankers, for instance, feel the same way about their peers? Do head hunters? Do automobile executives?
My favourite story about professional courtesy involves the late K.M. Mathew, the editor-in-chief of Malayala Manorama.
In 1997, I was working on a feature on MRF for the magazine I used to work for back then. It was among the first stories I filed for that magazine and I was (like most young journalists) keen to go a good job and impress my editor. The company refused to have anything to do with the feature citing a bad experience it had with a reporter from the same magazine in the past. I cajoled the marketing head into meeting me (and travelled to Chennai to see him). I also met with the company’s dealers, former employees, government officials, and general busy-bodies in Chennai who seemed to know everything about everyone. The company’s CEO K.M. Mammen Mappillai refused to meet me though. And so, there were gaps in my story that I needed help filling. I knew that K.M. Mathew was Mammen Mappillai’s brother and telephoned him. The man himself came on the line and listened to what I had to say. He said he was busy but that he would call later in the evening to see how he could help me. Evening came, and so did the call which I had not been expecting. “You are a journalist,” said Mathew, “and you want some information. As a fellow journalist, professional courtesy demands that I help you.” I have reproduced what Mathew said from memory. He then proceeded to answer all my questions, taking time and trouble to list all members of the large family he and Mammen Mapillai belonged to, and the holdings of each in MRF. “Don’t tell my brother where you got this information from,” he said, and hung up.
To date, when I get a request for information or meeting from another journalist that doesn’t concern a job in Mint, I remember Mathew’s conversation with me and try to extend the same professional courtesy that the former editor-in-chief of Malayala Manorama did to me.
In some ways, this fits in well with our approach to covering other media companies.
Unlike many other newspapers and magazines that do not usually write about their peers and rivals (which is an entirely different take on professional courtesy), Mint actively covers media in its news pages, but that’s a different story and one that could well be the subject of another column.
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