Andrew Graham-Yooll is one of the most respected journalists in Argentina and the UK. Born in Buenos Aires in 1944, his father was Scottish and his mother English. He started his career at the Buenos Aires Herald in 1966, where he eventually became its editor-in-chief and president. He was one of only a few journalists who dared to write about Argentina’s vicious military junta.
In 1976, after writing extensively about the dictatorship, Graham-Yooll was forced into exile in the UK, where he contributed to the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, among other publications. He has authored around 30 books in Spanish and English.
Now, after about half a century in journalism, he’s become an icon for young journalists. In this interview he shares some of his views on the Argentine and British press, literature, today’s media, and his beginnings as a journalist. Finally, he talks about the Kirchners and their relationship with the press, and Argentina’s new media law.
What are the biggest challenges facing journalism today?
The complexity of the media, the number of groups and their owners (can make things confusing). It very often happens that you don’t know who you are working for. Particularly in Argentina, where ownership changes hands very quickly. The challenge for journalists is to face this situation and stay balanced, objective and try to not be intimidated. It’s a hell of a handful that journalists have these days.
Is that difficult to achieve?
Well, I’ve already been there and done that. But knowing how to approach information is hard for everyone. There’s a great deal of manipulation, you can be tricked in small things and that itself is a complication. If you put your foot in it once, even if it’s something small, you can be left scarred. It can be just a simple goodwill mistake, such as believing someone you shouldn’t believe. Maybe these kinds of problems were always around, but now they’re magnified by the speed at which the world goes round. Who should you believe when it comes to politics? That problem has always existed.
What made you choose journalism as a career?
I became a journalist because I was convinced it was a way of learning how to write. I wanted to be a writer. Graham Greene, one of my heroes, started off as a sub-editor at the Times. Back then it was a good example to follow. Hemingway, another hero of mine, started as a columnist for the Toronto Star. They were very good examples to follow back then. Many writers who don’t go through journalism say that it “kills writing.” That may well be the case for some, but in my opinion old journalism, the one I was trained for, called for a compact, direct style and it was an excellent school for writers.
What differences do you see between journalism then and now?
Well, I am speaking with a sort of generational prejudice. You always choose your times, and you should acknowledge the good things in each one. I believe there are young journalists who are much more ambitious. They gamble with their careers in every article.
Old-fashioned journalism was about shaping and containing information in a paragraph. It was a labour of writing and editing for the reporter, for the apprentice. And you had to go through that. Writing itself was much harder. It’s important to remember that newspapers were much shorter in those days. Forty years ago, it wasn’t easy to find a paper that was as thick as the Sunday Times or Clarín on Sundays. If you take a look at any paper from the ‘50s or the ‘60s you’ll see that there were far fewer pages. One of the most important lessons, then, was that there was no room to be wasted.
Nowadays writing is much more “spacious” in a way. There’s much more opinion in the reports. If you read articles in Buenos Aires about the Health Ministry and the epidemics – dengue, the flu, whatever – you’ll find a considerable amount of opinion in the articles. They express their opinion on whether the authorities did the right thing or whether they made mistakes, etc. Before, such things weren’t allowed at all. One had to go straight to the facts, and that’s what made journalism such an important school back then.
You mentioned Greene and Hemingway, what other writers did you look up to?
I thought that all the French crime novel writers were amazing. Reading them was a great pleasure. Now, I’m talking about authors one used to read because they produced tight, crisp novels – novels that will never become classics. But these people’s work in the field of novel production was fabulous – the industriousness with which they produced – rather than created – novels.
I much preferred the early Amis than the current one, just like McEwan. They will not be remembered as creators of great literature, but as very productive writers. They would probably much rather be remembered as “great authors,” but I don’t think that will be the case. I think that time gobbles up all these writers who feel that they have to publish a book every two years. But as I say, even that is admirable from the point of view of production. In Buenos Aires, I would choose Mairal or Guillermo Martinez, who wrote “The Oxford Murders.” They both have one or two excellent novels, but they sort of attempted to repeat the model and the reader didn’t feel happy when reading the final result.
Fogwill‘s “Malvinas Requiem” is being published in English, and that’s why I mention him. I like neither his prose nor his poetry nowadays, but in the 80′s “Malvinas Requiem” [published in Spanish as "Los Pichiciegos"] was a milestone. That attitude of not giving a shit about anyone or anything, of laughing and showing how ridiculous something like the Falklands War was, was simply marvelous.
What about your books? Which one is your favourite?
“Goodbye Buenos Aires” is the one I like best. But people say I’ve written better things. It was published in England and in Buenos Aires. It’s my father’s biography, but it’s been somewhat fictionalised. I don’t like historical novels, though. This is a biography that has been somehow turned into a novel, which is 70%, or even 80% reality-based. That 20% remaining is all about “filling the gaps” for which you have no information with fiction. That book was written in 1999.
Now, when “A State of Fear” was published in London a friend of mine – a literary critic who is bit of a rascal – wrote in The Times, “He’ll never write a book as good as that again.” Now that’s something worthy of a rascal, really.
But something that I have loved working on and that took me years and years is the history of the English settlers in Argentina. The first book, “The Forgotten Colony” took me ten years to write and publish. Then there are “Rosas y los ingleses,” “Rosas visto por los ingleses,” “Small Wars You Might Have Missed (In South America).” That has been a life task, one I loved and enjoy because I, as an Anglo-Argentine, am a part of it.
When “A State of Fear” was published in England it got an amazing review from Graham Greene, your hero. How did that feel?
Well, it was a luxury, a great recognition. When the second edition was published in the UK, he said it was “the book of the year.” Having someone you admire say something like that is a hell of a compliment! It’s a writer’s dream come true!
Do you remember your first day at the Buenos Aires Herald?
It was an evening in July or August, in 1966. I spent five or six hours translating and writing news that had been taken from international wires. It was during Vietnam, I remember. A colleague of mine ended up being the Editor in Chief of the “world” section at the Baltimore Sun. He told me: “These wires are compact, but they give very little information. Find more.” I had to “build” the article with what the different news agencies had given us.
And I remember leaving the editorial office at around 9:30pm, having dinner with friends, and not talking about anything but the pieces of information I had seen and created. I completely overwhelmed the people I was with because that was the only thing I would talk about.
A few years ago, you wrote in The Observer that the British press is the best in the world. Do you still agree with that statement?
Generally, yes. The media has obviously changed. In Buenos Aires, I mostly read The Week, which is sort of an edition of British newspapers. I like how compact and direct the information is in British journalism, even today. Many of the rules that I had to learn in my time have had to be abandoned, that’s true. To a great extent computers have allowed for many changes. It’s important to remember that when I started you had to edit by hand on paper. The computer screen allows for a wider scope.
Take a look at the New York Times or the Washington Post, some of the most respected papers in the world. In my opinion, they take rather long to get to the information itself. The reporter describes where he is standing, who he is talking to, how he gets a taxi, just to tell you where he is going and why. All of that is superfluous. If you looked at a Spanish publication in the ‘70s you had to ignore the first two paragraphs to get to what the reporter was actually writing about. Nowadays, Spanish journalism – and I’m talking about El País, El Mundo – is much crisper, more precise. That’s what I like.
Is that a problem in Argentina these days?
What Argentine journalism lacks is the discipline of compacting, yes. If opinions are added to a report, then the principle that news is news is lost. There’s a wonderful phrase in English journalism: “Opinion is free, fact is sacred.” People need to tighten things up here. What I see in Buenos Aires, particularly in younger people who come from private universities, is very good. There are some kids who produce some great quality stuff. It’s also important to take into account the fact that we have a small market here, which bears an enormous influence on everything. It influences attitudes, what we do, how we do it.
Regardless of the technology that might be available, we are small and we are far away.
What advice would you give to journalists who are just starting out?
They should learn how to write well. Most of the young journalists that come out of courses and universities only know how to use the Internet and Google, which I think is atrocious, because sometimes it’s very easy to tell when an article has been written without leaving the newsroom. But anyway, if they know how to write properly they can come out clean.
What do you think of the Kirchners and their relationship with the media?
The Kirchners are paranoid about the media and the press. They are consumers of newspapers. In that sense, I wish there were more people like them. I just wish they were a little more pleasant. They are paranoid about what the papers say, but they don’t believe the papers.
Their history in Santa Cruz was one in which they sought complete control over the media. They detest and distrust the media in general. They did some pretty awful things when they were in the provincial government. They had (journalists) sacked from their jobs. They had a dirty tricks department. They subjected the local radio station to power cuts. Another radio journalist that was critical of the government had his car set ablaze. I’ve seen this happening since long before the Kirchners reached national office. I disliked them then and I still do.
What do you think of the new media law?
A new media law is necessary. It’s vastly overdue. The world of communications has changed. The European Union has already agreed on new legislation that going to come forth in 2012. They’re still struggling over some aspects, such as what constitutes a “screen” because people can download television shows onto their phones, etc.
So you do need a new regulatory framework. But in Argentina all of this has been more subject to whim than to anything else. We are ruled by whim or by prejudice. This law has nearly 200 clauses and even more sub-clauses, which really give way to whim. These nearly 200 clauses are riddled with mistakes, so the law as it stands now is a mess.
Not only is the law bad because of the terrible, sinister problems that the opposition attributes to it, there wasn’t enough reading time in Congress to get a good law. We have a law now, but as soon as anybody has half a chance of knowing what it says, they’re going to go to court against it. So you’re going to have an awfully expensive season of lawsuits against it.
Then you’re going to have the new Congress coming in March and they’ll change it, and then the government will veto those changes, and then we’ll be right back where we were earlier.
The Kirchners had an “I Hate You” situation with (the multimedia conglomerate Grupo Clarín), as well as with the rest of the press. This legislation was really passed to break up Clarín and other sizeable groups.
The law may have sinister undertones, but a problem that is just as sinister is the incompetence of it. I don’t think it’s a law that can be applied. The incompetent adds to the sinister.
*Born in Argentina, Javier Arevalo-Rendall is a freelance writer living in London. He writes for the newspaper Crítica de la Argentina, as well as the literary magazines Miranda, Sismotrapisonda, and La Otra, among others. He blogs at:www.javoarevalo.wordpress.com
**Taos Turner contributed to this interview.