Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres faces the UN press corps outside the Security Council chamber. Credit: United Nations - Photo: 2024

When the World’s Newsrooms Erupted in Laughter… 

By Thalif Deen*

UNITED NATIONS | 27 June 2024 (IDN) — When British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed reporters outside his official residence, 10 Downing Street, to announce the next general elections, he stood there in pelting rain with a heavily water-soaked suit because no one was shielding him from the weather while dozens of reporters were armed to the teeth—both with rain coats and umbrellas.

The next morning the London newspapers had a field day. One of the tabloids ran with the headline: DROWNING STREET and another headline read: DROWN AND OUT. As for his chances of winning the upcoming elections, the Daily Telegraph had the headline: THINGS CAN ONLY GET WETTER.

Meanwhile, in a bygone era, when a British Labour Party politician MICHAEL FOOT was elected to chair a committee to look into nuclear disarmament in Europe, the legendary headline in the London Times in 1986 read: FOOT HEADS ARMS BODY.

Back In 1897, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, created the now-famous slogan “ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT,” which has continued to appear on top of the front page of the Times ever since.

But Playboy magazine, with its scantily-clad, topless women adorning its pages, threatened to outsmart the Times with its own slogan: ALL THE NUDES THAT’S FIT TO PRINT.

The Times is one of the few US newspapers which has continued with its strict ethics guidelines and its code of conduct. “Accepting money (or any other benefit) in exchange for coverage is strictly prohibited. We simply don’t do it,” according to a news report last week.

The Times just does not accept freebies, including airline tickets, hotel accommodations or gifts.  When a Times columnist was on an assignment in Saudi Arabia, one of the oil-blessed sheiks hosted a dinner where she was seated next to him at the dinner table.

At the end of the dinner, he magnanimously offered her a highly expensive gift, but she turned down the offer. Perhaps in characteristic Middle Eastern style, he tried a second time:  from under the dinner table. And she told him: We don’t accept gifts – even from under the table.

The Times also warns it reporters of “conflict of interest” in news coverage. As one of the editors famously told its staff: “I don’t care if my reporters sleep with elephants as long as they don’t cover the circus.”

In some of the world’s newspaper offices, whether in the US, UK or Sri Lanka, most journalists, including editors, headline writers, cartoonists and sports editors, are known to be gifted with a sense of humour.

Although some of the world’s most controversial leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim il Sung and his son Kim Jong-un never made it to the UN, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi did make a visit to the UN in September 2009.

112 different spellings of the Libyan leader’s name both in English and Arabic

According to one news report, there were 112 different spellings of the Libyan leader’s name both in English and Arabic, including Muammar el-Qaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi, Muammar al-Gathafi, Muammar El Kadhafi, Moammar el Kazzafi, Moamer, El Qathafi, Mu’Ammar, Gadafi, and Moamar Gaddafi, amongst others.
The Wall Street Journal ran a cartoon making fun of the multiple spellings, with a visiting reporter, on a one-on-one interview in Tripoli, asked the Libyan leader: ”My editor sent me to find out whether you are really Qaddafi, Khaddafi, Gadafi, Qathafi or Kadhafi?”

The late Mobutu Sese Seko, president of former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), was singled out as one of “the world’s most corrupt leaders”. Asked at a press conference whether he was the second wealthiest political leader in the world, a seemingly outraged Mobutu shouted back: “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” and then added with a straight face, “I am only the fourth richest.”

Meanwhile, an October 1991 report in the Washington Post quoted Mobutu as saying: “If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way. Only if you steal so much as to become rich overnight, you will be caught.”

And the UN press corps is also rich in anecdotes.

“Sir, you want the shooting section or the non-shooting section”

In New York city, some of the most famous killings took place in restaurants, including the Umberto Clam House, Rao’s, Nuova Villa Tammaro and Sparks Steak House (as listed in the National Crime Syndicate website).

And in what was described as one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, kills a Mafia boss and a corrupt police captain in Louie’s Restaurant in the Bronx, as depicted in the 1972 Academy Award winning Hollywood classic “The Godfather.”

So, when an Italian reporter in the UN press corps was invited to dinner by a Mafia chieftain at a Brooklyn restaurant, he was rather reluctant to accept the invitation because, according to a joke circulating at the time, the maître d’ at this restaurant usually asks the guest: “Sir, you want the shooting section or the non-shooting section”

Obviously, the shooting section in New York’s Italian restaurants is more hazardous to your health than the smoking section.

When a Southeast Asian ambassador hosted a lunch for journalists, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others, he told us there was a reason for the lunch. “We will soon begin our two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council—and we need your cooperation (read: news coverage)”.

And then added: “Hey guys, remember, as the Americans say, there is no such thing as a free lunch”. A wise-cracking British journalist shot back: “Ambassador, there is also no such thing as a free press”. An example of self-deprecating humour.

Still, there was at least one senior UN official with an off-beat sense of humor who recounted an incident—but insisted it should be “strictly off the record” lest he be accused of male chauvinism.

He said he was speaking at a press conference in Europe to launch a UN report, when following the briefing, several journalists, as they often do, rushed to the podium with more questions or seeking exclusive quotes, armed with their tape recorders.

“There was this buxom young European woman reporter,” he said, “who approached me with a sticker pinned to her chest which read: PRESS”. And I did not know what to do,” he said, amidst laughter.

“What is it that you are carrying”?

The late Dharam Shourie, UN Bureau Chief for the Indian news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI) pointed out that journalists back home, in the 1950s and 1960s, could rarely afford the luxury of a tape recorder.  So, most interviews, particularly with politicians and government bureaucrats, were either one-on-one or over the phone.

But if the interview got a strong blowback, politicians were quick to deny the entire story or falsely accuse the reporter of either misquoting or concocting the quotes. Unfortunately, journalists had no proof to nail the lying politicians.

According to Shourie, there was a rare instance in the 1960s when a reporter, armed with a bulky tape recorder, went to interview an Indian politician. The politician asked the reporter: “What is it that you are carrying”.

Told it was a tape recorder, he said: “No tape recorders. Leave it outside my office.” And added the punchline: “You are trying to deny me, my right to deny, what I am going to tell you.”

Shourie also told me about inviting a visiting journalist, a rigid vegetarian and a Brahmin Hindu, for lunch at the UN cafeteria. When he saw him serving himself beef stroganoff, Shourie was surprised and asked him: “I thought you were a strict vegetarian and did not eat beef.”

“Oh” said the visiting journalist: “I don’t eat Indian cows, but I can eat American cows”.

Thalif Deen

*This article contains excerpts from a book on the United Nations titled “No Comment—and Don’t Quote Me on That”—authored by Thalif Deen, Editor-at-Large, IIDN-InDepthNews Service, Berlin. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, he twice (2012 and 2013) shared the gold medal for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).  The book is available on Amazon. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:  [IDN-InDepth News]

Photo: Secretary-General António Guterres faces the UN press corps outside the Security Council chamber. Credit: United Nations.

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