In Brazil, a ban on practicing journalism without a government-approved diploma is on its way back. Not only is this baffling to foreigners, it may become part of the constitution.
by Claire Rigby
For anyone who has ever read Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire on news journalism, or Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, the figure of the shifty, sordid or dishevelled hack* is a well-loved totem of the journalistic profession.
‘This world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism,’ as Christopher Hitchens fondly called it in his introduction to a 2000 edition of Scoop, later expanding on the theme in a Guardian Books article to round up all the best hacks and muckrakers in the genre, from Brighton Rock’s jaded, doomed newspaperman Hale to Scoop’s hapless Boot, hurtling from rural obscurity to the scoop of his life in a byzantine African war. ‘He had once seen in Taunton a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York,’ writes Waugh, ‘where neurotic men in shirt-sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape-machines, insulting and betraying one another in circumstances of unredeemed squalor.’
Here in Brazil, as in the UK, the reality of newsrooms today is rather different, much as many old-school journalists might wish to imagine it otherwise. Here, as there, 21st-century newsrooms feature fewer thrusting young chancers from poor backgrounds, like Boot’s, and more shiny-haired graduates with well developed senses of entitlement.
The difference is that here in Brazil, that social balance has, over the past few decades, been imposed by law.
Licence to write
The question of who may and may not work as a journalist here is the subject of an ongoing battle in Brasília, in which journalism has since the 1960s been ranked with medicine, law, engineering and architecture as a profession for which specialised university training is compulsory.
The esteem in which journalists are subsequently held, and my slowness to pick up on it, led to more than one surreal ‘what-do-you-do?’ conversation when I first came to São Paulo. I’d describe my job as a magazine editor, and my work as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines. The other person would listen carefully, and then ask, ‘Are you a journalist?’ It took me a while to understand that they meant ‘Journalist’ with a capital ‘J’ and that to my surprise, despite years of writing and editing, a degree in English, and my membership of the UK national journalists’ union, I wasn’t.
Fortunately for me, the legal requirement for a university diploma in journalism, originally imposed in 1969 during Brazil’s military dictatorship, was overturned in 2009 by the Supreme Court, on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional violation of the right to freedom of speech.
And yet this week, in an almost unanimous vote on Tuesday night (7 August), the Brazilian Senate voted to not only reinstate the requirement for a journalism diploma, but also to embed it in the Constitution.
Through the looking glass
Seen as a bare-bones set of facts, it’s a rum state of affairs. A military junta imposes restrictions on who can and cannot practice journalism. A Supreme Court rules the restriction unconstitutional. Journalism unions and educational establishments mass to overturn that ruling, seeking to create an amendment instead enshrining the protected status of qualified journalists in the Brazilian Constitution – the only profession to be thus protected.
The actions of the union, led by the National Federation of Journalists, FENAJ, make sense in the context of fears that the opening up of journalism might be a ploy on the parts of newspaper proprietors to employ cheaper labour. They also make sense if you consider that the unions, despite having little in common with the aims of the military junta that imposed the restriction, came to rely on what was a form of closed shop for protecting rates of pay and the rights of their members.
And yet, despite journalists’ usual command of the art of persuasion, much as you search in the arguments in favour of the constitutional amendment, in the thousands of words that have been written on the subject, it’s strangely difficult to find much that’s compelling or conclusive in terms of an argument. ‘Journalistic information is a strategic element of contemporary societies,’ ponders Beth Costa, a former president of FENAJ, in a long document, ‘The journalism diploma: A requirement in the interests of society’, that fails to persuade with any urgency.
Even the Bill itself (Proposta de Emenda à Constituição, Nº 33 de 2009) reads unconvincingly, stating, ‘Journalism is a form of narrative that presupposes analysis, knowledge of history, impression [impressão], narrative focus, context, knowledge of language, signs, etc.’, and asserting that these are ‘things that people need to learn in the context of formal educational relations’.
No mention of the utility or otherwise of university degrees in other disciplines, common in newspapers and magazines elsewhere in the world; or of the fact that these skills are also self-evidently possible to acquire via less formal methods.
Many senators applauded the results of Tuesday’s vote: ‘Without a free press,’ said Senator Paulo Davim, ‘and without qualified journalists committed to truth and ethics, no consolidation of democracy can be possible’. Senator Aloysio Nunes, one of the few dissenters – the amendment was approved by a majority of 60 to 4 – said, ‘There is no public interest involved in this,’ referring to the lobby for the amendment.
That lobbying group includes, perhaps naturally, members of the educational establishment involved in producing qualified journalists. And yet for every Metodista, PUC or Cásper Líbero – the three most prestigious private universities offering the degree – there’s a dozen lesser colleges, public or private, churning out less carefully prepared graduates.
In a blog post from 2009, when the amendment was first proposed, which he republished yesterday, the journalist André Forastieri wrote: ‘Even if the colleges were good, which they are not, which I witness every day working in close contact with recent graduates who know nothing about anything, I would be against this.’
And yesterday, an editorial in this newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, railed against the Senate’s decision, calling on Congress to reverse the ‘grave mistake’. Folha’s stance goes back to the 1980s, when the current editorial director, Otavio Frias Filho, took charge, taking on the unions and university departments by contracting some staff without specialist diplomas. Folha’s occasionally defiant approach has been matched in other newsrooms by more circumspect methods – the contracting of editors with inventive titles such as ‘communications assistant’, for example.
‘Journalism is not a science,’ reads yesterday’s editorial, ‘but a technique for uncovering and reporting on matters of public interest. It is not a speciality, but a wide collection of specialities.’ Reflecting the kind of newsroom more common outside of Brazil, it goes on, ‘Since almost any topic can be the subject of journalistic coverage, its collective exercise calls for contributions from professionals with very diverse training and experiences.’
‘Is journalism going to end?’ writes André Forastieri in his resurrected post from 2009. ‘Won’t there be people in the future who know how to research, interview and organize information in a way that’s coherent and seductive, with a unique point of view and the ability to electrify the reader/listener/viewer? Of course there will. The internet is full of them. But having studied for a degree in journalism or not has nothing to do with it.’
Either way, the process isn’t over yet, and potentially not by a long chalk – the Bill, already three years in the making, has yet to be passed by Congress.
[Editor’s note: I did two undergrad degrees, one in political economy and one in philosophy/literary theory, so I am not a “Journalist” either. Before I did a master’s degree, a well-known journalist from a very well-known American newspaper advised me that I should not, under any circumstances, study ‘journalism’ – Vincent]
* ‘Hack’, a derogatory term meaning ‘journalist’ that is nevertheless sometimes used by British journalists themselves. Not to be confused, though often implicated, with epidemics of phone-‘hacking’.
Photo: The Folha newsroom, as seen from Vincent’s phone 10 minutes ago.