Why should anyone get to know you? It’s a question I’ve struggled with for the past few weeks. Every answer that I put on to the singles website I’ve subscribed to is more ridiculous than the next. When I write about myself, my spluttering 15-year-old self takes over.
Many users of the site appear perplexed by the question, beginning their answers with very English expressions of mild embarrassment: “Ooh, this is a bit tricky.” At the moment I’ve hidden my profile from view while I regain control of my adolescent self, who stammers in self-deprecation instead of the urbane flow of his grown-up self.
As for my picture, well, crikey, that’s a bit tricky. I tend to pick the one that everyone else has the nous to hide. When I first signed on to the site, however, both image and words did the trick, winning a reasonable rate of responses – one for every five thousand people I’d ‘favourite’ would ‘favourite’ me back.
Within four days of signing on I went on a date with a 29-year-old PR girl called Nathalie (her real name was Natasha but I’m respecting her anonymity). We drank too much, had a kiss and cuddle by the Thames but the next day she failed to respond after I sent a text message to thank her for the meal I’d taken her to, which was always going to be a dumb move.
Eventually, she did get back but instead of her using her telephone, she reverted to the site, a distancing gesture, saying we should catch up when I returned from the short trip I was about to go on.
There I was, pacing around, like a teenager, biting my nails and bumping into things, wondering will she call won’t she.
It was a ridiculous waste of energy that I decided to channel in a more productive direction.
That week Voice of America TV’s Persian service had broadcast a lengthy interview with Ahmad Batebi, 31, imprisoned by the Islamic Republic after the student demonstrations of July 1999. His face was splashed on the cover of The Economist.
Search engines yielded no reports in English of Batebi’s release yet there he was on VOA, talking away about his experiences.
I phoned Intelligent Life, the Economist’s sister title, an upmarket glossy, pitching the idea of an interview with Batebi. They weren’t interested. So I wrote to The Economist’s foreign editor:
“In July 1999 The Economist -- reporting on the student riots in Iran that summer -- ran the picture of student Ahmad Batebi on its front cover, brandishing a bloodied T-shirt. The image became emblematic of the students' struggle and Batebi its most famous political prisoner.
“He has recently absconded bail, smuggled himself out of Iraq with the help of a Kurdish political group and is now in Washington. Would The Economist be interested in an interview with Mr Batebi, charting his experiences of torture throughout his time in Tehran's infamous Evin prison, and his escape?”
The foreign editor’s reply was succinct, infuriatingly so -- “Thanks for the happy news but I don’t think we will run the story. Best wishes.”
I wrote back. “[Dear sir] Mr Ahmad Batebi -- Iran's most famous political prisoner -- has suffered nine years of physical and psychological abuse as a direct consequence of appearing on the front cover of The Economist in July 1999.... His death sentence was lifted only due to pressure from international agencies -- with no input, it should be noted, from The Economist. [He] has in no uncertain terms been stripped of his youth and this has happened because -- and only because -- his image was featured on the front cover of The Economist.” I pointed them to Batebi’s VOA interview.
“Solitary confinement, unimaginable torture in one of the world's most notorious institutions and The Economist, one of the world's most respected does not see fit to offer news of his escape to its readers, even as a brief...”
The paper then wrote back, wondering, it seems, whether I was out to sue: “Thanks for providing this extra context. Can you please explain your position? Are you a journalist offering a freelance story or are you a representative of Mr Batebi?”
I assured them that I was an independent journalist and that I was surprised how news of his release has not even registered in the English-language press, “in contrast to the high-profile release of the dissident journalist Akbar Ganji in 2006.”
(Batebi’s apparent decision not to sue by the way, is in my opinion a mistake.)
I wrote: “The potency of The Economist cover as an image among Iranian opposition groups is only comparable to Alberto Korda's famous shot of Che Guevara -- it is one of the few images that they are all happy to use. As such, Mr Batebi's departure is far more of a blow to the Islamic Republic than Ingrid Betancourt's release is to the Farc rebels -- only journalists appear unaware of it. In terms of newsworthiness, it's very much like Mordechai Vanunu having escaped from Israel while he was in prison.”
Then came this: “You've persuaded me that we should do a piece on Mr Batebi.” Snag: “But since there is a direct Economist angle, I feel that this should be written by one of our own journalists. I'd be happy to pay you a small fee for bringing this story to our attention. Do you know how we can contact Mr Batebi?”
I did know how to contact Batebi but because I was on holiday by this point, Batebi was contacted on my behalf. He promised to hold out for an interview with me but once approached by The Economist, understandably, decided to talk to them directly. They thanked me for the story and paid me a small fee, and wrote a short and unsatisfactory piece on Batebi – almost nine years to the day since they splashed with Batebi’s image.
The report seemed at least partly aimed covering the paper legally. “Mr Batebi is a photographer himself,” it says (this is preposterous given that prison has prevented Batebi from establishing himself in any career). It goes on: “[Batebi] says he understands what journalism involves. Had we not published the picture, he says, another paper might have.”
The piece is also misinformed, asserting Batebi was “cagey about how exactly he escaped.”
The Economist, an industry friend of mine said, seems not to have given the subject much thought even now. If they had read this and not believed it, they could have challenged him.”
The questions remain: What would have The Economist have done had a Briton been involved in a similar situation abroad as a result of a picture or report of theirs? The UK media agreed to keep quiet on Prince Harry’s presence in Afghanistan for weeks, giving up many changes of circulation-boosting stories and pictures. Batebi was about the same age when he took part in the Tehran protests.
What Batebi and The Economist do not know, however, is had the girl called me that day, none of this would happened. And what Natasha doesn’t know, is that her not calling resulted in a sloppy piece of journalism by The Economist which earned me £100, easily covering the cost of the date. How’s that for a reason to get to know me?
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