‘Fixing’ amongst Argonauts
The term ‘fixer’ is a vague, generalising and often unpopular term. At best it described a kind of ‘man (or woman) who can’, at worst it turns the spotlight away from the talents such a person needs to have and creates a base commodity. Certainly, many in the field will welcome a well-made service that facilitates local professionals and their global clients. However, to be successful World Fixer has to build on the identity of the role attached to ‘fixer’. They do not only have to give credit where it’s due but place local partners and visiting professionals on an even footing. By opening the debate here they have taken the first step.
The best definition I read about what exactly constitutes the job of ‘fixer’ comes from George Packer (“The New Yorker”) in an obituary-styled essay called “It’s always the Fixer who Dies.” It was written after the murder of Sultan Munadi in 2009; an Afghan journalist working for global news organizations. For Packer it’s, “the local man or woman who helps the foreign correspondent” and then he offers some fascinating thoughts about that relationship and the dangers of assisting foreigners in a conflict zone. I find the generality and impreciseness of the first statement quite convincing. To say “fixer” in that way is like saying “aid”, helper” or “assistant” while making sure that you know how to talk journalism.
Whether Sultan Munadi liked to be called a “fixer” or not is not for me to establish, but I asked media professionals in India that make their living by “fixing” for foreign journalists. Most of them found the term “fixer” somehow odd, misleading if not insulting. There were some “fixers” that didn’t really care about being called that one way or another, but the vast majority would prefer a different terminology. “My understanding is that in the Victorian Age, the queen needed people to fix things. Like fix the tea, you know. Fix the bed, fix the slippers”, one apparently sorely afflicted Delhi journalist told me. “But man, what do you want to be fixed?”
Gaps between the perception of journalists and “fixers” …….
There is a high probability that a senior correspondent or conflict-experienced broadcasting journalist reading this post will strongly reject this notion. She or he might recall a very special relationship with an independent-minded person, intelligent and outspoken, a teacher, mentor and friend rather than a Victorian style servant. They will feel a strong emotional attachment that comes from having shared extreme situations of sorrow and joy. To be called a “fixer” didn’t seem to be a problem to this person at all and it’s certainly true that one piece of research in India is not representative of the global “fixer industry”. Some will even recall having met “fixers” working in the western world (and also the UK), for “Western” and “Non-Western” clients alike and will see this as proof that there is no postcolonial agenda. But this is not the point. There is nothing wrong with being a “fixer”. There also is nothing wrong with paying somebody to be a “fixer” (or building a business around bringing both together). The problem with a journalist writing about “their fixers” (and of course the other way around) is just that both are directly involved in a relationship of reciprocal dependency and are likely to miss some nuances of the complete picture.
I believe that users and opponents of that word actually understand different things when they hear “fixer”. For many travelling journalists it describes a specification in a broader working chain, it is a position in a team effort that diverges in the necessary skills and not in quality. Like an anaesthesiologist and a surgeon working side by side for the benefit of one patient. Another way to see it, often informed by personal experience of working as a “fixer”, would pin it to a position in some kind of a broader work hierarchy. It’s because of that discrepancy that I find it difficult to use “fixer” without those eye-tiring quotation marks.
Having said that I also believe that the word itself shouldn’t be overestimated as harmful; I see it as media jargon that probably stuck too much to be changed or avoided easily. But what I find astonishing is that you can easily find a line of people working in that business that feel labeled incorrectly and nobody in the global news industry really seems to take notice. It’s in those gaps that open between the perception of foreign journalists and local “fixers” where science can point out nuances of interest. Something like a starting point in that effort was a study by Jerry Palmer and Victoria Fontan who have interviewed foreign correspondents and “fixers” in Iraq (2007). Both groups expressed considerably different experiences when being asked about how much they thought that the translations provided by the “fixer” actually affect the news. Not that big a deal, according to foreign correspondents, while “their fixers” saw it as fundamental in the creation of news content. Also the Indian “fixers” I talked to frequently did emphasize the importance of translation. For them it included construing a whole baggage of cultural characteristics and sensitivities. Translation in that sense also means moderating because apparently quite frequently the Western journalist steps in it and risks the most important interview of the day.
Anthropology and Journalism can learn from each other …….
There are some striking similarities between the actual practice of a correspondent working in unfamiliar territory and that of an ethnographer. Both disciplines are highly dependent on local help, information and contacts. In fact I have met several media “fixers” in India that told me about their experience of also being hired to assist fieldwork, for example helping to open doors in a Mumbai slum. At the end of the day both journalist and ethnographer are typically trying to come back from the location with material for a mediated description of the society they visit.
Already the early ethnologist of the 19th century would hire local translators and porters but in this time he often would be interested in gathering actual stuff. Artifacts were exchanged, bought or robbed. Later on, when anthropology became more of an intellectual field, the typical ethnographer would still be a white male and Western individual. A well recorded example is Bronislaw Malinowski (“Argonauts of the Western Pacific”) who also hired local helpers for his research in New Guinea. He is the scientist credited with being one of the inventors of participant observation, the principle research method of cultural anthropology that since has been incorporated into journalism. Malinowski kept a detailed personal diary during his research where he also describes (without using that word) how he hired a “fixer” called Ginger on the Trobriand Island in 1917. In the following month he recorded how he “cursed Ginger who had walked out without permission” and that he “hit him on the cheek” or that Ginger was simply “cleaning” (I feel almost sorry for picking on Malinowski, because he clearly had an obsession with his personal diary which makes him such an easy target after almost a century).
In the last 30 years the broader field of anthropology has gone through a process of reconsidering the way it makes judgments on the cultures it is trying to look at. There was a debate in the 1980s involving thinkers like James Clifford or George E. Marcus, later on Edward Said and many others that helped anthropology to change its relationship to local people and become more diverse. I believe it could help Western journalists to be aware of those discussions when embarking to their work in very unfamiliar cultures. Because in addition to facts there is always another thing that good journalism should manage to convey –a grasp of the local perspective. In order to achieve this, the foreigner has to listen really closely to what her or his local partner has to say.
It is my belief that a service like “worldfixer.com” can help to foster equality and participation for local media professionals in the global media industry because it gives to them a very useful technology. I wish the creators well.
Anthropologist – Humboldt University, Berlin
Martin Heidelberger is an anthropologist at Humboldt-University in Berlin and his topic of research are the “local actors of the global news industry”. Before that he worked as a journalist and editor for Germany’s International broadcaster Deutsche Welle.