The art of self-criticism
Samir Sobhi, Friday 7 Feb 2020
The solutions to the problems of the press today may lie in the hands of journalists themselves

Constructive self-criticism is an art, but criticism of others can be much more artistic. Self-criticism involves diving deep into one’s personal traits that include behaviour, beliefs and ideas in order to define the weaker aspects of an individual’s character and to try to amend them.

Such criticism can focus on an individual, a group or a whole society. The aim is to bring about reform that may extend to society as a whole and help societal institutions and organisations to rectify their mistakes. In a word, self-criticism should help to rectify accumulated problems that can endanger such institutions and even lead to their destruction.

In order to engage in positive self-criticism, we should avoid harsh words, however. Being too harsh can make it much more difficult to reach a solution and may make problems more complicated. Self-criticism differs according to who is practising it. We also need to differentiate between political and philosophical criticism.

Some people believe that self-criticism is meant to be undertaken by an individual with a view to correcting personal mistakes without waiting for the judgement of others. A man criticising himself is likely to be free and honest in facing his own mistakes alone but doing so in the presence may make him ill at ease.

Criticism in politics is different, and here the opinions of others are vital. Some political parties oblige their members to attend sessions of self-criticism where wrong practices are openly discussed. In certain cases, some members may face dismissal, and for this and other reasons self-criticism is of paramount importance in the working of political parties. It can help ailing parties to recover and to restore their strength.

The same technique can be applied to the press. The world is now talking about the decline of print newspapers and their possible obsolescence. As a result of developments in technology, notably information technology, print newspapers have real problems, and many have already disappeared owing to falling circulations.

Something similar has happened in Egypt, where the problem has also been attributed to a lack of press freedom. This is not 100 per cent true, as there are other reasons that have caused the current crisis, and I believe that the solution lies in the hands of journalists themselves.

Since the second half of the 19th century, the Egyptian press has been subject to censorship, and so the control of the press is not something new. Even with such control, it was able to grow and flourish. Indeed, during the British occupation of Egypt and in the wake of the 1952 Revolution, when the press suffered from strict censorship, sometimes almost stifling it, famous newspapers still appeared together with prominent writers.

What is happening today is quite different, however, since now the newspapers have lost their distinctiveness. Many of them look the same. At the same time, many of them have tended to steer away from discussion of societal problems, and this has meant that they have lost their credibility with the public. Sometimes, their content has been sarcastically referred to as only “press talk.”

Another issue is newspaper design, which has lacked uniqueness. All newspapers in Egypt use similar layouts, and though we now have modern printing and typography at our disposal most layout editors still use the same monotonous designs. Distinctive photographs have also been absent from newspaper pages.

The art of the cartoonist, sometimes called “the vitamin of the press,” has suffered, and many readers now miss the work of the cartoonists of the past, among them Salah Jahin and Mostafa Hussein. It is difficult today to find talented journalists of the calibre of those of the past, men like Mohamed Al-Tabei, Ali and Mostafa Amin, Ihsan Abdel-Quddus, also a novelist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Mahmoud Al-Saadani, Mostafa Mahmoud, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz and Louis Awad, the latter three being journalists as well as critics and creative writers.

These names were once the lifeblood of the Egyptian press. Do such talented writers no longer exist? Or have we stopped searching for them?

The search for talent was one of the main jobs of the last generation of journalists, as could be seen in the career of the late Louis Greis, editor of the Cairo magazine Sabah Al-Kheir in the 1960s, who made a tour of Upper Egypt to find new talents, among them vernacular poets who accompanied their verses with music on the rababa, a stringed instrument. Greis came back with a number of promising new poets and started to publish their works, among them Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi, who later achieved wide fame in Egypt and the Arab world.

I can also still remember how pleased the distinguished writer Kamel Zoheiri was when he saw the new layout of Al-Ahram some 28 years ago. It may be useful, too, to quote the distinguished 19th-century British journalist Henry Wickham Stead, who once said that it was necessary for any newspaper that goes after success to be distinctive in its layout as well as in its content.

I was once asked why the poems of the early 20th-century Egyptian-Tunisian poet Bayram Al-Tunisi have managed to survive. Al-Tunisi, one of the pioneers of colloquial nationalist poetry, was able to touch the feelings of all Egyptians during the period of the British occupation. Newspapers publishing his works enjoyed a wide circulation, and people used to chant songs written by Al-Tunisi at social gatherings.

Al-Tunisi wrote one famous patriotic poem in which he addresses the ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun. I think this should be incorporated into an opera and should be part of the 2022 celebrations marking 100 years since the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Who knows, it may also be the kind of poem that would have personally pleased the ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly.