The review of Syed Irfan Ashraf'sThe Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan (London: Anthem Press, 2022, 240 pp., ISBN ISBN:9781839981371) was originally published in Mass Communication and Society. This version is the Accepted Manuscript.
The work of fixers, local media professionals often hired to work with global media and parachute reporters in conflict zones, has received belated attention over recent years. The Dark Side of News Fixing steps into this young, exploratory sub-field as an honest attempt to bring in what it lacks: a structural analysis focused on the power of and within the market with fixers, the dynamic of which is tightly intertwined with the dynamics of war, and thus with destruction and suffering. Syed Irfan Ashraf provides a classical Marxist analysis of Pashtun fixers’ labor from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the post-9/11 US-led “war on terror.”
To this end, the author interviewed and analyzed two tiers of Pashtun (male) journalists who worked for global media: bureau reporters and district/tribal reporters. While the bureau reporters work as news editors or newsroom staff at the national level, the district reporters, working as commissioned agents in specific localities, have lower status. At the same time, the author explains: “When I contacted Pashtun ‘fixers’ for this study, they were not ready to share their experiences, even experiences as far back as 2001, because they feared State violence” (p. 50-51). Therefore, more details on the size and composition of the final sample would have been helpful, especially as the author investigates news fixing in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The analysis starts with the author’s experience as a local journalist and fixer in Pakistan’s district Swat. The chapter revolves around his work on the story of activist—then a schoolgirl—Malala Yusufzai, who later survived an attempted murder by Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2014. Ashraf acknowledges putting his sources at risk, thus serving “the cause of systematic violence” (p. 31). The value and importance of the author’s individual experience goes behind this particular chapter; therefore, it is surprising that he does not work more systematically and transparently with autoethnography and self-reflexivity.
The second, theoretical chapter investigates the debated word fixer and the precarity that it entails and reproduces when it “hides real people behind an artificially constructed role” (p. 54). Notably, the author also focuses on the much-neglected bodily and material nature of journalism. He argues that reducing fixers to local eyes, ears, hands, proxy brains—often committed also by journalism scholars—fragments and dehumanizes the bodies of local news workers to conceal or euphemize the physical dangers they undergo, and thus also the hierarchy of safety and the outsourcing of risks. The third chapter then explains the local media landscape and its deployment into the global media market, and shows the structural similarities between fixers and Pashtuns.
After this absorbing exposition, the book chronologically investigates local journalism’s and fixers’ relationships with global media in the region, starting with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and following with the US-led “war on terror,” during which the lives of fixers and their families were put on the line and impunity became a new normal.
In the final chapter, the author applies the Marxist lens “to demystify global media production and show that precarity is an attribute of the free-market economy” (p. 170). While infusing his analysis also with Bourdieusian terms, he summarizes the fixers’ and local journalists’ exploitation and proletarian insecurity: “It is the self-identification with journalism as a professional (…) and the compulsions of working to survive that have made my colleagues and friends complicit in their self-exploitation. This is the intimate tragedy of the life of a fixer”’ (p. 185).
The monograph, thanks to its empirical richness, is a valuable and unique contribution to the fast-growing volume of literature on fixers. Three aspects of the book stand out as particularly original and inspiring. First, the author, albeit briefly, looks into the previously unexplored intensity of fixers’ emotional experience. Their affective proximity to the events they cover made the local journalists’ labor more painful and traumatic but also motivated them, including the author himself, “to connect worries of the Pashtun community (…) to wider audiences to highlight the global violence” (p. 31). Relatedly, the book is unusually personal. Using his own story, the author describes the brutal exploitation of local fixers by foreign media, editors, and reporters, the utter cynicism of some actors, and provides a confession about his performance of neutrality, guilty feelings, and sense of grievance for not getting credit in crucial moments of his career. Finally, Ashraf vividly depicts the complexity of the conflict reporting ecosystem: the murky settings, the fabric of which is made by chains and nets of mutual exploitation: “The journalists of Peshawar exploit the tribal journalists and the former are exploited by those sitting in Islamabad and Karachi, while their exploitation may probably be done by those in foreign media.” (p. 93).
The complexity and also the extensive personal experience allow the author to approach the fixers’ community as a varied collection of individual identities with agency, specific history, background, and motivations.
This empirical richness pointing, among other things, to the complex hierarchy of exploitation, resists the “radical simplicity” (p. 175) of the Marxist framework. For example, the author quotes his communication partner, saying, “We did not make a big fuss about low payment because journalism was a passion” (p. 85). At the same time, he paraphrases Marx, claiming that, “In the absence of due labour credit, work is never a pleasure” (p. 173).
Interpreting the passion for work as a form of false consciousness, which turns any pleasure into a mere trigger of the self-exploitation mechanism, has been criticized by scholars investigating media and creative labor (e.g., Hesmondhalgh 2010). Critics believe that such an approach lacks any conception of what might constitute good work, which limits critique; therefore, research should draw—critically—on concepts of autonomy and self-realization. Indeed, even the author acknowledges his agency beyond the financial motivation to work as a fixer: “I wanted to share freely all I have to say about this visceral reality” (p. 18). The Marxist approach thus seems more like an ideological than empirically grounded choice.
After all, the author openly states that “This book is a political project” (xv). Through the somewhat Cold War lens, the capitalist bloc—capitalism being conflated with neoliberalism, (neo)imperialism, and (neo)colonialism—is seen as the primary cause of all evil. This bipolar vision of the world has been criticized by current post-colonial authors who observe that in the current historical conjuncture, “The lines separating the East from the West, and North from the South, are increasingly becoming porous under conditions of globalization” (Shome and Hegde 2002, 257). Moreover, the author’s piercing geopolitical look is unidirectional, benevolent to Soviet imperialism and colonialism; the Soviet war in Afghanistan is repeatedly euphemized as “intervention” (e.g., p. 8).
The author’s neglect of the available criticism of the (neo)Marxist approach to creative labor and schematic geopolitical dichotomies is thus to the detriment of the otherwise complex and empirically rich study.
Hesmondhalgh, D. 2010. ‘Normativity and Social Justice in the Analysis of Creative Labor.’ Journal for Cultural Research 14 (3): 67–84.
Shome, R., and R. S. Hegde. 2002. ‘Post-colonial Approaches to Communication: Charting the Terrain, Engaging the Intersections.’ Communication Theory 12 (3): 249 – 270.
How to cite this article:
Reviewed by Johana Kotišová (2022) The Dark Side of News Fixing: The Culture and Political Economy of Global Media in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mass Communication and Society, DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2022.2124766