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A journalist and a gentleman

Published in Jul-Aug 2014

Paying tribute to I. H. Burney (1931-2014).

If there ever was a Clint Eastwood personality in Pakistani journalism, it was Izharul Hasan Burney.

I.H. Burney, or Burney sahab as everyone in the Dawn Media Group affectionately knew him as, joined DAWN newspaper in 1958 and right up to a few months before his death in February this year, he continued to work with the Group as an editorial consultant, living up to the adage that a true journalist never retires.

There was something steely about Burney sahab’s personality and yet those who knew him fondly will also testify that there was a childlike innocence about him.

After a career span of roughly 54 years, most of them spent in Karachi, Burney sahab was a walking, talking encyclopedia on the history of Pakistan. He was witness to all the musical chairs between democracy and dictatorship that took place in Pakistan since 1947. He had a remarkable memory and could recall irregularities in general elections held decades ago as if they had happened only a few days ago.

He began his career as a crime reporter and rose through the ranks in the newsroom to attain key positions within DAWN, including holding the record of being the longest serving city editor of the Karachi pages. Burney sahab lived and breathed news, so much so, that even after he officially retired from DAWN, he was rehired as editor of The Star (the evening newspaper published by the Group).

He also spent some years in Dubai when Khaleej Times was set up. He told me he had returned to Karachi and his old job because he didn’t want to carry on ‘singing ghazals’ in the name of journalism.

Burney sahab never forgot his roots in Bulandshahr, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where he was born on June 24, 1931. He passed his matriculation there before migrating to Karachi in 1947. Later, he would obtain a degree in journalism from the University of Karachi.  

I was 23 years old in 2005 when I began to work under him. This was when DAWN first floated the idea of revamping the HTML site and turning it into the present day news portal. Burney sahab’s role as editorial consultant was to formulate the editorial guidelines for the project. His other task was to train ‘newbies’, such as myself, about journalism.

Apart from his journalistic acumen, another thing I envied about him was his physical fitness despite his very unhealthy habits of smoking Gold Leaf cigarettes and having his ‘special chai’, made with extra cream. Yet, despite this, he still managed to shame us with his perfect back posture when seated in his squeaky old chair. Often he would use the stairs (while we opted for the lift) to reach his ‘Room 201’ in Haroon House.  

On my first day at work, Burney sahab (who was still quite young then being only in his early 70s) asked me a simple question: “Are you a gentleman?”

As it was quite impossible to be one when you are in your 20s, I stared at him with a very guilty look as he lit his cigarette with a matchstick. (Burney sahab always used matches to light his cigarettes and his manual typewriter to write, despite having a PC on his desk.)

Responding to my stare he then said very matter of factly, as he hit the carriage return on his typewriter that “If you can’t be a gentleman, then you can never be a good journalist.”

There is no other way to describe Burney sahab but as a thorough gentleman, with impeccable manners and brilliant command over both English and Urdu.

He had a temper too. His voice could be heard a mile off if you made a mistake in the news copy, but he never ever used abusive or inappropriate language with anyone.

His idea of what a journalist should be was truly remarkable. A journalist should always be a role model for society, not only through one’s work, but also through one’s actions in daily life. I learnt not only about journalism from him; I also learnt how to be a responsible human being given the power that comes with having a press card.

I am proud to say that I had the unique distinction of teaching him something in return. I taught him how to switch on a computer and how to use Microsoft Word, although he never got used to it. It wasn’t as if he found technology an impossible hurdle to overcome; he was always a very keen learner. It’s just that he thought some of this ‘technology stuff’ was useless.

He never had an email address. “Isn’t a mobile phone distraction enough?” His point was that no matter how fast our digital era progresses, old school journalism principles will forever remain relevant. Chief among them was the need to be curious and observant at all times. To be brave and ask tough questions of intimidating people. To always make notes (preferably on a notepad) and make sure you have walked the entire stretch of the place you are writing about.    

He once told me: “My typewriter is more efficient than your PC because as soon as I have finished writing my piece,

I have a print out immediately, whereas you have to waste your time locating the print option on your machine and then click on some button to print.”

RIP Burney sahab. People like you aren’t born anymore.

Salman Siddiqui is a journalist based in Doha.