Birand’s loss a great loss to Turkish society
MICHAEL LAKEI am shocked and saddened at the untimely death of my old friend and colleague, Mehmet Ali Birand. We sat together at lunch at Hürriyet in Istanbul just seven weeks ago, when I was in Turkey with the IPI (International Press Institute), looking into press freedom. Other friends told me he had come straight from a session of chemotherapy to join me at the lunch. I was deeply touched and I wish now we had lingered to talk more about the news dramas going on all around us. I did not realize, of course, that I would never see him again. Instead, we chatted comfortably as if there had been no interruptions in the nearly 50 years we had known each other, as if we had just met each other again on a bus. Such was the force of his personality I had no idea that he was feeling unwell.
Journalism can surprisingly be like the diplomacy to which I had migrated from The Guardian: It is helpful to have a broad knowledge of the world around you, to be able to focus and report accurately and fairly on issues, and, in certain circumstances, to be able to project one’s self the better to communicate with a wide range of people. Mehmet Ali had all these attributes in spades.
He was tough-minded, fair, and in the face of official and occasionally military disapproval over more than five decades, he was courageous. He never lost his drive for a better democracy, for freedom of expression and human rights.
This was known in capitals around the world. As Turkish television viewers know better than anyone else, he could open doors almost anywhere. Viewers would suddenly find themselves sharing in a prolonged, deep interrogation of some world leader, ready and willing to expose him or herself to Mehmet Ali’s well-informed questioning. It was often an act of foreign policy for a participant to appear on his program.
To me, Mehmet Ali Birand was especially a champion of the old Common Market, then the European Community, and finally the European Union. He was particularly in favor of its values and, like me, even more particularly in favor of Turkish membership of the EU. In this field his knowledge and expertise were an asset to Turkish society as a whole.
We first met and became friends in the press room of the European Commission back in the 1960s. He was the only Turk around, and it was a salutary lesson for us journalists from other European countries to realize that this dynamic young guy, with his near-perfect English and French, was reporting back to a country that we had scarcely realized was a candidate for membership. Mehmet Ali was Turkey’s public eye on the European experiment.
When I arrived in Turkey as the new EU ambassador back in 1991, Mehmet Ali’s friendship - and I must add here that of Sami Kohen of Milliyet, who I have also known for more than 50 years - was of enormous help to me in establishing my own credibility with the Turkish media.
That friendship never faltered, and I felt honored when Mehmet Ali hosted a buffet dinner at his home for my wife and me with 30 around other Turkish journalists when I was transferred to Budapest in 1998. We remained in touch, communicating and meeting several times since.
His death is a great loss to Turkish society, as well as to the media. The presence of President Abdullah Gül and other ministers, politicians, diplomats, journalists and a host of old friends at his funeral is a striking testament to the respect and affection in which he was held. He was an example to us all.
Michael Lake, EU ambassador to Turkey, 1991-98.