Turkey’s voice in Europe, Europe’s voice in Turkey

Turkey’s voice in Europe, Europe’s voice in Turkey

For about half a century, Mehmet Ali Birand, who died Jan. 17, was the best known face of Turkish journalism, and not only to Turkish newspaper readers and television viewers but also across Europe, particularly in Brussels, and the wider world.

His energy and his output were extraordinary. He was writing literally up to the very end. His final article appeared today, the day he died, about an event taking place today. Over the years Mehmet Ali produced books, television series, documentaries and films and toured most of the world reporting news stories. It is probably no exaggeration to say that he had a particular influence on the Turkish-EU relationship, especially during the dark years when the union ignored Turkey. For officials, other journalists, diplomats and academics, Mehmet Ali was Turkey’s voice and representative.

It was a unique distinction: There can have been few, if any, figures held in such respect outside Turkey and perhaps it accounted for his somewhat-charmed life. For despite the occasional legal scrape, Mehmet Ali never got into deep trouble during many decades of being a fervent controversialist who quite often trod on powerful toes or irritated policymakers. But never too far.

Ultimately he was, though he would have hated to be described as such, a part of Turkey’s national establishment and a very creative and constructive one.

As a journalist, Mehmet Ali, a graduate of Galatasaray Lycee, began by sharing news and information.

He had a natural flair for this: His writing was simple and direct, and he had a natural grasp of the central issues at the heart of complicated international news stories. He was a great and vivid simplifier. He was also passionate. He believed passionately in a democratic, modern, Westernized Turkey that would work on equal terms with France, Germany, Belgium and Britain as a natural partner.

His reporting was always committed to that goal, and as a result it sometimes pursued themes and trends a little too strongly. Mehmet Ali used to run ahead of the news.

Perhaps, but over 50 years it is hard to remember a news story which Mehmet Ali got wrong or an important development or trend which he identified that did not turn out to be correct. From this came impatience with slow-moving or illiberal bureaucracy and policy-makers who failed to take a course of action which seemed obviously necessary to him.

In journalism it was Abdi İpekçi who gave Birand his first break in journalism in 1964 as correspondent for Milliyet and later posted him to Brussels. Birand became one of the newspaper’s best correspondents in what was to prove a golden age of journalism.

Later he made the transition to television, appearing regularly on screen, and working for most of the major Turkish channels: TRT, Show TV and Kanal D. Birand was an innovator as far as TV reporting technology was concerned and the camera work in his programs was superb, so too was the élan with which he ensured that film was transmitted swiftly to Turkey long before the Internet was available.

Voluble, excitable, amusing, insistent – but always lucid, Birand’s TV reporting was never dull and his flagship program, 32nd Day, set standards which have never really been equaled elsewhere.

In the last years of the 20th century, Birand’s journalism campaigned for the end of the penumbra of military influence constricting democratic life in Turkey and he was anathematized by the establishment: something he reported on loudly and firmly later. In the first decade of the 21st century, he endorsed the changes, hoping that a fully democratic system in Turkey had at last come into being, but his newspaper columns of the last year were increasingly critical of the current situation. Knowing too that his end was approaching, he perhaps felt able to speak a little more directly than he had done in the past.

Mehmet Ali Birand was loved by some, perhaps disliked by others, but for several generations in Turkey he was synonymous with lively, authoritative and entertaining news reporting. His death marks the end of an era and leaves his country much poorer.

*Retired diplomat Özdem Sanberk is currently the director of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).