by John Chappell
The valley of Doon nestles in the snowcapped mountains of northern India. It
is far away from Pinehurst or the sand dunes of Moore.
Mohsin Ali made that long journey, a lifelong trek as a journalist, a
philosopher, a poet, and a lover of poetry.
"I was born in the beautiful Doon valley in the foothills of the snowcapped
Himalayas," Ali said. "The town is called Dehra-dun. It is in the far north
of India. I was born Oct. 9, 1923 - 10/9 as you put it in America, but 9/10
in the British fashion."
Ali was an officer in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War,
fighting on the Burma Front. Following his military service he found himself
in London, having acquired some knowledge of the world along the way.
He was about to acquire more. Ali became a reporter.
In 1948 he joined Reuters News Agency at its London headquarters. His work
plunged him into a world caught up in fervor and ferment.
"These were the exciting postwar days of the first Labour government of
Clement Attlee which came into office following Churchill's stunning
election landslide defeat," he has said. "In Britain the centuries old
entrenched class system was slowly beginning to break up. We were in the
post-nuclear age, though the full realization of this had not dawned on us.
The map of the world was beginning to change."
As a diplomatic correspondent, Ali covered virtually every major world event
until his retirement in 1980 when Queen Elizabeth II made him an Officer of
the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for services to international
"I belong to the old school of British journalism," he is now fond of
saying. "It was wittily summed up by the British poet Humbert Wolfe thus:
'You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist. But
seeing what the man will do - unbribed - there's no occasion to.' But more
seriously, no matter how imperfect things are, if you've got a free press
everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable."
As Reuters' diplomatic correspondent (and later diplomatic editor) for 30
years, he covered most of the big East-West Conferences, including Summit
meetings; the Korea, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam peace talks; disarmament,
nuclear test ban and nonproliferation negotiations.
Ali reported on proceedings of the U.N. General Assembly.
He covered meetings of NATO foreign and defense ministers.
He described events at meetings setting up the European Community and
complex negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Ali covered annual sessions of the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund (IMF). He attended Commonwealth summits.
In Geneva, in 1961, he met Dolores Gregory, a Tarheel with a degree in
chemistry from Duke University. At the time she worked for the World Health
Organization in their research planning office. Friends thought they would
be a perfect couple.
There was, of course, a slight problem of distance.
Gregory's work brought her back across the Atlantic to jobs with various
government agencies. Ali's assignments for Reuters were carrying him to the
furthest reaches of the compass.
They married in 1978.
Two years after that, Ali retired from Reuters. Lord James Callaghan, former
British Labour Prime Minister wrote a short personal letter to Ali on House
of Commons stationary.
"When I think of Reuters, I think of Mohsin Ali and I feel sad that in a
week or two this will no longer be true . . ." he wrote. "This, together with
your many kindnesses to me and my staff, has made your name synonymous with
the reputation of that great agency for which you have worked so
The Times of London then asked him to join its Washington, D.C., bureau. For
the next 9 years he covered the White House, the State Department, the
Pentagon, Congress, and NASA, including the Challenger disaster.
Since 1995, they have made their home in Pinehurst. Ali is now a U.S.
citizen. He continues to write and lecture widely. He is a frequent guest on
Mark Evan's cable TV program "Mark My Words."
Over half a century Ali has observed the rise and fall of many an extreme.
He has seen the world's peace menaced again and again by facile, simplistic
and - in his view - risky remedies.
"Why all this fundamentalism/extremism of the right, left, north, south?"
Ali asks. "Why can we not hold to W. B. Yeats' center?"
The center, the point of balance, the middle way is for Ali the better
It is the ancient way of moderation in all things, as old as the Buddha or
the later (and still ancient) Greek table of virtues: nothing to excess,
moderation in all - sophrosune, "with-wisdom-ness."
"Why is it so difficult for people and governments etc. to follow the
Buddha's 'middle path' of moderation?" Ali often asks. "In the unpredictable
course of international happenings, let us take the Buddha's 'middle path'
of moderation in all things, including moderation itself."
For him, the path lies in loss of self, a touchstone for his work as a
"What for me are the lessons of this 40-year journey around world
diplomacy?" Ali asked. "Schopenhauer's principle of objectivity: 'Unhinge
the self until you feel no fear or hate.'"
As a young postwar journalist, Ali found himself in a group having to invent
new rules of reporting.
"A young person coming into western journalism today finds relatively stable
values with standardized and accepted rules of reporting," he has said. "But
we had to devise some of these in the immediate postwar period."
It was a time of enormous social and economic change. New words like "cold
war" and "iron curtain" described an escalating confrontation between
Stalin's Soviet Union and the West.
There was an arms race, and complex disarmament negotiations.
"We had to explain the meaning of such terms as nuclear throw-weight, NATO
infrastructure, flexible response, and the 'trip wire' theory," Ali said.
"Most of this has now passed into common usage. We had to cover the
independence movements of the decolonization era."
New rules were made to fit new situations.
"I well recall that even during World War II, Reuters had a rule according
to which Germany, Italy and Japan were not to be referred to as the 'enemy'
unless one was quoting an official communique, a parliamentary statement or
a speech by Churchill, etc.," he said. "Was this taking objectivity too far?
I think not, because it is the principle that matters."
The principle is objectivity, the foundation of journalistic integrity.
"Today, for example, a good news agency does not use the words 'terrorist'
or 'freedom fighter' unless it is quoting someone or from a statement. It
uses a neutral word like 'insurgent' for one man's terrorist is another
man's freedom fighter," Ali has said. "The enemy of today is an ally of
tomorrow. Witness Rabin and Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn.
That is why I constantly stress the importance of not taking sides, solid
sourcing and accurate quotes. This is why our community - I really mean this
- is so fortunate in having The Pilot, with its high standards of integrity
Newspapers and news organizations once reflected the passions, interests and
loyalties of their owners, often family dynasties. Times changed.
The threat to objectivity comes now from a different angle, Ali says.
"The market discourages radicalism and risk-taking of the kind that family
owners had often been willing to accept," he has said. "It currently
accounts for much of the blandness, gossip and scandal of salacious, sleazy
yellow-type 'show biz' contemporary journalism. My favorite poet T.S. Eliot
put it wisely when some 50 years ago he intuitively asked: 'Where is the
wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in
Unexamined notions become widely accepted, are picked up and repeated by the
press, Ali says.
"Consider for a moment the slender basis for much of what we currently
accept as economic gospel: communism collapses, and the most timid forms of
social planning are seen as a first step down the road to the gulag; Western
Europe falters, and we are ready to throw a century's worth of social
welfare measures in the trash," he says. "The American economy goes into
high gear for a few years, and the idea of corporate executives who earn
hundreds of times more than their employees becomes a law of nature.
"Indeed, the confidence with which eternal verities are thrown around by
experts and accepted by masses of people in the capital and market driven
part of the world these days recalls nothing so much as the Soviet Union a
generation or two ago. This dogma too shall pass, and we will all be better
Ali sees many challenges immediately ahead.
"The world will have to confront the power of tribalism and the challenge of
so-called 'fundamentalism,'" he said. "What is happening in European
unification, common currency, etc. is one of the great movements of
Here at home, many of our political challenges will have economic roots, Ali
"Since the 1970s, virtually all our income gains in the U.S. have gone to
the highest-earning 20 percent of our households, producing inequality
greater than at any time since the 1930s," he told a meeting of the English
Speaking Union. "Mr. Bill Gates alone is wealthier than half the American
people put together. Yet economists treat the issue as a regrettable
footnote in the glowing story of world-beating job creation, soaring
corporate profits and all but invisible inflation."
World order is threatened by a weak United Nations, the greatest hope for
"It is up to each one of us to see that the U.N. does not end with a whimper
because of our lack of support and constant demeaning of it," Ali told the
Sandhills Rotary Club not long ago. "It is the only real safety valve that I
know that could stop the world ending with a nuclear bang. My own intuitive
belief is that unilateralism and preemptive strikes could lead to bangs
and/or whimpers; but multilateralism will steer clear of such terrible
politico-strategic, economic, social disasters."
Ali hopes the capture of "the tyrant Saddam Hussein" will be followed by
greater international involvement in the future of Iraq.
Ali's pace may be slower now, but still he wakes each morning with a fresh
interest in the news of the day. He does yoga, studies mystic poetry, loves
the work of the Sufi Persian writers and T.S. Eliot.
"Every thing about life is so transient - I came like water, like wind I
go," Ali said. "I learned a long time ago to thank God for waking up every
morning in good health and humor. Thus, what could be more important, as E M
Forster said, than human relationships in these days of telegrams and anger?
Incidentally, Foster dedicated his classic, 'A Passage to India,' to my
grand uncle Sir Ross Masood."
He quotes Ezra Pound.
"The quality of the affection, in the end, is in the trace it leaves in the
[This article appeared on the front page of THE PILOT]
Editor's Note: Islam also teaches the middle way. The Quran says "And thus
have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your
lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the
Apostle might bear witness to it before you."--Muhammad Asad, "The Message
of the Quran" (2:43)
Copyright © 2004 The Pilot