Telling Truth to Power in a Time of War

From its origins in the Crimean War (1854-56), war reporting has been a genre of journalism shaped by danger, censorship, and propaganda. In the new, fully updated edition of his book, The War Correspondent, Greg McLaughlin considers the significance of these factors and questions the idea that the ultimate role of the war reporter is to ‘tell truth to power’. McLaughlin TWC

‘One of the first war correspondents, William Howard Russell of The Times, called himself ‘the miserable parent of a luckless tribe’ and while today the risks of the job seem self-evident and unsurprising, the raw statistics give pause for thought. According to the International Press Institute in Vienna, over 1500 journalists and media workers worldwide have lost their lives in the last twenty years, the majority of them in the war zone with others killed reporting on human rights, crime and corruption beats.

Justice in these cases is hard to get. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists in New York campaigns against the culture of impunity that seems to determine the outcome of official inquiries into incidents where state militaries have killed journalists – incidents such as those in Baghdad during the first days of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rarely do these lead to criminal proceedings or convictions.

Hundreds of other reporters have survived physical and psychological injury or have been kidnapped, imprisoned or tortured. Still, most war and foreign correspondents, including those interviewed in The War Correspondent, dismiss the risks with stoic defiance. Those working for the major international news media benefit from employer-funded training courses such as Surviving Hostile Regions, delivered by ex-special services personnel. But there is a hidden inequality here. These courses are too expensive for freelancers or journalists working with small, local media outlets. As a consequence, the death and injury rates in this sector of the profession are considerably higher.

The risks and dangers of the job expand beyond the physical and the personal. They often lead to the decision by the major international media to pull out or not cover a story at all if it is deemed too dangerous, as happened during civil wars in Algeria, Somalia, Sierra Leone or in cases of genocidal conflicts such as in Cambodia and Rwanda. It seems safer to cover organised conflicts involving major powers like the USA, where reporters can work under the relative protection of the military. During the Gulf War in 1991, they were herded into news pools or, as the US military called them, ‘media response teams’ (MRTs). In Afghanistan and Iraq, they were called ‘embedded reporters’ and rolled out to battle with the boys. In a postmodern twist, the embedded reporter was the incarnation of a Steve Bell cartoon character of the 1990s, from his Guardian strip, “If”: a gung-ho journalist Luke Hardnose, reporting from Kosovo … on the back of a tank.

The system of embedded reporting, then, might have looked new but it wasn’t really news. It was just the latest stage in the long evolution of military media strategy from as far back as the First World War. It was designed to exert total control of the story, and so controlling the information and controlling the media. The embedded reporters assigned to military units in today’s war zones may get one piece of the information, while the unfortunate journalists confined to the media-briefing center in the desert may get another. But the military briefers supply the context that put the pieces together. From their point of view, the context shaped by the message is in fact the story – the right story.

In the long history of this awkward relationship, the military learn the lessons of the last war and prepare the strategy for the next. With few exceptions, the majority of journalists seem to forget the lessons and make the same mistakes over and again. Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the Independent and no friend of the system, reported the war in Kosovo on the ground and called the NATO media pool in Brussels ‘sheep in wolves clothing’: timid, passive, and lacking teeth. The NATO press secretary, Jamie Shea, was much kinder – he called them his ‘customers’.

But let’s strip away these extraneous influences, the risks and the dangers, the censorship regimes and propaganda campaigns, and ask, ‘What is the proper role of the war correspondent?’ Some might suggest that the best one can do is to report the facts of a conflict as objectively and impartially as possible and allow the reader or viewer to decide between the rights and wrongs.

And woe betide the committed journalist. When reporting the Bosnian War (1992-95), the BBC’s Martin Bell broke taboo and declared that he no longer believed in objectivity. He explained that, as a reporter who had witnessed one too many atrocities, he had to make a moral choice about how to report them. Should he act like an impartial observer and report on them like he would report domestic politics? Or should he condemn the perpetrators and honour the victims? His call for a ‘journalism of attachment’, a journalism that ‘cares as well as knows’ wasn’t new – there were plenty of historical precedents for committed war reporting. But it provoked a heated debate among his fellow correspondents in Bosnia and at home. Many supported him, but others objected that committed journalism in that vicious, multi-sided civil conflict made targets of them all. Mick Hume, then editor of Living Marxism magazine, called it ‘a twisted sort of therapy’ and ‘a menace to good journalism’.

Unlike other genres of journalism, war reporting in popular culture is seen as a romantic, noble profession. Here, the war reporter is objective and impartial, honest and fearless. He or she accepts the risks, faces down the censor, and cuts through the propaganda to expose what John Pilger calls ‘the hidden agendas of war’. Above all else, the war reporter ‘tells truth to power’. It’s a notion that seems to light the way through the ‘fog of war’ and it sounds great. But as writer and activist Arundhati Roy points out, power owns the truth and knows the truth better than most of us.

William Howard Russell, Henry Nevinson, Morgan Philips Price, Martha Gellhorn, Wilfred Burchett, John Pilger and Robert Fisk are among the greatest of war correspondents. What their work demonstrates very clearly is that in a time of war it is not about telling truth to power, but explaining the truth about power.’

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Greg McLaughlin is Senior Lecturer in media and journalism at the University of Ulster. The second edition of The War Correspondent  is now available from Pluto Press.

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