Reporting Russia in Revolution

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In this week’s New European, my article on how western correspondents covered the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, as the USSR came to know the Bolsheviks’ coming to power. The first few paragraphs are reproduced below. You can read the full piece in the paper. 

We in the west have tended to look warily towards Russia: fearing and yet fascinated by the vast land lying at Europe’s eastern edge. Often, as now, we have seen it as a threat.

If in the second half of the last century, it was nuclear warheads – and they have hardly gone away – today we are more concerned with cyberattacks. In those countries bordering Russia, and formerly under its influence or control, people look nervously at the annexation of Crimea and ask if computer hacking may turn into something more menacing.

Since it enlisted General Winter to help to defeat Napoleon, through to Stalingrad when it turned the tide against Hitler, Russia has intervened at key moments to change European history. Some might add Brexit to the list, with Kremlin-backed TV channels and websites playing their part in boosting nationalist sentiment in the west.

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution was certainly one of those moments. The full extent of its consequences may not have been fully grasped, but its significance was well understood, and in those confused, fast-moving times, it was the job of Western authors and journalists who found themselves in the country to try to make sense of it.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security’

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I wrote this review for the current issue of ‘Media, War and Conflict’. It deals with an issue which is not sufficiently discussed, and certainly not sufficiently addressed: the killing of journalists. Hopefully this important book will help to change that.    

‘No story is worth a life,’ is a phrase often heard in newsrooms when the talk is of working in war zones. ‘Sadly,’ as Simon Cottle notes (p. 149) in Reporting Dangerously, news organizations are often most rigorous in implementing safety measures, ‘following the shock of losing one of their colleagues.’ In a world where war, especially in the Middle East, has come to seem like the normal state of affairs, good journalism is needed much as ever to illuminate and explain not only what is happening, but also what happened in the past to influence the present. ‘What about the Balfour Declaration?’ Any British correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely sooner or later to be chastised – or perhaps, praised – for their country’s historical role in creating the modern Middle East. This is especially in true this year which marks the centenary of that controversial note. For if history is largely absent from day-to-day political discourse in Western Europe (Ireland and Spain perhaps being among the exceptions) it is not in other regions of the world. Correspondents reporting on armed conflict commit a serious oversight if they overlook that.

The authors of Reporting Dangerously make no such mistake. This engaging volume begins with the well-documented premise that covering armed conflict is becoming more dangerous. While accepting that, methodologically, ‘There are difficulties that persist, and perhaps have increased,’ (p. 52) in compiling statistics, it offers plenty of evidence to support the argument that journalists ‘are being targeted, murdered, and intimidated more regularly and in increasing numbers.’ (p .1). In seeking to understand why, the book draws on substantial scholarship on violence and globalization from a variety of fields, especially history and sociology. Cottle is persuasive when he argues that western societies have led the way in ‘violent military conquest’ (p. 71) since the sixteenth century, but also – and here the point relates to journalism in particular – inspired ‘“modern” dynamics of increasing empathy and moral repugnance at violence’ (p. 71).

If this duality explains some of the trends which have created the ‘Violent History of the Globalised Present’ (Chapter 4), then the book advances a disturbing case that journalists themselves are no longer permitted the benefit of any doubt as to their own roles. Presenting the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism in 2015, the respected correspondent Peter Greste – referring to his and his Al Jazeera colleagues’ incarceration in Egypt – linked his fate to the aftermath of September 11th. Since then – when President George W. Bush warned the nations of the world, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ – Greste suggested it had become much harder for journalists to be seen as neutral observers. Richard Sambrook argues (p. 20) that, ‘The attitude of “you’re either with us or against us” denies the legitimacy of independent journalism.’ Greste’s ordeal is mentioned here, along with his reflection, written in his prison cell, that, ‘Never has clear-eyed, critical, sceptical journalism been more necessary.’ (p. 56).

It is to the authors’ credit that this is one of their recurring themes. Journalists may sometimes be dismayed – rightly or wrongly – about some of the conclusions drawn in scholarly studies of their activities, and production. This volume recognizes this early on, accepting that academic studies are too often guilty of ‘failing to recognise the professional motivations and practical dangers’ (p. 6) involved in today’s journalism. It is heartening to see the authors thank the journalists interviewed for the volume, ‘for their enduring commitment to this work which regularly places themselves in harm’s way’ (p. 112). It is also good to see the wide variety of cases considered. This volume does not confine itself to a consideration of international correspondents working for major news organizations such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera. It rightly recognizes and discusses the many hazards faced by journalists covering crime and drugs stories in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.

This breadth of approach is mirrored in the backgrounds of the authors themselves, and their different experiences of scholarship and senior management in news organizations, combined with interviews with leading journalists, work well together. The different perspectives are, however, united around a recurring core argument which insists upon the importance of ‘appreciating the contribution of journalism within civil societies’– and recognizing that, ‘By seeking to report from uncivil societies, journalists act in the interests of both local citizens and the wider international community’ (p.96). It is in situations such as these that journalists face the greatest physical danger. The experience in an Iraqi minefield of the BBC’s Stuart Hughes – which led to his losing a leg, and his colleague, Kaveh Golestan, losing his life – is well documented here in first person testimony. The sense of changed circumstances which has come with the rise of Islamic State is also well communicated. The prospect of an encounter with their murderous fighters is seen as just too dangerous. ‘Forget it, I’m not interested,’ Hughes concludes of any assignment which might run that risk (p. 128).

While the physical risks are well documented here, less attention is paid to mental health. In a western world which feels increasingly willing to discuss such issues, this seems like an oversight. There are only a couple of passing references to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and apparently no space for discussion of Anthony Feinstein’s pioneering work on the mental health of journalists covering armed conflict. Although financial constraints are mentioned, they might also have merited more consideration – especially as Sambrook’s earlier work ‘Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant’ identifies this as a significant challenge to the future of international reporting. In the particular case of the present study, dwindling budgets have implications for the resources which might be allocated to safety training and equipment. This issue could perhaps be considered at greater length. It is a relatively minor issue, but a frustrating one nonetheless: editing of the section on the discussion of the differing views on violence of John Gray and Steven Pinker has permitted typographical errors in the spelling of both names – ‘Stephen’ (p. 67) and ‘Grey’ (p. 68) – to slip through.

The authors are level-headed in their conclusions, accepting (p. 202) that, ‘Zero risk in newsgathering is not attainable, and should not be pursued.’ They are right to highlight impunity as a major issue – unfortunately, absent the political will to enforce them, no amount of declarations from Journalists’ organizations, or U.N. resolutions will change this. That said, Reporting Dangerously is an important addition to any bibliography of journalism and war, and its arguments must be heeded if journalism is to be allowed to fulfil its role of informing a world whose inhabitants face countless challenges of conflict and climate change.

Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security

Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell

(Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2016, 224 pp, ISBN 978-1-137-40672-9, Paperback) 

THE SIX DAY WAR: ISRAEL’S MASTERSTROKE OF WARTIME NEWS MANAGEMENT

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The war of 1967 was the start of the occupation which endures to this day: fortifications near Qalandia check point between the West Bank and Jerusalem, June 2014 ©James Rodgers

This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read that version here.  

REPORTING ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT is the ultimate challenge in international news. It demands a thick skin. In no other field of international diplomacy are journalists’ words subjected to such scrutiny. It demands knowledge not just of history, but of vastly differing cultural, religious, and geographic perspectives. At times, it demands willingness to face danger.

All of these factors are relevant as the world marks 50 years since 1967’s Six-Day War, whose consequences continue to shape the parameters of any discussion of the conflict. As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen put it in his book on the conflict, Six Days: “The occupation that started in 1967 has become the driving force behind the violence that Israelis and Palestinians are inflicting on each other.”

Israel’s military success in the Six-Day War redrew the borders of the Middle East – and it also set a new standard for government spin in wartime. Alongside its preparations for war, Israel ran a masterful communications campaign designed to disguise its military one. “Newspaper offices not only in Israel, but throughout the world, received pictures of Israeli troops on leave relaxing on the beaches,” remembered journalist Winston Churchill, grandson and namesake of Britain’s wartime prime minister, in the account he co-authored with his father, Randolph.

Churchill, who was reporting for the News of the World, himself played an unwitting part in the spin. Granted an interview with the Israeli cabinet’s new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, Churchill reported that:

General Dayan declared: “We don’t want anyone else to fight for us. Whatever can be done in a diplomatic way I would welcome and encourage but if fighting does come to Israel I would not like American or British boys to get killed here and I do not think we need them.

Moshe Dayan (L) in 1967. Tom Pearlman, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

Dayan knew what he was doing: he was a military man opening a front in a media war. In his autobiography, published in the 1970s, he wrote of his meetings with journalists on the eve of war, and his hopes “that the impression might be gained that we were not about to go to war but were intent on exhausting all the diplomatic possibilities”.

The media was an indispensable part of creating that impression. Shortly after Israeli forces captured the Western Wall in Jerusalem, David Rubinger photographed three paratroopers standing before the wall’s white stones. Distributed by the Israeli Government Press Office, the picture became one of the most recognised images of the entire conflict. Rubinger died earlier this year, at the age of 92. Three years ago, I interviewed him for my own book, Headlines from the Holy Land. We met in his West Jerusalem home, which still housed the dark room where he had developed that picture.

“They had tried a trick,” he said of the Israeli government. “They sent a lot of people on leave. Units were sent on leave on Friday, and Saturday for Shabbat, which was obviously a Dayan trick.”

This ploy – exploiting the expectation that religious Israeli troops wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath – was a major success. Not many reporters seem to have fathomed what the Israelis had done until much later, although one Guardian headline – “Israelis cloak their aims” – did hint that all was not what it seemed.

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By the time victory came, Israel and the region had been transformed. Borders which exist today, albeit without international recognition, were established by force of arms. Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights were under Israeli military occupation, and remain so today.

In the process, Israel’s military also transformed its image in much of the British press. No longer the “terrorist” force of late British Mandate days, it was suddenly a respected fighting force facing down hostile neighbours. In the News of the World’s June 11 edition, the Sunday after the war, Churchill wrote of “a victory unprecedented in the history of the world”.

The Arab armies, meanwhile, were humiliated in battle – and their media strategy collapsed too. David Hirst, later an authoritative correspondent and author, was then a stringer in Beirut. In a 2014 interview he told me how, at the start of the war, “the Arabs believed what the Egyptian media was saying. And they thought that victory was on the way”. Defeat, he remembered, came as a “colossal shock”.

One of the toughest tasks facing correspondents caught up in world-changing events is judging where they might lead. As Sydney Gruson wrote in the New York Times of June 9 1967:

On one thing all Western diplomats and Israelis seem to agree: too much blood has been spilled – more perhaps than is yet realised in the great flush of victory – to expect that Israel would willingly return the frontiers to what they were before the war began on Monday.

He was right. Those frontiers remain. Soldiers and diplomats might study 1967 for strategy. Journalists at work in the fake news era should study its lessons in spin.

Journalism, terror, and trauma

MY SCHOOLDAYS WERE SPENT IN MANCHESTER. Although I have now lived away from the city for many years, I still return frequently — often to watch football. Even if they have covered conflict in many parts of the world, journalists do not become immune to witnessing the consequences of violence. Journalists are people, too. They will inevitably be affected differently by death closer to home — especially when those are the deaths of civilians, including children.

The challenges of keeping up professional standards in cases like this are many, and they are not always met. The day after this week’s attack’s I wrote a piece, ‘How should Journalists cover traumatic events?’ for Prospect.

I am also posting links to an earlier piece ‘Terror attacks put journalists’ ethics on the frontline’  I wrote for The Conversation,  and to a more detailed report ‘Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World’ by Professor Charlie Beckett from the LSE.

All of these pieces contain discussion of issues which, in today’s world, journalists must be prepared to face.

I will post the concluding extracts from my article ‘Journalism, Separation, and Independence’, on the reporting of the end of the British Mandate, in future weeks. 

 

Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years

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A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.

The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.

‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.

Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.

What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

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The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.

‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.

For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.

Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.

Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.

That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.

This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.

The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.

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World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces.’

That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).

So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR,  nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

Why covering other people’s wars made me value the EU

For this week’s The New European, I have written a piece on how reporting on armed conflict in other parts of the world made me grateful for the peace which has prevailed in Western Europe during my lifetime. You can read the first two paragaphs below, and the full story in the newspaper, on sale here .

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IN A LITTLE OVER 24 HOURS, THE CITY CENTRE TURNED INTO A WAR ZONE. That Saturday lunchtime, a demonstration turned violent. By Sunday evening, there was a gun battle as rebels tried to take control of the TV station. By Monday morning, tanks shelled the parliament building.

It was October 1993. Russia was a discontented country. The massive economic shock which had come from the collapse two years earlier of the Soviet Union had left millions of losers. The political transformation had only been partial. President Boris Yeltsin was left with a parliament elected in Communist times, and containing many Communist MP’s. Wanting both to shore up their own positions, and to oppose Mr Yeltsin’s reforms, they defied the president. Political tension led to an explosion of bloodletting.

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Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

Iraq: Chilcot’s lesson for reporting war

WE HAVE BEEN TOLD MANY BIG LIES. In my generation’s 1970s childhood the British Army and Government lied about the way that unarmed demonstrators had been shot dead in Londonderry. At the same time, several of those we watched on children’s TV then were child sex abusers.

Perhaps the greatest and most costly lie we were told was the basis for the invasion of Iraq. In my thirties then, and based in the Middle East as a correspondent for the BBC, I went twice to cover the aftermath of the invasion. I was in Baghdad in December 2003 when Saddam Hussein was captured. I wrote at length about that experience in my first book, Reporting Conflict. The story was hugely exciting to cover, and yet I left Iraq with the grimmest sense that the occupation was not going to end well.

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U.S. forces guard a road near where Saddam Hussein was captured. Iraq, December 2003. Photo: James Rodgers

The night after Saddam Hussein’s capture had been announced — with the cocky ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!’ headline from Paul Bremer — I was sleeping on the marble floor of one of the former dictator’s palaces. His residence in Tikrit — loyal heartland where he had hidden, and finally been betrayed — was then the headquarters of an infantry division of the United States army.

No one seemed really to have any idea about what was going on, or how long this might last — but the amount of matériel I was able to see, even then as the winter night fell, was striking for the millions it must have cost to put it all there. The soldier who drove me from the gate to the area where we were to edit our TV material just wanted to know if he could go home soon. The officer I had to talk to wanted to know if I wanted some Starbucks Christmas coffee. He didn’t know whether his telephone could make a call to London.

People — whether Iraqi, Palestinian, or European — do not like living under occupation. They will eventually take up arms. This might sound obvious, but it was just one of the many things which the invaders then failed to take into account.

It is often said the Britain has no history of fascism or communism because its people mistrust big, abstract, political concepts. That may be so. If it is, this was a huge exception.

For this invasion was a big lie based on big ideas: that liberal capitalist democracy would inevitably prevail, and quickly, once the tyrant was done down. The zeal and certainty with which this belief was advanced were more reminiscent of the Bolsheviks than western democratic presidents and prime ministers.

Correspondents covering the invasion and occupation produced some excellent work which explained what was happening. Journalism as a whole did less well: failing to question sufficiently the reasons — especially weapons of mass destruction — which were given for starting the war. More rigorous questioning might have exposed the fact that these claims were baseless.

The New York Times  was among those news organizations who admitted to wishing that it ‘had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.’ At least it had the courage to own up. There were plenty of others who should have done so, too.

Now the story is back in the spotlight. Nothing can be done to make up for the tens of thousands of deaths which resulted from this irresponsible military adventure. Sir John Chilcot, leading the U.K.’s enquiry into the war, has told the BBC ‘The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement being applied to it.’

If there is any lesson to be learnt, it is surely this: ‘challenge, analysis, and assessment’.

This applies obviously to leaders and policy makers. It also applies to editors and correspondents who should always question what they are told, however well a spin doctor presents it.

If it is the case, as Stanley Baldwin said of early 20th century press barons, that the news media aims at having ‘power without responsbility’, then this power can, sometimes at least, be used effectively. This is true more than ever when it is a matter of life and tens of thousands of deaths.

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The author in a village north of Baghdad, Iraq December 2003