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


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.


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.


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.






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.


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.


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



The break up of a union: news and history


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

CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?

Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.

War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.

As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya  .


Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.

No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world 

We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘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, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’

The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.

In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.

International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack.  We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).

That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.








Terrorism, and Journalism

Following the attacks on Brussels last week, I wrote a piece about the challenges for journalists covering events such as those, and the importance of their not being forced to take sides. It was published first on The Conversation , and later on the website of the Ethical Journalism Network . The EJN post also includes video of a recent interview I did with them. The full text of the piece follows below.


Everyone along the street seemed to be watching the same thing. The evenings were still light and curtains were not yet drawn, so people’s TV sets were visible through their ground-floor windows. All the screens showed the burning Twin Towers. This mass consumption of the same news – as happened on September 11, 2001 – is rarer now. The ever-multiplying number of media platforms continues to fracture the attention of their audiences.

Back then, I was on my way back to my flat in Brussels to pack for a flight across the Atlantic. Two days later, I was able to fly to Montreal and travel from there to Manhattan to cover the aftermath of the attacks. It was while I was there that George W Bush warned the nations of the world: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

This remark may not have been aimed at journalists in particular. The best reporting, however, often leaves room for a degree of interpretation – “with us, or against us” does not. One of journalism’s roles in a democracy is to speak the truth to power, not simply accept power’s rules.

I was reminded of this when I heard the experienced foreign correspondent Peter Greste reflect on the 400 days he had spent in jail in Egypt after being arrested there on trumped-up charges. Speaking last October, as he presented the Kurt Schork awards in International Journalism at Reuters, he said:

You know generally when you push the boundary. You know generally when you work when you’ve done something that might upset somebody – someone in government, some administration some way so I was completely taken aback because we hadn’t done anything that was pushing any boundaries.

Greste linked his fate to the way that the world had changed for journalists since September 11. Increasingly, they were not seen as neutral observers – and, as a consequence, were not treated as such.

Mobilising opinion

Journalists have greater responsibilities in time of war or national crisis than at any other. Their role is vitally important to voters’ understanding of what their leaders propose to do in their name. The world since September 11 2001 seems to have seen a growing effort in time and money from governments keener than ever to get their side of the story across. The controls placed on reporting in Iraq – for example, “embedding” journalists with troops – during the 2003 invasion and beyond were a reflection of this. The idea that “TV lost the Vietnam war” – wrongheaded though it may be – retains an enduring power.

Russia’s massive deployment of media resources to mobilise supportive opinion of its policies in Ukraine and Syria is just one example. In that case, many Russian journalists have appeared willing to support their country’s foreign policy. Given the overwhelmingly patriotic tone of contemporary Russian coverage of international affairs, that may be the only option for anyone wanting airtime.

Yet what of other cases? How well are audiences served by a one-sided view of events? The answer is not at all well, as The New York Times acknowledged when admitting that coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war “was not as rigorous as it should have been”. The New York Times was not the only guilty party. At least they decided to admit their failings.

Journalism has risen to unprecedented challenges with varying success. Some of The New York Times’s reporting of the occupation of Iraq and the insurgency which followed was truly outstanding. Yet western journalists covering the “War on Terror” in its various forms have found themselves tested.

Centre of conflict

The attacks on Brussels on March 22 were a reminder of why this is. Journalists find themselves at the centre of events as never before. The bombers struck at soft targets to inspire fear. That fear spread as the coverage continued. Without the coverage – or at least if there had been less of it – would the attackers’ aim have been frustrated? Perhaps so. But even if the authorities had requested that, it would have been wrong to agree.

As Greste noted, journalists find themselves at the centre of conflict as never before. Not just war, but political battles, and “anti-terrorist operations”. They are targets. Islamic State beheads them. Others seek to co-opt them.

Ethical dilemmas emerge. In July 2005, I was among the BBC editors who agreed to a reporting blackout as police closed in on the suspects in a series of failed suicide bombings. The idea was that live TV coverage might have tipped off the wanted men. Was it right to do the authorities’ bidding?

There are more questions. How seriously should editors take warnings from anonymous “security sources” about threats? Is this important public safety information, or spin aimed at securing extra funding?

What about stories affecting journalists themselves? As a correspondent based in Brussels, I passed through Zaventem airport countless times. How to keep out of reports the thought “that could have been me”?

The rise of Islamic state, just as much as Tuesday’s attacks, show the value of good journalism. The former by its initial absence from the news – hence the surprise which accompanied the group’s territorial gains in Iraq and Syria – the latter by telling people about the world they live in. Few did, or could, report the rise of Islamic State. Its seizure of territory, and oil fields, came as a shock.

Ideally, journalists would do their jobs without having to take sides – although some would still choose to do so, as we saw by the shabby attempts by controversialist Brexiteer columnists to make a political point out of the Brussels bombs.

In a world where, despite its complexity, journalists are under pressure to be with us or against us, their craft cannot function properly – and that is a loss for all of us.

‘Headlines from the Holy Land’: book launch at City University London 15th October

9781137395122.EditI will be taking part in a panel discussion to coincide with the publication of my new book, and signing copies afterwards, at City University London on October 15th.

The event is free to attend, and you can sign up here

Even if relative calm has followed large-scale loss of life and destruction of property in Gaza last year, there is no effective Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The eyes of diplomats and policy makers are elsewhere in the region, drawn by the challenges and dangers of Iraq and Syria – yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an issue which will one day have to be addressed. The amount of media coverage given over to Gaza last year shows that the international interest generated by ties of history, faith, and politics remains as strong as ever.

This forum will discuss the reporting of a story often seen as the ultimate challenge for a foreign correspondent, and how the relationship between journalism and diplomacy works.

On the panel:

Dr James Rodgers, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at City University London, and author of the new book Headlines from the Holy Land (which tackles some of the issues we hope to discuss).
Sir Vincent Fean, British Consul-General, Jerusalem (2010-14), now retired.
Harriet Sherwood, known for her reporting of the conflict for The Guardian

There will be a drinks reception following the Forum, and James will be signing copies of his book ‘Headlines from the Holy Land.’

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014 Picture: James Rodgers

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014
Picture: James Rodgers

Vice News arrests, and why they matter to us all

This piece was first published on the website of The Conversation . You can read that version here.

PERHAPS there was a golden age of being a foreign correspondent: a time when courage and determination always brought reward. Danger was part of the job, but the truth, in the end, would always trample tyrants; the pen was mightier than the sword. Or perhaps there was never any such time.

The foreign correspondent, though, often had one advantage: if she or he survived the dangers of war reporting unscathed, the worst that would probably happen would be a brief period in detention, followed by deportation. A ban from the country or territory might follow, but reporters have rarely struggled to make professional capital out of being ejected from bad places.

That comfort has gone, and it’s a matter of great concern for us all. Turkey has now released two of the three of the Vice News team it arrested and imprisoned – Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, whose translator, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, remains in detention – but what happened to them is still deeply worrying for a number of reasons.

It further confirms the specific challenges that face anyone trying to report from Turkey. This is hardly news to Turkish journalists. Reporters Without Borders recently wrote of a “poisonous climate” for the media in that country.

In a sense, the authorities’ decision to lock up British journalists might even help to draw wider international attention to the way the news media are treated in Turkey.

This is unlikely. For by locking up the Vice News team – on charges which Vice dismissed as “entirely baseless and absurd” – Turkey has shown that its determination to control media coverage outweighs any concerns it may have about international public opinion.South-eastern Turkey has never been an easy place for international journalists to operate. I travelled through the region on a number of occasions in the 1990s on my way to assignments in Northern Iraq. The taxi driver who took me to the border frequently reminded me to stress, during our halts at checkpoints, that Iraq was my destination. He did not want to be suspected of helping a foreign journalist to report on the battle between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists.

Kurdish fighters at a checkpoint in Northern Iraq near the Turkish border, 1992

Kurdish fighters at a checkpoint in Northern Iraq near the Turkish border, 1992

The Vice Team seem to have fallen foul of their own determination to report just what they found, irrespective of whether it was what the Turkish authorities wanted the world to see.

Vice News is sometimes seen as an irreverent newcomer to the international news scene, shaking up the stuffy established names. In fact, some of its best work actually draws its inspiration from a longer, more thoughtful, kind of journalism than the denizens of the social media and soundbite age have always been willing to watch. Take a look at Danny Gold’s stories of West Bank settlers for an example.

Now this newcomer has been on the receiving end of some very old tactics. If you do not like what journalists are saying or doing, either ban them, or lock them up.

You might imagine that in the world of Twitter and YouTube, such tactics would have limited effect. Would that it were so. There is actually a limit to what social media can achieve – especially when those providing material for it may themselves be afraid of detection, or have a particular agenda to push.

Activist material may challenge and complement journalism, but it does not make up for its absence. Reporting of the kind which Hanrahan and Pendlebury were doing is something different: going somewhere, finding something out, telling people. Vice News may be a relatively new organisation, but in terms of preparing journalists to cover conflict, it seems to hold to the same standards as its longer-established rivals. This is old-fashioned journalism, which can all too easily be stopped by old-fashioned locking up.

The point of doing this is not simply to gag a particular report. It is to stop reporters from showing up in the first place. Presumably the Turkish authorities hope that arresting and imprisoning this team, however briefly, will put others off travelling to the region.

This would be the most serious consequence of all. More than ever, audiences need to know what is happening in the wider Middle East. Journalists’ critics may argue that their coverage is incomplete; biased; riddled with errors. Yet sometimes they have access which others do not. Unlike diplomats, they can “talk to terrorists” – and few conflicts end without an understanding of what the belligerents want.

In his book The Jihadis Return, Patrick Cockburn argues persuasively that the rise of IS “came as a shock to many in the West” partly because “it was too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit the areas where IS was operating”.

Governments may not always welcome what journalists have to say about them, but all those which claim to support a free press must do more to protect it. Pushing for the release of those jailed for reporting, wherever they are in the world, would be an excellent start.

The author with people attending a Kurdish political rally, Northern Iraq, 1992

The author with people attending a Kurdish political rally, Northern Iraq, 1992

Getting away from it all: summer in the Mediterranean

Millions of Europeans are returning to work this week after holidays in the sun. Yet the Mediterranean has been in the news this summer not for those escaping shop and office, but for those fleeing war. What challenges does that present for journalism?

WESTERN civilization’s religion, philosophy, and politics sprung in antiquity from its shores. Today the Mediterranean Sea has come to stand for some of its greatest challenges.

I am among those Europeans fortunate enough to have enjoyed a holiday there this summer: at its western edge, not its war-scarred east. As I watched the boats passing the beach with their tourist passengers, I thought of others who had taken to the same sea for very different reasons.

A beach on the Costa Daurada, Spain, August 2015

A beach on the Costa Daurada, Spain, August 2015

I thought of the people whom I had met during my time as a correspondent working on the opposite shore. For the two years I spent in Gaza, the Mediterranean was a constant source of calm: gazing upon it gave space to think. Even as it raged in winter storms, it seemed to do so with a liberty that was denied to so many of the people among whom I lived then. I thought of the many refugees I had met at different stages of my own life: from being a young twentysomething to a father of forty-odd. Whatever stage of their life they were at, and whether they were in the Balkans, the Caucasus, or the Middle East, they all seemed to say similar things: they were leaving because they had no choice.

I thought then of the British tabloids I had seen in the Spanish supermarket that morning, and the extensive use they made of the dehumanizing word ‘swarm’ to describe those heading for Europe. Still, if the word is good enough for the British Prime Minister, why not a headline writer, too?

Reporting on the refugees heading across the sea in search of a new life in Europe is a huge challenge. Yet journalism is often at its best when it takes on such a task: explaining to people preoccupied by their own busy lives something which they need to understand.

In this case, western audiences need to understand two things above all. The first is that people do not casually leave behind all they have known. The decision may be straightforward in that leaving offers the only chance of survival. It is rarely easy.

Seeing a seven-year-old’s tears in the holiday resort as she was told her inflatable crocodile had a puncture, and would not be coming home, I wondered how hard it would be to tell a seven-year-old that she had seen her own home for the last time. It made me wonder how you tell the same child that her sister would not be fleeing with the rest of the family because she had been killed by the shell which took the roof off the house.

The second important point is that there is no guarantee that Western Europe’s prosperity and stability can endure indefinitely. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his excellent and influential account of the origins of World War I, Christopher Clark points to the ‘complex and unpredictable array of forces,’ which has taken the place of Cold War stability. Presumably many Western Europeans enjoyed time off in the summer of 1913 as my fellow tourists and I did in the Mediterranean this summer.

Journalism’s detractors may take it to task for lacking the kind of context or depth offered by history or social science research. Its strength its in its immediacy, yet it needs context too. In the case of reporting on refugees, that means remembering that they are not a ‘swarm’. They are people whose only crime, in most cases, was to be born on the side of the sea which, in this century at least, is a war zone rather than a holiday resort.

#Waterloo200: lessons from remembering ‘a most bloody battle’

This piece was published this week on the website of The Conversation. You can see that version here.

Our views of war are sanitised today. In an age of professional armies trained for increasingly technical tasks, few of us have witnessed combat, much less taken part in it. In that vein, commemorations of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo will focus on the battle’s strategic significance. There are, though, individual accounts that give us a glimpse into what sword fights and cavalry charges must have been like – and the deadly consequences of defeat.

One such story was sent home by James Russell, a Serjeant (his own archaic spelling) in the North British Dragoons, a regiment known today as the Scots Greys. Russell was my ancestor, and my family still has his letter. “Since I wrote to you last we have had a most Bloody Battle with the French as ever was fought,” he writes to his wife, Mags, on June 24, six days after Waterloo.

Russell lists the dead and wounded – as a cavalryman, he also mentions the horses that suffered – before concluding that it was, “the sorest stroke any Cavalry Regiment has suffered at one day’s fighting since the memory of man”. And they were victorious.

The Greys won great renown for one of their number, Ensign Charles Ewart, captured a standard – a Napoleonic eagle – in hand-to-hand fighting. With his feat of arms, celebrity came to Ewart, and “he travelled the country making speeches at dinners with Sir Walter Scott, his friend and unofficial agent”.

After recounting the fate of his regiment, Russell turns to how he fared. “I have lost all my things,” he explains:

This day I am getting a dead Frenchman’s shirt washed to put on. My horse was wounded and sent into Brussels during the action and has lost my whole kit so I am now as I stand.

If such were the spoils of victory, imagine the loss of defeat.

Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

In Paris recently, I visited the Invalides – both Napoleon’s massive marble tomb, and the adjoining museum. I saw no mention there of the upcoming 200th anniversary of the battle, although it seems the French leader was even-handed enough to concede, alongside recognition of his qualities as a general, and a politician, that he was a “warlord” and a “despot”.

We are now in the midst of four years of commemorations of the World War I. A century after Waterloo, Britain and France were allies, and it is in this spirit of comradeship that these events are taking place. Other alliances have shifted, though. Without Russia’s heroic struggle against Hitler, World War II would not have been won as it was, if at all.

Today, Russia may not be a direct enemy of the West, but it is hard to think of it as an ally. Waterloo; World War I; World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War”, as it is known in Russian) – all of these victories have played a vital part in creating the identity that binds the nation state together.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, seems to understand very well the power of celebrating past victories. As a correspondent in Moscow in 2008, I watched the first VE Day military parade of the post-Soviet era roll across Red Square. The event seems only to have grown since.

Russia is telling itself that, whatever else it may or may not have accomplished in the 20th century, victory over the Nazis was a shining achievement which can never be tarnished. Memories of those Ukrainians who sided with Hitler’s troops in the hope of ending Soviet power are evoked now to justify Russian policy towards its neighbour – the sorest point in generally sour relations with the West.

While triumphs are celebrated, failures seem soon forgotten. Watching television pictures earlier this year of the service at St Paul’s to commemorate combat operations in Afghanistan, I wondered whether that campaign would be remembered in 200 years, as Waterloo will be this summer. For who now commemorates the British Mandate for Palestine, or other less glorious episodes of imperial history?

Such selection means that important lessons are ignored. While World War I commemorations have focused on Europe, surely the real consequences of that conflict for us today are in the Middle East: think of Islamic State’s keenness to demonstrate that the Sykes-Picot agreement is finished.

My recent research has included looking at newspaper archives of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. The failure of this episode in late imperial history to deliver, or even prepare the ground for, a just and lasting peace in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean may be given little thought in Britain today, but it is still very much on the minds of those who live with the consequences.

My ancestor would no doubt have been dismayed to see Europe again in 1915, or 2015. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his account of the causes of World War I, historian Christopher Clark writes of the “raw modernity” of the events of the summer of 1914, when failed diplomacy led to war. As someone who began their career in international news during the last summer of the Soviet Union, I take the phrase to be a warning of the possible consequences of the direction our own unstable age, which arguably began then, might take. For what is the conflict in Ukraine, if not the unfinished business of the summer of 1991?

“We are in hopes that another firm battle will settle this business,” James Russell writes towards the end of his letter. Perhaps to spare his family, he offers little detail of what he had seen at Waterloo. But he did not forget.

His son, David, would later recount a childhood memory of “big tears coursing down the cheeks” of his father and his fellow veterans on the anniversary of the battle. As we remember triumph at Waterloo this week, let us not ignore the lessons for foreign policy which can also come from failure.

Another Russia?

Renewed tension between Russia and the West has also led to renewed interest in London, Washington, and elsewhere as to the state of the Russian opposition.

Earlier this week, The Guardian published an interesting piece by Timothy Garton Ash  which looked at Russia as a country suffering from a loss of empire. Garton Ash argued that there was also another Russia ‘represented by the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, and the people who come to lay flowers on the bridge where he was assassinated’.

Yesterday, the paper published a letter in which I argued that the state of Russia today could not be fully understood without reference to the role that NATO enlargement, in the post-Soviet era, had played in forming Russian foreign policy. You can read it on The Guardian‘s letter page, here, and the text follows below.

Timothy Garton Ash (‘There is another Russia’, Monday 20 April) makes some interesting points, but misses others. While it is true that some ‘Putin understanders’ do seek to ‘excuse all’ when looking at Russia today, there are also pitfalls in adopting the opposite approach. Nowhere does the article mention NATO expansion. One can agree or disagree as to the wisdom or otherwise of NATO’s policies in Eastern Europe since 1991. One cannot disagree that the admission of the Baltic States in particular, and earlier discussions of the possible accession of Georgia and Ukraine, have been used by Vladimir Putin’s administration to fuel his popularity.
There is another Russia today, but it is of limited significance. I was in the audience at Chatham House recently when Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave a lecture. Those of us present who lived in Russia in the 1990s saw a picture of the past rather than the future. The ‘other Russia’ had its chance then. Its day may come again, but it is not here now. Overlooking this, combined with an apparent general lack of Russia expertise (not least in language skills) is one of the reasons why the West has found itself caught on the hop over Ukraine.