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) 

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The election wot ‘The Sun’ never won

 

The influence of the media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, on British politics is a subject discussed at every UK General election. Earlier this month, when the Conservative Party failed to win a parliamentary majority despite his newspapers’ support, I wrote a piece for The Conversation, arguing that the result marked an important moment in British press history. Here are the first couple of paragraphs; a link to the full story follows below.

Britain’s tabloid press is by turns rude, cruel, and funny. To politicians, it is often all three. As voters in the UK went to the polls on June 8, the newsstands offered strong support for Theresa May – and a picture of Jeremy Corbyn in a dustbin.

The prime minister’s political opponents took to social media during the campaign, urging young people to vote. The fact plenty of them seem to have done so may prove to be a factor in the shock result. If so, those social media messages are likely to have been a much greater influence than the slogans and insults of a printed press. Young people tend to read newspapers much less than their elders do.

Failure to understand the nature of change in business or politics leads to defeat, perhaps disaster.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Theresa May’s Putin-style media tactics

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THIS WEEK’S ‘NEW EUROPEAN’ newspaper carries my article on how the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, seems to be borrowing media tactics from President Putin of Russia.

‘Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials,’ she warned a fortnight after calling deciding to go to the country. ‘All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.’

The Prime Minister’s borrowing the policies of those her predecessor derided as ‘fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists’ is one thing – but surely not their admiration for President Putin too?

Consider, though, Mr Putin’s words concerning Russia’s election cycle….

You can read the full article in the June 2nd — June 10th edition of ‘The New European’.

FACING THE FACTS: REPORTING WITH RESTRICTIONS

Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief’s message to staff, ‘Covering Trump the Reuters Way’, raised  plenty of questions about how journalists should work with the new U.S. administration. I took on some of them for a piece this week on The Conversation

IT WAS HIGH SUMMER ON THE EDGE OF SIBERIA and suddenly there came the hardest question of a tough assignment. I had travelled to Yekaterinburg for a story about the spread of HIV. The city’s location made it a crossroads for the trade in many goods, including heroin. As a result, HIV infection rates were rising frighteningly rapidly among drug users. The trip involved encounters with sources, many of whom were distressed – some of whom who were frankly scary. But it was questions from the journalism students who were with us that really stumped me.

The questions – including the size of my salary – were largely predictable. One was not: “What do you do when the governor does not like a story you have written?”

The obvious answer from a Western reporter might have been something about the noble notion of the fourth estate speaking the truth to power. But I knew that such an answer would not work in the lawless Russia of the post-Soviet era. Journalists – especially those who uncovered incompetence or corruption among the powerful – could find themselves in serious, even mortal, danger. So I offered a reply which blended the ideal with a more realistic point

You can read the rest of the piece here

Drawn swords in the digital age: #Whittingdale

Earlier this week, the UK Culture Secretary,  John Whittingdale, faced allegations about his private life. Specifically, how the newspapers’ decision whether or not to report the story might affect his role as minister with responsibility for the press. I wrote an article for The Conversation trying to place the controversy in its historical context as part of a battle between authority and the news media. You can read that here, and a version follows below.

THE WORDS are those of weapons and power, whether real or metaphorical. Today, political opponents of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, suggest that he has been subject to a ‘sword of Damocles’ over a relationship with a sex worker.

In 2010, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced to undercover reporters that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch. In the 1990s, the Conservative Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, promised to fight with ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play’ to ‘cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism’ – yet it was he who came off second best in the end. Earlier in the last century, Stanley Baldwin – frustrated with the newspaper tycoons of his age – accused them of seeking ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

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A casualty in an earlier battle between press and power? The last edition of the ‘News of the World’, 2011

The common theme in this warlike talk is the battle between political power and the news media — in whatever form. As far back as the 15th century, the Tudors, coming to the throne with a questionable claim to the crown, made sure that they controlled the chroniclers, and the printing press, as closely as possible. These were the new media of their day — and the Tudors understood that they had to make the best possible use of them.

This meant, broadly speaking, two things: accept that the media had their uses, and also, that the successful exercise of power required a degree of control.

Tudor courtiers had far greater sanction at their disposal than modern ministers or their spin doctors. Even the most draconian contemporary advocate of press regulation would not argue for torture or mutilation (although the stocks might still find their supporters).

Our contemporary notions of the role of the press in political life tend to be based on the idea that it is a Fourth Estate — an integral part of a functioning democracy. Its role is to question and hold to account those in power — even to the extent of sometimes causing their downfall. The heroic determination, and ultimate success, of the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are often seen as an inspirational example of this kind of journalism. Watergate gave journalism the “gate” suffix without which no scandal is now complete.

The reality of the relationship between political power and press power is rarely so clear cut. As a former BBC journalist, I tried to imagine the discussions which might have gone on last year at the Corporation when Downing Street refused a one-to-one television debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

BBC guidelines state that “the refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors holding different views, or on the programme itself”. So the BBC could have “empty chaired” the prime minister, as TV current affairs slang has it. This would have been radical — and extreme. It would have been a moment in TV history. It would also have been very unwise from a BBC which already expected few favours from a future Conservative government.

The case of the culture secretary’s relationship with a sex worker raises anew many eternal issues. Has the story remained largely unreported for editorial reasons, or is it the [latest weaponisation of politically sensitive information?

The question will continue to be discussed. Cable, after declaring war on the Murdoch empire, was eventually withdrawn from the battlefield, having his responsibility for the case taken away.

Alongside the continuity from previous ages of battle between power and the press, there is also change. Recent cases concerning the private lives of celebrities have shown that even the most strictly worded injunctions struggle today to keep scandals entirely out of the public domain. Social media have seen to that. That being the case, what is the real power of press regulation? And who, in the age of the MP’s expenses scandal, and the Panama Papers, really trusts the political establishment?

Both the news media and the political establishment are subject to digital disruption — the latest factor in the battle between press and power.