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. 


‘Security sources say…’

It was terrifying news — if it was true. In October 2004, the Head of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, told the Russian Parliament that more than 80 suicide bombers had been trained for attacks on targets inside Russia.

The FSB chief, Nikolai Patrushev, went on, ‘We don’t know what route they might take to get into Russia, and this creates definite problems.’

The quotation above is taken from a BBC News website report published at the time. I was then working as editor of the BBC’s Russian language site. I remember a long discussion with my colleagues in the BBC Russian Service about how we should treat the story. We were wary of simply headlining what a senior official had said  — just because they had said it. We had no obvious means of checking the claim.

Our colleagues on the English-language site did not fully share our reservations, and ran the piece which you can still read today. Even that story, though, did note of Mr Patrushev’s claims, ‘He did not explain how the FSB had gathered the information on potential attackers.’

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

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

Nor would you expect him to — and that is the major challenge for journalists reporting on intelligence issues, especially where issues such as potential suicide bombers are concerned.

Every journalism student or trainee reporter knows that a news story needs to have the 5Ws and the H: ‘Who, what, when, where, why, and how.’ The material available for many stories dealing with alleged terrorists often has more than one of those missing.

In the case of Mr Patrushev’s remarks above, as so often, it is very important to consider the context of recent events. He was speaking the month after the massacre at the school in Beslan in which more than 300 people were killed. Russia was still stunned by the shock.

Still, that was no reason for journalists simply to report his claims without first considering the basis for them. They should not be propagandists for the FSB or any other security service. Yes, Mr Patrushev’s remarks were newsworthy — but they might have been better placed in a piece about the security situation in Russia, rather than granted the immediate headline the FSB perhaps sought.

More recent debates on issues of journalistic sources and security forces have focused on the consequences of the material leaked by Edward Snowden. When the head of Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, Andrew Parker, spoke earlier this month at the Royal United Services Institute, one part of his speech in particular (had reporters’ attention perhaps been gently guided there by helpful spin doctors?) generated the most headlines.

‘It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,’ Mr Parker said, according to the text posted on the RUSI website.

It made the lead story on the BBC Ten O’Clock News that night, October 8th. Both as a viewer and a former BBC journalist,  I accepted that the speech was newsworthy. Of more concern was the way that Mr Parker’s remarks were simply reported, rather than analysed. Apart from a short contribution from Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, the coverage mostly seemed to consist of what the MI5 Director had said.

There are times when journalists willingly comply with requests from security and police forces. In July 2005, as police in London pursued suspects in a series of failed suicide bombings, broadcasters agreed not to show live coverage of the ongoing operation. The security services were concerned such coverage might alert the suspects to their impending capture.

The real challenges that journalists face in reporting security issues are absences both of facts (those 5Ws and the H), and of secondary sources. Working with incomplete information can lead to errors of judgement.

The relationship between journalists and security sources is in many ways a conflict — one in which both sides may sometimes do things they should not. From a journalist’s point of view, it is a conflict in which security forces, whatever their motives, should not be allowed always to get their way — or to reach a point where they dominate completely.

The extent of the damage done by Mr Snowden’s revelations, or the extent to which they should be welcomed, is a different argument. The extent to which they should be reported is another argument again — although I think many journalists would say that, like the comments of the Chiefs of the FSB and MI5, the fact that they exist is a story.


Talking to ‘terrorists’ – trying to tell the full story

‘You only report death or glory and nothing in between. And it’s just not like that.’  

These words, spoken by Richard Streatfeild, then a major in the British Army, came back to me this morning when I heard him on the BBC’s morning current affairs programme, Today, here in the UK.

No longer in the Army, he has nevertheless returned to Helmand province for a final visit. His contribution to the programme this morning discussed the changing role for British troops as they prepare to hand over to the Afghan Army – and at a time when talks with the Taliban are planned.

Major Streatfeild’s line about death or glory was said not in the heat of Helmand, but in a cafe on a January morning in London – a morning so wet and grey the cafe lights struggled against the gloom. He was recounting a conversation with a journalist friend about the way war was reported.

My interview with him was for Reporting Conflict. I had asked to meet him because the reports he had previously done, as a serving officer, seemed to me a new departure in covering military campaigns – for the BBC, at least. Here they were handing airtime over to a member of the armed forces.

In part, technology had created the opportunity. Where once cumbersome equipment would have been needed to get broadcast quality material to London on air, Major Streatfeild was now working with a small recorder, a USB cable, and a laptop.

The change was editorial, too. In the interview, Major Streatfeild described the negotiations which had led to his despatches getting from idea to air. He wanted, he told me, ‘to give a flavour of the absolute reality of how soldiers behave on operations.’

Current editorial thinking – influenced by the multiplicity of voices on social media – is more open to reporters who are not themselves journalists than once it might have been.

At a time when much of the news about Afghanistan is dominated by what the BBC recently called the ‘Troubled path to talks with the Taliban’, there are important lessons here for reporting armed conflict.

The planned talks rightly received widespread coverage, but the idea was not new. In 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, told CNN that ‘preliminary’ talks were underway, noting then, ‘a political outcome is the way most of these wars end’.

Mr Gates was right, of course. It is hard to think of examples to the contrary. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 might be considered one where military force rapidly achieved its objective – so too might Kosovo in 1999. But in both cases there had to be talks too. In the case of Kosovo, the European Union is still leading negotiations.

So when political and military leaders insist, as they so frequently do, that there can be no talks with ‘terrorists’, journalists should remind them of recent history, and of Mr Gates’ words.

One reporter who was not afraid to point out that the military solution only approach could be counterproductive was Anna Politkovsakya. She concluded, of Russia’s campaign against Chechen separatists, ‘The only thing the methods of this war accomplish is to recruit new terrorists and resistance fighters, and to rouse hatred, calling for bloody revenge.’

Russia troops on campaign against 'terrorists' in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russia troops on campaign against ‘terrorists’ in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

In the end, of course, Russia too concluded that it was better to talk to those it had once labelled ‘terrorists’. Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, like his father Ahmad before him, both once rebelled against Moscow.  Mr Kadyrov senior was blown up after he agreed to head the pro-Kremlin administration — presumably by people who had once thought of him as an ally.

The situation in Chechnya — as in Afghanistan, or Iraq — is not as simple as death or glory. Good journalism will reflect that.