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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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.