Reporting from the frontline
At a time when journalism’s shadier side fills the headlines, it was pleasant to be reminded of nobler possibilities recently thanks to Life and Death on the Frontline (Radio 4). John Simpson, the BBC’s redoubtable World Affairs editor, began with the recent death of Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times and reflected on what the job of reporting from theatres of conflict means. And why, despite the risks, so many still do it.
Technological change was, unsurprisingly, a key issue. Reports from the Crimea could take eight weeks to trickle home, while nowadays journalists can blog, tweet and transmit live from the events around them. Though it is not all progress. Martin Bell, former MP and BBC foreign affairs supremo, suggested that war reporting changed with 9/11. Since then, correspondents have been transformed into targets themselves.
Bell also claimed that the war reporting of old was no longer possible, journalists kept on a tighter leash by foreign authorities and no longer able to roam as once they could. He predicted, rather apocalyptically, that ‘the wars of this century…are being fought out in a kind of medieval darkness’. Citizen journalism fills in some of the gaps, of course, but whether it earns its spurs as reportage – aiming at level headed impartiality – seemed in doubt.
One of the most fascinating parts of the programme concerned the issue of safety. We heard from the BBC head of newsgathering and the foreign editor of the Times about how cultures differed when it comes to broadcasting versus print, print being less ‘bureaucratic’ apparently, nimbler with its sparse equipment. Journalists can be fleeter of foot when entrusted with only a notepad and pen. But safety is a serious concern, though here proved ripe for some light relief. Clips from one of the BBC’s ‘hostile environment’ refresher courses steered close to an extract from Scoop. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, and team were plunged into a fictional country called ‘Hostalia’. Shouty theatrics filled the background; cut-glass accents fretted and flailed. Evelyn Waugh couldn’t have done much better.
Any hint of levity was soon expunged, however, as John Simpson brought the grim realities of the job back into focus with a tale about his own experience in Iraq, subject to an episode of friendly fire in which eighteen people – including the team’s translator – were killed. The live recording from that event encapsulated the knife-edge nature of the frontline better than anything I’ve yet heard or seen. Simpson was similarly candid about motivation, admitting that alongside starrier impulses:
“It’s also a matter of self-image. Going to unpleasant places isn’t just what I do, it’s become who I am. If I didn’t do it anymore, I’d feel myself diminished,” he said.
A concluding vignette about the time he was subject to a mock execution in Beirut pushed the point home. Luck, derring-do and an unquenchable appetite for it all surfaced as the main ingredients for a successful war correspondent. A ‘basic drive’ that the old 9-to-5 just can’t satisfy.Tagged in: bbc, frontline, John Simpson, Life and Death on the Frontline, Marie Colvin, radio 4, war correspondents
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