April 29, 2011 10:10 pm

Death or glory

 
A rebel fighter in Libya

A picture of a rebel fighter in Libya taken by Chris Hondros

“Mightn’t it be rather dangerous?” William Boot demanded of the Daily Beast’s foreign editor on being invited to report on an African civil war in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s immortal 1938 comic novel of journalism. The passage continues: “Mr Salter smiled; to him, it was as though an Arctic explorer had expressed a fear that the weather might turn cold. ‘Nothing to what you are used to in the country,’ he said. ‘You’ll be surprised to find how far the war correspondents keep from the fighting.’ ”

Not all. The deaths in Libya a week ago of British filmmaker Tim Hetherington and American photographer Chris Hondros highlighted the peril inseparable from recording conflict. In recent years, the world’s wars have claimed the lives of hundreds of journalists and photographers of many nationalities, whose luck ran out.

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Especially in places such as Libya, where western diplomats and intelligence services struggle to secure reliable information, the contribution of the media is substantial. So, too, is its influence. Intervention in Bosnia, almost two decades ago, was forced upon reluctant western governments by the reports and images of carnage with which correspondents filled television news bulletins and front pages. Their insistent demand, which strikes fear into every democratic president and prime minister, is: “Something must be done.”

Likewise today, Nato policy towards Libya is powerfully affected by harrowing word portraits delivered daily by journalists in Misurata. Contrast these with Syria, where President Assad has slaughtered hundreds of civilians, not quite with impunity but with diminished impact on western public opinion because there are few pictures of his murders.

Again and again since William Howard Russell created the modern culture of war correspondence with his 1854 Times reports from the Crimea, the actions of governments have been profoundly influenced, for good or ill, by press narratives. A myth is still cherished by a few elderly American generals that the media lost them the Vietnam war. In truth, that was the soldiers’ own achievement. But it is hard to overstate the impact on global opinion of, for instance, the image of a screaming Vietnamese child running naked down a road, hideously disfigured by napalm.

Likewise, footage of a Saigon police chief summarily executing a Viet Cong suspect during the 1968 Tet offensive converted millions overnight to a conviction that the US was supporting an unworthy ally. This prompts a bleakly ironic reflection: America’s commitment to press freedom made possible the revelation of such atrocities. By contrast, communist North Vietnam’s culture of secrecy ensured that its own crimes and massacres, of which there were many, received no matching attention.

The world glamorises war correspondents, perceived as the least discreditable element of an essentially rackety trade. They fulfil a vital, and occasionally noble, function. But, as a former war reporter myself, I recoil from the mawkish sentimentality with which we enshrine our casualties. The deaths of Hetherington and Hondros prompted an orgy of emotional prose about sacrifices in the cause of truth, courage under fire and the compulsion to risk.

In my own youth on battlefields, I never doubted the worth of what we were trying to do. But nor did I suppose that I, or more than a tiny fraction of my colleagues, put ourselves in the line of fire in the cause of suffering humanity. We did it because we loved adventure and every ambitious journalist knows that conflicts offer the fastest and most glamorous path to a reputation.

 
Max Hastings in Port Stanley

Max Hastings in Port Stanley

In June 1982, aged 36, I remember gazing across the 400 yards separating the British and Argentine lines in the last hours before the Falklands war ended, contemplating the possibility of becoming “the first man into Port Stanley”. With shameless egoism, I thought: “If I can walk up that road without being shot, I can bore everybody to death for the next 30 years talking about it.” So I did, and I have. I would never have been offered the editorship of the Daily Telegraph less than four years later, without the celebrity purchased by those 10 minutes of self-inflicted terror.

As for the casualties, one day during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, I returned briefly to Tel Aviv from the Golan Heights – in those prehistoric, pre-satphone days, regular retreats to landlines were indispensable to file copy. In the hotel lobby I was amazed to meet Nicholas Tomalin, idol of my generation of journalists and a close friend. “What the hell are you doing here, Nick?” I demanded. “I’m 28 and trying to make a name. I have to do this. But you’re an old man of 41 who’s won all the prizes and has nothing to prove.” Whatever answer he mumbled, I knew the truth: he had succumbed to the lure irresistible to most reporters, to put himself where the action was. Next day on the Golan, Tomalin was killed by a Syrian rocket. I thought very consciously: whatever I am doing at 41, I shall not still be sitting under barrages, and stuck to that resolve.

But an amazing number of war reporters go on and on. Robert Fisk and John Simpson are in their mid-60s. Both are fine journalists but I venture to suggest their motive for staying on the road, or rather under fire, remains the familiar one: wars confer an adrenaline rush such as no other story matches. When a conflict commands headlines, readers and viewers cling to every word a correspondent writes or broadcasts.

Many writers and TV presenters contrive to do their business without braving utmost danger – “pieces off camera” are often shot beside artillery positions, which while looking “warry” are relatively safe. But the bravest photographers and cameramen take reckless risks.

I have never forgotten watching – from a personally comfortable vantage point – a 1975 firefight beside Saigon’s Newport Bridge. The BBC and ITV crews leapfrogged each other towards the action, each haunted by fear that their rivals might get closer shots. Don McCullin, a byword for courage as well as awesome photography, suffered a bad thigh wound in Cambodia in 1970. Yet as soon as he recovered, he went back for more. I knew that if I was once wounded, saw my own flesh mangled and bleeding, I could never have faced a battlefield again.

Every conflict attracts some of the best practitioners in journalism but also a parasitic body of “war junkies” – young men and women with doubtful qualifications and precarious freelance accreditation, there for the thrills. American photographer Sean Flynn cut a maniacal figure among the Saigon press corps, racing a motorbike, living in a haze of narcotics. In April 1970, when he and colleague Dana Stone were captured in Cambodia and later killed – crucified, some say – I remember thinking that the Khmer Rouge were probably the first people he had ever met who neither knew nor cared that he was the son of movie idol Errol Flynn.

In my day there was, indeed, a lot of wine, women and drugs around war zones (though I must confess with mixed feelings that none of them were mine) because when night fell, these offered the readiest means to cauterise fear. We worked in an almost exclusively, indeed aggressively, masculine environment. I suspect that conduct behind today’s battlefields is less extravagant: the presence of many women reporters and photographers makes men behave at least a little better.

Though I am cynical about the ethical commitment of war correspondents, so often intensely self-centred, I never doubt the brilliance and dedication of the good ones. Battle has inspired some peerless journalism, from the likes of Alan Moorehead in the second world war, James Cameron in Korea, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan in Vietnam. Among the current generation of war reporters, I admire Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times as much as any, because she writes from a deep knowledge of Afghanistan and Pakistan such as many of her colleagues lack, however brave they are.

Critics heap scorn upon the failures and deceits of war correspondents, prominent among them Phillip Knightley in The First Casualty, his 1975 history of the breed. Knightley sought to make a virtue of the fact that he himself had never reported a war. I believe this fatally flawed his understanding of the challenges and difficulties. Good journalism is about trying to find out and publish things those in authority do not want known. When politicians and tycoons chide me about the shortcomings of our trade, which heaven knows are real enough, I respond that we might do a better job if they lied to us less frequently. We aspire to assemble jigsaw puzzles with many pieces missing. We can seldom, if ever, discover and publish “the truth”: only fragments of truth.

In war, this reality becomes even starker. Commanders conceal much, sometimes for good reasons of security, sometimes to hide embarrassments or atrocities. It is hard for journalists on a battlefield to discern more than they can see with their own eyes. The “fog of war”, even in this information-overloaded age, remains as profound as ever.

There is a further problem: many journalists lack any education in military affairs, scarcely appreciating the difference between a division and a brigade, a Tornado and a Typhoon aircraft. When I first went to war in 1969, aged 23, most of my colleagues had done military service and some had even served in the second world war. This did not make them braver or better writers but it enabled them to understand what they saw more readily than most of their modern successors.

Unless one has a minimum of military knowledge, a battlefield witness sees merely a lot of men in camouflaged suits running around and shooting at each other. The literary quality of dispatches from Afghanistan and Libya is as high as ever but only a minority of correspondents is qualified to interpret and analyse.

What’s more, the risks have increased, as shown by the death rate among journalists, which is much higher than in my time. Many conflicts are fought between rival bands of shambolic, murderous guerrillas, as in the Balkans and Libya. Journalists accredited to disciplined professional units, as I was with the US Army in Vietnam and the British Army in the Falklands, face much lesser risks than those groping around wilderness at the mercy of insurgents.

Islamic militants in Iraq and Afghanistan treat western journalists with ruthless hostility and often murder them in cold blood. I was never much worried about roaming around Vietnam, Rhodesia during its 1970s civil war, and Middle East battlefields, even without a military escort. If, however, I found myself working in Iraq today, nothing would induce me to travel alone outside Baghdad’s Green Zone. Between 2003 and 2009, of 128 men and 11 women journalists killed in Iraq, 50 died amid the random vicissitudes of combat, while a further 89 were murdered in cold blood.

Contrast those statistics with a total of only 54 accredited journalists killed in the allied ranks during the second world war. To be sure, the modern media is far larger. But the dominant reality is that many belligerents in the world’s current wars refuse to recognise the non-combatant status of journalists.

Yet many soldiers of the democracies welcome the presence of journalists – or at least, good journalists – on their battlefields. When they are risking their lives and sometimes sacrificing them, they want those at home to know what they are doing. Commanders of western armies recognise that, while reports of misdeeds and failures can cause grief, war reporting has become a vital strand in military operations.

I finish writing these words, to gaze out with complacency upon my swimming pool, basking in sunshine. In a manner of speaking, I suppose, its limpid waters represent the booty of long-gone years hugging fear and scribbling dispatches on battlefields in remote corners of the earth. My respect for those who today follow the same path in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and the Balkans is unbounded. It is exceeded only by gratitude no longer to be sharing their thrills, dangers and privations.

Max Hastings is an FT contributing editor

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Hugh Carnegy on the FT in the frontline

Boardrooms and bond markets may represent the Financial Times’s more familiar frontline but at any time FT correspondents are also to be found reporting from hotspots around the world. Our reporters have been on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, and recently in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.

The risks are real. In 1991, just after the first Gulf war, FT correspondent David Thomas and photographer Alan Harper were killed when their car was engulfed by fire in the oilfields of Kuwait, set alight by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops. In 1999 Sander Thoenes, a young Dutch journalist who was the FT’s correspondent in Jakarta, was murdered by Indonesian army officers when reporting from East Timor. Nobody who was in the newsroom on those awful days will forget them – or the shock of their deaths. And on other occasions there have been near-misses when correspondents have been badly injured or threatened. Inevitably, it raises the question of whether it is necessary to put journalists in harm’s way.

The instinctive answer is that no story is worth someone’s life. As a news organisation whose main concern is business, finance and the world’s political economy, the need for the FT to commit to frontline coverage of violent conflict is limited. But nor can we simply report on the world from the safety of an office in London, New York or Hong Kong. To be properly informed of what is going on in the world – and, as important, what may unfold in future – usually requires being at the sharp end. Our ability to judge and inform our readers depends upon it.

The issue then becomes one of balancing the risk of sending reporters to potentially dangerous places. In the past decade – like other news organisations – we have greatly increased the training we give to journalists going into hostile places, the security support they receive when they are on the ground and our contingency planning should something go wrong. It is, of course, an inexact science. Sometimes risk can suddenly appear in places normally regarded as perfectly safe. But a judgment has to be made.

Over the past month in Libya, FT correspondents have been in Tripoli and Benghazi but they have not been in Misurata. We salute those brave journalists who have been, and especially those who were killed there.

Hugh Carnegy is the FT’s executive editor and a former foreign news editor and correspondent in the Middle East

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