FAC News -
Saturday, December 1, 2001 9:44 AM
The war on journalism
As seven western correspondents are killed in one week in Afghanistan,
author Phillip Knightley asks if frontline reporters are now considered
Monday November 26, 2001
The Guardian, London
So far, not a single British or American soldier has died in action
in Afghanistan. On the other hand, in
just one week, seven Western war correspondents were killed there.
The conclusion is inescapable - it is now safer to be a member of
the fighting forces than a representative of the media. What's going
All those killed were experienced correspondents who would have
considered the risk acceptable. So did they die because they miscalculated?
From bad luck? Or are war correspondents now considered legitimate
targets? And if so, who is responsible for this change? In the old
days, correspondents were thought to be neutral, objective observers
and enemy soldiers seldom deliberately fired on them. In the American
Civil War the correspondents considered wearing white uniforms so
that troops would know who they were and "to indicate the purity
of their character".
In the second world war there were casualties among correspondents,
but mostly from being in the wrong place at the wrong time not from
being deliberately targeted. This began to change in Vietnam and
it was partly the correspondents' own fault. Some of them began
to carry arms and take part in actions. Peter Arnett, of the Associated
Press, had a Mauser machine pistol. Charlie Black, of the Columbus
Inquirer, killed at least three Vietcong. Charlie Eggleston, a United
Press photographer was shot dead trying to avenge four correspondents
killed by the Vietcong - but not before he had killed three Vietnamese.
Other correspondents were appalled, arguing that if even only one
war correspondent went armed, this
entitled the Vietcong to assume that all correspondents were armed,
and to react accordingly. No wonder that at the end of the war 45
war correspondents had been killed and 18 were missing.
By the time we get to the wars in the former Yugoslavia the conventions
had changed utterly.
Wearing a jacket with "press" badge and travelling in a civilian
vehicle flying a white flag actually
attracted fire. Several correspondents there recalled driving for
their lives as snipers from both sides
tried to pick them off. One said, "The locals feel we are leeches
sucking away at their misery." And why should individual soldiers
feel that this attitude is wrong when Nato justified bombing the
Belgrade TV station and now the Pentagon bombs the Al Jazeera TV
station's office in Kabul?
As early as 1983, the International Committee of the Red Cross discussed
how the death toll of war
correspondents might be reduced. It concluded that there was no
way to eliminate the risk entirely and
that correspondents themselves would not want this if the result
was anodyne reporting. Last year, the
European Centre of the Freedom Forum, an American philanthropic
organisation, persuaded all the major European news organisations
to send their journalists to hostile environment training courses
to help them survive while reporting wars and revolutions.
The Centre also funded a professional study into post trauma stress
disorder (PTSD) among war
correspondents. This revealed that they experience a higher prevalence
of PTSD than police officers, and are often on a par with combat
So, if being a war correspondent is so risky, if you survive then
to discover that you have a post trauma
stress disorder, why do so many journalists want to cover wars?
Some feel they have a duty to inform the world, others seek adventure.
It can a very quick path to fame and promotion. In 1982, Max Hastings
was a 38-year-old reporter for the London Evening Standard when
he went to the Falklands.
He walked through British lines on the last day of the war and "took"
the capital, Port Stanley,
single-handed. In no time he had been appointed editor of the Daily
Telegraph and then editor of the
Standard, where he remains today. John Simpson of the BBC walks
into Kabul ahead of the liberating forces and has his burst of fame.
A measure of how well known his reporting of 31 wars has made him,
is that a World Service colleague says, "Throughout all my years
of doing foreign affairs for the BBC, wherever I go all people ask
is: 'Do you know John Simpson?'"
The American writer Nora Ephron notes that unlike fighting in the
war itself, unlike big game hunting,
working as a war correspondent is almost the only classic male endeavour
left that provides physical
danger and personal risk without public disapproval. "The awful
truth is that for correspondents, war is
not hell. It is fun."
So, despite an ever-rising death toll, war correspondents are going
to continue to do it anyway.
And who is to say that protecting them would be a good idea. No
correspondents were as well protected as the six British journalists
who reported the first world war - officer rank, uniforms, chauffeur-driven
cars, armed escorts, batmen, personal censors, lodgings in French
chalets. The result: not one was killed but they produced the worst
war reporting in the history of the business.
Phillip Knightley is the author of The First Casualty (Prion), a
history of war correspondents