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Blood and Dust: Vaughan Smith on the rescue teams saving lives in Afghanistan

February 18th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Broadcasting, Editors' pick

Frontline Club founder and freelance filmmaker Vaughan Smith has produced a new film following two weeks embedded with the US Army’s 214th Aviation Regiment in Afghanistan.

The film, produced for Al Jazeera’s People & Power series, follows the trials of a US military air ambulance crew as they attempt to save the lives of soldiers, local nationals and Taliban fighters alike.

“I have done a fair number of military embeds in Afghanistan over the last few years,” says Smith, “but was concerned that I hadn’t filmed the suffering of war, just its machinery.”

“I have worked with Al Jazeera on this because I couldn’t find another news broadcaster in Britain that would show the film without cutting out the stronger images. I have huge respect for the way Al Jazeera as a broadcaster engages the world while so many others appear to retreat from it,” he adds.

Media Briefing editor Patrick Smith says: “What I enjoy about Vaughan’s work is its absence of politics. A BBC, Sky or CNN journalist may frame a report around whether the troops should be at war or not. This is just a document of professionals at work, doing their job, stitching people up in the most unimaginable heat and horror.”

More information on the Frontline Club site at this link.

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Independent: Vaughan Smith – ‘Why I’m sheltering Julian Assange’

December 15th, 2010 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Press freedom and ethics

Fascinating piece from Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith on why he has given WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a place to stay as part of the conditions of his release on bail. Assange was granted bail yesterday at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, but is still in jail following an appeal of the decision by Swedish prosecutors (background to his arrest on Journalism.co.uk at this link).

I ponder the disservice to Julian done by the media. With their stockings stuffed by WikiLeaks they dehumanise him with images printed and screened of a cold, calculating Machiavelli pulling strings from secret hideouts. The main hideout, of course, being the Frontline Club, where many of them have interviewed him.

They made him out to be the internet’s Bin Laden. The likeness might be poor, but that was OK because the colours were familiar and bright. Now the focus is on Julian’s court fight, instead of on the opaque political system that his leaks have exposed.

Full story on Independent.co.uk at this link…

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Deadlines and frontlines: extracts from new book on journalism and the Afghanistan war

August 31st, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Broadcasting, Press freedom and ethics

This week, Journalism.co.uk is publishing extracts from a new book about the media coverage of the Afghanistan war.

‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’ brings together the testimonies of frontline correspondents and detailed academic analysis, with a particular focus on the pros and cons of so-called ‘embedded’ journalism.

Earlier today, we published an introduction to the book by journalism lecturer and co-editor John Mair, followed by a look at the dangers of ‘news management’ by Frontline Club founder and war correspondent Vaughan Smith.

Smith’s essay will be followed in the next three days by contributions from Channel 4 News presenter and war correspondent Alex Thomson, Sky News’ Asia correspondent Alex Crawford, and others.

All extracts published so far can be viewed at this link.

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From the frontline: how ‘true’ is the media’s picture of Afghanistan?

March 23rd, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Events, Press freedom and ethics

Journalists gathered to discuss the British media’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan at last week’s video conference at Coventry University.

The ‘Afghanistan – are we embedding the truth?’ event, chaired by the editor of the BBC College of Journalism, Kevin Marsh, brought journalists such as Vaughan Smith and Stuart Ramsay together with academics Richard Keeble and Tim Luckhurst, and the Ministry of Defence’s head of Operational Communication, Brigadier Mark van der Lande.

Vaughan Smith offered what was perhaps the most troubling thought: “Sports journalist knows more about sports than war correspondents know about war, and that is a cultural problem”.

Vaughan, a news pioneer and independent video journalist who has in the past managed to disguise and bluff his way into an active duty unit to shoot uncontrolled footage of the Gulf war, also held up two photographs as part of his speech; one of Hiroshima’s mushroom cloud, and another of an injured civilian in Nagasaki.

He used these photographs as evidence to explain that you never see enough of the second type, showing the injured and other devastating side effects. Instead, the audience is shown ‘Bang Bang’ images; “a fundamental problem,” he said.

Jonathan Marcus, BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, had a mixed response to the event’s theme: “I think it’s a pointless question, we are embedding some truth, and the truth is very complex. War through a keyhole is what war correspondents are giving you.”

Nonetheless, he doesn’t think that embedding is bad practice, when taken as a whole: “If you put all these keyholes together, you start to form a bigger picture and understand what is going on.”

“However, it is a problem that paradoxically, with advances in technology and globalisation, we can do a lot more. Yet, we are reporting less than we used to,” he said.

Brigadier Mark van der Lande argued that they don’t instantly show casualty because they have a duty to inform next of kin first. “We are not hiding things for the cost of war; we are looking out for individuals,” he said.

It is difficult for the MoD, he said, because the ‘Bang Bang’ is what the audience and the media in general is interested in.  Most of the time the more important things that the military look into aren’t released simply because “it is of less interest to the media and the audience,” he argued.

The media do, to a certain extent, manufacture stories, agreed Tim Luckhurst, a Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent, but it is not because of dishonesty, it’s because “we simply cannot stay away from the impact kinetic stories get; embedded journalism serves the needs of the state.

“We do not see humanitarianism or suffering children because it bears no relevance to the needs of the states.”

“Views of the military and government do not comply with journalists’ views, and today’s conference has revealed the extent of that fact.”

Robert Williams is a student at Coventry University.

Read more here, over at Daniel Bennett’s blog, including detail of the video contribution from Channel 4 News’ Alex Thomson.


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Stephen Farrell’s kidnap raises the ‘media blackout’ question: it’s time for a debate in the UK

September 10th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Comment, Newspapers, Press freedom and ethics

This week’s operation in Afghanistan to rescue New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell, during which a British soldier, Farrell’s Afghan translator (Sultan Munadi) and two civilians were killed, has provoked national debate in the UK:

“One senior Army source told the Daily Telegraph “When you look at the number of warnings this person had it makes you really wonder whether he was worth rescuing, whether it was worth the cost of a soldier’s life.” (Telegraph.co.uk)

Many of the commenters on news stories feel very strongly that it was wrong for a journalist’s actions to lead to such tragic consequences, as Jon Slattery noted on his blog yesterday. Further still: “Members of the Armed Forces have expressed anger that he [Farrell] ignored warnings not to visit the site of an air strike on two hijacked fuel tankers that killed scores of Taliban and innocent villagers,” the Telegraph reported. Others defend the role of journalists in Afghanistan: for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists.

This tragic incident also raised another issue, that of media silence. Today a special report by Joe Strupp on Editor&Publisher questions whether media blackouts are appropriate when reporters are kidnapped in war zones. It’s an excellent overview of recent events, that looks back at the case of another New York Times journalist, David Rohde – the paper managed to keep news of his kidnap off Wikipedia until his escape seven months later.

The question of media blackout is one Journalism.co.uk has raised in the past. In January, we reported on the silence surrounding the kidnap of the Telegraph’s Colin Freeman and José Cendon in Somalia. We had been asked not to report on the case by the Telegraph and the UK Foreign Office when the pair went missing at the end of 2008. The ban was lifted when they were released.

However, as we reported, some information was published before the blackout request was made clear: the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released information relating to the journalists’ kidnap on November 26 2008 and Roy Greenslade subsequently blogged about it at Guardian.co.uk – the post was removed but it was still captured in the RSS feed.

It’s a complex issue that Strupp raises in his E&P article:

“With Rohde’s escape, a major debate ignited in and out of the journalism community about how responsible the coordinated secret had been. Was this a breach of journalistic ethics, sitting on a story for so long mainly because a colleague was involved?”

Strupp quotes Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, who echoed claims of other critics, that the Times and similar news outlets would not do the same for a non-journalist: “Some people are in a position to implore the press for restraint better than others”.

It is a debate we need to have in the UK too: the London-based Frontline Club would be an ideal venue in which to hold a discussion with representatives from the UK foreign office, press freedom and safety organisations and news organisations raising the reasons for and against media blackouts. The practicalities of enforcement also need to be discussed. We understand that such an idea is in the pipeline, so we’ll keep you posted.

Please do share links to existing debate online.

In the meantime, here is a link to an item on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme, featuring Frontline Club founder and cameraman (and former soldier) Vaughan Smith and the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen discussing the Stephen Farrell case.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8247000/8247681.stm

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