Tag Archives: war journalism

Afghanistan and journalism: who’s winning the media war?

Earlier this month, Journalism.co.uk ran a series of exclusive extracts from the book ‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’. Last night contributors to the book came together to debate the media’s role in the Afghanistan conflict, its portrayal of the war and what should happen now. Co-editor John Mair rounds up last night’s debate at the Frontline Club:

Now for the ultimate journalistic challenge: how do you report a meeting that is not supposed to have happened?

Facts first: the book ‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’ edited by Richard Keeble and myself was launched at the Frontline Club in London last night. A debate was held there too about who was winning the media war in Afghanistan, but under the Chatham House Rule, which rather stymies reporting.

Participating were senior editors and correspondents from the BBC and Sky News and a senior military public relations official in front of a paying audience of 120. I can tell you no more about who took part. That’s the rule.

But some interesting themes emerged that I can talk about:

  • the media war was firmly being lost by the West and won by the Taliban;
  • the US authorities are better at managing the media than the British, who seem addicted to embedding;
  • embedding is nothing new but the British military have got better at straight news management (e.g.minimising the filming of casualties on the grounds that soldiers had rights to privacy and refusal);
  • the British army has made coverage of the war cheap and within the reach of regional papers and television to suit their own agenda;
  • embedding with the Taliban has been almost impossible and the era of the unilateral journalist firmly finished in this theatre of war.

One of the most interesting things to emerge was a perceived multiplication of casualties through military procedures and the 24-hour news cycle. Soldiers “die” five times: when the incident happens, when their name is announced by the MoD, when the body comes home and through Wooton Bassett, at their funeral and at the inquest into their death. So the 330 plus British casualties to date in Afghanistan can seem like many more thanks to this rule, hence the lingering but dwindling public support for the War.

It was a fascinating discussion and let me leave you with some quotes. Under the Chatham House rule, it is up to you to decide who said what:

  • “Afghanistan has seen the Hollywoodisation of war”;
  • “There are more embeds in Afghanistan than any other conflict”;
  • “Embedded is just posh silly name for what journos always done”;
  • “Sports journos know more about sport than war journos know about war”;
  • “We have an absolute duty to tell the truth”.

Did I break the Rule? You decide…

BJR: Former staffer criticises BBC for treatment of injured war reporters

Michael Cole, a former BBC TV news reporter, criticises the BBC for its use of Frank Gardner as a frontline war correspondent in this piece, questioning the characteristics of war correspondents and the duty of care of employers. Gardner was left with injuries to his spinal cord after being shot by al-Qaeda gunmen in Saudi Arabia in 2004.

Says Cole:

The BBC has always been very leery about taking responsibility for people who are killed or injured on duty. There is a closing of ranks on the management floors whenever such things happen. After the expressions of official grief and a good turn-out of the top brass at the funeral, or a succession of hospital visits to the injured employee, it all comes down to pounds and pence: liability and how to avoid it. Sympathy and human regard for victims and their families is not followed by munificent  generosity. In terms of large sums of financial compensation, the BBC is deficient. The initial concern is swiftly stifled by the  obligation to safeguard the licence-payers’ cash.

Full article on the British Journalism Review at this link…

Related reading on Journalism.co.uk: read exclusive extracts from the forthcoming book ‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’.

War reporting: what change in 80 years?

Olivia Alabaster reports on an event last night looking at the history of war reporting – from the days of highly politicised, imperialistic battle accounts when officer-journalists were generally respected and welcomed; to the issues of modern-day war reporting, where journalists themselves can be targets for attack and kidnapping.

David Loyn, foreign correspondent for the BBC, opened the lecture with a brief introduction to war reporting in the late 19th century, with excerpts taken from his book, Butcher and Bolt, which details 100 years of war coverage in Afghanistan.

Commenting on journalism after World War I, Loyn explained how many Fleet Street journalists received knighthoods for service to their country, including their deeply nationalistic writing, which, he suggested, may well have affected the outcome of the war:

“Wouldn’t the course of that war been very different if they had reported what it was really like?”

An interesting concept, and one which is extremely relevant given the current coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To what extent can media outlets be held accountable for  public support for international conflicts and, in turn, how these conflicts pan out?

Stephen Robinson, journalist and biographer of Bill Deedes, the reporter who allegedly inspired antihero protagonist William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘Scoop’, spoke of the importance of the Abyssinian conflict in the history of war.

Not only was Abyssinia ‘Mussolini’s test running of military fascism’, but it revealed the first failings of the then League of Nations and Robinson draws a direct line from this conflict to WWII.

It is perhaps because of the sheer importance of this war that Robinson so berates Waugh, who was a correspondent for the Daily Mail in Abyssinia, for his failings as a journalist at this time. While admiring Waugh as a novelist, Robinson believes he was guilty of missing the real crux of the Abyssinian conflict, and that he was, ‘completely morally blind (…) and he claimed, monstrously, that only a dozen Abyssinians had been killed’.

Colin Smith, who has written primarily for the Guardian and the Observer, discussed the growing immediacy to war reporting in the late 20th century. As he put it: “You can have the best story in the world, but if you can’t get it back, then it’s useless.”

He described a painful example of his own experience of this: Smith once sneaked illegally into Dhaka during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, eventually managing to file his story in Calcutta using the US Consulate’s phone (the British Consulate wouldn’t let him, fearing for its own safety), only for the Associated Press to get there before him…

Embedded journalists
A panel discussion at the event, including Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent at the Sunday Telegraph, then discussed contemporary issues facing war reporting. On the topic of embedding within the military, Loyn said it does not result in a lack of independent coverage.

“If you are embedded, you don’t trade your objectivity, you trade your freedom of movement,” he said.

But Robinson said a journalist cannot remain neutral in such situations: “If you are embedded in the US or the UK army, you will see things from their perspective.”

Journalists as hostages
The panel also discussed the issue of journalists now being ‘prizes’ for kidnappers, of which Freeman has experience – when investigating piracy in Somalia last year, he was kidnapped and kept in a cave for six weeks.

Whereas in the past insurgents wanted to share their stories, they now have more opportunities to manipulate many media outlets, and so are less reliant on the traditional news channels, the panel discussed.

Afghanistan as a return to tradition?
According to the panel, there are elements of reporting on the current Afghanistan conflict that bring war reporting back full circle to its 19th-century origins: most of the footage the public see is filmed by soldiers themselves, as in the 19th century when reporters tended to be officers. This ‘reporting’ raises its own important questions about objectivity.

Olivia Alabaster is an MA Newspaper Journalism student at City University, London. She tweets at @OliviaElsie and blogs at http://abgv844.portfolios.cutlines.org/.