Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Crocodile tears for Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin was a brave (she lost an eye while covering the Sri Lankan civil war) and talented journalist for the Sunday Times who was killed in Syria today, with several other journalists and activists. Renowned for her dogged pursuit of stories other papers and journalists didn't bother with, her death is a loss to her profession. 

Cue, of course, the outpouring of 'tributes' from politicians:

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said American Ms Colvin's death was a "desperately sad reminder" of the risks journalists took reporting in Syria.

"Governments around the world have the responsibility to act upon that truth - and to redouble our efforts to stop [President Bashar] Assad regime's despicable campaign of terror in Syria." 

"Marie and Remi died bringing us the truth about what is happening to the people of Homs.
"an inspiration to women in her profession".
Humbug, the lot of it. Every politician who remarked on her death used it to make anti-Assad propaganda. I fully support the Syrian rebels - and unlike our political leaders, I've always wanted the Assad family's regime to fall. But what I object to here is the cant: UK politicians claiming an unswerving devotion to free and independent journalism. 

One of the things I've taught in recent years is the relationship between governments and the press. Vietnam is the government PR department's nightmare - many on the right accused journalists of 'losing' the war for the US, by bringing the horror into Americans' living rooms. Lyndon Johnson famously remarked
'If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the war'.  

After that, the military everywhere cracked down on independent journalism. The Falklands war literally became a text-book example of censorship: with no way to get there other than with the Navy, and no way to report back other than via Navy communications, the media pack was completely subservient to military command. 

After that, governments tried to be a bit clever: Clinton, Blair and co. (including Hague, Miliband and others) didn't want to look like Cold Warriors, and generated the Liberal Intervention credo, which held that all wars would now be for Democracy and Human Rights (why we haven't yet invaded Saudi Arabia, my MP couldn't tell me). When it came to the press, they were determined to look 'open', while tightly controlling the pictures. They hit upon 'embedded journalism', which was a stroke of genius (though Churchill in South Africa might be considered the first embedded journalist). They knew that TV demanded two things: action and the 'human angle'. By making access to the theatre of war dependent on close association with soldiers, the government got what they wanted. The embedded journalist depended on a small group of soldiers for food, water, transport, safety and good pictures. Travelling and living with them, the chance of critical commentary or images which broke the unspoken bond between them was minimised, as this fine piece explains. What we got were personalised stories - Wayne the Squaddie telling us about how he missed his wife and kids, while a politician posed with a Christmas turkey under the fierce sun. (Ironically, I found the perfect video but 'embedding is disabled on request'!). But here's another one:

There's a word for this: 'propaganda'. And even when the embedded journalist does his/her best (on the basis that one-sided access is better than none at all), it's impossible to gain a rounded view of events from the 'worm's eye' view in this manner. Certainly it caused plenty of media soul-searching: witness this piece by the BBC, and the BBC/Cardiff University report which eventually decided that embedded journalism was 'not a service to democracy'.  

What of the strategic analysis of the war? Easy. The US and UK set up CENTCOM, a massive steel shed in the middle of the desert outside Doha, Qatar. Into it were corralled all the media's most pompous armchair generals - hundreds of miles from the action, dependent on two sources for information on which they could comment: the military, and live streams of the news media. This led to the grotesque sight of London or Washington newsrooms asking their 'experts' in the field to comment on reports from… London or Washington, with no access to people on the ground for corroboration. 

Where does Marie Colvin come in? Well, there were people like her present in the Iraq War. She was there, and she had this to say:
When you go out with the American military, you make a decision you're not going to cover Iraq from the safety of a press conference… The lesson is that if you're a reporter, you're a target'.

There's more to this statement than meets the eye: the Allied press strategy was to make sure that any independent reporter was unsafe. They refused to rescue independent reporters, they ensured that the insurgents viewed reporters as pro-American, they explicitly considered independent reporters as 'collateral damage' - if a reporter was killed in the zone, it was their own fault. Consider the case of Terry Jones, shot dead ('unlawfully', according to the coroner) by American troops having already been injured in crossfire. Jones refused to be an embedded journalist because he wouldn't submit to censorship: in the eyes of many politicians and troops (remember that the Sun and the Tories made a huge fuss when the BBC referred to 'British forces' rather than 'our forces' in the Falkland), Jones was a subversive, as were any other journalists who wanted to find their own stories rather than swallow them whole. 

David Mannion, Jones's boss, had this to say:
"Independent, unilateral reporting, free from official strictures, is crucial; not simply to us as journalists but to the role we play in a free and democratic society."
And Colvin would agree. But Hague, Cameron, Miliband and Co have each, agreed to ever-increasing military restrictions on independent journalism when it suited them. When the Colvins of this world expose the evils - and they are evils - of our enemies, they're heroes. When they expose our own, they're meddlers and traitors. 

Truth, like democracy, is something we drop on our enemies.  

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