War and journalists: why do we go?
The following is the text of a speech I gave on 12 November 2013 at St Bride’s, the journalists’ church on Fleet Street, during a service to commemorate the media in troubled times:
On August 21st I, like everyone else here, woke up to news of an attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
Within a few hours I was watching some of the most distressing video I’ve ever seen. Children gasping for breath, choking, succumbing to a hideous death. Men and women screaming in pain. Rooms of tiny bodies in shrouds. It was a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, south east of Damascus.
No foreign correspondents were there. The pictures were taken by people we call activists or citizen journalists.
A New York Times reporter recently said that citizen journalism is ‘information’ – ‘journalism’ is what we do with that information. I agree.
Sometimes we see citizen journalists as the competition. But tonight I want to think of the risks those citizen journalists have taken in Syria.
Without them we would have had no images of the chemical weapons attack. No visual evidence. Remember when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988? No images emerged until a few journalists got in a week later, and access was so restricted that our governments – who supported the Iraqi regime – managed largely to ignore it.
The plethora of graphic pictures from Ghouta, coming out immediately, were essential for our journalism. They pressured governments and made a difference.
The activists who filmed and posted pictures online ran a huge risk of secondary contamination from the nerve agent sarin. It’s a mark of how difficult it is to cover Syria that I have been unable to confirm whether any of them died. But a new report by Reporters sans Frontieres says that 85 citizen journalists have lost their lives since the start of the conflict in Syria.
Syria, according to RSF, is the most dangerous country in the world to work as a journalist of any variety. Twenty-five mainstream journalists – five of them foreign – have been killed, but the most terrifying and growing hazard is kidnap. One jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams, recently said that all foreign journalists should be treated as spies and seized.
Numbers are difficult because news organisations often don’t release information about kidnapped journalists as it could endanger negotiations for their release, so these are conservative figures.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 37 foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since March. Some have been released, but 18 are thought to remain as hostages, some alongside their Syrian drivers and fixers. Or maybe they’re dead – we just don’t know. Let us think of them tonight – the disappeared, abducted and arrested – and their families and friends enduring long months or years of fearing the worst, of not knowing, of maybe never knowing.
In some ways living with the permanent shadow of uncertainty, and thinking about the suffering and cruelty hostages may be subjected to is worse than dealing with a death.
It’s hard to stand here tonight. Some of you were in this church when Marie Colvin made this address. She was my friend, I sometimes thought of her as my partner in crime on the road.
You know how as a journalist you worry whether you’re in the right place – if Marie was there I knew I was in the right place.
I miss her terribly and I probably always will. I often think of what she said that evening, about how this job inevitably involves taking risks but it’s worth it.
True, but don’t we also say: no story is worth dying for.
After Mickey Deane, the Sky News cameraman was killed in Egypt this year, I was speaking to Sam Kiley, his correspondent, who said “We’re a small tribe but we look after each other.”
That’s true, but the contradiction between it being worth it and no story is worth dying for does battle in my head – I suspect in many of your heads too, both those of us who go to war zones and those of you, as editors, who send us. Sometimes I struggle to keep the faith.
Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t think about Marie, but I also think of someone far less famous.
Richard Wild was shot dead by an unknown gunman as he walked across a university campus in Baghdad in July 2003. He was 24.
I’m not the only one who wishes I’d discouraged him from going to Iraq, but I didn’t.
Young reporters have always gone to war. I did it myself, and survived more by luck than judgement. But Syria is like Bosnia – much too easy to get to. Chancers, adventurers, bloggers, war tourists are all there, and young freelancers. They’re British, American, Spanish, Italian and more besides.
So tonight I’d like to commend the Rory Peck Trust, the Frontline Freelance Register and RISC – Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues – who are providing free or cut-price hostile environment training to freelancers.
Others are also contributing, including media organisations who sponsor the programmes, and I hope that by now newspapers are taking this training as seriously as the broadcasters. Nothing guarantees survival but these courses are tremendously helpful both for the first aid they teach and lessons in how to calculate risk rather than just blundering in.
Sometimes the risk calculation is simple: it’s too dangerous.
I would say that about going into Syria with the rebels at this time. Being a war correspondent has always had an allure but I am concerned that we should not – like the jihadis – develop a cult of martyrdom. Of course we honour those who lose their lives – that’s why we’re here tonight. But must not fetishise it.
Non-journalists – civilians, we call them – often ask me, baffled, why I do this job.
The answer is that I believe in eye-witness reporting by professional journalists, and I want to be where history is happening.
But there’s a secret answer too – the colours are brighter, the mountains are clearer, there’s nothing like cheating death to make you feel gloriously, wonderfully alive.
I don’t believe we should leave it to activists and citizen journalists. Their lives are as important as our own, but they’re usually promoting a cause and we’re not doing the same thing. What we do matters and what’s more we love it. I understand any young reporter who wants to do it too.
Luck and happenstance play their part in survival but I think it’s important to assert that you can pull back, you can trust your instinct when the warning bells start to ring.
It’s not easy. In Libya during the 2011 revolution, every day I went up to the frontline I felt like a fool, and every day I didn’t, like a coward. I always feel I’m not brave enough. Not as brave as Marie.
So I would say to those starting on this career: you prove yourself by getting great stories not by taking insane risks and talking about it in the bar afterwards.
You shouldn’t file for any outlet or editor who doesn’t care about your life, but I know that’s rarely the problem.
We are ones who push too hard and go in too far because we want that story. We fear failure more than danger. It’s less about being beaten by the competition as failing in our own eyes. But that’s not the point. Success is living to tell the tale – this one and the next.
Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.
Read Alex Thomson’s blog – Reporting disaster: vital and necessary