Races, rockets, and running orders #Syria #London2012

See the face of the athlete who has just finished the medal-winning run, or the striker who has just scored the goal that takes the league title, and you can try to imagine what it must feel like to experience that joy that most of us will never know. 

The Olympics have produced some memorable images, but the picture from the last couple of weeks which will stay in my mind appeared in the International Herald Tribune earlier this week. You can see it here, on the Reuters website.

Perhaps it is the way that the photographer, Goran Tomasevic, has captured the fighter almost in the pose of an athlete in mid-competition: his leg raised like a runner; his face fixed like a defender knowing he has to make that 50/50 ball. The broken chair or stool to the side of his foot reminded me a little of a hurdle. In this image of war, there are echoes of the sporting competition supposed to promote peace and understanding.

My impression is no doubt influenced by my being in London this summer. Here, perhaps inevitably given 'Team GB's success in the games, the Olympics have dominated the news to a bewildering extent. You have to search deep in the newspapers for other news, and, once you have found that, you have almost reached the daily Olympic supplement. BBC1 has had the habit of summing up the day's main Olympic events at the end of their live programme before the news, only to go through it all again immediately afterwards in the headline sequence. Politics and international affairs are delayed: squeezed at best, all but ignored at worst. 

The internet means that there are plenty of other places to look for news but, even in these days when we are all supposed to be content to pick and choose our own bulletin, there is no doubt that the perception remains that, somehow, events in Aleppo are less important than the Olympics. Just ask the people who sending the words and pictures what they think about being further down the running order than a run or jump the audience has just seen anyway.

Editors at serious news organizations face a thankless task. Much of their British audience, on whichever platform, is probably more interested in what happens in Stratford than in Syria. But Ian Burrell had a point earlier this week when he argued in The Independent that 'the battle for Aleppo that will determine the fate of Bashar al-Assad's regime is going relatively unnoticed'. Four years ago, Russia's brief war with South Ossetia, on which I reported from Moscow, knocked the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics off the lead.

karaleti.oct08 001

There was a reminder yesterday of the risks to which Ian Burrell referred. The International News Safety Institute published a survey suggesting that 70 people have already been killed this year covering the news. 

If you want to understand why, open the newspaper far enough to get past the dressage, or wait until the TV news has re-run the races. Even in this Olympic summer, someone running for their life deserves attention no less than than someone running the race of their life.


The dark places of the earth: #ReportingConflict

'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.'

The speaker is a character in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He is talking aboard a vessel on lower stretches of the River Thames, as it nears the sea. It is the late nineteenth century. Imperial Britain is the most powerful country in the world.

Yet Marlow chooses to remember a time when Roman officers, themselves the envoys of a conquering power, looked with horror at the backwardness and savagery of Britain. The words have always seemed to me a memento mori for the British Empire: a warning that nothing can last forever.

I was part of the generation of journalists who covered the consequences of the break up of the Soviet Union, and the wars which followed the attacks of September 11th. For those of us who grew up in the comfort of western Europe, we could witness as reporters what we would be most unlikely to experience as citizens: invasion, occupation, incalculable material loss, and violent death. 

On assignment in Southern Iraq, March 2004

My main fascination was the experience of people living through change. I wanted people who lived in comfort thousands of miles from Chechnya, South Ossetia, Gaza, or Iraq to understand a little of what it felt to live in those dark places - especially when our governments and armies were actors in the wars which happened there. That fascination was the prime motivation for my writing my book, Reporting Conflict, which is published this month.

The world in which my generation of reporters grew up  - the world where the USSR and the USA dominated diplomatic and military activity, and where western capitalism alone dominated global commerce - has gone. For someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, the change has been even more striking.

It is the journalist's job to try to report on that process: to tell people across the world what is happening hour-by-hour. It is something more, too: the often nigh impossible task of not just of describing event, but of trying to make sense of them, and predict their possible consequences, even as they take place.

Although that interpretation is often the subject of what diplomats call 'frank exchanges of views' between correspondent and editor, that discussion is important. It is also one in which the experienced correspondent's judgement is invaluable - and sometimes wrongly ignored.

Remember the 'Road Map' for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the 'road map' that hoped to create a Palestinian state with provisional borders by 2005? I remember an experienced correspondent from a major news organization telling me the pressure he had been put under to write optimistically of the plan's presentation - when he, and the rest of us working there then, strongly, and correctly, felt it was going nowhere.

Receiving this year's Charles Wheeler award for Outstanding contribution to Broadcast Journalism, the BBC's Allan Little said of Wheeler's reporting, 'It was never about him.'

That seems to have become a rarer quality over the last two decades when, especially in broadcast journalism, the tendency for the reporter to appear more important than the people they are writing about has spread. Placing a correspondent on location is an important part of story-telling for news, on whichever platform. Allowing news reporting to become the first draft of self-congratulatory autobiography, rather than history, defeats its primary purpose.

That is the case I hope I have made in Reporting Conflict. There are more details of the book on the website of the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan, and on Amazon. For anyone in London this Saturday, July 7th, I will be signing copies at Watersone's in Chiswick High Road.

I discussed some of my ideas in the book in an interview for Czech TV, which was aired at the weekend.


#Russia's public tv, power, politics and #Putin

One of Dmitry Medvedev's final acts as Russian President - a post he formally stepped down from this week - was to announce the setting up of a public television channel in Russia. 

The Moscow Times said that Mr Medvedev had 'vowed' the proposed channel would be 'fully independent from the state' - but both it and RIA Novosti also noted that the Kremlin would appoint the editor-in-chief (and, presumably, retain the right to dismiss said editor). 

Even with this questions over the new channel's independence, it still marks a change in Russian media policy: perhaps not in substance - at least not yet - but in presentation at least.

Media, politics, and power have followed parallel paths in post-Soviet Russia. Searching through some old papers the other day, I came across two yellowing copies of Pravda: one from the summer of 1991, the second from January 1992. One difference is easy to spot. Lenin has disappeared from the masthead.

Lenin vanishes

As the 1990s wore on, Russia's brutal form of capitalism was imprinted on the press, too. Where once the price of a newspaper had been displayed on the front cover, there now appeared the phrase 'retail price to be agreed'. Everything was up for sale; everything negotiable. Twenty years later, the phrase sums up the age almost as much as the news items from the time.

Yet this was an era when muck-racking, scandal-mongering (in the best senses of those words) reporting flourished. You could say anything in the papers. April fool stories appeared for the first time. I seem to remember, though, a sad letter to one tabloid from a provincial primary school teacher who had brought her class to Moscow to see the mammoth in the zoo - a good Soviet citizen, she had not understood that the papers could lie, especially in jest. 

It was also the age when later evils began to take root. The murder in 1994 of Dmitry Kholodov, who was investigating corruption in the military, set the precedent for later killings of journalists with impunity.

The media's role of Russia's first post-Soviet presidential election, in 1996, saw oligarchs and the political establishment combine to ensure that the popular vote could not bring a communist comeback - as a truly free and fair poll might then have done.

The chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period  - with all its highs and lows - was being brought under control. The first decade of the new century saw the oligarchs flee, become friends, or, at least, keep quiet. Russia's most influential medium, television, reflected the new reality. Independent voices were rare; dissenting ones all but absent.

The new plan to create an 'independent' channel is a new departure, although not perhaps for the reasons which Mr Medvedev outlined.

'I expect the channel to be of interest, at least to those who are interested in public life, because tastes differ and everyone has various expectation of TV content. But to audience of that type, a demanding audience, this channel would be of interest, I hope,' RIA Novosti quoted him as saying in April.

It is of significance because it shows that the recent protests prompted by dissatisfaction with Russia's parliamentary and presidential elections have prompted some kind of response.

Vladimir Putin has returned to the Presidency at a time unlike any other in his twelve years at the top of Russian politics. Sustained mass protest, or a widely hostile press, seem distant prospects - but a return to small, symbolic demonstrations and media with the mute button on seems unlikely too.

It will now be up to Mr Putin, not his predecessor, to decide the future of the public TV project. Like previous, post-Soviet, presidential initiatives to strengthen the rule of law in Russia, or curb corruption, though, it already looks like too little, too late.


New dangers, new media, and the future of conflict #journalism #Chechnya #Syria

IT'S WORSE THAN BEIRUT,' WERE THE WORDS I REMEMBER. They were spoken by a photographer sheltering in a doorway in Grozny in January 1995. In my mind's eye, he looks skywards as he speaks: a gesture of despair, or an attempt to learn whether rain, snow, or shell would be next to fall from above.

A ruined building in Grozny, the main city in Chechnya, June 2000

                                            A ruined building in the Chechen capital, Grozny, June 2000

On Sunday, I was reminded of that morning in Grozny. 'Now it was like Grozny, black stubs of trees, you couldn't see the pavement for rubble,' was the way Paul Conroy, the photographer working with Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times when she was killed, described his first sight of the Baba Amr district of the Syrian city of Homs for five days. Injured himself in the attack which killed Marie Colvin, he had been waiting to leave. He told the story of his escape in the Sunday Times at the weekend.

Homs compared to Grozny, which, at the time that it was being reduced to rubble, was compared to Beirut: each journalist who has reported on armed conflict, especially in civilian areas, will have his or her bank of grim memories linking them to previous generations of reporters, and the next.

Yet something is changing, and changing definitely for the worse. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times reported in its account of his escape from Homs was 'convinced the army targeted the media centre'. Mr Conroy, the paper adds, is 'a former soldier in the Royal Artillery'. His military service, and experience as a photojournalist in war zones, give us every reason to trust his view that this was a deliberate attack aimed at journalists.

I covered both the wars in Chechnya, spending time there in the winters of 1994-1995, and 1999-2000. The big difference I remember from my experience as a journalist was the extent of access. In the first war, the only limit placed upon us was our own sense of safety. It was quite possible to speak both to Russian troops and Chechen fighters on the same day, provided you were willing to make the journey between their positions. In the second war, reporters were barred from the territory of Chechnya itself. It was possible, with the help of refugees from neighbouring Ingushetia, to enter the territory - but, if the Russian Army caught you, you were in trouble.

That was all, though. And it was trouble which you knew would end in the withdrawal of your press accreditation, and a ban from Russia - in the very worst circumstances.

Now, in an increasing number of parts of the world, the dangers are different, and deadly. Take a look at the figures compiled by Reporters Without Borders, or the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Much has been said and written about the role of new media in the Arab uprisings of this year and last. Yet I would argue that the coverage of the conflict in Syria in particular shows the limits of social media's effectiveness more than anything else. How many times have we heard 'these pictures cannot be authenticated'? There is no doubt that we know more about what is happening in Syria than we would have done had this conflict started in a time before UGC (user-generated content) and citizen and activist journalism. But it is the work of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Paul Conroy, the BBC's Paul Wood  and Fred Scott, and those others who have risked their lives which has really added to our understanding.  

Anyone who sees social media as a substitute for conventional journalism should take note. This is not a question of 'old fashioned' or 'traditional media' against new. It is invaluable to our understanding of our world. Those who seek to kill reporters obviously understand the importance of eyewitness journalism - an importance which makes it the future, not just the past, of reporting conflict.  

A horse, a sword, but no chivalry #NotW #hacking #Leveson

The news, reported in  The Daily Telegraph and many other British media outlets, that Rebecca Brooks was lent a retired police horse, is the latest detail of the scandals surrounding News International which has allowed rival news organizations to write headlines filled with barely concealed glee.

Every PR planning a launch dreams of news coverage which will have even greater impact than advertising, but it is doubtful that The Sun has benefitted from the revelations which followed the launch of its new Sunday edition.
The Independent on Sunday
even claimed an exclusive as it wondered, 'Was 'Sun on Sunday brough forward to beat revelations?'  Most pundits pronounced it more of the same. Remembering bleary-eyed nightshifts at GMTV in the 1990s, when a weak front page story in a red top tabloid was sometimes the sign of a big exclusive held back for the final edition, I shared Alastair Campbell's tweeted suspicion that the Sun on Sunday's first story was a phoney one.  

The ordeals of News International's top brass, past and present, have a very serious, and a sometimes silly, side. The serious side - harassment and corruption of press, police, and perhaps politics - overshadow the silly.  Some bankers are probably please that the Leveson enquiry is drawing to the press public attention and anger which might otherwise be directed at them.

Part of the reason for the downfall of the News of the World may be the effect that changing technology has had on journalism in the last two decades. On 26 January, The Guardian website reported, 'Leveson inquiry: Facebook, Google, Popbitch executives appear'. Facebook; Google; Popbitch: three names which would have meant nothing in the 1990s, when phones were being hacked; three names without which an enquiry into the press could not be held today. So when it started to hack phones, the News of the World may have felt itself under pressure as never before from the internet: a place where stories could be broken without regulation, and read for free.

Technological change was enabling new competitors to threatening the profits of printed papers like the News of the World. At the same time, it was permitting the News of the World to access a whole new source of exclusive stories, as they listened to other people's phone messages with unprecedented ease. This was a double-edged sword which they did not know how to wield, and which eventually killed them off.





Exclusive: bad things happen in war

A Russian helicopter gunship in the North Caucasus, April 2008
A Russian helicopter gunship in the North Caucasus, 2008

'IF I HAD KNOWN YOU WOULD BE HERE, I WOULD HAVE BROUGHT THE EARS,' he said, his face unpleasantly close to mine. I was relieved that he had not known we would meet. I did not want to see the ears, although I was willing to believe that  they existed: if not among the war trophies of this particular soldier, then among the collections of some of his comrades-in-arms.

The conversation took place when I was on a reporting trip to Chechnya in the summer of 2000. I met the soldier on a brief stop at a military base. He said that he had cut the ears off dead Chechen fighters because they believed that God would lift them up by the ears. Cutting off their ears would, the story went, stop their going to heaven. A horror story to shock a foreign journalist? Maybe. A bloodthirsty boast made to convince the world that he would stop at nothing to get the job done? More likely.

The soldier was involved in what were called 'clean up operations' - zachistki in Russian - a ghastly euphemism which described an act of killing not confined to enemy fighters, but to which civilians too fell victim. As this soldier made clear, the job did not end with death. Mutilation was still to follow.

Cleaning up is quite often what happens in the reporting of conflict. For reasons of taste, decency, dignity in death, or from a desire not to give propaganda tools to the enemy, what we as audiences see and hear of war is usually highly sanitized. This varies from country to country, and depends on the nationality of those involved. Television, bearing in mind its immediacy and impact, sometimes pulls its punches even more than other media.

Print reporters, since first they ventured to war zones, have had more freedom. Consider William Howard Russell's description of the aftermath of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade

It was agonizing to see the wounded men who were lying there under a broiling sun, parched with excruciating thirst, racked with fever, and agonized with pain - to behold them waving their caps faintly, or making signals towards our lines over which they could see the white flag waving

and then ask if we would see a similar scene on television today.

Then consider the recent news story about the internet video which apparently showed US Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. As Robert Fisk asked in The Independent, 'if there is one game of pissing on the dead, how many others happened without pictures?'

Journalists who cover conflict are aware that their representations of war are incomplete. How could they be otherwise? But familiarity with atrocity which is not then reported creates a strange contradiction. Few journalists who have worked in a war zone will have been surprised by the marines' act. The surprise is that it was filmed, and distributed. The same is true of diplomatic correspondents, and the Wikileaks cables. With some exceptions, there was little which shocked those familiar with the difference between what is said 'off the record', or 'for background only', and what is said by ambassadors in public in their host countries.

What does that say about the way that journalists serve their audiences? Perhaps if severed ears and helpless, signalling casualties were shown a little more often, voters might think a little more about what war means. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we saw countless shots of cruise missiles lighting up the sky as they are launched offshore; few of us saw what happened when they landed.

Conflict reporting which was only a succession of stories of severed ears would not serve audiences well, either. But last week's video was a story because it was something we do not usually see - even if, as Robert Fisk asked, 'how many others happened?'- and so, in a small way, reminded us that war is not always how it looks on tv.