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The dark places of the earth: #ReportingConflict
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'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. 

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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.