Watching the dreadful deterioration of Syria on television last night, it was noticeable that on-the-spot coverage was restricted to a BBC voiceover accompanying images largely produced as propaganda by the Assad regime; the nearest BBC cameras or personnel could get to Aleppo was posting a reporter in Beirut. It reminded me that one distinct change to the way in which wars are reported today via the media – especially where the Middle East is concerned – is that the mainstream media has effectively been removed from the battlefield. Nobody with a choice would want to be in Aleppo right now, but at one time there’d always be the TV reporter on the frontline.
Indeed, when one sees footage from the likes of Vietnam or Biafra in the 60s, what seems especially striking is the fact that the men with the microphones addressing the camera look as though they’re dressed for eighteen holes in the middle of July – not even wearing a tin helmet. By the time of Iraq, awareness of health and safety (not to mention the high cost of insurance) had belatedly alerted TV companies to the dangers of bringing battles into the living room and war correspondents were fully decked-out in military gear; even that didn’t prevent the death of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd in 2003, however.
The effective model for the media war correspondent as we used to know him was William Howard Russell, the Irish journalist who famously covered the Crimean War for the Times, including the Charge of the Light Brigade. Russell’s reports from the frontline reached London courtesy of the telegraph, considerably speeding up the gap between events in ‘far-away lands’ and publication of them at home. His depictions of the realities of war were particularly significant in that the Crimea was the first military engagement on European soil that Britain had been engaged in since Waterloo, half-a-century earlier; more than one generation had been raised on the legends of the Napoleonic Wars, with distance and victory cloaking conflict in valour and glory. Advances in technology and a gifted writer portrayed war with a brutal immediacy it had never previously received in terms of public consumption.
Russell was later dispatched to other notable nineteenth century warzones in India, America, Prussia and France, setting the bar high for future war correspondents not just in the print medium, but in its eventual successor, radio. Richard Dimbleby became a household name in the UK following his moving description of the liberation of Belsen for the BBC in 1945, reaching homes on the wireless before the actual images made it to the cinema newsreels; for such a discredited profession as journalism it’s worth remembering some in that trade were prepared to risk life and limb to get their stories to the public, and this continued into the television age.
Many who later became known as desk-bound newsreaders or in-studio presenters had achieved early success as our man in dangerous locations; the likes of Michael Nicholson, John Humphrys, Jon Snow and even Michael Parkinson cut their television teeth as roving reporters, and there remained an almost noble element to the foreign correspondent if he happened to be on a rather rocky foreign field and remained determined to let us know what was happening there. Lest we forget, there were women too, and it’s certainly hard to imagine Kate Adie being allowed to broadcast from Tiananmen Square were 1989’s events taking place today.
Two crucial factors to have emerged in the last half-decade or so have changed the face of war reporting and effectively curtailed the once-pivotal role of the TV war correspondent – social media and Radical Islam.
The majority of reports to contradict the pro-Putin and Assad perspective coming out of Syria have stemmed from civilians under fire, utilising Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their own personal experience from inside the lion’s den. Bar a tiny handful of freelancers on the fringes, the traditional war correspondent has been absent from the frontline. The Arab Spring of 2011 was the first Middle Eastern event in which the people involved were able to describe what was happening as it happened, with the democratisation of digital technology giving them an instantaneous advantage over TV coverage so that the big stories had already been broken online by the participants before the western reporter even went on air. And once the Arab Spring quickly descended into dispiriting cycles of aborted revolutions, military coups and bloody civil wars, the people continued to report on them.
Whilst that could be seen as healthy competition to the more conventional methods, the increasing threat to the lives of overseas journalists present in the world’s most troubled hot-spots has undoubtedly played a more significant part in the changes. When one considers how valuable a coup capturing a western reporter has become for the likes of ISIS, it’s no wonder both broadcasters and the correspondents themselves are so reluctant to cross into enemy lines anymore. If the natives are able to articulate the reality of what is going on by directly addressing the online community, the role of the reporter in transmitting their own more detached perspective via TV can be regarded as redundant on one hand and too damned risky on the other.
The heartbreaking online testimonies of those anticipating imminent death, regardless of brief ceasefires or whichever side ‘liberates’ what remains of Aleppo, could well have called time on the war correspondent. The concept of a human tragedy relayed by an outsider-cum-tourist seems irrelevant when we’re being spoken to directly by somebody not just living on the frontline but in the firing line.
© The Editor