Wednesday 9 April 2008

War Reporting Conference: Part One

I've just made the short walk from Fleet Street to my department at King's College, London.

I was at a war reporting conference at St Brides Church, the 'spiritual home of printing and the media'. The opening address was given by Philip Knightley and panellists included veteran war correspondent Martin Bell, leading media academic Stuart Allan, and Jonathan Baker from BBC Newsgathering.

The event was chaired with consummate style and ease by Magnus Linklater.

There were lots of interesting points made. Here are some of the key themes I picked up on:

Phillip Knightley opened up with an exploration of the competing duties that a war correspondent faces. He particularly brought to the fore the difficulties of covering a war in which the correspondent's own nation is involved.
    • There are two types of war, he claimed: the real one on the battlefield and the one presented to us by the media. The two rarely meet.
    • Hawks are newsworthy; doves are not.
    • Not covering a war would be a neglect of a journalist's duty.
    • He wondered whether journalists do have a duty to try to move events forward in the 'right' direction.
  • My view
    • A fairly uncontroversial start which comprehensively flagged up some of the key competing duties which face a working war correspondent.

Next came Martin Bell, whose outspoken views are only matched for boldness by an insistence on wearing his iconic white suit.
    • He developed a theme he had written about in The Guardian earlier in the year, arguing that 'war reporting' is over, adapting an idea borrowed from General Rupert Smith about the state of warfare in the 21st Century.
    • He maintained his general pessimism about the state of the media industry including a dig at the BBC's Madeleine McCann coverage, and various swipes at 'rooftop' and 'embedded' journalism.
    • He concluded by arguing that the readers of The Times in 1854 were better informed about the progress of the Crimean War than present-day audiences are about Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • My view
    • Although Bell has some valid criticisms of the media industry in general, and of war reporting more specifically, claiming that this represents the 'death of war reporting' or the 'death of news' probably goes too far. (But then it's less entertaining to be this conservative ((and wear a black suit)). War and war reporting are changing significantly but I'm not convinced Rupert Smith ever argued that war was over, merely that a new form of warfare needed to be addressed. The same could be said of war reporting.
    • One point, in particular, which Bell failed to address was the impact of bloggers and new media on war reporting despite being specifically challenged on the issue by the chair. Part of the antidote to the embedded and rooftop journalism that Bell criticises is the capacity of bloggers such as Salam Pax to provide audiences with unmediated accounts of places and events that these journalists cannot reach. This is especially relevant in today's war zones which everyone at the conference seemed to agree are far more dangerous for journalists than they have been in the past.
    • Indeed, if you turn to the blogs then I think you can build up a better picture of what is going on inside Afghanistan and Iraq. But that's not to say there aren't significant and troubling blindspots in what we know about the conflicts.


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