There is “no greater test for a journalist than reporting in a conflict area” – the media holds a huge responsibility for how it reports on issues before, during, and after conflict. This was a key point made from one of the speakers at a conference in the Crumlin Road Gaol on Monday 1st April; Roy Greenslade (who currently works for the Guardian and is a post-graduate professor in City University London). Other speakers included Anne Cadwallader (who recently published her 2nd book “Lethal Allies” which was a best seller in Ireland, but gained no publicity in Britain), and Ian Cobain (who is currently working as an investigative reporter for the Guardian, and has won awards for his journalism).
Student journalists were invited to participate in a Q&A session in regards to how the media reports on conflict. While this is relevant to Northern Ireland in particular, it was not the main focus of debate – experiences of the speakers and other respected journalists’ roles in conflicts were discussed, including covering wars in the Falklands, Crimea, and Afghanistan to name a few. However, there were originally supposed to be 3 more speakers travelling from the Middle East (Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt); but they were unable to gain visas to attend. This in itself speaks volume of the difficulty of reporting on conflict.
Roy further explained his opening statement by linking it to how audiences consume news. Television and radio is massively influential as it is a “window on the wall” for the public – even the great Napoleon Bonaparte said “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”.
If the media, and ergo journalists, hold this responsibility it raises important ethical questions of objectivity and patriotism – Where do we draw the line on patriotism and unbiased reporting? Roy illustrated this point by looking at the controversy caused in Crimea by William Howard Russell. If you are unfamiliar with Russell, he was sent as a “war correspondent” (although he hated this phrase) from The Times in 1854.
When he arrived, and discovered the awful conditions of the soldier’s living quarters and military hospitals, he reported on the true nature of war instead of glorifying it for the state’s benefit. In Roy’s words: “He came, he wrote, he reported” – he advises that if you can not achieve objectivity as a journalist, you should tell the truth exactly as you witness it. However, Russell’s reporting tactic enraged the British government, with politicians claiming his articles breached national security by giving comfort to the enemy.
Another important example given on how patriotism effects the media was the case of Walter Cronkite, who was once commended as “the most trusted man in America” during his role as a CBS anchor. He was such a prominent figure in America that when he called the Vietnam War “unwinnable”, President Lyndon Johnson stated “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America”. A personal favourite quote of mine from Cronkite on the role of journalists is: “Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened”.
The point Roy was making is that while the government holds real power, through military and politics, the media can still maintain power by holding the state to account. It is when the media fails to do so that we should worry about the “hierarchy of access” to sources between politics and journalism. He warned that governments lie, and not to take every story at face value – something that was reiterated by every speaker multiple times.
During the Falklands invasion in the 1980s, Britain seemed determined to learn from previous media/war adversities, by only allowing 29 British journalists to travel to Argentina. Of course heavy censorship was encouraged in a booklet given to them, sugar coating it as “steadying public opinion in times of crisis”.
Anne Cadwallader spoke of her experiences of journalism during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which was of interest as she was brought over from Britain to report on stories. Her book “Lethal Allies: British collusion in Ireland” explores RUC involvement and cover up of the murder of more than 100 people in the 1970s. It’s worth noting that she quit journalism in 2007, and felt that it actually allowed her to explore this area further. In her early career in NI, Anne quickly realised not to take official institutions’ stories at face value. She quoted Winston Churchill – “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.
This relates to Frank Kitson’s theory of how states should react when under threat. It is true that some find it necessary for an army or state to manipulate and lie to the media, though it might be argued that this is for the ‘public’s welfare’. This was evident through Psy-Ops Units, where attacks were blamed on Republicans, and also through surrogate killers who were supported and protected by the RUC in order to intimidate the Catholic population. For example, Colin Wallace.
Anne delved further to say that she believed the media failed during the Troubles, by not representing all communities. This more than likely led to people feeling powerless and unrepresented, fuelling the conflict. She recounted memories of Republican press conferences where there was little or no journalist attendance. Anne is certain that if the media had covered the extent of collusion in NI that the conflict could have ended earlier (although she admitted the difficulty in obtaining evidence of collusion).
Although Ian Cobain spent little time in NI, he has reported on 6 wars – (he does not use the term ‘covering’ war as he concludes that this means you know everything). He supported Roy’s statement that his job was to report the truth as he saw it. Ian spoke of problems encountered when on location; states’ dislike of journalists unless they are supportive, gaining access, risk, and disengagement (spotting when governments are lying to you). He joked that “When a politician tells you something in confidence, think why is this lying bastard lying to me?”.
Although objectivity is seen to be a desirable quality in journalism, Ian accepts that it is inevitable to take sides. An example of this was when Reuters came head to head with the Secretary of Defence over an unfavourable account of the war in the Falklands. However, the editor at the time was German and claimed that Reuters had an “international responsibility”. A memorable quote from Ian’s talk was that the “truth is the first casualty of journalism”.
Are journalists more willing to believe an authority’s account than other unofficial sources? In reality, there is probably more for an institution to lose through uncovering truth than there is for ordinary civilians. It is essential to speak to as many people as possible to gain a true perspective in reporting. An admirable point made by Ian was that journalists should not be afraid to make corrections to their work.
To wrap the conference up and give us something to ponder, Roy Greenslade introduced the theory of Peace Journalism (a concept from Johan Galtung). This acknowledges that journalists can be “openly agenda driven”. Peace Journalism seeks to explain causes of violence rather than the actual acts of violence – this is called disaggregation – a break down to show underlying causes. Otherwise, non-conformists can be marginalised. Roy identified that no-one covered the story of social class in NI, and how the Troubles affected this.
His final advice to budding journalists was to always question yourself consistently, as there is a “fetishism for scoop journalism”. Ensure you gain evidence – “Don’t be cynical, but be sceptical”.