The changing identity of the war reporter
This chapter critically evaluates the literature relating to the identity of the war reporter as it has developed since the 19th century. It will define who war reporters are, beyond the romantic stereotype, and what distinguishes the war reporter from other forms of reportage. The wider environment or ecosystem that journalism operates in is rapidly changing. This chapter will evaluate how war reporters fit into the political and organisational ecosystem in which they work, and I will argue that the archetype of the war reporter as lone wolf is inaccurate and that the war reporter is constrained or enabled by their relationships with a whole series of other actors. These include the state and the military, and their colleagues, and also how they fit into production processes at work and the political economy of news production.
- The figure of the war reporter
There is a commonality to the people who work as war reporters, because they have the same kinds of experiences. War reporters deal with life and death and reporters in general may be not quite respectable (Marr 2005, Simpson 2003). The hardships of war reportage take their personal toll on journalists and lead to forms of extreme behaviour. Some drink too much. It may be that the experiences offered by the post of war reporter appeals to a certain type of person. British war reporter Anthony Loyd, who was for a time addicted to heroin, says they are all “damaged children” (2002).
But that downplays the differences between the different kinds of journalists who are subject to different socialising forces. As we shall see, it suits both war reporters and their employers to portray them as lone — even heroic — operators, “missionaries” telling stories not to the natives of distant lands, but to the folks back home (Marr 2004: 338).
Autonomy is a characteristic of any profession (Singer 2003: 142). But war reporters’ claim to autonomy is more acute than other reporters. A war reporter is a specialised journalist, free from the strictures of desk-bound colleagues. In the era before mobile phones and the internet, it was possible for foreign correspondents to go off for days and weeks at a time. The more autonomy journalists have in making decisions, the more status journalists gain in the eyes of other reporters (Ryfe 2009). That is why war reporters are sometimes viewed as the elite of the profession.
The autonomy and independence of war reporters is partly determined by their geographical isolation from news production processes. It is hard to imagine a war reporter who is based in his own country. He tends to work far from base, and far from the centres of power. Autonomy leads to agency. As late as 2001, the BBC’s Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson was able to avoid the immediate demands of his employers — represented by the BBC foreign desk — long enough to manoeuvre himself to walk in to Kabul and “liberate” the Afghan capital from the Taliban (Matheson 2009: 58). Later that a day, Simpson cut the longest package he had ever supplied to BBC News. It became the story that defined his career, and won him an Emmy award. His subsequent account (2008) of his achievement argues it came about as a result of the autonomy he had negotiated for himself and his Frontline News cameraman Peter Jouvenal. The latter’s longstanding relationships with key Northern Alliance commanders had them sharing their battle plans in advance and giving the BBC crew safe passage to scoop their rivals. Simpson likened his cameraman to a free range chicken among the battery hens of the rest of the press pack (Simpson 2003: 108).
War reporters more easily find an audience than other journalists (Cockburn 2013). And with the audience available to those reporting conflict come prizes. “I did it for the greater glory of Max Hastings – as do most war correspondents,” says Hastings of his own career-boosting solo entry into Port Stanley during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict (2012). In fact, the job has been greatly romanticised, more than anyone else by war reporters themselves. There exist a multitude of self-promoting accounts by correspondents in the field. Many journalist accounts recycle work originally written as news, and date quickly (for example, Colvin 2012). Some of the best reporter accounts of wars (Hastings 2000, Herr 1978; Junger 2011, Simpson 2008, Chandrasekaran 2008) count as great writing. Others are politically significant, and tell readers something that they don’t know but need to. George Steer’s eye witness account of the bombing of Guernica confirmed that the German Luftwaffe was fighting on the side of the Franco forces. This was important new information. The story prefigured the coming world war and the role that aerial bombing would play in it. Steer’s paper, The Times, considered his story so important that it ran his piece against the Times’ political line, which was in favour of appeasing German expansionism. Richard Dimbeleby’s account for BBC radio of the horrors of the newly captured Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945 similarly provided for his listeners a narrative that explained why it had been right for the British nation to have fought the war. A final example would be BBC reporter Allan Little’s 1991 description of civilian casualties after a supposed military bunker in Baghdad that had been hit by an American missile. Little’s story revealed that the US bombardment also had civilian victims and undermined the impression that the war was being conducted without loss of innocent life by technology that was likened to that of a video game. Eye witnessing, of which these are all examples, is “among the best of what we do”, according to Little (2010: 10). Witnessing carries connotations of truth telling (Zelizer 2007). War reporters at their best carry a connotation of being messengers.
There is currently a growing number of conflicts where reporters are targeted by protagonists, and the extreme dangers of reporting the war in Syria have come as a shock to the profession (Borri 2013 and Loyd 2014). But they only intensified a pre-existing existential crisis for war reporting and for journalism. A former head of BBC news has wondered whether foreign correspondents are in fact redundant (Sambrook 2008). Former frontline journalist Rodney Pinder of the News Safety Institute was blunter. He told John Simpson (2012) that no warring parties in Syria much welcome the “other side” that journalists represent. “We’re not useful idiots any more,” says Pinder of his colleagues. “We are useless. So we can be attacked from all sides.” The Deputy Editor of Loyd’s paper, The Times, typically pitched the benefits of the international war reporter as someone who can be trusted to deliver news without partiality: “The whole point about newspaper journalists is you send out professional reporters who know what it is to report both sides of an argument,” according to the Emma Tucker (The Times 2014).
How the war reporter has been defined
What is it that has distinguished the war reporter from other forms of reportage? A war reporter is a reporter who covers wars. But are war reporters and conflict reporters synonyms? If so, are how do war reporters and conflict reporters differ from foreign correspondents? Are all these terms interchangeable? A foreign correspondent has been traditionally defined thus:
[. . . ] a national of the country in which his or her [news organisation] is located, who spent a substantial period abroad and got to know the host nation well, which perhaps included becoming fluent in the language. Such a person was assumed to be best placed to mediate between two nations. (S)he could be assumed to understand the target nation’s news needs about the host nation and to have acquired enough knowledge about the host nation and to have acquired enough knowledge of the host nation to understand what was important in that context too. (Palmer 2007: 20)
Such foreign correspondents as traditionally understood have increasingly been replaced by so-called “parachute reporters” (ibid: 21). Parachute reporters are those who are not permanently located in a bureau but travel from crisis to crisis in order to report. Neither parachute reporter, nor war reporter are popular self-descriptors for practitioners of the craft. Parachute reporter is often used in a disparaging way, the term being suggestive, so the argument goes, of a lack of depth. The term war reporter is also little used by practitioners, perhaps because it might seem self aggrandising. In fact a reporter not based in the country can often do a better job than resident reporters. That is because the former are not reliant on sources to reliably return their phone calls from day to day and into the future. But is there a difference between a war reporter and conflict reporter? Differences emerge from the specificity of the historical development of the craft. Conflict reporter is a more neutral term than war reporter. But why? In World War Two, the journalists who were accredited by their national military forces were described (and self-described) as war reporters. War reporters like Vasily Grossman in the Soviet Union or his British equivalent Richard Dimbleby (who indeed worked for a BBC radio programme called War Report) were news gatherers working on what was for them a war of national survival. For a fuller description of how these war reporters worked, see Hawkins (2014) and Rodgers (2014). So there was a good reason that such reporters, as well as US equivalents like Ernie Pyle (Knightley 2004: 136) did call themselves war reporters. That is no longer the case. Part of the reason is that the very nature of war is changing, as we shall see. The singularity of war is not as clear cut as it used to be. Another reason is that only a small minority of reporters who cover conflict do nothing else. Anthony Loyd of the Times is a contemporary exception. Reporters who only do war reporting tend neither to survive very long — two of the four founders of the war reporting agency Frontline News in the Nineties were killed, and a large minority of the rest of the cameramen (Loyn 2011). Finally, many reporters have ended up being assigned to cover their first war in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and such reporters barely consider themselves war reporters, even if they have had a “good war” (Ayres 2006). William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is an archetype of this kind of accidental war reporter, who wonders whether they are really ready for the job (Waugh 2000).
For all these reasons, as well as to avoid excessive repetition, I am going to treat the terms war reporter and conflict reporter as synonyms throughout this thesis. I will reserve the term foreign correspondent for staff reporters based in a foreign bureau.
The history of the war reporter
The invention of the post of war correspondent can probably be dated to 1835 (Simpson 2008: 25), with the London Morning Post’s request to a British volunteer fighting in a now obscure civil war in Spain to send back reports for the benefit of their readers. But it was William Howard Russell of The Times who became, according to his epitaph in St Paul’s cathedral, the “first and greatest” war reporter. Were he working today, Russell would be instantly recognisable to a modern reporter as a colleague at the top of his game. He appears to have possessed the attributes (which are proudly cited by generations of journalists), that Nicholas Tomalin believed were essential (1975) for a successful journalist to possess: namely, ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Russell also appears to have got on with soldiers at all levels. Not only was he on the side of the British ordinary soldiers, his impassioned concern for their welfare found a wide audience in Britain. Even when he criticised the conduct of the war, with the result that the British commander in chief Lord Raglan was sacked, the latter apparently barely disagreed with Russell’s assessment of him (Simpson 2008: 27). Russell’s reporting brought down one British government. The success that Russell made of the job was possible for reasons fiscal (taxes on newspapers were cut), industrial (print machinery was invented that could produce large numbers of newspapers) and political (mass democracy made the papers relevant: see Marr 2004: 13). War reporting thrived as part of an industrialised news gathering machine. With the arrival of the telegraph, news agencies like Reuters and the Associated Press (AP) offered syndicated news. Agencies (the “Wires”) remain one of the major sources of international news to this day.
Since then, Russell’s successors have rather liked Russell’s romantic, look-at-me description of their “luckless tribe”. What does it mean to be a member of such a tribe? Journalists rarely admit what great fun war reporting can be. Winston Churchill was an exception. He reported wars while he was both in and out of uniform, and appeared utterly unconcerned about the ethical implications of his carrying a gun while working as a reporter (Churchill 1947) — a practice that would nowadays most likely be career-ending (Pendry 2009). The reporting of the Spanish Civil War, like Richard Dimbleby’s reporting of the horrors of Nazi death camps during the following World War, was notable for a concern for victims and their suffering. That humanitarian note remains true today in Anglo-American journalism (Sambrook 2008: 6) though less so in other news cultures. Highly independent freelancers like Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemmingway and photographer Robert Capa who reported on the Spanish Civil War contributed to the air of romance (Sambrook 2010: 5) that still surrounds the idea of the foreign correspondent. So too did the work of CBS’s Ed Murrow who reported from London during the Blitz. During this period, the reporter as witness became accepted as one of the reporter’s key roles.
For over 40 years after World War Two most countries in the world divided along ideological lines and for First World countries whose media were the best funded and most influential managed to run well resourced foreign bureaux in the centres of power: London, Washington and Moscow. By the end of the Eighties, major changes related to globalisation, technology and economics brought about major changes (Fenton 2005). A growing corporate culture in newsgathering was an indication that news executives had realised they could make money out of news:
CBS News made its correspondents into stars and sandwiched hard-hitting investigative pieces with profiles of celebrities and happenings in the world of entertainment . . . The sad irony now is that 60 Minutes . . . is now considered one of the straightest, most professional news programs, if not the premiere one, on the air today.
(Barbara Matusow, in Anderson,Bonnie 2004: 6-7)
In the Nineties, cable, satellite and later the internet began to deliver increasing amounts of real time 24-hour-news. Tom Fenton’s Bad News (2005) tells of what he sees as the failure of American journalism, particularly TV journalism, to warn Americans of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “The public saw these terrorist strikes as disconnected events that occurred without warning,” says Fenton. It was, he says, largely the fault of the media itself. And it reflects the enormous changes that have occurred in the past 20 years in foreign coverage. Fenton makes the case that the American public has been badly let down by the American news networks as they failed to adequately inform ahead of time viewers of the fall of the Soviet Union; the disintegration of Afghanistan and rise of the Taliban -- and Bin Laden; the possible existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and numerous other important stories.
The reason was that the corporate managers at news organisations were cutting budgets. 20 years ago the US TV networks could outspend anyone, even the BBC, on a big foreign story (Sambrook 2010). A huge network of bureaux round the world provided coverage of foreign news events. That number fell dramatically in the 90s but even in 2003, the US networks (CBS, ABC, CNN and Fox) listed 42 bureaux with full-time correspondents. Now the number of foreign bureaux around the world run by the US networks has shrunk to a fraction of that figure. That decline reflects a general decline in the number of bureaux run by newsgathering organisations as a whole. In a survey for the American Journalism Review, the US networks only had a couple of dozen bureaux which were staffed by at least one full time correspondent. It is impossible to be more precise because for the 2011 survey, ABC and CNN declined to distinguish between bureaux and “editorial presence”, simply listing the cities where they have some representation. CBS declined to provide any information at all.
Fact based news gathering by professional reporters based abroad was for more than a hundred years the way news consumers were informed about foreign events. Changing technology and financial pressure on news organisations mean this is no longer true. A networked and more open model for reporting international affairs is now in operation. Social media are leading, supplementing and complementing what professional news organisations offer (Sambrook 2010: 1). But they are also competing with news organisations, as are other news suppliers such as NGOs; governments; commercial companies; and terrorist groups (Simpson 2012). What is regarded as “foreign” has also changed somewhat, as national and domestic agendas merge. Also news providers rely much more on locally-hired staff, further complicating the concept of foreignness. The wire agencies are inadequately filling the gap left by fewer professional journalists working in fewer foreign bureaux according to the writer Nick Davies (2008). He says news organisations are not honest about how much of their copy comes from wire services and he coined the practice “churnalism”.
In her survey of journalists’ newly-arrived competitors, Singer (2003) suggests three tests for defining who is a journalist. The modern reporter’s claim for continued relevance rests on truth telling, objectivity and professionalism:
Autonomy from commercial as well as government influences is a core professional requirement if the trust necessary to perform journalism in service to the public is to be possible. Nonetheless, despite the challenges that currently exist, accommodation seems a less threatening route for traditional journalists than attempting to withstand a direct assault from a competing group of would-be professionals on either ideological or practical grounds (page 157).
But in the end, the, she says, the search for truth trumps all of them. A commitment to truth over novelty or expediency is a core professional norm, according to her. It is their ability to tell truth both to power and their audience that distinguishes reporters from their putative usurpers.
2. Identity of the Contemporary Journalist.
Beyond journalism, and beyond war reporting, social relations and novel social change is reshaping the world in extraordinary ways. As war reporting has transformed, so has war.
Russian businessman Vladislav Surkov, one of the President Putin’s closest political advisers, has written about what he calls non-linear war. Writing a few days before the Russian Federation annexed Crimea in March 2014, Surkov published a story under his pseudonym of Nathan Dubovitsky, saying:
In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all. (Dubovitsky 2014)
One commentator described what he called the “avant garde” strategy (Pomerantsev 2014) pursued by Russian President Putin and the elite actors supporting him. This was something that appeared to be a war. But it was fought between Ukrainian government troops on the one hand and a confusing collection of Russian servicemen “on leave”, Cossacks and other Russian nationalists on the other. It was hard for outsiders to conceptualise. Pomerantsev suggests (ibid) that the West was mistaken in seeing the Russians’ actions through the prism of their Cold War understanding.
Such conflicts are more fluid, situational, oppositional. In a way they are reflective of the broader nature of modernity and broader journalistic practice. It might be better says Pomerantsev, to think of the Russians as corporate raiders with guns. Policy makers in Washington were wrong footed. For avant garde warfare, read non-linear or hybrid warfare. In the example above, the Russian military and political elite appear to be playing by a completely different set of rules. This causes confusion among their opponents. “Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the "old ways," while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?” (Pomerantsev 2014). Observers of the Russian scene were even asking whether the West was now at war with Russia: "It’s a new world we are now entering, and we need new tools to cope with it (Applebaum 2014).”
War is reflective of broader changes in modernity, and the changes that war reporters and other journalists are trying to respond to have been conceptualised by public intellectual Zygmunt Bauman.
Zygmunt Bauman’s conceptualisation of “liquid life”
Bauman has produced a large body of work dealing with themes of globalisation, consumerism, modernity and post-modernity. Modernism is the study of what it is to live in the modern world — the post-traditional, post-medieval world. In order to counter widespread confusion over the definition of what post-modernism is, in Bauman’s later work he draws a distinction between what he calls modernism in what he called its “solid” form and that of its liquid form, which he argued is now dominant. Previously Weber had theorise the public sphere as a rational space, but that is no longer the case. Modernist thinkers such as Freud had argued that people had come to demand and expect to trade living the uncertainties of life in exchange for secure institutions which would protect and shelter them. Bauman says that this is no longer so. Bauman’s work describes modern life as uncertain, bewildering and fearful, because it is fluid (Bauman 2007 and 2005). Modern people are incapable of standing still, or even imagining such a thing. The confusion is ubiquitous. To take one example, a blogger with a close knowledge of the hipster scene in Shoreditch, London, complains bitterly that that youth culture has referenced itself to bits (Haddow 2014). It is a complaint that has echoes in the work of Giddens (1991): identity itself has become a creative and reflexive project. Old hierarchies have dissipated. And the newer versions depend only on one’s ability to go with the flow of events and not drown in them. At both extremes of the hierarchy people are haunted by the problem of identity, says Bauman (Liquid Life: 6).
“At the top the problem is to choose the best pattern from the many currently on offer, to assemble the separately sold parts of the kit, and to fasten them together neither too lightly (lest the unsightly, outdated and aged bits that are meant to be hidden underneath show through at the seams) nor too tightly lest the patchwork resists being dismantled at short notice when the time for dismantling comes — as it surely will). At the bottom, the problem is to cling fast to the sole identity available and to hold its bits and parts together while fighting back the erosive forces and disruptive pressures, repairing constantly the crumbling walls and digging the trenches deeper. For all the others suspended between the extremes, the problem is a mixture of the two.” Bauman (Liquid Life: 6).
He wasn’t talking about journalists and other news workers scared of changes in their working practices or the closure of bureaux — but he could have been. Equally, he could have been talking about the hipsters or the bewildered policy makers in Washington. In this account, the Russians would be the ones on top and policy makers in Washington located somewhere below, still trying — at the time of writing, months later — to work out whether Putin had invaded the Ukraine.
McNair’s theory of cultural chaos
McNair has outlined a theory of what he calls “cultural chaos” (2006a). This is a term adapted from the branch of the natural sciences which studies chaos theory. Chaos theory is based on the idea that everything is connected and that apparently small changes can have enormous and unpredictable effects. It is rooted in the globalised, destabilising technological changes brought about by digital communication technologies. According to McNair, these technological and political changes are felt by everyone alive, whether they live in an advanced democratic society or in a developing country like Africa.
McNair’s ideas are also a response to those theories of the media that posit a strongly cultural understanding of the media being allied to and in the service of political elites (Lash 2012, Hardt 2004, Mowlana 1992). McNair (2006a) calls this the “control paradigm”. During the Cold War the world was divided into rigid ideological camps. The Internet did not yet exist, and its disruptive effects on news organisations and society had yet to occur. It was also a period when Marxist theory still had wide currency within academic circles. For all these reasons, during the Cold War, it was much easier to argue that the media is part of a system of control by an elite exercised by corporate news providers. McNair says that the old hierarchies are breaking down.
This isn't Fukuyama's End of History, nor is it the End of Ideology. Rather, after 1989, history sped off in a new direction, driven back to the future by the resurgence of primitive ideologies suppressed by the icy grip of superpower rivalry. (McNair 2006b)
The final argument advanced by McNair that relates to our topic is that the world of online have created a significant alternative market in cultural ideas. His book (2006a) offers the example of Michael Moore and Naomi Klein, but his work also prefigures the emergence of globalised terror groups who use social media like Islamic State, of which more later:
[The] networked nature of globalised news culture makes it easier than ever before to terrorise the planet. If terrorism is Baudrillard's "theatre of cruelty", then the internet and satellite TV have made all the world its stage. In the age of cultural chaos, freelance gangs of insurgents can exploit the news values of global media and compel us to watch the Twin Towers collapse in real time, or the murder of school children unfold live in Beslan. Terrorist atrocities are not new to the 21st century, but the scale of their political and psychological impact is. (McNair 2006b)
This broader theoretical approach has been picked up by Mark Deuze. His work is a critical reflection on the relationship between new media and society. This work he calls liquid journalism. This research focuses on the working lives of professionals in the global media industries (film, TV, video games, advertising, and journalism).
The features of this liquid journalism are the multiplicity of media actors prompted by user generated content, the uses of online/social media technologies, the greater speed. Deuze’s work, like that of Bauman, is intimately concerned with how people living in this new reality create day-by-day their sense of self. “Much like that of culture and community, production of the self [. . .] takes on an ongoing, fragmented, always changing and, at the end of the day, precarious trajectory.” (Deuze 2012: 37) Extending the metaphor, liquid journalism builds on the journalism of flow that was initiated with 24-hour global news (McNair 2006). This is a media and social ecosystem that is changing at bewildering speed. Deuze has conceptualised the way that media permeates and infuses every aspect of modern life (2012). He suggests that we are all incapable of standing outside media, and so saturated in media are all we that none of us can even imagine such a thing.
The contemporary journalist and their place in this fluid world
News is one part of the media system described by Deuze as all-encompassing. Other commentators describe the current status of news as ubiquitous and ambient (Sambrook 2008: 8). This is a transformative time for journalism. So it's a valuable time for scholars who are interested in understanding how the profession changes and why (Hellmueller 2013: 302).
To make sense of this fluid and confusing new online dominated ecosystem that journalists find themselves in, Mark Deuze has tried to define journalism’s core values. These are:
•Public service: journalists provide a public service (as watchdogs or ‘news-hounds’, active collectors and disseminators of information);
•Objectivity: journalists are impartial, neutral, objective, fair and (thus) credible;
•Autonomy: journalists must be autonomous, free and independent in their work;
•Immediacy: journalists have a sense of immediacy, actuality and speed (inherent in the concept of ‘news’);
•Ethics: journalists have a sense of ethics, validity and legitimacy. (Deuze 2005: 447)
These are old values. And viewed in this light, journalists are arguably ideally placed to produce stories that can help news consumers select important and interesting stories from the confusing array of material online. Executives at the New York Times say in a leaked document that it is the trust that individual news consumers have in news brands and individual journalists that makes them click on news stories (Seward 2014). Journalists — who can also make themselves into brands by promoting themselves on social media — are still trusted by audience more than bloggers and the news audiences all over the world still overwhelmingly prefer to consume their news via television rather than from websites or social media (Barnett 2011). Sambrook (2014) gives as the reason the “persistent dominance in mainstream news of established actors and the persistent indifference among large parts of the public to take a more active interest and role in the news”.
The contemporary war reporter
How do conflict reporters fit into what Domingo, Masip, and Costera Meijer (2014 cited in Franklin 2014) call “this moment of mind-blowing uncertainty in the evolution of journalism”? War reporters and foreign correspondents are part of and responding to all of these ideas. There are plenty of both journalists and theorists like MacGregor (1997) who believe that quality journalism, particularly expensive foreign reporting, is under threat. The complaint is that news organisations are serving audiences poorly. The latter are disadvantaged because they receive rushed and superficial reports (Archetti 2012: 853). But this is contested (Franklin 2014).
Such claims are part of a wider debate about cultural pessimism. Neither Bauman nor Deuze think constant change is necessarily a problem. There is evidence that foreign correspondents, too, don’t believe their craft is dead or dying. A study of foreign correspondents based in London (Archetti 2012) asserted that foreign correspondents think they are going with the flow and succeeding in — celebrating — the rich new media environment. They give several reasons for this belief. “It is possible to detect a consensus among the correspondents that its is no longer possible to simply ‘translate’ the wires as it was often the case in the past” (page 854). There is more incentive now for the foreign correspondents that were surveyed to offer distinctive stories. It’s all too easy it is easy to reveal in an online search whether the reporter really is offering something new. These reporters are also confident in what Sambrook (2010) calls their “bridging” role — to translate and provide context for their audience back home to better understand foreign stories that they do not quite understand but would like to (p 852). They did not see the disappearance of the foreign correspondent as likely.
As Tristan de Bourbon Parme, a French correspondent for multiple news outlets across France, Switzerland, and Belgium explains, foreign desks have shrunk due to financial reasons. This trend is not going to be reversed. Since there is a great interest by the public in foreign news (‘‘foreign news has never been as important as in the last 10 years’’) and not enough manpower within the news organization headquarters to deal with the demand, he envisages greater dependence on foreign correspondents. (Ibid)
Witnessing is perceived by both theorists and journalists alike as a core part of what a war reporter does (Zelizer 2007). For all the current difficulties of reporting in places like Syria, as we have seen it is still the reason always cited by journalists for the value of their work. But war reporters share this information space with many other actors. Zelizer says the fluidity of contemporary witnessing is current warfare’s most notable feature (ibid). It is true that the war reporter is now only one of many witnesses. The status of the ordinary people with smart phones in war zone who supply video footage will be discussed in another chapter. Are they citizen journalists or sources? Journalists are struggling with the difficulty of verification of online material (Bennett 2011). But new allies are coming forward to help reporters find a way through this (Sienkiewicz 2014). That war reporters do still have a role is less and less in dispute. And the war reporter remains deeply connected to other actors in a complex, shifting conflict reporting ecosystem.
3. Political and Organisational Contexts of the War Reporter
The myth of the war reporter’s autonomy
The apparent autonomy enjoyed by conflict reporters is effective as a branding tool both for reporter and employer (McNair 2006: 96). It’s also a myth. People in the field have a powerful interest to draw attention to what they are doing. And while at the individual level reporters do sometimes appear to work like lone wolves, the war reporter is constrained or enabled by his relations with a whole series of people. These include but are not limited to:
- their employers, with their corporate concerns
- the foreign editor working at base
- fixers and locally hired helpers
- their own governments and those of the countries they report in
- the troops controlling the areas they work in
- audience expectations
The identity of the war reporter has always been defined through their relationship with the State – as patriotic cheerleader, oppositional voice or in embedded journalism. This is true of journalism as a whole as well. The Leveson inquiry revealed how deep are the institutional links between journalists, news organisations and political elites (Mair 2013). Journalists are deeply embedded in state institutions at all levels, though they claim to be simultaneously inside and outside power structures (Schudson and Anderson 2009: 99).
One example of the much more complex nature of the foreign reporting ecosystem is that freelancers and locally hired journalists have replaced a large part of the international press corps and the foreign correspondents. Foreign correspondents used to be based abroad for several years at a time and become deeply entwined with the life of the people on whom they were reporting. Foreign desks used to move their correspondents around to stop them “going native” (Marr 2004: 338). Now it is likely the foreign bureau has been sold off. (Sambrook 2010). This may not be a bad thing. Many foreign bureaux didn’t do much for most of the year but worked like crazy for a few weeks year when there was a big story (Sambrook 2010: 17). It may be that the current situation provides news that is more authentic. Despite widespread nostalgia for the old way of doing things, Marcus Brauchli of the Washington Post points out (cited in Sambrook 2010: 30) that there are more reporters around the world writing for an international audience than ever before. An old style Asia correspondent could fly into Korea for a week, never having been there before, but was he really bringing greater authority and knowledge to his readers?
Air Marshal Lord Tedder, Eisenhower’s 1944-1945 deputy in northwest Europe, observed that “war is organised confusion” (cited in Hastings 2013). Like all journalists, war reporters fall back on professional practice in order to make sense of the chaos and render it as journalism. Professionalism is the study of what journalists do and how they conceptualise their role (Abbot 1988). Journalists claim special privileges as a result of their highly qualified claim to professional status. But journalists are not a profession in the sense that doctors and dentists are. There are accepted ways of practising journalism in order to make news happen. Non-professionals by definition are unfamiliar with these practices. According to Cottle (2003), ethnographic study comparing what journalists do with what they say they do can reveal ‘something of the normally concealed internal workings of the “black box” of news production and the routine professional practices and organisational and cultural norms informing its operation’ (p. 11).
The results of an experiment undertaken by one regional paper in the US are revealing. One theorist (Ryfe 2009) observed the results when an editor banned his reporters from attending local government meetings, in an effort to make all of the paper’s news “off diary”. (Off diary items in news terms are those which are unscheduled and unpredictable and are often exclusive to the news outlet which runs them.) The idea was that since the news environment was so crowded that the paper would only produce news that was different from what all its competitors were doing. Forbidden to attend any of the official local council or use any of their normal sources that provided them with the bulk of their stories, journalists reacted with a mixture of incredulity and derision. In time, the editor’s instructions were often simply ignored by his staff. The experiment did not last long, and nor did the editor (ibid).
“Any investigation into nature of journalist has to be sensitive to the (real) expertise of the professional and also bear in mind that essentially anyone can “do journalism”. This is a claim that is at the same time grandiose and prosaic (Schudson and Anderson 2009: 99).
Control versus co operation models
Much of the material relating to the way that war reporters work with the military has been seen by theorists in the light of what McNair (2006) calls a control versus co-operation model. Such a model sees the state attempting to use the media as an arm of its public relations strategy. The US defeat in Vietnam was attributed by the US military to the fact that it had given too much access to the media (Hallin 1989). The same reason has been given (Tumber, H. 2004b) for the extremely restricted access given by the UK military to the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. A generation of conflict reporters has now spent a good part of their careers working within the embedding system operated by US and UK militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan (Tumber 2004a). There is a great deal of evidence that reporters for example do find it extremely difficult to maintain their professional distance from troops that provide them with transport, food and protection (Tumber 2004b; Hastings 2000). One indication is the way reporters use the first person plural rather than singular when describing what is happening. It is true that these government PR operations do seek to present one side of the story to journalists in the hope that the latter will then tell it to their audiences. The criticism of all of these models of how journalists work is that it denies journalists’ autonomy (Bivens 2014: 257).
Conflict reporting as an “ecosystem”
One way of imagining the world of conflict reporting that stresses its complexity and the interdependent relationships of its constituent elements is to take a imagine war reporters and their world as an ecosystem (Picard 2014, Shapiro 2014). This is a term borrowed from the natural sciences. In the natural sciences, an ecosystem is defined as a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in conjunction with the physical components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system. The concept was introduced by Oxford ecologist Arthur Tansley (1935) and the main thing is that it refers not just to the organisms of a locality, but also the physical environment in which they are located and the consequent opportunities and constraints resulting from that physical environment (ibid: 299). So the conflict reporting ecosystem takes in the actors within it, and the interactions they have with each other. There are obviously limits to the usefulness of the metaphor. But conflict reporters are living beings, as are their sources, and the news organisations are also made up of live human beings, and so is the audience — of these elements, the one that is probably least studied by communications and media theorists. Other elements are also infrequently the object of study. Theorists more frequently study the effect that the military has on the media, instead of the other way round. One way to consider conflict as an ecosystem whose constituent elements all interact with and affect each other is through the study of mediatised war.
Mediatised war and the battle for the information space
As we have seen, the influence of media in society is so all pervasive that as a result, society and social institutions are being fundamentally transformed. We often think of war reporters standing somehow separate from conflict and their reporting of conflict. But evident now is a collapse between the way wars are conducted and the manner in which they are reported in the media (Cockburn 2013, Maltby 2012).
Mediatised conflict or mediatised war is the study of the complex ways in media are often implicated within conflicts, while disseminating ideas and images about them (Cottle 2006: 8). Mediatisation and mediation are sometimes used interchangeably. Cottle (2006) suggests that mediation is a more neutral term which puts the media in a middle ground, equidistant between the events it reports on, and the audience it serves. Mediatisation is the theory that media shapes the processes of societal discourse and political communication, as well the society in which that discourse takes place (Livingstone 2009).
War has always been about the battle for the information space. But we live in times when conflicts are increasingly played out and performed in the media. The so-called Wars on Terror fought since the 9/11 more than most. As Cockburn puts it (2013):
More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role. In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home.
As we have seen, the nature of war is changing. War has become more fluid. This demands a conceptual framework that engages with the way actors influence each other. Maltby (2007, 2012) has conceptualised the interactions of all parties in a conflict as “mediatised war”, in which:
. . . substantive elements of war actions become inseparable from the ways in which they are defined and performed for impression management purposes and the practice of war is submitted to and dependent on the media. (Maltby 2013: 106)
Maltby’s work (2013) examines the way the British military interacts with the media. The ways that the so-called Islamic State terrorist group works with online media is a something we will examine later.
In order to analyse the way in which the elements of the living ecosystem of conflict reporting interact with each other, theorists have used Goffman’s (1990, 1969) theory of impression management and strategic information management. Goffman is best known for his study of symbolic interaction, which took the form of a dramaturgical analysis of the performances that occur in face-to-face interactions. The insight that he offered was that in theatrical performances there is the obvious aspect that actors present to the audience. But as well there is the hidden, backstage area, where actors can drop the identities they present publicly, and be themselves.
Although Goffman’s work was primarily concerned with individual identity and self preservation, his 1969 book Strategic Interaction examined strategic decision making and is his contribution to the field of game theory. Giddens (1988) and Lundby (2009) have used Goffman’s work to draw attention to the micro social world in order to connect it to macro social systems. Goffman’s dramaturgical theory has been used by those studying the “theatre of war” (Clausewitz 1976). Maltby (2013) has recently used Goffman’s work to investigate how the one particular part of the British military, termed “Media Operations” deals with relations with news organisations and other actors in conflicts in which it has been involved since the Wars on Terror after 2001.
Media operations in a mediatised war
Like all modern armies, the British military is in a relationship with the media. The British Ministry of Defence has a unit made up of military and civilian staff known as Media Operations that arranges relations with news workers. The sign on top of the British media office tent in Camp Bastion in Helmand, Afghanistan, says “Media Operations’. As soon as you walk through the door as a journalist you understand that you are a sort of target, albeit treated much more gently than the Taliban (Smith 2010). Maltby’s work (2013) examines how profoundly the military are affected by and responsive to their experiences working with news gatherers. The “complex symbiotic relationship between the media and the military creates a dynamic of cooperation, manipulation and resistance” (ibid).
The British military has contributed to academic research partly to find out how it can more effectively communicate its message (Maltby 2013). What emerges is that the military information gathering is “less efficient or omniscient than journalists sometimes imagine” (ibid). Often the military are reliant on exactly the same sources as the media. One can see this in the phenomenon of what has been termed “information loops”. A study of the way military and media worked during the invasion of Iraq (Lewis 2004) revealed that while a story may begin with sources on the ground — whether military or media — the military will then come under pressure to confirm the truth or otherwise of the story, even if it has no confirmation from its own sources. Colonel Brook was Assistant Director of media operations for the British Ministry of Defence:
It had a fascinating effect here in Whitehall because of course like the general public we were all glued to our sets and yet we had a machine giving us precise and detailed information. But we still chose instead to take our truth from television. (ibid: 21)
There are many examples of the way the British military has become increasingly mediatised, including the use of helmet cameras to provide footage for the BBC3 series Our War, and the use of combat camera teams which supply footage to television companies. We will be examining both later.
For both warring parties and news organisations in the mediatised war ecosystem, the audience is a significant factor. Military forces seek to represent what they do in the best possible light in order to maintain popular support. If achieved, this will make it more likely to secure funding in the future. Both journalists and news organisations at a corporate level take their audiences extremely seriously because they are ultimate source of their funding that sustains their work. It is also true that news organisations have always seen war as a “good story”. Wars are quintessentially newsworthy (Cottle 2006: 76-77) and war reporting deals with powerful themes of national identity and belonging, as well as summoning up pride and patriotism. War may be the ultimate “deviance” story, taking the audience from their familiar quotidian world and “captivating and reaffirming through disorder and destruction powerful collective bonds and communal values (ibid: 77). There is evidence both that news audiences want complexity than news providers believe they can deal with, and that news often does not give it to them. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, British news audiences complained that Iraqi civilians, for whose sake the war was supposedly fought, were far too rarely interviewed by reporters on the ground (Lewis 2004). The episode where Private Jessica Lynch was “saved” by US forces in an faked operation for supply to the US TV networks (Knightley 2004: 545) was the object of “special scorn” by many audience members surveyed (Lewis 2004).
War reporters and news organisations in the mediatised conflict ecosystem
Theorists like Singer (2003) were wondering whether online non-professionals would threaten journalists. But what was an abstract debate in 2003 is being played out now in richer and more surprising ways than Singer feared. One theorist says this is a valuable time for scholars who are interested in understanding how journalism is changing and why (Hellmueller 2012: 302). Phillip Knightley declared (2004: 548) that the age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over. The job of war reporting has certainly become a good deal more dangerous and complex, but it could be argued that those who confront those increased dangers are all the more heroic (Loyd 2014). Technology in many respects as we will see has made the job easier. And there are new heroes (Rosen 2006, Sienkiewicz 2014), some of whom have arisen from the people formerly known as the audience.
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