Teamwork Replaces Ego on the Frontlines of War
‘Reckless correspondents endanger not just themselves but everyone in the close-knit teams that operate in Iraq.’
Heroism under fire was long the stuff of barroom legend, not just for soldiers but also for war correspondents.
Many journalists revelled in a reputation for careless courage in the adrenaline rush to get the story first. Reporters built reputations on their apparent lack of fear when shells and bullets were flying. On a few occasions, photojournalists were so intent on the image in the lens that they recorded their own deaths, catching the swinging tank gun turret or a soldier aiming his rifle, just before they were hit.
I remember being told one of those barroom legends about the veteran British war correspondent Noel Barber, who was badly wounded during the Hungarian Rising in 1956. According to the probably apocryphal account, an arch rival is said to have received a telegram from his editor after Barber's gripping story was splashed saying: "Barber of Daily Mail shot, how about you?"
The bravery still exists, of course, and has even grown in the face of an exponential increase in the dangers facing journalists, particularly in Iraq, where death can come from any direction at any time in a country bathed in endemic, almost casual violence.
The bravest journalists I know, by a long shot, are the Palestinian crews or the incredible team of Iraqis working for Reuters. They don't just do the lion's share of covering a conflict where easily identified Westerners can report only in tightly restricted conditions, they also risk their lives every day just to reach their workplace.
But the age of disregarding the danger for the sake of a story has long gone. It belongs to a more romantic era that was finally ended by the Iraq War. We have all become more keenly aware of the enormous risks for modern correspondents, risks that leave no space for bravado. More than 70 Iraqi and foreign journalists have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Add in media support workers, and the number is a horrifying 100 or more.
Iraq is so deadly because death comes from either side of the "frontline" in the fog of this war. All our casualties were killed by U.S. action, while many more journalists have died at the hands of the insurgents.
Reuters has suffered particularly grievously in this deadly new century. We lost eight of our journalists in the last six years, since Kurt Schork died in Sierra Leone. Four of them, all from television, were killed in Iraq. It is an object of daily sadness for me that this, the bloodiest period in Reuters 155-year history, occurred during my watch as editor for the Middle East and Africa.
This new era of journalism places extra strains on editors. I would be lying if I did not admit to losing plenty of sleep after authorizing reporting trips to war zones, even after carefully assessing the risks and concluding that they were acceptable. For despite the danger, we remain absolutely committed to maintaining coverage and making sure it is as balanced as the rest of our reporting. That means covering both sides of a conflict and brings with it regular, difficult decisions on deployments.
The military in America and Britain tell you that the only way to reduce the risks is to embed journalists so they get the best protection and are not mistaken for the enemy. It is hard to convince many officers that embedding tells only one side of the story, and we must have both sides to ensure our essential independence.
During many years running Reuters coverage from this part of the world, I saw very clearly how attitudes to war reporting have changed. When we made hostile environment training compulsory at the start of the decade, some of our most experienced war correspondents raised a cynical eyebrow at the idea they could be taught anything. After careful training by former soldiers, they have universally changed their minds. Several have told me their lives were saved by the training. The best war correspondents are the ones who meticulously plan their assignments, make sure they have the best equipment, and do everything possible to minimize the risks.
These days the old gung-ho spirit seems to exist only among a few novices eager to earn their spurs and unaware of just how dangerous it is. As often as not that is a good reason to reject them. Reckless correspondents endanger not just themselves but everyone in the close-knit teams that operate in Iraq. Several translators, guards and drivers have been killed during kidnappings of Westerners. We have made it abundantly clear that anyone who breaks the rules on how to behave in Iraq will be withdrawn immediately.
Teamwork is the one thing that has grown during the Iraq conflict. Everybody covers for their colleagues, and correspondents who bring a big ego to Baghdad will not be invited back. In the fortified bunkers where correspondents hunker down in Baghdad, everybody lives cheek by jowl both in and out of work. Characters who do not fit in will undermine the mental as well as physical welfare of their colleagues.
So what is courage in this new journalistic world? It is certainly not running towards the guns with camera or notebook in hand. We have drummed into our journalists the mantra that no story is worth a life. They all know it and share it. But courage these days still exists in abundance. You need it just to take the plane to Baghdad and drive into the city gazing watchfully out of the car windows along the dangerous airport road.
The modern combat journalist is still often a person of huge personal bravery. But these days bravery has to be tempered by great amounts of good sense, preparation and training. And above all leave the ego and bravado behind.
Barry Moody, a long-time Reuters journalist, was editor for the Middle East and Africa for seven years before recently moving to Nairobi to oversee a campaign to boost the coverage from the African continent.