Fixers: Explaining countries, cultures and revolutions

November 14, 2012

By Merryn Johnson

Last night’s talk looked at the future of fixers in foreign reporting and at the relationships that develop when the ‘mad circus of the international press’ arrives to cover a news story, desperately needing to hide their ignorance of the country, culture and language.

The discussion was chaired by Charles Glass, broadcaster, journalist and writer, who was joined by Ilene Prusher, an independent journalist based in Jerusalem and author of the recently published book Baghdad Fixer; and Patrick Cockburn, senior Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent.

Lending some sense of reality to the discussion was Suliman Ali Zway, a Libya-based freelance journalist who switched from a career in construction to working as a fixer during the Libyan revolution. What started as translation work soon developed into ‘explaining the country, the culture and what led to such a revolution.’

Not only is a fixer’s local knowledge literally life-saving to foreign reporters, but Prusher also enjoys the camaraderie that comes through working with the often extraordinary characters who became her fixers. From Afghan poets to doctors who worked in hospitals at night and as fixers with journalists during the day, these people acted as a cultural membrane that inspired the story of Baghdad Fixer.

“I think there has been a steady progression towards recognising the important work that fixers do, that they are actually journalists in their own right. A few days ago, Lyse Doucet said to me: ‘I’m trying to ban this word.’ Part of the idea of this book is to expose it – some people really respect what they do but there are also journalists who put them in danger” said Prusher.

Glass agreed that the fixers always seem to suffer the worst fate, and are abandoned by the journalists and the news organisations that depend upon them so totally. Ali Zway was in agreement:

“Eventually the foreign journalist will leave and if they write something about someone they don’t like, you’re left behind. It’s not that the foreign journalist does not want to help you, but there is not a staff job for fixers within newspapers that would ensure your safety or ensure that your family is looked after when you’re gone. The problem is the relationship between the fixer and the organisation, not the fixer and the journalist.”

A BBC World Service producer in the audience asked what he could do in his role to try and make his fixers safer; Ali Zway’s answer was very straight forward – insure fixers the same way you would insure your staffers.

Other questions looked at the role of foreign correspondents and fixers in a future of diminishing budgets, of increasingly dangerous and scattered front lines, and of the demands of new media.

Cockburn agreed that the front lines had changed, adding that the fighters had changed too, no longer trying to cultivate the press but instead targeting the foreign reporters.

For Prusher, covering conflict was:

“…an extremely important thing to be doing with my life and that I got to be a witness through this small window in history – to see a society in the midst of conflict, in transition – is kind of a privilege …. Now, I feel overwhelmed by the pressures that new media have put on journalists. It used to be that you could go out into the field and focus on your story, and these days it seems there is a competition as to how much you can tweet whilst you’re in the field, updating all day long, this is one of the barometers by which we’re judging journalism. I wonder if that is really the recipe for great journalism.”

In 2007, following the murder of Ajmal Naqshbandi in Afghanistan, the Frontline Club set up the Fixers’ Fund, a special project to raise money for the families of fixers killed or injured around the world while working with the international media.

Watch the full event here: