Former captive warns of reporting risks on return to Beirut

July 3, 2009

Terry Anderson, former hostage and AP bureau chief in Beirut, returned to Lebanon this week to give a talk on the ‘global hazards of reporting’ at the Issam Fares Centre.

Anderson, who was kidnapped in 1985 and held for six years and nine months, spoke eloquently for over an hour about his kidnapping, the dangers of reporting and the issue of journalists’ impartiality during wars.

While discussing the coverage of Israel’s operations in Gaza in January, Anderson remembered a conversation he had had with an IDF officer in southern Lebanon in the 1980s. Asked why he had written bad things about the Israelis, Anderson replied: ‘Sir, if you stop doing bad things, I’ll stop writing them’, adding, ‘When the truth is one sided, so is the story.’

Anderson, who spent six years in the US Marines before becoming a journalist, said even his neutrality was tested when the Americans landed in Beirut in 1982.

"When the Marines came to Lebanon I knew some of them, I had fought in Vietnam with them. I was there when the barracks were destroyed and 240 Americans died. Did I have sympathy with them? Yes. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Did I feel bad for the commander? Yes. But did I ask him what he had done wrong that had allowed those Marines to be murdered? Yes. That’s my job."

Anderson also spoke of the difficulty journalists face in telling fact from fiction: “The idea is to be fair, to tell the truth as best you can find it. But that’s a very difficult job, particularly in war. Everybody lies. I’ve been lied to by American Marines. I’ve certainly been lied to by Israeli generals. I’ve been lied to by Lebanese. Everybody lies during war time.

After being released in 1991, Anderson began working for the Committee to Protect Journalists and he says it’s this work that kept his faith in journalism alive. "It’s great to work with these people. These are people who go to work every day all over the world, not knowing if they’re going to be coming home that night, if they’re going to be alive, if they’re going to be in jail, if they’re going to be beaten, if they’re going to be kidnapped. And they do it anyway. It’s very inspiring."

"Why do they do it? They do it because they know how important it is. And the people that do that to them, that beat them and put them in jail, they’re not doing it for fun. They’re doing it because they know that it’s important too.”

When asked about the growing influence of social media on traditional media, Anderson, who currently teaches journalism at the University of Kentucky in the US, said that he didn’t think citizen journalists or social networking sites would ever kill off ‘serious journalism’.

"The tools you use have nothing to do with whether you are a journalist or not. They are simply tools. I don’t think blogs, Twitter or Facebook is going to replace journalism. Journalism can only be done by professionally trained, dedicated, ideologically committed people. I love the web, don’t get me wrong. It’s a wonderful intervention.But I don’t Twitter. Or tweet, or whatever."

And on how traditional media will continue to operate financially, he added, optimistically: "If my belief that serious journalism is vital to our society is right, then we’ll find a way to pay for it." As simple as that.

Back in Paddington, meanwhile, John the chef will be happy to hear that on his last visit to London, Anderson said he ate ‘morning, noon and night’ at the club. High praise indeed.

The Issam Fares Centre for Lebanon will soon be publishing the full audio of the Anderson’s talk. As soon as it’s online I’ll link to it from here, so keep checking back. Many thanks to Patrick Galey for providing a rough audio recording of the event.