Inside Out – November 07

One of the most important debates in journalism is far from over at the Frontline Club. It’s about whether the war in Iraq and the dangerous conflicts in Somalia and Gaza and elsewhere have made it nearly impossible for correspondents and news teams working for “western” news media to do their jobs.

In recent months, some of the best-known correspondents in British and American media have weighed in on this issue both in Paddington and more recently at our second Frontline Club event held in New York.

For John Burns who presided over the New York Times Bureau in Baghdad and lived and worked through the dangerous times, the view of Robert Fisk that what he and others practiced was “hotel journalism” is “nonsense.”

But he has to concede that few news organisations could afford the phalanx of armed guards around its fortified bureau that enabled the New York Times and its reporters to make its daily but limited runs through the “red zone”. He feared and still fears that the New York Times will “run out of luck” and sustain casualties that would make it impossible to continue its presence in Baghdad. Burns made his comments at the Frontline Club in mid-September.

Burns claimed that Iraq is the most “comprehensively covered war in history.” But sitting in the audience the night that Burns spoke was John Laurence whose reporting in Vietnam was for many of us the most memorable of that war. To this day, I can still recall some of his individual reports about “Charlie Company.”

I asked Laurence what he thought about Burns’s claim. And after further reflection, he emailed this to me: “How do you cover a war well without witnessing it? Burns explained that journalists in Baghdad allow themselves no more than a quarter of an hour in any one place. How well, I wonder, can you cover a war when all the time you have in the streets or in someone’s home or office before you pack up and move on, protected by professional guards, is 15 minutes?” He said that one could argue that Vietnam, without the danger of being kidnapped and beheaded, was better covered.

What no one disputes is the terrible price paid by Iraqi journalists who’ve been killed while working for Western news organisations or for their own fledgling TV stations and news agencies. In what INSI president Chris Cramer has called “the most dangerous war in the history of journalism,” more than 235 journalists and media workers have now lost their lives in Iraq most of them Iraqi and most of them murdered because of their work.