“We try our best”- Ten Years On The Front Line

Bill Neely, international editor at ITV News, began on the sobering note that although we [journalists] “really try our best…in many respects I think we’ve failed:”

“I think we have to be damn humble about what we do and what we’ve failed to do… In 2001 in Afghanistan when the Taliban ‘fell’, we walked away and went to Iraq and somehow behind our backs the Taliban came back and we didn’t notice. Then in Iraq we covered a successful invasion, we risked our lives and did our best, and then somehow the Brits lost Basra…who was there? I certainly wasn’t – there were very few of us there.”

Similarly, he said, journalists were not in Benghazi when the American ambassador was assassinated:

“Where were the date lines from? Cairo, London, Washington… And as a result of us not being there, the policy was wrong.”

Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, talked about how, in preparation for a BBC Newshour’s 25th anniversary celebrations, she had come across pictures and memories of when she had been in Pakistan and Afghanistan 25 years ago:

“I was coming back to the very origins of the people who inspired the Frontline Club…the brave young men who inspired the club.”

“25 years ago, war was a war on children, it was a humanitarian war, a war when even women took up guns… As one French philosopher said ‘the only lessons of history that we learn is that we don’t learn the lessons of history.’”

Far from shying from the spotlight, mediator for the evening Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, said the thing that sticks most with him is the same obsession he had in the decade before the Frontline Club – Iran:

“Although shots were not fired, Iran was a front line too. But, as Bill has said, we have fallen into the trap of believing what the outside powers tell us. The demonisation of Iran is easily done…but too simplistic… We’ve never wanted to do anything about it. All we want to talk about is nuclear, and nuclear is a completely bankrupt conversation. As journalists we fail to talk truth to power.”

Shoaib Sharifi, an Afghan journalist who has worked with national and international media outlets in Afghanistan for more than ten years, said that he thought the reporting by journalists in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in control was much better than reporting now:

“In the last ten years, I don’t think we as national and international journalists have learnt anything significant that has affected the war…. We could have done so much better if we hadn’t followed the line of ‘what makes the 6 o’clock news.’ I would pitch really human stories but then hear from a fellow correspondent ‘I don’t think it will make the 6 o’clock news.’ Who are these people making the news agenda, that flows all the way down to Kabul?”

Although Anthony Loyd, the award winning journalist and roving correspondent for The Times, disagreed that journalists shouldn’t be as humble as Neely made out, he too was shocked by some recent journalism:

“Although I haven’t seen the full Panorama [alleging the murder of civilians by British soldiers]…if I wrote a story as weak as that my editor would tell me to go out and fucking stand it up – do some proper journalism.”

Far from being a raucous celebration of the brilliance of journalists, the evening was a thoughtful reflection on the incredible bravery and selfless commitment of journalists and also on their ability to be mistaken, to fail to talk truth to power on occasion and to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.