It is no surprise that James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the two American journalists murdered by the violent Islamist faction Isil, were freelancers. Many of the reporters and photographers covering the most dangerous stories in the world today are working without the protection of an employment contract: no security, no place of safety, no professional fixers, no evacuation support when things go wrong.
The increasing importance of the freelance has much to do with economics. Few companies retain the funds to invest in foreign reporting – and those that do have money tend to believe they get a better return from spending it elsewhere. We might deplore their journalistic priorities, but the savings to be made by outsourcing foreign coverage are too obvious to be ignored by the accountants.
There are, we should remember, some companies that not only believe in a higher journalistic purpose but also have the money to fund it. When it comes to Syria and Iraq, however, a moral point militates against putting staff correspondents in the field as surely as any lack of budget: is it right to expose employees to the risk of Isil? For this, as Michèle Léridon, of the news agency AFP, explained in a recent blog, is no ordinary conflict: “In a war zone there are always pockets of relative safety where a journalist can work, file stories, and get some rest. What makes Syria different is the lack of any such safe haven in the rebel-held zone. The country is dangerous from one end to the other.”
So in come the freelancers, filing copy and pictures for a fee that is a fraction of the cost an equivalent staff excursion would incur, facing dangers from which companies excuse their own employees. Those who believe this is exploitation are entitled to ask which is morally more reprehensible: to use freelancers because they are cheaper, or because the territory is too risky for staff?
Or not to use them at all? It is a good question now that AFP has resolved to take no more freelance work from Syria. In the words of Michèle Léridon: “It is a strong decision, and one that may not have been made clear enough, so I will repeat it here: if someone travels to Syria and offers us images or information when they return, we will not use it. Freelancers have paid a high price in the Syrian conflict. High enough. We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk.”
The agency’s decision follows a similar call last year by The Sunday Times, whose staff correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012. Some other British papers, while stopping short of an outright ban, are extremely cautious about accepting freelance work. This is not necessarily because they fear they will be made responsible if freelancers get into difficulties – reporters and photographers are often safely out of the war zone when coverage is offered for sale – but because they do not wish to encourage risk taking.
Here is a principled decision by an industry that is often accused of having no principles. But is it the right one? Are freelancers to risk their lives for a story they cannot sell, or will they take the point, avoid the risk and move on? There are men and women freelancing in the world’s danger spots who feel a moral obligation to report the world, former soldiers who miss adventure, local stringers looking to earn a living. There are romantics looking for adventure, young people hoping to make a start in journalism, older reporters who once had staff jobs. They take great risks in a good, even noble cause. Is their work to be given no economic value, to save them from themselves?
If so, what becomes of bearing witness to the horrors of the world? Who will show what is going on in Syria and Iraq if the media don’t? Is the risk to the life of a reporter more important than an account that reveals the fate of a nation? Or – before we get too grandiose – has the propaganda distributed by Isil through social media perhaps given us an alternative, albeit one-sided account of life and death in those most terrifying lands? The AFP news agency has taken a moral stand at an economic cost. It’s a decision the head should support, even as the heart must back bold reporters who continue to take alarming risks, and never mind the consequences.