British Journalism Review    
HomeCurrent EditionArchiveBlogSubscription & Back IssuesAbout the BJRLinksContact the BJR


Geoffrey Goodman

War — the great educator

British Journalism Review
Vol. 12, No. 4, 2001, pages 3-6

Contents - Vol 12, No. 4, 2001

Editorial - War — the great educator 3

Stephen Evans - The biggest story of my life 7

Anthony Loyd - Cleanliness the first casualty of war reporting 12

Recollections of September 11 14

Ronald Stevens - Kate, and the call that didn't come 28

Paul Routledge - It may pay — but journalism it ain't 31

Cal McCrystal - Yvonne Ridley wasn't the first 36

Clayton Goodwin - Sport, reggae and the Daily Gleaner 44

Tom Welsh - Can our courts handle human rights? 49

Gerald Kaufman MP on the Press Association 55

Ian Hargreaves on Robin Oakley 58

David Shayler on Dame Stella Rimington 61

Michael Leapman on Rupert Murdoch 68

Joshua Rozenberg on court reporting 71

Cal McCrystal on the PCC 74

Anthony Delano on global news 78

  War is a great educator – for everybody. Each subsequent war, if not each battle, almost always comes as a unique experience to the Generals and even the Field Marshals as it does to all Governments. No one is immune from this learning process: it applies to all leaders, Presidents, Prime Ministers and even editors and spin doctors. Once war breaks out everyone is thrown onto life's learning curve. No matter how learned and experienced the “experts” regard themselves, war has a nasty habit of producing the unexpected. Journalists, on the whole, are aware of this and no matter how often a war correspondent has reported from the “battle front” the next war is always different. The best of war correspondents know this – as if by nature: and the younger ones quickly pick up the grim knowledge. Yet, this time, in Afghanistan, it is more different than ever.

Of course there is always a tendancy in the media, almost overnight, for everyone to become a military specialist. No need to have been to Sandhurst, Cranwell or Dartmouth to qualify: knock out a thousand or two thousand words on how armies, air forces and navies should behave. We become arm-chair Generals at the sound of the first gunshot. Then we can pontificate on television and radio as well. The mere access to a column in a national newspaper or any microphone confers a certain authority on even the most amateurish pen – or voice. To be sure, some of it reads and sounds very persuasive. And indeed some of it is authoritative. Moreover the longer the war lasts the more experienced journalists become. That is when you start to notice the increasing care, reservation and even humility creeping into the pieces. For the other inescapable law of war is that it becomes more, not less, complex as it develops. That is why it is such a particularly humbling educator.

What has been especially notable about the extraordinary war against terrorism – if that is to remain the description, dubious though it has to be – has been the return to some outstanding newspaper reporting. And we specify, particularly, newspaper reporting. For years this journal, along with many others in our trade, has complained about the virtual disappearance of top-class reporting. Indeed there has been a craven absence of editors who were prepared to clear a page to provide space for the kind of writing and observation which once gave British newspapers some of the finest reporters [and not just war reporters] in journalism. That did not happen during the Gulf War – or, at best, only in rare small doses; it happened too infrequently in the prolonged Balkan crisis; but it has been happening in this highly unusual conflict around Afghanistan. We have already witnessed examples of outstanding descriptive reporting, equal to some of the best from the Viet Nam period, despite the exceptional difficulties all journalists have been facing trying to cover the conflict areas. Indeed one of the critical differences, compared with the Gulf War, the Balkans fighting, the Falklands or Viet Nam, has been the lack of effective and credible military briefings. From the outset the United States administration has held the tightest control over media briefings – perhaps because the military men in the Pentagon are as confused as most other people. In London the Ministry of Defence, never renowned for its openness, has been classically tight-lipped. The reporters, out there along the eery dustbowls of the Afghan mountain ranges, have had a hell of a time – just to keep the dust out of their eyes as well as in search of truth. [see page 12 for Anthony Loyd's brilliant description of life in the battlezone].


Whatever else can be said of Mr Bin Laden he has certainly been responsible for resurrecting some fine reporting. A whole new generation of young war correspondents has been introduced to a newspaper reading public and television viewers – to audiences which in both cases have grown in their demand for real news. It is a demand to which the national, and regional, newspapers have responded with imagination and a creative energy not seen in British journalism for a long time. And this applies particularly to the tabloids – notably The Mirror which, as Brian MacArthur observed in his Times media column [October 19], has returned to the kind of Daily Mirror journalism of “the glory days of Hugh Cudlipp”. Praise indeed for Piers Morgan's Mirror.

But it is unjust to single out one paper or even one category of the newspapers; all the nationals have responded with high quality professionalism with some outstanding coverage in The Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian and Financial Times. Television has had more of a struggle partly for technical reasons, as well as the huge cost of supporting camera crews in the war zone; but also because, we might ask: has this war so far shown some of the limitations of the camera-on-the-spot as distinct from the notebook-in-the-hand? Answer: probably.

Yet it is on television more than in newspapers that we have seem the emergence of half a dozen new stars of women war reporters – Jacky Rowland, already seasoned in North Africa and Kosovo, now Jerusalem; Susannah Price, Kate Clarke both in Pakistan and Afghanistan; as well as the well established, accomplished brilliance of Janine di Giovanni. And in saluting these fine new stars let us also salute the courage of so many others in a war that has already sadly cost the lives of seven brave journalists.

Television has certainly tried very hard to overcome serious practical problems. An extra £10 million was made available to the BBC News. It has 24 reporters plus technical staff in the battle areas. CNN has 47 personnel in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is reported to be spending over £500,000 a week. ITN is said to be spending about £300,000 a week; Sky TV about the same. So far the costs are being borne with a determined commitment to provide the coverage. Yet as the war drags on and moves relentlessly into the quicksands of an unpredictable future the money will become a problem as audiences slip away.

Since September 11 war, the great educator, has re-invigorated our journalism. It has not yet produced the very special qualities of critical but accurate, emotionally startling but clinically truthful memorable descriptives of a James Cameron, wherever he was reporting from; a John Pilger reporting from Viet Nam has not yet been replicated from the mountain tops of Afghanistan; nor yet have we had the unforgettable writing many of us recall during World War Two.

But judging by the standard of reporting already evident, and as long as editors – and readers – do not tire as the war drags on, then the prospects are good. We may even begin to see the revival of high quality reporting as a constant in the popular tabloids as well as the broadsheets; celebrity journalism and trivia will always find a slot, of course. But what an odd paradox it would be if Mr Bin Laden's bequest was to be better journalism all round.