The Iraq conflict is the great crisis of our era, but television has found it impossible to cover it properly. The dangers to correspondent and crew are too great, and the limitations of being embedded with the US or British armies subvert balanced coverage.
Watching Tony Blair claim progress in Iraq as he announced a partial withdrawal of British troops last week, I was struck for the hundredth time by the favour done to him and President George Bush by the Iraqi insurgents and militias. By killing and kidnapping journalists – and thus making so much of Iraq a media-free zone – they have ensured that the White House and Downing Street can say what they like and get away with it.
Blair spoke of British achievements in security and economic development in Basra, but there were almost no journalists on the ground to check the truth of this. One of the infuriating aspects of covering Iraq in the past three years has been to hear the US and British governments claim that there are large parts of Iraq that are at peace and know it is untrue, but to prove that they are lying would mean getting killed oneself.
Iraq has become almost impossible to cover adequately by the old system of foreign correspondents, cameraman or woman, and crew. It is simply too dangerous for a foreigner to move freely around Baghdad and the rest of the country. It is bad enough for print journalists like myself but cameramen, by the nature of their trade, have to stand in the open and make themselves visible.
The list of journalists I knew who have been killed covering wars has grown horribly long. My best friend, David Blundy, was shot dead by a sniper in El Salvador in 1989. Mazen Dana, a cheerful, skilful Palestinian cameraman from Hebron, was killed by US soldiers when filming outside Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. Martin Adler, the brave freelance Swedish cameraman, whom I had last seen in the gloomy lobby of the Flowerland Hotel in Baghdad six months earlier, was shot in the back by a man in a crowd in Mogadishu on June 23 last year.
There are all too many more. I remember the al-Arabiya television correspondent killed on camera by a US rocket in Haifa Street in Baghdad. The lens of the camera covering his last moments of life was smeared with blood.
Iraq is worse than previous wars. The Sunni insurgents kill or kidnap cameramen just as they do any foreigner. They regard an Iraqi cameraman as a possible spy. Important events now go unrecorded in a way that has not been true of any other recent conflict.
Many television companies have simply given up. Others will cover the war but do not use their own staff. There is growing reliance on either freelancers or Iraqi staff. This is probably the shape of things to come. In large parts of the world, notably in the Islamic world, there is a revolt not only against foreign political rule but cultural domination. The foreign media are seen as part of the latter.
Quite rightly, the Royal Television Society’s award this year went to Iraqi cameramen. It was presented to them by the correspondent David Loyn on the roof of the BBC building in Baghdad.
It has never been true that foreign journalists in Baghdad spend their time cowering in their hotels or in the Green Zone. If this was correct, far fewer would have been killed or suffered terrible injuries.
The Swedish media, responding to the death of Martin Adler, held a seminar in Stockholm earlier this month, in his memory. The focus was on war correspondents – the threats they face, and how to protect them. Much of the discussion rightly focused on how, given the undoubted dangers, television can still cover the news without men like Martin being killed in the attempt.
Maggie O’Kane, the editorial director of GuardianFilms, which has made several award-winning films on Iraq, believes that the day of the traditional foreign correspondent is drawing to a close. It is simply too dangerous for them to operate. “In any case,” she believes, “the traditional model of the foreign correspondent is a pretty colonial approach. Usually we are only as good as our local fixers.”
GuardianFilms has instead trained Iraqis as cameramen, brought them to London, paid them properly and tried to give them the same support as a foreign correspondent would have. In the field, an Iraqi can still go to places where a foreigner would be instantly killed, although it is still dangerous. For one film, Iraq’s Missing Billions, about the $19bn in development money that disappeared, an Iraqi cameraman for GuardianFilms went repeatedly to a hospital in Diwanyah to show that the functioning incubators that a foreign company claimed were there had never been installed. “A foreigner just wouldn’t have been able to do this,” O’Kane says.
Ron McCullagh, the managing director of Insight News Television, argues cogently that developments in technology make it much more feasible for local correspondents to operate in Iraq or elsewhere. There is no longer the need for a correspondent, a three- or four-member crew and a laboratory to process film, or any need to send a film cassette home. He says: “Now, a video camera can be bought almost anywhere and the film can be transmitted through any laptop.”
But the rewards are still small. Heroic cameramen like Martin Adler, however good his film or the extreme danger in taking it, “get the same money per minute,” McCullagh says, “as he would get for a day out in Scunthorpe. It is all very well the industry being concerned about safety, but this is not reflected in the rewards.”
The lack of reward is also a result of the small number of companies interested in news-breaking foreign reporting. But the public is more interested in foreign news than many broadcasters think. In the past few months, I have given a number of talks to publicize a book I have written about the Iraq conflict. The meetings were gratifyingly well-attended. When I asked a few members of the audience why they had turned out on cold and rainy evenings, they all said it was because they did not feel they were getting the real news about Iraq from television.
The life of the freelancer has always been hard. In television and newspapers, their small earnings are the easiest part of the budget to cut. This will also be true for Iraqi cameramen. Freelance contributions have traditionally been acknowledged only grudgingly and down-column. This has changed somewhat since the foundation of the Rory Peck Trust and its annual awards. The trust, named after Rory Peck, the freelance cameraman killed in Moscow in 1993, originally helped the families of freelance cameramen who have been killed. It now helps all freelance news-gatherers.
The Iraq conflict should be the turning point in television coverage of events abroad. Because of the hostility to foreign journalists, battles are being fought of which only vague reports and rumours reach the outside world. The only way the vacuum of information can be filled is by using local cameramen on a full-time basis.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.