SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 150 - July/August 2011

From the frontline

War Correspondent: reporting under fire since 1914

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

(10am to 5pm)

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

COVERING NEARLY 100 years of war reporting, this exhibition examines the work of twelve war correspondents, ranging from Phillip Gibbs, who reported on the battle of the Somme for the Daily Telegraph, through to John Simpson and Jeremy Bowen who currently report on the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East for the BBC.

This is a comprehensive survey of the changing face of war journalism, illustrated by hundreds of photos and dozens of hours of video footage, some of it on view for the first time, some in the form of interviews or roundtable discussions, and some of it unforgettable.

A consistent theme is censorship. Governments claim they want to restrict ‘information useful to the enemy’. In reality, they are just as concerned to keep the truth about losses, or civilian casualties, from the public at home. The classic solution for the establishment has been to slap a ‘D’ (short for defence) notice on journalists’ reports. Michael Nicholson, reporting for ITN on the Falklands conflict from a British warship, points out that there were no less than seven filters on what he wrote: the ship’s captain, the Ministry of Defence representative on the ship, right down to his own producer and editor.

By the time of the first Gulf war the US had media control down to a fine art. They formalised the decades-old system of ‘embedding’: this brought journalists closer to the frontline, and opened up contact with service personnel, but allowed correspondents to be manipulated, and their loyalties exploited, by the officers. Maggie O’Kane, who reported on the Vietnam war for the Guardian, denounces the passivity of much contemporary journalism, with correspondents stuck in the green zone of Baghdad or Kabul, waiting for the next press conference, ‘like baby birds waiting to be fed’.

Recording and transmitting technology has seen several revolutions, and these are well documented in the exhibition. The development of post-war video technology was a massive leap forward, and gave journalists more control over their material, but was still dependent on air freighting the precious videotape to the UK. The lightweight satellite phone is the latest stage, and has further liberated correspondents, but created new pressures. The relentless rhythm of 24-hour news reporting forces journalists to produce another ‘piece to camera’ for the next hourly update, perhaps at the expense of in-depth news gathering. A classic case of new technology enabling the capitalists – in this case, competing news networks – to demand more of their workers.

There are also some useful discussions about so-called ‘objectivity’. When questioned, most of the correspondents reject the term, and are happy to report what they see, and even to share their anger with the viewer. O’Kane recalls the systematic ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and refuses to accord equal weight to weasel-worded denials from a Bosnian Serb general. Martha Gellhorn, who reported widely on the Spanish civil war and was later the first correspondent to enter Dachau concentration camp, pointedly asks: "How can you be objective about Dachau?"

The exhibition concludes by bringing the visitor up to date with citizen journalism and the widespread use of social media. When mobile phone footage is re-broadcast by ‘official’ media, as most recently from Tahrir square or the streets of Misrata, it has to carry a ‘health warning’: locations and times have not been ‘verified’. Yet without such material, reports of revolutionary movements would lose their breathtaking immediacy.

Socialists hate war, and so do these ‘war-junkie’ journalists. Unlike them, we see beyond its immediate horrors and understand that only the abolition of private property and the nation state can eliminate it. However, this outstanding exhibition, intelligently put together and richly resourced, helps us to understand the processes by which it explodes onto our TV screens.

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