Magazine article History Today

Frontline Dispatches: Martin Bell, Famous for His BBC Reports from the War in Bosnia in the 1990s, Celebrates the Life and Work of the Man Whom Modern War Reporters Admire the Most, the Times' Man in the Crimea, W.H. Russell

Magazine article History Today

Frontline Dispatches: Martin Bell, Famous for His BBC Reports from the War in Bosnia in the 1990s, Celebrates the Life and Work of the Man Whom Modern War Reporters Admire the Most, the Times' Man in the Crimea, W.H. Russell

Article excerpt

WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL (1821-1907) was of all war reporters probably the one most admired by those who came after him. We envy his access and his courage--not only the courage to report from the front lines of so many and bloody encounters, but to tell inconvenient truths about the appalling hardships suffered by an ill-provided army.

These days there is much academic theorizing--maybe too much--about the political effects of war reporting, especially in television. First it was called the CNN effect. Then for a while the BBC effect. It involves governments taking actions, whether to engage in armed conflict or to withdraw from it, which without the pressures of television they would not have taken. These despatches remind us that there was once a Times effect: Russell would not be silenced. He brought down a government.

He was with the Army but not of it. That remains the crucial relationship in our time as in his.

Set to one side those war reporters--and they exist today as they always did--who are what the Army calls 'Waits' (Walter Mittys) and for whom soldiering is the career that they wish to have had. They will always be so embarrassingly onside as to be (in nay view) a waste of space and short of the authority and credibility that mark the best of what Russell called 'luckless tribe' of which he was in a very real sense the founding father. For the rest of us, soldiers and journalists are, quite simply different sorts of people. The journalists' instinct is to publish and be damned; the soldiers' is to censor and be safe.

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There are two permanent sources of tension between them. One is the reporting of defeats and of casualties. The other relates to operational security--plans, capabilities and troop movements. Russell was not the last, but was one of the first, to be accused of endangering the lives of the soldiers whose battles he reported. Prince Albert called him 'that miserable scribbler'. And a former Secretary of the Army wrote 'I trust the Army will lynch The Times correspondent'.

Occasionally, copies of Russell's despatches filtered back to the Crimea, having not been greatly appreciated back in London. He wrote, 'I was honoured by a great deal of abuse for telling the truth. But I could not tell lies to "make things pleasant". There was not a single man in the camp who could put his hand upon his heart and declare that he believed one single casualty had been caused to us by information communicated to the enemy by me or any other newspaper correspondent.'

And his Editor stood by him, which took courage of a different sort.

William Howard Russell was not only the first but I would say--with the possible exceptions of George Steer of The Times and James Cameron of the News Chronicle--the most distinguished of our kind, or at least the British section of it. He was also, indirectly, the cause of the profession's peculiar scourge of censorship. Because of the impact he had, the idea took hold that reporters in war zones should not be free to tell the truth as they saw it--whether because it was politically embarrassing or operationally dangerous. After the death in the Crimea of Lord Raglan, the new commander-in-chief, Sir William Codrington, issued an order authorizing the ejection of any correspondent who published news of value to an enemy. By the time that it reached London the war in the Crimea was over. But censorship both formal and informal has been with us ever since--by diktat at the point of transmission, by exclusion and denial of access, or more subtly by the modern practice of 'embedding'.

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Look carefully through these remarkable dispatches, note Russell's sympathy with the soldiers whose ordeal he chronicles, and you may conclude that he was actually the original 'embed'. …

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