Magazine article The Spectator

We Should Toast the Reporters Who Are Staying Behind to Cover the War

Magazine article The Spectator

We Should Toast the Reporters Who Are Staying Behind to Cover the War

Article excerpt

President George W. Bush has suggested that journalists should be pulled out of Baghdad. You may ask what business it is of his. On the other hand, perhaps he knows better than most ot us what is likely to happen to the Iraqi capital over the next few days and weeks. There has been talk of Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard making a last stand there, and drawing coalition troops into a fight for the city which they might not easily win. Fanciful comparisons have been made with Stalingrad. Even if there is no conflagration, Allied aircraft are expected to target government buildings with `precision bombs'. We can recall from the assault on Belgrade during the Kosovo war that these bombs are not always as precise as they are cracked up to be.

Editors and foreign editors are therefore faced with a problem. Do they ask their journalists to remain in Baghdad under the watchful eye of the Iraqi ministry of information, facing risks which, though difficult to quantify, may be considerable? News organisations are split down the middle. The Daily Telegraph has decided to pull out its man, and the Times has asked Janine di Giovanni to pack her bags, reportedly much to her annoyance. The Financial Times is also withdrawing the 'stringer' whom it shares with the BBC, partly because it fears that she would not be able to operate freely. In the other camp, the Guardian is expected to have Suzanne Goldenberg in Baghdad, while the Independent's legendary Robert Fisk has arrived in town. The Daily Mail still has two reporters there. The Sunday Times has a journalist called Hali Jaber who, as a Lebanese, might conceivably be at less risk were the Iraqi authorities to turn nasty. The BBC will probably reduce its correspondents in the city to two or three: Andrew Gilligan is still there, and reports for us this week.

Many journalists would say they would love to be sent to Baghdad, but they know they are unlikely to be asked. Those who are staying are undoubtedly in danger, and I take my hat off to them. Apart from the threat of fighting and of misdirected bombs, there is always the possibility that Iraqi soldiers and even civilians may take the law into their own hands if many of their own people are killed by coalition forces. (British and American journalists are obviously particularly vulnerable.) So one can understand why some editors have decided to withdraw their reporters. They do not want to be held responsible for someone's death. But I don't think that the fear of supervision by the Iraqi authorities is such a compelling reason for asking a correspondent to come home, since enterprising journalists can always pick up a great deal even if they have a minder on their backs. My general feeling is that if experienced, grown-up reporters want to stay on the spot, their editors should let them. I can see why Janine di Giovanni, who has made a career out of covering wars, and undoubtedly knows how to handle herself in tricky situations, should be peeved at being called back to London.

It is an interesting point that many of the best hot-spot journalists should be women. An editor who thinks of them as the weaker sex is barking up the wrong tree. In addition to those I have already mentioned, there are Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian and Emma Daly of the Independent. Doubtless there are many others whose names I have momentarily forgotten. The tradition is not new - one thinks of the great Clare Hollingworth of the Daily Telegraph - but there are certainly more female war and trouble-spot reporters than there were 20 or 30 years ago. …

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