Living Dangerously: What Inspires a War Correspondent? More Than the Sense of History or Heroism, TV Reporters Are Seduced by the Glamour of the Job as It Has Been Portrayed in Countless Films. (the Back Half)

By Kerr, Philip | New Statesman (1996), April 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Living Dangerously: What Inspires a War Correspondent? More Than the Sense of History or Heroism, TV Reporters Are Seduced by the Glamour of the Job as It Has Been Portrayed in Countless Films. (the Back Half)


Kerr, Philip, New Statesman (1996)


"We were called thrill-freaks, death-wishers, wound-seekers, war-lovers, hero-worshippers, closet queens, dope addicts, low-grade alcoholics, ghouls, communists, seditionists, more nasty things than I can remember."

That was Michael Herr, describing Vietnam war correspondents in his 1978 book, Dispatches. Clearly there is something peculiar about war correspondents; but I don't think Herr puts his finger on a pejorative that really hits the mark. There is no doubt that you have to be both brave and a little bit mad to go to Baghdad and wait for the hard rain to fall. What is really peculiar about these people is their desire to get themselves noticed, to be near the centre of what is going on, to matter in an existential sense and, perhaps, to prove that they are made of the right stuff.

In short, what seems to me to drive war correspondents is a yearning for celebrity and, pace Michael Herr, I cannot think of a nastier thing to say than that. Even if they manage to convince themselves that it's all about covering "the stories that need to be told", there is no reason why the rest of us should be under any delusion that it is really a matter of being, in Michael Nicholson's phrase, "high-profile" and of having a "pretty prominent place in the running order".

Contrast the reporting of the Iraq war that you see on al-Jazeera, which tends not to show any news reporters at all--sometimes not even any words or music, just pictures of bomb damage and casualties--with the kind of personality-led news we get on British TV. Seen often enough, these people become the news. John Simpson, who famously liberated Kabul last year, found himself on the front page of the Daily Telegraph for the scratch he received in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Why? Because covering numerous wars has made Simpson, and others like him, a celebrity. With more than 500 reporters covering the war in Iraq, and only so much news to go around, perhaps it is inevitable that the warcos should begin to find themselves and their own narrow squeaks more newsworthy. News editors probably calculate that watching someone we feel we know cowering in a ditch makes better television than watching some poor bedraggled Iraqi do the same. In this respect at least, modern TV news is no different from a Hollywood movie in one important respect: it needs a star. Like any film star, the stars of TV news love the attention, the glamour.

"Anyone," explains Channel 4's Alex Thomson, "who doesn't say that being a war correspondent is a glamorous way of making a living is bullshitting you, because it is ..." But you need more than a lucky white suit and a bit of shrapnel in your Kevlar to have glamour.

From whence does this sense of glamour accrue? Do our war celebs seem glamorous because we -- but more likely, they -- remember the journalism of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, or the TV reports of Julian Pettifer and James Cameron? Perhaps. The War Correspondent, a book by Greg McLaughlin, offers many plausible motivations for why people do the job; but none of the explanations offered by the journalists themselves seems honest, for nowhere is there any mention of the many movies about or featuring war correspondents. I suspect today's warcos take themselves too seriously to admit that they're doing the lob because, 20 years ago, they saw Mel Gibson in The Year of Living dangerously 982) or Julian Sands pretending to be Jon Swain in The Killing Fields (1984). Movies like this make war journalism look a lot more exciting than writing about the National Health Service for the Guardian.

Possibly the earliest movie about warcos is Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), in which Clark Gable plays a newspaperman sent to cover the war in Indo-China. When the action moves to Bataan and his brother is killed, Gable writes a passionate tribute to all those who have laid down their lives for the cause of Democracy. It's not a great film, but it does underline the glamour (they don't come more glamorous than Gable) of the warco, as well as his or her (Lana Turner is the aspiring warco under Gable's wing) enormous integrity. …

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