Anna Blundy (L) and Bidisha
On Wednesday evening four panellists – all of them women – discussed 'Writing a Path Through International Affairs: the challenges, rewards and responsibilities of international journalism' at the Mosaic Rooms in London. The writer, critic and broadcaster Bidisha chaired the event, which also marked the publication by Seagull Books of her fourth book Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine.
Earlier on Wednesday a memorial service for the American journalist Marie Colvin, of the London-based Sunday Times, had been held at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church on Trafalgar Square in central London. Colvin was killed with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in the Syrian Army bombardment of a building housing the media in besieged Amr Baba, Homs, on 22 February. Sunday Times editor John Witherow described her in his address at the service as "the greatest war correspondent of her generation". A book of Colvin's reporting, On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin 1986-2012, is newly out from HarperPress.
For the journalist and novelist Anna Blundy the service held a particular resonance: it was at St Martin’s that a memorial service was held for her journalist and war correspondent father David Blundy who was killed by a sniper in El Salvador in 1989 when Anna was 19. Blundy wrote the memoir Every Time We Say Goodbye: The Story of a Father and Daughter (Century, 1998) about her father's life and death and her relationship with him.
Speaking at the Mosaic Rooms, Blundy said that although she loves the atmosphere around war reporters, in which she grew up, she is also ambivalent about it. "There's an enormous amount of glamour to it. But there are children who get left behind. I spent my whole life waiting for my dad to get killed and then he was, and there's a heavy price." But the obvious thing which cannot and should not be forgotten "is that they are doing important work, clearly, especially someone like Marie who was so brave."
Bidisha and Blundy were joined on the panel by TV journalist and producer Rosie Garthwaite – who worked for Al-Jazeera before setting up the Doha-based TV production company Mediadante – and Nitasha Kaul, shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for her debut novel Residue. Kaul's website describes her as “a perpetually homeless Kashmiri novelist, academic, poet, economist, artist who inhabits many lives in the UK, Bhutan, India.”
At the beginning of the event Bidisha read an extract from her new book, describing the effects of an Israeli tear gas assault. "At first you think nothing's happened and you're some superhero who's impervious to it. Then the chemicals sweep forward to the front of your mouth, the edges of your nostrils, the jelly of your eyeballs and the insides of your eyelids,,,"
Bidisha travelled to the West Bank for last year’s Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest - this video shows her on the writers' panel on the opening day) and stayed on in Ramallah to explore the realities of Palestinian life for her book. She said we tend to think we know a lot about Palestine from newspaper reports "but you can't understand an occupied territory until you've been there. What I decided I'd do, as someone who wasn't an activist about that issue, was that I would simply as a reporter write what I saw in front of me, for better or for worse."
From Ramallah Bidisha embarked on a tour of Hebron, Nazareth, Nablus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Balata refugee camp (a planned visit to Jenin was cancelled after the murder there of the Arab-Jewish Israeli actor, director and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis, co-founder of Jenin Freedom Theatre). She also lectured at Bir Zeit University. Bidisha is proud of her book "because I think it's accessible in a way that a lot of the books about the region and the issue weren't always."
Bidisha's book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine
The four panellists brought richly varied backgrounds to the discussion. Anna Blundy, a "Russianist" who read Russian at Oxford University, was the Times bureau chief in Moscow in 1998-99 and a columnist on the newspaper. She is also the author of a series of novels about war correspondent Faith Zanetti, inspired by Marie Colvin. The novels are currently being adapted for Hollywood.
Blundy said that when war reporters are fictionalised in books and films they are portrayed as "terribly serious sort of warriors for truth." But war reporting is also fun and at Marie Colvin's memorial service, along with the tributes to her qualities as a journalist and her courage, "the thing everyone really came away with was what a laugh Marie was. And these jobs are very exciting it's why people do them, and they are extremely privileged and extremely lucky. The danger that goes along with that is something they embrace; people actually want to be in these places."
Blundy thought that a war reporter doing the job properly finds it difficult to have a settled family life. "They are not stable people. They are away a lot. Family life seems very mundane compared to it. As the mundane family left behind, you feel like crap, and that's a shame." And for the returning reporter "it's hard to come back to normality. It's hard to talk to ordinary people about having their kitchen refitted and a parking ticket... and it's addictive to go back where things really matter." She suggested there is "a slightly suicidal tendency, to get to the edge."
Rosie Garthwaite joined the British army at 18, during her gap year, as a fast-track officer working in North Germany as part of the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery regiment. She read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford University and in 2003 joined the Baghdad Bulletin - the first English-language newspaper in post-invasion Baghdad.
Garthwaite freelanced for Reuters, the Times and the BBC from Basra where, she told the audience, she was the only Western journalist for months. She joined Al-Jazeera in 2006. Garthwaite's contacts from her days in the army stood her in good stead in Basra. But her history with the army put her in a delicate position when she discovered and exposed the first British torture case in Iraq: the death of Basra hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in September 2003 while he was in the custody of the British Army. She described how she chased the story "and then sat on it for about 10 days and got the Reuters lawyers to look at it – and then warned the army I was releasing it. They called me back the next day and said 'thank you so much, we didn't know this had happened and now we do'... Baha Mousa's family have had the biggest payout to an Iraqi family from US or UK government bodies, they got £1 million in damages."
Garthwaite's book How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone was published last year by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP - a review is here). She canvassed some 150 people including journalists, aid workers, filmmakers, doctors, hostage negotiators, and soldiers for their views and tips on keeping safe, and the book is full of valuable practical advice. But the element of danger will always remain, as the deaths of journalists in the Arab uprisings over the past year have shown all too clearly. In the wake of the killing or injuring of a reporter people often ask whether they shouldn't have gone to a certain place, or should have worn a particular item, and what can be learned from the death. But Garthwaite pointed out, the past year has for example seen the deaths of Marie Colvin in Syria and photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya, both of whom were "incredibly experienced, and there isn't any lesson to be learned - it's just bad luck."
Blundy thought that war reporters are getting closer and closer to the action "and risking more and more because there are more of them and with 24-hour rolling news you can't show the same stuff 24 hours." Garthwaite recalled how at Al-Jazeera there was a big controversy after "a very senior editor said unless you are ready to be martyred for your job, then you shouldn't really be doing the job at all."
Bidisha discussed with the panel the pressures from major news organisations to tell a news story a certain way. The panellists gave examples of images favoured by news organisations: wailing women; the crying woman and the sobbing child; "brown people in peril"; angry men with beards and "an older woman in a veil lamenting over the body of a young man." Such images may be used because they are good film clips rather than because they round out the picture of what is occurring.
Blundy pointed out that although people may say they get desensitised to horror on TV news because there is so much of it around the world, the news is incredibly heavily censored: "When you see the raw footage it's absolutely unwatchable. We are not desensitised at all, we are not shown anything much compared with what is actually going on."
Blundy distinguished between TV and the printed media. She was trained in TV news by a very eminent correspondent who told her: "Think of the stupidest person you possibly can in America and explain to him in under a minute what is going on in the Kremlin at the moment." This is "very different from the kind of thing Marie Colvin was doing, which was writing huge long explanatory things with a lot of history and background."
After publication of How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone Garthwaite was constantly asked by magazines to write, from a woman's point of view, about survival. "One of the things I got asked by every single editor was, please will you find a journalist, a war correspondent, who has got children, who you can fit into this article. And I really struggled to find more than two or three people who I knew."
Blundy said the Mail had tried to get her to write a piece disagreeing with the war correspondent and mother Janine Di Giovanni "because I had written about being the child of a war correspondent." She knows and likes Janine, and she told the newspaper she didn't disagree with her and declined the request. Blundy thought the the reason the Mail wanted such an article was part of a wider criticism of women war correspondents. Fathers who are war correspondents rarely face such criticism. "It's awful for the kids whether the correspondent is the mother or the father."
When Bidisha was Palestine she found that international aid workers kept referring to the idea of "a parallel reality"- meaning that while events in the occupied territory or war zone continue to happen, they are not on our timeline and so don't come into existence. She wondered about the "fashionability" of certain conflicts; the Arab Spring being the big hit newswise of the last 18 months. What does it take for something to become that big? Blundy said it's what concerns us, and the Arab Spring concerns us in a huge way, and what happens there very much affects our own politics.
Nitasha Kaul added that it's also a question of how we are made to think whether a certain conflict concerns us or not. "At an analytic level, there are all these questions about the impact a story might have, the proximity of that story to the person that's hearing that, the bizarreness of a story, how strange, whether there is an economic interest, commercial interest involved."
Nitasha contrasted international media coverage of Tibet and of Kashmir. She is deeply involved in the situation in both places, but finds one doesn't hear half as much news about Kashmir as one does about Tibet. In 2010 in Kashmir "something like 100 young people were killed. Had that been happening anywhere else we would definitely have heard more of that here."
At the question and answer session with the audience after the discussion it was noted that Azerbaijan is temporarily under the spotlight, with the media flocking there to cover the Eurovision song contest in Baku., which is attracting the media. Azerbaijan is otherwise rarely covered in the media. (The BBC's Panorama was on Monday devoted to the situation in Azerbaijan, and the suppression of human rights).
Bidisha raised the question of technology and citizen journalism, of which so much has been made in the Arab Spring. Will this continue, and do these "rougher takes" have extra veracity? Kaul, who has recently taught university courses on media, politics and public life, said there are statistical reasons why it is not necessarily the case that having more stories from the ground, and multiple tellings of a certain situation, gives you a fuller account. The people who have access to that technology might be part of the same subset of people who would be reporting that story. Where technology has helped, Kaul said, is in the ease with which stories get out, rapid dissemination and the speeding up of thoughts and reactions, but that's not necessarily a good thing.
Blundy felt that Tweeets are just like chatting, and that you still need the war reporter "on the balcony in the flak jacket - that's a tedious image, but you do need somebody or some institution putting it all together and making sure it's true and making it into a story. The technology has changed, but in the end the story is the story, what is going on, and that is still going to be conveyed as a beginning, middle and an end narrative."
Nitasha cited the saying that regimes used to have to torture people to get the kind of information that people are themselves voluntarily reporting in the social media. She pointed out how the social media can be manipulated by the authorities. "In a lot of these countries there are governments that actually encourage people to go online." She gave as an example China's "50-cent censors" people who get paid to put forward the party line [they are sometimes known as the "50-cent Party or "50-cent Army"].
On the question of cultural stereotypes and reporting, Nitasha said journalists share the assumptions of the rest of the society in which they function. That does not mean that we cannot critically see through it, but there are all sorts of cultural stereotypes including in respectable media sources. She gave as example the Occupy Movement and its moving in on St Paul's Cathedral and the City of London last winter. Had this happened elsewhere it might have been reported as "rebels marching into the financial sector of the city" or something similar.