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War reporting - then and now

© Matt Salusbury

Juliana Ruhfus

TO MARK A significant centenary, London Freelance Branch's September meeting was about war and war reporting, then and now. Talking about "then" was LFB's own Nigel Fountain, author of When the lamps Went Out: from Home Front To Battle Front - reporting the Great War 1914-1918.Providing an update on "now" was Al Jazeera's senior reporter Juliana Ruhfus, who is on the Europe board of directors of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

The meeting opened with LFB's own Phil Sutcliffe reading an extract from Nobody of Any Importance, his e-book edit of his father Sam's memoir of the First World War. A hundred years ago to the day of the meeting, Sam Sutcliffe joined the Royal Fusiliers at a recruiting office 100 yards away from the LFB meeting venue "he lied about his age to be with his brother Ted.

Sam then fought at Gallipoli and the Somme, and Phil read Sam's chilling account of his last battle at Arras, where he was a signaller. Sam's unit had received the codeword "George" - an order to fight to the last man to cover the regiment's retreat . He had the task of sending "lovely fan-tailed" carrier pigeons - kept by him for use when all other means of communication were cut off - to the "divisional loft" with a final message, which basically consisted of "goodbye." He was wounded and captured.

© Matt Salusbury

Nigel Fountain

Nigel Fountain is "not a war correspondent," having "gone out of my way to avoid danger" and by his own admission "sat at back of LFB meetings" for most of those he'd attended. A freelancer for the nationals, for History Today, Radio 4 and BBC TV and a former editor of City Limits, Nigel was asked at short noticed to do When the Lamps Went Out - a history of the Manchester Guardian coverage of World War One. One surprise for Nigel was how little the Guardian's Country Diary spot has changed in a century - it is, he said, still almost exactly the same as in 1914. And Nigel quickly found that he "knew bugger all about it."

When war broke out on the Continent in August 1914 the Guardian predicted that once Russia had brought "its forces into decisive action" the war would last only two or three months. For much of the war, none of the commentators had "any idea of when it was likely to conclude... in the Spring of 1918 everyone from our grandparents to Field Marshall Haig thought it was likely Germans would win" in the Summer when the German offensive had petered out everyone "still thought it would go on 'til 1919".

The Manchester Guardian was the paper of the "Northern bourgeoisie, radicals, non-conformists". In the first week of war, the newspaper saw a "screed of letters against going to war: why were we allied with the Russian barbarians and Serbs?" There was "outrage at going to war, some of it pacifist, some not." But on the day war was finally declared by the British, the Guardian's longstanding editor CP Scott took the attitude that "now war was declared, we'd better fight it". His correspondents followed suit. But the Guardian's support for the war remained much more muted than the "much more gung-hoMail" and Lord Northcliffe's Times.

There were no dissidents among the war correspondents. The Guardian's Philip Gibbs recalled that "we identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the fields - there was no need for censorship": the correspondents censored themselves.

A pool of five to six correspondents did all the coverage on the Western Front for 1915. Gibbs met the new Commander Alexander Haig in that year, and later described how, in "an insult, unconscious but unhelpful", Haig expressed a belief that war correspondents "wanted little stories of heroism for Mary Anne in the kitchen and the man in the street".

People knew what was going on even if they didn't get a full report from the newspapers. The casualty list from the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 "filled the centre pages" of the Guardian.

Also clear from the Guardian's contemporary coverage was that while "people now talk about the war as if it had been between the British and the Germans" more than a million Africans died and in many battles "the backbone of British forces was Indian". It was "equal opportunity mass murder".

Meanwhile, Morgan Philips Price was reporting for the Guardian in Russia, where he had more freedom to "try to work out what was going on with the revolution". Philips Price got a scoop when Trotsky's secretary handed to him the secret British-French treaties, the Sykes Picot Agreement carving up the Middle East. The Guardian published it within a week, and soon TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was having "to explain to the Arabs that Sykes Picot was not as it appeared". Another eyebrow-raising feature of contemporary Guardian coverage was the Lawrence "didn't appear at all. Some myths are created later."

While the public read letters home from soldiers, papers faced having the Defence of the Realm Act slapped on them if they published these. There were reports of John Maclean, the "Lenin of Glasgow", being arrested for making anti-war speeches on street corners - &also "a bloody good way of getting yourself beaten up".

Gibbs was briefly imprisoned for running a freelance war reporting operation 1914, but he and the other four war correspondents covering the whole Western Front were knighted after the war for their services. Gibbs later spilled the beans in a book, in which he described how the senior staff officers "in their chateaus" were "universally loathed".

...and now...

Juliana, too, opened by saying she was "not a war correspondent... I make films in regions of conflict... not so interested in the 'bang-bang' but what happens after and in between."

Local journalists in conflict zones "were always at risk" says Juliana. But even after 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War, "with all the questions about embedding... I was relatively safe, I wasn't the target." Daniel Pearl (an American journalist murdered by Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 2002) who among the first Western journalist to be deliberately targeted.

Reporting, says Juliana, has become "harder than it has ever been" in the 1990s, post Cold War, when Africa exploded, we had the privilege of reporting on other people's wars. Now journalists "are becoming the target again. We are no longer seen as neutral... I was lucky when I reported (on earlier conflicts) I was relatively safe."

Now, with the recent murder on video of freelance journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS, "conflicts are more deadly than ever. In the Congo we could go to warlords to get different opinions, in the Niger Delta too. How can we get different sides of the story" now? Most of the conflicts today "have a militant Islamist element. We cannot anymore as journalists get both sides of the story."

And "digital media have made it harder" to report on conflicts. In 1994, CNN Michael Bergen for CNN got an exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan because bin Laden "needed him to put his message out: now they don't need that, they put the message out themselves via digital media" and executing journalists is now part of the message.

The number of players in conflicts has grown too, it's a "multiplayer world in terms of influences: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, their rôles in Libya, for example". Qatar hosts the headquarters of Al Jazeera - and sent quite a bit of money into conflict: "We went to the mountain town of Zintan on condition that we didn't say we were from Al Jazeera" - the local commander was afraid local militias would attack Juliana's Al Jazeera team.

Globalisation also contributed to the "Congo war fuelled by coltan [the ore for the metals niobium and tantalum] used in mobile phones. Multinationals no longer operate along state boundaries" and they add "another economic layer to the conflict."

Juliana now feels "the gloomiest I have ever felt". The Rory Peck Trust has asked freelance journalists not to go to Syria anymore. "People should go who are educated about the choices they are making" and are properly trained. Vice published stories by some "very young journalists go into conflicts, a journalist who filmed with ISIS... Is somebody that young experienced enough to have strong editorial judgement and to assess the risk they were taking? I wouldn't go and meet ISIS." Anyone who commissions you has a obligation to provide training, she adds.

Every journalist having to do everything is "one trend that is a bit scary," adds Juliana. "People are getting a bit specialised" and "getting more collaborative again". Juliana feels that "as a journalist, you have to ask: what can you bring to it that is niche... and hasn't been done?" What "new perspective"?

Last modified: 01 Oct 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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