Syria is a dangerous place, so dangerous, in fact, that the Sunday Times is no longer accepting freelance submissions from the war zone.
Asked to explain The Sunday Times policy deputy foreign editor Graeme Paterson said: “In the light of what happened to Marie Colvin we have decided we do not want to commission any journalists to cover the situation in Syria.
“And we take the same view regarding freelancers speccing in material. Even if they have returned home safely.
“This is because it could be seen as encouragement go out and take unnecessary risks in the future.
“The situation out there is incredibly risky. And we do not want to see any more bloodshed. There has been far too much already.”
This attitude echoes that of David Schlesinger, Reuters Editor-in-Chief:
Where international news organisations have embraced safety training, equipment and an ethos of caution, individuals are unlikely to have either the means or the experience to realise what they’re missing.
And if professionals opt not to cover certain events, I fear that vacuum may be too tempting for amateurs to avoid as well.
As a profession we have made great strides in safety awareness in recent years.
First we gave training and equipment to staff. Then we extended the care to the stringers who work for us. Then organisations like INSI began needed outreach to local news organisations who suffered grievously when their own regions became centres of violence and tension.
Now is the time for us to accept the newly broadened definition of our craft and ensure that we give opportunities for training and safety consciousness raising to the legions of self-declared journalists who, emboldened by their blog’s popularity or their scores of Twitter followers, might rush in to the very danger spots we should be avoiding.
For his part, the experienced photographer in question, David Findlar, quite rightly pointed out that:
“Surely it is that photographer’s decision to choose whether or not they take the risks.
“I thought part of photography was the fact that some people in this world do take exceptional risks to show the rest of the world what is happening.
On one hand, I can understand the organisational pressure towards reducing risks and exposure to risk, on the other, war reporting is axiomatically a risk-laden activity. There is no way to completely “manage the risk” to people whose livelihood depends on visiting areas where people are attempting to kill one another. The problem is, there is no way to balance war reporting and risk in a way that would make sense to the type of people who focus on risk (say, risk managers). In a business, like resource extraction, there is a relatively easy way to form a business case for operating in a hostile or unstable environment (usually: no one else is there and a lot of money can be made). Extraction businesses are forever balancing risks to their staff, at the same time, however, they also have extremely stringent attitudes regarding their duty of care. They might put their staff in dangerous places, but they won’t do so unless they can ensure their survival and well-being, be it through security procedures, bullet-proof cars or armed guards. They will go to dangerous places but won’t do so unless their staff are going to come home safe.
What, therefore, to make of a journalist’s request to step near bullets and bombs in the pursuit of “truth”? Could someone ever accurately balance the potential risks involved in a war zone with the potential for uncovering a big story? No, because both are unknown quantities at the outset. Syria is a dangerous war, but sadly, that is what war is all about: lethal dangers. I can understand the reticence of a news organisation to send people back to where one of their staff died (full disclosure: I’ve done shifts for the Sunday Times before), at the same time, when a major news organisation refuses to accept pictures from professional war photographers, I think the balance has shifted too far towards risk aversion. After all, if one war is too risky to report on in any form, then what of the next, only slightly less dangerous, war? Is there any meaningful way to differentiate between the two? It is, sadly, the thin end of a wedge that ends with war reporters in protected compounds surrounded by bodyguards phoning in reports of hearsay. It means, as Schlesinger quite rightly notes, that stringers and amateurs end up dead instead of staff members. If a professional war reporter wants to do their job, then, in Marie Colvin’s own words:
Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.
Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?
I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.