Our man at the front

The First Casualty

Phillip Knightley <em>Prion, 526pp, £12</em>

ISBN 1853753769

Philip Knightley's updated history of the reporting of war is not, for the most part, the familiar record of heroism and bravado, but a relentless indictment of professional cowardice and collusion with censorship. The popular image of the rugged battlefield reporter emerged in the second half of the 19th century. Armed with letters of passage, solid gold coins and a brace of pistols, these mavericks were present in every theatre from Khartoum to Little Big Horn. For the British, in particular, journalism became one of the adventuring professions of the imperial era. No major conflict occurred anywhere in the world during this period unobserved by a representative of the Times. When trains and steamers were unavailable, camels, canoes or huskies would transport our man to the scene. Americans were equally inventive in their methods. One helped to initiate the Spanish-American war, while another would start his own small wars in Africa so he could report on them. Many of these men had aspired to a military career of their own and had taken to war reporting as a second choice. The officer class with whom they had to liaise, however, often regarded them as rougher than the common soldiery and little more than a curse that had to be endured.

Knightley professes some sympathy with the officers' view. Most correspondents of the period showed little humanity and no historical perspective. From 1914, war correspondents would no longer be reporting solely on the miseries of foreigners. News-papermen needed little encouragement to collude with the propaganda effort of the authorities at this time; but what journalists gained in political power and prestige as a result, they lost in public respect. Honourable exceptions to the rule included Rupert Murdoch's father, who attempted to smuggle an uncensored despatch out of Gallipoli before he was betrayed to the authorities by the Guardian's correspondent.

Contemporary war reporting, however, most provokes the Knightley's ire. After the collaboration of editors with the authorities during the Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign, the media have shown that they are as ready as ever to put national interest before truth. In Knightley, they face a dogged and skilful representative of the Pilger school of journalism. For the general reader, Knightley provides balance in a genre that is more used to hagiography.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs