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Filing from the warzone - the dangers of conflict reporting

Conflict reporting has always been the most dangerous branch of journalism - but in the changing political landscape of recent years, has it become even more so?

Despite what the response to the Leveson inquiry may have lead us to believe, one of the biggest threats to press freedom today remains violence against journalists. Already eleven journalists have been wounded and three killed in the Gaza area just two weeks on from Israel’s launch of "Operation Pillar of Defence". These harrowing statistics, brought to light by a Reporters Without Borders report, once again bring home the incredible risks taken by this most dangerous division of journalism. But in an age of ever-changing media and technologies - has conflicting reporting become safer or less so?

“When you’re looking at Gaza, you’re looking at an incredibly densely populated place, a place that really has no front line… you don’t know where the next attack is going to come from” notes Sarah Topol, a freelance journalist who was the 2012 recipient of the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism, speaking at City University’s panel discussion on the 29 November. An experienced journalist who has reported widely during the Arab Springs uprisings, she notes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is notoriously unsafe for reporters. In Gaza she explains, “ I felt like I was operating much more on a whim, or based on luck, because you just weren’t sure were the Israelis were going to hit next”.  

As a freelancer, Topol was in a unique position being entirely responsible for her own safety, with no backing from a news organisation or employer. What measures can a journalist take to minimise risks in such circumstances? The first, non-negotiable step is to ensure you provide your own, extensive security equipment, she believes; “If you’re not going to invest in yourself, then no news organisation should invest in you” For Topol, the minimum includes buying her own insurance, flak jackets, gas masks, and providing these for translators working alongside her and insisting they wear them as well., “If you want to do it, then you have to do it responsibly because you bring everyone you know into the war zone with you, your family, your friends”.

Big organisations, of course, have more resources to devote specifically to security measures. Sarah Whitehead, head of International News at Sky, explains that personal safety is always top of the agenda for Sky reports in conflict areas. As well as extensive equipment and protective clothing, her journalists are trained medically and undergo psychological training to be able to “spot the first signs of stress”. Additionally, she often deploys security advisors alongside her journalistic teams as they head into conflict zones. They can be an invaluable asset, understanding as they do, military strategies and equipment, often having knowledge of the local area and extensive medical training which can be life-saving in areas where doctors and hospitals are simply inaccessible. However, not every conflict report necessitates a security advisor, “they are brilliant people to have in the right circumstances but they are passengers in the wrong ones”.

City University's 'Reporting on Conflict' panel discussion, 29th November 2012. From right to left - Sarah Whitehead, Prof. Howard Tumber, Sarah Topol, James Rodgers, Ibrahim Adwan. (Photo credit: Brianne O'Brien)

Recent conflicts – notably those connected with the Arab Spring – have given rise to a prominent new type of reporting – the civilian journalist. “An awful lot of the stuff we’re doing at the moment on Syria comes that way” agrees Whitehead. Of course, this has brought problems of its own. How, after all is it possible to verify accurately the footage obtained from ground-level footage from citizen journalists?

“It’s a whole range of really basic journalism skills” she explains. Sky have their own desk dedicated to verifying footage, “we’re looking at where its come from, what it looks like, what we know about that area – weather, season, all those really basic checks, and then we try to find the people who posted it. And we do it as rigorously as we can. But we do still say – very frustratingly, and very annoyingly I’m sure for people who are watching it, “We can’t verify this material” a lot of the time”. Despite risks, however, she still concedes that "nothing beats eye witness reporting".

A highly practical and effective was to reduce the danger of conflict reporting is for different news agencies to collaborate and pool their resources. However, considering the fact that these are different companies working competitively against one another – to what extent can that be achieved? James Rodgers - a lecturer at City University, and former BBC foreign correspondent - concedes it’s a difficult issue, working together naturally increases safety, but “if you’re going to take the risk and go there [to the conflict zone], the desire to get a scoop doesn’t necessarily diminish either”.

“I think one of the great things last year at the height of Arab Springs was that there was a tremendous sharing of safety information” notes Whitehead. Whilst conceding different media companies are “super-competitive” about stories, she emphasises that there is a huge amount of sharing between Sky and other news channels on any issue and advice regarding the safety of their journalists.

Perhaps the most important issue for reporting safely, however, comes down to the character of the reporter themselves. Whitehead emphasises that a calm personality is absolutely crucial; “if someone panics – they put the whole team in danger”.

Topol believes experience is mandatory,  “You need to know how to do journalism to begin to be able to do journalism in a conflict zone - It is so much harder, because you have less time and you are under a lot more pressure, and you have to produce the same kind of in-depth reporting that you would [under peaceful circumstances]”.

Despite the huge advances in communication and protective equipment, Rodgers believes conflict reporting is more dangerous now than ever. “In the Cold War, at least you knew who was on who’s side” he notes. Now, the situation is much more confusing. Media systems and news companies have altered dramatically in our digital age and political and diplomatic situations have become fractured. The result is “multi-sided conflicts which require multi-sided reporting”.

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide