‘I want to share with the next generation of journalists what I wish I knew 20 years ago’
October 9, 2012 2 Comments
Like many former foreign correspondents, James Rodgers, who has covered conflicts in Chechnya, Gaza and Iraq, has written a book based on his experiences. But instead of taking what is fast becoming the regular line of war journalism memoirs – tales of near misses and narrow escapes – Rodger’s latest offering is an academic, in-depth study of the role of journalism in wartime. It is a fitting topic for the post he has taken as lecturer at City University London, one of the world’s leading journalism schools.
Q. Journalism and academia don’t usually go hand in hand. Why did you write an academic book rather than a punchy memoir?
My main motivation is to share with the next generation of journalists what I wish I knew 20 years ago.
Journalists don’t read much about what academics write about, but I used my experience as research material. I wanted to write a book which would give a greater understanding of the process [of war reporting].
Q. Is conflict reporting changing?
We’re no longer in a world where the conflict journalists cover an established army against an established army. One thing that characterised the world in which I started covering conflict – the first war I covered was in Georgia in 1992 – was the lack of clarity. We saw it in Libya, we saw it in Iraq – conflicts are more multi-sided, so it’s getting more uncertain.
Also, the traditional economic model [of news reporting] has been put under pressure, and is collapsing, so increasingly people who go to cover conflict are not from big organisations with generous budgets and good resources. Increasingly, they’re commendable self-starters who are motivated because they believe the job they are doing is important. For a couple of thousand quid you can kit yourself out on Tottenham Court Road [in London] with a laptop, mobile phone and camera, and you’re ready to go. It’s good that technology is moving forwards, but it’s not a straightforward process. It also means these self-starters don’t have the financial backing behind them that might have been typical 20 years ago.
Q. It sounds like going out into the field as a freelance journalist is getting more attractive. What do you tell your students?
I haven’t had any students wanting to go out, but if and when that happens, I’d make sure that I put them in the picture and they know the risks. And I’d tell some people, ‘you’re not ready to go.’ I think all university [journalism] courses are acutely aware of the risks.
If you consider what it was like for William Howard Russell [one of the first war correspondents] this was a time when people could watch a war almost as a spectator sport. You could stand at a safe distance then – now you’ve got no idea what’s going to happen.
Q. Before he was killed in Misurata, Libya, Tim Hetherington said ‘there are an unbelievable number of young kids running around Libya with cameras,’ which implied that a lot of journalists in that conflict seemed unprepared. What are your thoughts on this?
The fact is it’s easier to travel to places like Libya and you can equip yourself to quite professional standards for a small sum of money – but it’s not necessarily a new thing. A lot of people in the book [Reporting Conflict] went to Vietnam in the same way. That’s always going to happen in conflict.
One very wise person at my work said early on in my career, if you want to be completely safe, stay at home. That’s the reality of it. Working in conflict zones is about minimising risks but you can’t remove it altogether.
Q. What was it like covering your first conflict?
Yeah, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all. The airport was closed [in Georgia] so I had to fly to Armenia and take an overnight train from there. The whole situation was very uncertain. Yes I was nervous and I was excited, and yes I was relieved when I finished my stint and came out unscathed. The more you cover conflict, the more you can rely on your experiences – but the feeling [of nervousness] never really goes away.
By the end, I’d have a Word document on my computer which was a check list for various things, for example whether it gets too cold or too hot. I’ve worked in +40 and -40 degrees so you need to be very well equipped. Remember to travel light. You never know if you’re going to have to leave stuff behind, if you’re travelling in a helicopter for example. And bring a good book with you as well – preferably something that’s not about the area you’re working in.
Q. While you were writing Reporting Conflict, the unrest in Syria had just begun. How does this conflict differ from others?
The situation for reporters in Syria has demonstrated the limits and weakness of social media. We do have an idea of what some of the activists are covering but they’re part journalist and part propaganda. I don’t feel like I have a full picture of what’s happening there. If we had lots of reporters like Jeremy Bowen, Lindsey Hilsum and Alan Little we’d have a much fuller picture of what’s happening. Even so it wouldn’t be a complete picture, of course – while covering conflict, in no situation are you able to cover both sides.
Q. So is it conflict reporting becoming more dangerous?
One thing I would say is in the past 20 years it has become more dangerous. I do get the sense that journalists were not deliberately targeted in ways that unfortunately sometimes they are now. It’s not something I have direct experience of, but look at journalists covering drugs in Mexico, or Anna Politkovskaya who was almost certainly killed because of her investigations.
That’s a real cause for concern because in order to have access to something, part of it is whether it is safe to do so or not. If you can’t go there, you don’t know what’s going on and your access and your understanding is severely limited. That’s what’s happening in Syria. Not only is it dangerous once you get there – it is very dangerous trying to get there.
Reporting Conflict, by James Rodgers, was published in 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan.