The indispensable foreign correspondent

The communications revolution has transformed the context of war reporting. And yet the traditional role of the foreign correspondent is still essential.
A photojournalist watches as Palestinians protest in the West Bank. Credit: Nidal Alwaheidi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
A photojournalist watches as Palestinians protest in the West Bank. Credit: Nidal Alwaheidi/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
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Looking back over the thirty years that I have worked as a foreign correspondent, the shape of the world as it used to be is now barely visible. The communications revolution has transformed the context in which the foreign correspondent operates and changed both his relationship to events and the kind of narrative he constructs. Since, at first glance, nothing seems the same, it may be useful to return to the basic question of what a foreign correspondent is and what purpose he serves in the globalised world. A working definition might be that a foreign correspondent is a national of the country of his publication who is despatched to foreign parts to observe the natives, to render their customs intelligible to readers or viewers back home, and to track developing political threats, items of human interest, and natural disasters. It is the most privileged and exciting of professions but one that the practitioners themselves are shy of analysing. Journalists are reluctant to talk seriously about their profession, especially to other journalists. The dominant mode of discourse among colleagues evades portentousness; the public persona is obliged to be cool. The private motivation, however, tends towards the serious.

Nostalgia is not necessarily a bad thing. One of its functions is to confirm a kind of ancestral set of rules by which we measure what we do. If we idealise the past it is perhaps because it is there that we can safely locate the ambition to do it well and the belief that many journalists share — that, by doing it well, they might make the world a better place or, at a minimum, stop it becoming a worse one. However cynical they are on the surface, most journalists privately believe that if they collectively took their fingers out of the hole in the dyke, a terrible flood would ensue.

Since the mid-seventies I have reported from Latin America, China, South Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. I have covered several of the wars that took place on my watch and, like anyone who has done this for long enough, have seen more brutality and unpleasantness than I am comfortable with. Despite this close attention from me, the world, curiously, is not notably a better place. When I started out — as a child of the famously optimistic sixties — I had been inspired by others whom I had grown up reading and who, through their work, had taught me to take an interest in the world. I think I believed then that if truth were told, it would triumph over untruth; if injustice were exposed it would triumph over injustice, tyrants would fall, peace would prevail and things would improve. Now, I realise that all of those phenomena may occur but, despite the power that the media are accused of wielding, the relationship of such events to journalism is tenuous.

The overthrow of tyrants, I discovered quite early on, does not necessarily lead to democracy but often to chaos, anarchy, civil war and, sometimes, renewed tyranny. I found that tyranny rarely presents itself as such at the beginning. It mounts the stage in many different guises: it can look like order in the place of chaos, or the peace that follows war; it can even look like renewed hope. Only later does it reveal itself as tyranny, or grow into it. On the other hand, elections can be held — even honest ones — but the governments that they produce may be corrupt and become, in their turn, tyrannical.

Injustices can sometimes be righted, but rarely quickly enough and almost never in such a way that offers any restitution. The damage done is never undone. Wars do end but, long after they are over, the trauma persists, sometimes for generations. Men lay down their guns and find they have lost their sense of purpose. The peace they thought they wanted is a disappointment. They brutalise their families. They use their guns for crime. The people who love them wonder where and how they were lost. These realities, though, rarely make the news, though they are often more important than what does. The news agenda, as the foreign correspondent learns at the outset, is narrowly focused.

The foreign correspondent who might find him or herself reporting from a country in which past traumas still weigh upon the present, or in which the words ‘election’ and ‘democracy’ — even ‘tyranny’ — have different meanings, can find his message misread back home. One of the oldest tensions between the foreign correspondent and the newspaper is to do with whose understanding and whose viewpoint prevails — that of the correspondent or that of the newspaper. The more distant the observer, the greater the temptation to conjure the foreigner either in his own image or as a mysterious exotic, to be managed rather than understood. The closer a correspondent gets to his subject, the more nuanced and perhaps sympathetic his view, and the wider the gulf between his understanding and that of his readers. Then the foreign editor notices that the correspondent has gone native. It’s time to move him on.

The foreign correspondent must constantly juggle the truth as he sees it with the truth his newspaper wants. Some years ago, I used to cover the European Union with its twice yearly summits. At the end of each summit, often after a bitterly fought negotiation, the leaders would emerge and go straight into press conferences, each with his own national press. If you were a Martian visiting earth intent on understanding the European Union and had the ability to attend twelve press conferences simultaneously, you would emerge with the conviction that the summit had been a triumph for the French, the British, and the Germans, as well as the Irish, Italians, and Spanish, and, of course, the Luxembourgish — indeed, every national leader would tell his national press that the national interest had been successfully defended. None of this would pass muster as the truth, certainly not the whole truth. It would not have deepened your understanding of the European Union, but it would, had you known how to read it, have told you a bit about the national preoccupations of the member states.

The way a correspondent views his story — and what story he sees — is only partly determined by the events that he witnesses. The rest is conditioned by the national interest and prejudices that are distilled and transmitted to him by his editors. Before the communications revolution, that relationship was often fraught, but it was nevertheless a much simpler process than it is today. There were distinct kinds of correspondents. There were those in post, running bureaux, fixed assets for a while. They had a formal relationship with their host country. If they displeased a host government they could get kicked out.

Then there were other kinds of correspondent; those who visited. They would turn up in the capital, present their compliments and hope for an interview with the President, or at least a minister. Little would be known of their track record as individuals and, as a result, they often had better luck than the regular correspondents whose views were known. Because of their temporary status, they could say things that the regular correspondent might not say for fear of expulsion. That’s all gone. The globalised world has affected what a correspondent does and the way that he does it in ways that are sometimes quite subtle. The room for manoeuvre in the shadows is much reduced.

In her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm explores the ethics of the journalist’s relationship to his subject. It’s the story of a murder trial in which a writer is given privileged access to the defence and to the defendant. He is obviously trusted by them. The defendant, however, is convicted of the murder. The journalist writes his book and describes his own growing conviction that the defendant is guilty. The now convicted murderer is outraged, feels deceived and sues. And the jury — this is a warning to journalists — takes the side of the murderer. The book is a meditation on journalistic ethics and it starts with a sentence that is problematic for any journalist but well worth reflecting upon. It is this: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’

It’s a pretty stark statement. Malcolm is talking about the degree to which deception — or what one now deceased British journalist called low cunning — is part of the craft of journalism. The idea is that, to get a story, you might have to employ devious means. If you want an interview with Saddam Hussein or Robert Mugabe, for instance, you are more likely to get it if you restrain any show of the revulsion you might feel towards the person of the President. If you can at least represent yourself as being neutral, it might be enough. After all, even tyrants don’t wake up every morning thinking that it is the natural condition of most people to despise them.

But in a globalised world, that kind of anonymity is hardly possible. All a dictator needs is a press aide who can find Google, and your protective colouring has gone. If globalised communications have complicated access, they have also transformed the aftermath. Before the world wide web, if a correspondent was asked for whom he was writing his story he could reply with confidence that is was for the readers of his newspaper. Now his newspapers has a website, and the readership can be global.

It also means that the reaction to what you write can be both serious and unpredictable. It was always the case that certain subjects could generate letters, but there were relatively few. E-mail, though, is now the weapon of choice for groups, interests or governments who wish to discourage criticism. There are some religious groups and some governments which orchestrate huge electronic campaigns against journalists who say things they don’t like. The e-mails come in by the thousand; they can bring down a newspaper’s computer systems. They go not only to the journalist but to the editor, to the advertisers, to third parties.

The first time this happens you think merely that you have offended a lot of people. But there is a rhythm to this kind of thing that makes it easy to detect a campaign. The first day or two might produce a genuine response from readers. Then, perhaps four or five days later, the volume builds as the offending piece is posted to websites and the lobby is mobilised to deluge the writer. Between five days and anything up to two weeks, the e-mail blizzard is completely blinding, then gradually dies away. The point of the exercise is to raise the cost of reporting things that such governments or interest groups don’t want reported, and the truth is that it has an effect. If you think of doing it again, you catch yourself thinking, is this issue important enough to make it worth going through all that?

We must conclude from the effort that goes into such orchestrated responses that the correspondent must have a certain power to wound, but technology has also made him vulnerable. And while a government that is conscious of its image will hesitate to expel a journalist for something that he has written, this kind of campaign is out of the public view and limits the correspondent’s curiosity and appetite for confrontation.

However, there is a shift of power in a more subtle and cultural sense, which is also the product of new technology and the globalisation of information. The correspondent is still posted and paid by his newspaper, radio or television station, but his output is available everywhere. It can be downloaded and circulated, it can generate storms and eddies in places that the writer didn’t even know he had reached. The subjects can answer back. They can challenge the journalist’s assumptions and his point of view.

There is a paradox about the globalisation of news media. It produces both uniformity and atomisation. We have more media outlets than ever before, more news is disseminated at every hour of the day, and behind it stand global communications corporations like CNN and News International. This is sometimes described as the domination of western news values, but I do not think that is necessarily the result. The world may indeed be watching CNN but that does not necessarily produce a homogeneous outlook. CNN’s newscasts impose a framework, a point of view, on world events. Someone in a third world country who might never have read a European or an American newspaper can now watch broadcasts from the global corporations. To consumers of this product in non metropolitan societies — even to the elites in those societies who are the major consumers — this point of view often feels alien. It is, after all, a cultural product and it does not derive from their culture. They see images of themselves which have been filtered through the prism of the editorial viewpoint. They don’t see themselves as they would represent themselves and they certainly don’t hear their own voices. Their views, if they are represented at all, are usually ventriloquised by the correspondent. Sometimes they are parodied and at others, not represented at all.

On the internet, by contrast, we have a proliferation of sources of information that derives from the fact that the cost of dissemination on the net is negligible. Anyone can have a global reach, if he can get the attention. One expression of this is the rise of blogging, but there are other forms of self-representation. The internet is home to multiple prisms and myriad points of view. The diaspora is no longer dependent on letters from home or occasional news reports in the host country’s papers. An exile can sit in North London and take part in a chat room that simulates a teahouse discussion in the North West Frontier — provided your Pashto is up to it. Pashto speakers in London are more likely to seek out their own representation on the net than they are to believe what is said of the North West Frontier — or Afghanistan — by CNN’s correspondents. They now get their news elsewhere.

In the globalised world of communications, what has resulted is not homogeneity. There may be a homogenising process of consumption, in that the same powerful brands of consumer goods are available everywhere. But news, despite the global media corps, is not just another consumer good but a cultural product. Dominant countries dominate not just economically and militarily, but also culturally, a condition that can lead to the misapprehension that everyone is — or aspires to be — ‘just like us’.

The foreign correspondent from the dominant culture will find his task of interpretation easier to the degree that he conforms to this notion and seeks out interlocutors who wear a collar and tie and speak English. They may be unrepresentative, but they present an unthreatening image. The unpalatable news, though, is that other nations may not be like us at all and this factor may not even be high on their list of misfortunes. If such groups see the world and frame the problem quite differently, the words ‘evil’, ‘freedom’, or ‘crusade’ resonate quite differently, and the imposition of our cultural product may well produce a backlash. The result is a strengthening of tribalism in which what you believe is not determined by the standards of objectivity, accuracy or truth, but by how the reader identifies himself and with which ‘truth’ he identifies.

To take an example: if you live in West Virginia you are very likely to believe that Saddam Hussein masterminded the attacks of 11th September, 2001. If you live in the Muslim world, you are quite likely to believe that it was a Jewish conspiracy. Neither point of view has anything to do with accuracy or truth, but both beliefs are passionately held as an expression of self-identification through identification of the enemy. Both circulate widely in the global teahouse of the internet.

So where does this leave the professionals? They know that there is too much information and pseudo-information on the internet. They cling to the belief that there is a hierarchy of authority and that they, as professionals, sit at the top of it. That may be true of the diminishing corps of traditional newspaper readers, but I am not sure that it is true of the mass market. One effect of the distribution of professional reporting on the net, in the old Marshall Mcluhan formulation, is that once it is out there, the medium tends to blur the hierarchical distinctions.

Why is it the case, the professionals ask themselves, that so many people fail to make the distinction between professionally produced information and rubbish? One reason is that heightened sense people have that, with a format such as CNN, they are getting not “objective truth” but a particular cultural product, one they may or may not choose to trust. But there is another process at work that has been undermining the authority of the media for some years. I mean the tabloidisation that the mass market has brought to the selection and presentation of news, blurring the distinction between news and entertainment. We add music and soundtrack to television news reports, we stage or restage events to crank up the sensation, because the viewer has been conditioned by the wider culture — including, of course, Hollywood — to a diet of sensation.

In newspapers, there is a parallel trend. The foreign correspondent is an expensive creature. Competition and narrow margins make him vulnerable — foreign bureaux are the first to be cut. Managements chase younger readers to please their advertisers, who want to reach people who have not yet formed a lifetime loyalty to one brand of toothpaste. Foreign reporting is considered marginal to the pleasures of the young, and the weekly supplements in Britain that used to carry long foreign stories are now dominated by show business, fashion and cookery.

Where does this leave the correspondent and his mission to interpret the natives for the readers or viewers back home? By now, it’s pretty complicated, because back home there is fragmentation and tribalism too. We have a deluge of information but, in another paradox, we are not necessarily well informed. One of the effects of the electronic revolution and the globalised media corporations’ output is that we have an enormous amount of news. Outside the small newspaper reading elites — and this is true in the developed world as well as the developing world — television dominates. That is where most of the people who access news from professional sources get it from. Television companies are much richer than newspapers — they have more correspondents and their correspondents reach more people. News is their currency and their claim to legitimacy — even to social value. But the 24-hour news operations they pioneered have profoundly changed the way news is reported and presented. There appears to be more of it, but it has grown much more repetitive. If a story is dominating the news, the correspondent will barely have time to get off the roof long enough to go and find out what is going on before he has to pose for his next two-way.

There is one kind of CNN coverage which consists of running a camera in real time. The bombing of Baghdad, for instance, was covered this way. But a typical CNN report consists of a few seconds of images followed by a two-way with the correspondent. It is designed to seem lively and spontaneous, but it is, in fact, usually pre-scripted and vetted in Atlanta before the bulletin. CNN is no worse than many others in this respect, but the effect of global news networks on the foreign correspondent has, in my view, been negative. It has set the parameters of reporting ever more narrowly as the domination of the news schedule has driven out more reflective reporting. The foreign current affairs documentary on British television is now an endangered species, and the space for more analytical — and dare I say more informative — reporting has steadily shrunk.

Still, how bad is this? Surely if there’s a steady news flow then everyone understands the world better? And if the news is more rapid and pacey, then perhaps people will stay with it and will learn more? Not necessarily. We should be careful in assuming that we are better informed. One recent study offers some rather sobering conclusions. The Glasgow Media Group has for the last twenty-five years been looking at the way news is constructed and shaped in various contexts. All their reports are called ‘Bad News’. Their most recent one is called ‘Bad News from Israel’. The research had a number of components: they examined samples of the main news bulletins over a period of two years that began with the second intifada. They looked at the content, at who was interviewed, in what context, for how long. They also conducted in-depth research with 800 viewers and with correspondents.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a subject that gets more airtime than almost any other. It is featured on the news night after night. If ever there was a conflict about which a regular viewer should be well informed, this is it — assuming that watching the news and being informed are the same thing. But the Glasgow Media Group discovered that most of the viewers did not understand the origins or the history of the conflict, or the cause of the current violence. They knew there was violence but, without the context, the coverage was just a parade of repetitive images with no meaning. Why should this be? When the researchers examined a run of bulletins over a sample period they discovered that of 3,500 lines of text only 17 made any reference to history.

In another part of the study, they attempted international comparisons, questioning student groups from Britain, Germany and the United States about what they knew. Students count as an elite group in which intelligence and education are meant to compensate for the ignorance of youth. All of those questioned got most of their information from television news. When they were asked who had occupied the occupied territories, 29 per cent of the British, 47 per cent of the Germans and 39 per cent of the Americans replied, the Israelis. 16 per cent of the British, 26 per cent of the Germans and 43 per cent of the Americans identified the Palestinians as the occupiers. The rest didn’t know, or thought it was none of the above. When asked who it might have been, the answers included asylum seekers, Afghans, white South African farmers, terrorists, Iraqis and Macedonians.

When asked what nationality the settlers were, 38 per cent of the British students said they were Palestinian, a misunderstanding shared by 27 per cent of the Germans and 22 per cent of the Americans. Again 27, 29 and 23 per cent respectively either didn’t know, or identified other groups who included Zimbabweans, Pakistanis, the Taliban, those Afghans again, Dutch South Africans and so on. The correct answer — that the Israelis occupy the occupied territories and the settlers are Israeli — was produced by 11 per cent of the British students, 26 per cent of the Germans and 29 per cent of the Americans. It is a long report and in many ways it is the kind of exercise that foreign correspondents dislike. Reporting a conflict like that is fraught with difficulty. They work under constraints of time and pressures of all kinds. There is never enough space to tell the whole story. The correspondent does his best and there are always people willing to point out when he fails. Besides, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, every observation that anyone can make on the history of the conflict is contested because the whole history is in dispute. But the purpose of the Glasgow Media Group’s exercise was to show that the constraints of news can generate a product which is copious but which does not inform in any meaningful sense.

There is another irony in this. All these news organisations worry about the audience’s declining interest in news. But the Media Group’s researchers also discovered that where viewers understood what the conflict was about, they remained interested. By failing to explain, the news organisations were generating exactly the kind of lack of interest that they feared. The way to hold the audience’s attention then, is not to make the bulletins shorter and even more full of sound and fury, but to explain.

I began with the mission of the foreign correspondent to interpret the natives for the readers back home. But in a conflict — like that in Iraq — in which the correspondent’s own country is involved, there are further levels of complication that derive from the national mood and the willingness of the readers to absorb any serious reporting that doesn’t chime with prevailing domestic sentiment. Questions of patriotism rise quickly to the surface when a country is at war. Among the British correspondents who reported from Buenos Aires during the Falklands War in 1982, questions of patriotism and a journalist’s duty were much discussed. My own formulation was that my duty was to do my job as journalist rather than to join the army. A nation, after all, is bigger and more complex than the government of the day. Governments of the day, especially when they go to war, tend to define patriotism rather more narrowly.

In the Second World War, war correspondents were pretty much all embedded: they had to be to survive. They were subject to military discipline and censorship and I imagine that most of them identified their professional responsibility closely with the national cause. In the Vietnam war, we all know the role that independent reporting played. The revisionist view of the war, widely held in the Reagan administration, was that independent reporting had contributed to the failure of political will in Washington to prosecute the war wholeheartedly, and therefore it had been lost. The first part of the argument may well be true, though personally I do not believe that the US would ever have won the Vietnam war. The reporters who honoured their professional duty in Vietnam to report, whether their government liked it or not, were doing their country a favour: more men would have died pointless deaths had they not done so.

In Central America in the 1980s, there was another situation again — a series of proxy wars covertly run by the United States but, as a result of Vietnam, not involving large numbers of US combat personnel. And, similarly, conflicts arose between reporters on the ground who saw what they saw and head offices back home who were subject to government pressures. This was a period when the administration was breaking American law, lying to Congress, and concealing material facts from the voters. It seems to me that the patriotic duty of any reporter under those circumstances is to report the truth. Many tried. But rather as in the run up to the war in Iraq, somehow their stories just didn’t get the prominence they should have. In some respects, the media may have grown in power, but recent events demonstrate that the media can be astonishingly timid in the face of a government of the day determined to impose its view of reality, however preposterous and unconvincing it is. So does the foreign correspondent still have a role in this cacophony of voices and multiplicity of information sources?

Yes, despite all its limitations. It has grown more complicated, but I think that the lesson of recent history is that the correspondent is more necessary than ever, provided he is capable of responsible reporting. One of the most valuable things a correspondent can do is to keep his head when generalised hysteria breaks out — for whatever reason — and tell it as he sees it. He may not prevail, he may not change any minds, and he may even be fired. He may die a disappointed man. But at least he will remember why he chose to do the job in the first place.

Isabel Hilton

Isabel Hilton is a London-based writer and broadcaster whose work appears in — among other publications — The Guardian, The New Yorker, and the Financial Times.

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