Why journalists like James Foley go to dangerous places

Journalist James Foley in Aleppo, Syria (Photo: AP)

The mother of James Foley, the kidnapped photographer apparently beheaded by Islamic State militants in Syria, has paid tribute to her son via a Facebook page set up to campaign for his freedom.

Brief and to the point, Diane Foley’s statement said that her boy “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people”, and that she had “never been prouder” of him.

It’s touching, from-the-heart stuff, although for those who might take comfort in seeing how someone can find eloquence at such a time of suffering, bear in mind that not every family can rise to the occasion.

A few years ago, I interviewed Phil Bigley, the brother of Ken Bigley, who was abducted and beheaded by al-Qaeda while working in Iraq in 2004. He told me that the moment his family back in England realised the real gravity of the situation was when a Merseyside police liaison officer suggested they pre-prepared a statement in the event of Ken’s death. Best do it now, the officer explained to them, because “if things turn out badly”, they might not be in a fit state to write anything. As Phil put it: “Drafting that statement made us really come to terms with the fact he might die.”

To my mind, it’s small details like this that ram home the true horror of these kinds of atrocities, just as clearly as the jihadist snuff video themselves do. They prove the adage that the target of a kidnapping is not just the hostage themselves, but their nearest and dearest.

To many, though, it may also raise the question of why journalists like Mr Foley persist in going to places like Syria, where such fates are an occupational hazard. After all, it was not the first time that Mr Foley had given his family cause to be desperately worried: in 2011, he spent six weeks in jail in Libya after being captured by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces while covering the civil war.

Those who ask such questions also often point out that in the internet age, the wars in Syria and Iraq are practically broadcast live anyway via footage placed by activists and combatants alike on social media. Why therefore, is there any need for Westerners to be doing the same, when they stand out like sore thumbs? Would it no be safer to simply use local Arab stringers and freelancers, of whom there are generally no shortage?

Having put my own family through six weeks of hell once when I was kidnapped in Somalia a few years ago, I can appreciate to some extent the arguments of the stay-at-home brigade (who, I suspect, include some of my own relatives). For being abducted is not like other war zone experiences. Suffer a beating or a bullet wound, as I once did in Iraq, and as long as it isn’t too serious, you can be laughing and joking about it a few hours or days later, sounding like the swashbuckling war correspondent you always hoped you’d become. Kidnaps, however, with their prolonged stress, force your family to be heroes too. When I languished in a cave in Somalia, my main fear was not just for my own safety, but that one of my parents might suffer a heart attack.

Nonetheless, having had plenty of time to reflect on this during my stint – there wasn’t much else to do – I can cite a number of reasons why Western journalists will still seek to put themselves in harm’s way.

One is a sense of historical perspective: despite the hideous novelty of Mr Foley’s death being broadcast on the internet, journalists have been busily getting killed, imprisoned, kidnapped and generally mistreated since the profession began, and it would be a shame if modern health and safety culture stopped this tradition in its tracks.

The other, though, is that relying on local reporters or stringers to do the job for us, even if they may be less at risk (which isn’t always the case) is simply not enough. It isn’t just the lofty question of whether they be biased to one side or other, it’s about their ability to meet the required standards.

Once again, I speak from personal experience here. On the foreign desk of The Telegraph, like most other British newspapers, we frequently use such stringers when staff correspondents are not available. Brave and competent as they often are, much of the time their contributions have to be rewritten top to bottom, especially (though not exclusively) where English is not their first language.

In other words, there is, as far as most editors are concerned, still no substitute for despatching their own staff, with their own flair for house style, their own eye for detail, and their own knowledge of how to best tell the story to the newspaper’s readers. It is, to put it bluntly, the best way to do justice to the story – and tragedies like Syria and Iraq deserve it. That may sound British-centric, but it isn’t just the media that works like this either. Were there no need for a British-centric view of the world, there would presumably be no need for the Foreign Office to post British ambassadors abroad.

The fact remains though, that being a foreign correspondent in the post 9-11 world can be a very dangerous job. I myself have lost count of the number of colleagues who have been kidnapped in the last ten years, many of them suffering ordeals that make my little holiday in Somalia look like just that – a holiday. But it isn’t just that groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are more brutal than the guerrilla outfits of bygone conflicts. What has also changed is that such groups now have the means to communicate independently via the internet, which means they no longer rely on foreign press crews to get out their messages.

In the old days, there used to be a certain symbiosis between journalists and guerrilla groups: as the only people who could broadcast their grievances to the wider world, we had a certain value as witnesses, which also afforded a certain degree of protection. Today, by contrast, when groups like the Islamic State and al-Shabaab have their own Twitter feeds and full-time media wings, no journalist who falls into their hands can expect much traction by offering to “tell their side of the story”.

Instead, the Western journalists who cover the likes of Syria these days have to do so with no special treatment, other than being specifically targeted for kidnapping and worse. That James Foley and others choose to take that risk, working in a world where the sword is most definitely mightier than the pen, shows that whatever else is said about journalism these days, some of its old traditions are still going strong.

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