SubScribe: A deadline junkie's rescue package: journalism books for Christmas 4 Google+

Monday 23 December 2013

A deadline junkie's rescue package: journalism books for Christmas 4

Rupert Friend as American journalist Thomas Anders in the film 5 Days of War

The great reporters

Newspapers, as one distinguished executive would say when challenged once too often, are not a democracy.

At the good ones many voices will be heard, but in the end one person has to make the decision or what to publish and how to publish it. To this end, there is a hierarchy.

If you were to draw the top levels family-tree style the result would look like a coat hanger for an extremely broad-shouldered man. First the editor, then the deputy, then an army of assistants, department heads, staff managers and budget controllers, all of roughly equal rank.

They all have 'editor' in their title: news editor, features editor, picture editor, comment editor and so forth. And each will be at the top of another hierarchy - a coat hanger for a slimmer woman - with their own team of lieutenants to oversee their own little army.

At the bottom of this hierarchy sit the reporters, the critics, the photographers, the columnists.

But aren't these the most important people of all?

Of course they are. These are the people whose words and pictures define a paper's character; the people whose work is sometimes so perceptive or moving or funny that it can stand alone without the security blanket of the newspaper a month, a year or a century after its first appearance.

By coincidence, just such a piece was published by the Guardian this weekend: an obituary of David Coleman written by Frank Keating, who died 11 months before his subject.

Keating was one of the most respected sports writers of the age and his irresistible account of England's cricket tour of the West Indies under the captaincy of Ian Botham in 1981 is still worth a read today. In one book he covers three big issues of life - sport, death and politics - with humour and humanity.

On the field, England wilted under the assault from superfast Holding, supertall Garner and their superstrength teammates. Off the field, Robin Jackman's South African connections led to the cancellation of the Guyana Test. The tour party was also rocked by the sudden death in Barbados of Ken Barrington, the former England opener who was then the assistant manager.

Another Bloody Day in Paradise would be welcome in any cricket lover's stocking - but if you want the original, it will cost you a pretty penny. The text and pictures are, however, available from Red Rose Books for £13.95.

This part of the package is intended to honour writers such as Keating. But it's simple enough to search Amazon or Google for sports books or recent publications. So, given that time is now very tight for even the most addicted deadline junkie, SubScribe is going to focus on foreign correspondents.

There is a tendency, particularly on television, for the reporter to become the 'star' of the coverage. It is not unusual now for BBC presenters to interview colleagues such as John Simpson, Frank Gardner and Robert Peston for their opinion of the story rather than leave them to get on and report it. There are newspaper writers, too, who inject rather too much of themselves in their reporting.

Ben Macintyre of the Times put it in a nutshell  in his tribute when the paper's foreign editor Richard Beeston died in May:
"He took his job with intense seriousness, but he never took himself too seriously, and he never made the mistake of believing that he was part of the story."
Beeston, a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, Moscow, Lebanon, Jerusalem and other points east and west, was the epitome of the British foreign correspondent: handsome, suave, courageous, witty, loyal, inquisitive, resourceful. Our trade and the world are the poorer without him and it is a shame that there is, as yet, no collection of his work - an omission that will doubtless be rectified before too long.

We can, however, see something of what made him what he was in Looking for Trouble, the memoirs of his father Dick, who reported from many of the same places 30 years earlier:

"I knew from the start that quite the best job in journalism was to become a foreign correspondent. A pleasant way of life thousands of miles away from your editor, being paid to rove around the world at someone else's expense. It sounds almost too good to be true, but that's just how it was."

And for a further example of 'like father, like son', how about this pair of photographs!

 Richard Beeston fils was honoured at Press Gazette's British Journalism Awards this month for his achievements in raising the reputation of journalism and inspiring others. As such he became the first recipient of the Marie Colvin award, named in honour of the Sunday Times correspondent killed in Syria last year. Here is an extract from her final report:
In Baba Amr the Free Syrian Army...have virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad's troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.
About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.
'We live in fear that the FSA will leave the city,' said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister's family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. 'There will be a massacre.' On the lips of everyone was the question 'Why have we been abandoned by the world?'
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: 'We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.' Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.
Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. 'Please tell the world they must help us,' he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. Stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.'"
Colvin filed her report on February 19. Three days later she and the French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when their makeshift press centre was shelled. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer working with Colvin, was wounded in the attack and smuggled out to Lebanon a week later.

Marie Colvin. Photograph:

Examples of Colvin's work were compiled into  On the Front Line, which  includes reports from almost every trouble spot: the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Chechnya, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka - a frightening catalogue of world turmoil.

Colvin knew that her job was dangerous and her view of her role is quoted at the front of the book:
"Simply: there's no way to cover war properly without risk. Covering war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that. I care about the experiences of those most directly affected by war,  those asked to fight and those just trying to survive. 
Going to these places is the only way to get at the truth...the real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that someone will care."
Where does a reporter's responsibility begin and end? Is it to try to shake authority, to stir ordinary people into action, or is it simply to present the facts and leave it to others to respond? It is intriguing to consider Colvin's philosophy with that of the great correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who wrote in 1987:
"A writer publishes to be read; then hopes the readers are affected by the words; hopes that their opinions are changed or strengthened or enlarged, or that readers are pushed to notice something they had not stopped to notice before.
All my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don't need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort."
Ian Jack quotes the Gellhorn approach in the introduction to his Reportage compilation of material published in Granta magazine between 1985 and 2004. Gellhorn's contribution is about the American invasion of Panama to seize President Noriega at the end of 1989. Other writers include Germaine Greer, John le Carre, John Simpson, James Fenton and Jack himself.

Colvin and Gellhorn also make an appearance in Eleanor Mills's anthology Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs, subtitled 100 years of the best journalism by women. The subjects covered include war, emancipation, crime, politics, sex and domestic life; and the authors are dazzling: Sylvia Pankhurst, Betty Frieden, Nancy Mitford, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Picardie, Erica Jong, Gitta Sereny, Katharine Whitehorn...

In this volume, Gellhorn is chosen for her report after the liberation of Dachau:
"This man had survived; he was found under a pile of dead. Now he stood on the bones that were his legs and talked and suddenly he wept. 'Everyone is dead,' he said, and the face that was not a face twisted with pain or sorrow or horror. 'No one is left. Everyone is dead. I cannot help myself. Here I am and I am finished and cannot help myself. Everyone is dead.'
The Polish doctor who had been a prisoner for five years said, 'In four weeks, you will be a young man again. You will be fine.'Perhaps his body will live and take strength, but one cannot believe that his eyes will ever be like other people's eyes.
The doctor spoke with great detachment about the things he had watched in this hospital....
'The Germans made here some unusual experiments...they wished to see how long an aviator could go without oxygen, how high in the sky he could go. So they had a closed car from which they pumped the oxygen. It is a quick death. It does not take more than 15 minutes, but it is a hard death. they killed not so many people, only 800 in that experiment. It was found that no one can live above 36,000ft without oxygen.'
'Whom did they choose for this experiment?' I asked.
'Any prisoner,' he said, 'so long as he was healthy. They picked the strongest. The mortality was 100 per cent of course.'"

This stark, almost callous, view of the atmosphere and attitudes engendered by conflict of all kinds - and of the difficulty outsiders have in comprehending the suffering of those in the midst of it - is a common feature in war reportage.
"The sun was blazing hot outside, and even under the relative shelter of the aircraft hangars the hudity was intense. Packed resignedly inside, thousands of Belgian civilians, mostly women and children, waited their turn to be airlifted out of the newly independent ex-Belgian Congo, out of Africa and to new lives in Belgium. Some had been driven out of remote, upcountry towns by the excesses of Congolese soldiers and rebels on the rampage. Others had succumbed to an understandable fear psychosis and had fled mostly imaginary terrors, leaving everything behind, save their pathetic bundles.
Into the middle of this crowd strode an unmistakably British TV reporter, leading his cameraman and sundry technicians like a platoon commander through hostile territory. At intervals he paused and shouted, in a stentorian but genteel BBC voice, 'Anyone here been raped and speaks English?'"
Thus Edward Behr recalls his first vision of the Congo in 1960. The experience is reprinted in a further memoir in the mould of Dick Beeston's Looking for Trouble. Again there is that mix of the frightening, the funny and the bizarre. And you can get hold of a copy for a penny plus postage. Can that be bad?

How do journalists cope with life moving from one troublespot to another? And what about afterwards, when they go home? My former colleague Janine di Giovanni describes the impact on her own life in the most candid and compelling story of love and war, Ghosts by Daylight. 

She writes of how she and the French cameraman Bruno Girodon met during the siege of Sarajevo, of their growing relationship and their attempts to live a 'normal' life in Paris. She writes of the irresistibility of journalism and the strains it causes, of trying to live with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress. And she writes of motherhood.

It is touching, warm and frightening in equal measures. Ultimately, the relationship cannot hold. And therein lies a reality that too many journalists in every sphere will recognise with sorry familiarity.

James Cameron. Photograph: the Guardian

It would be remiss to blog about books by foreign correspondents without mentioning James Cameron, for many the doyen of the trade.  Point of Departure is what he described as his 'experiment in autobiography'. This reflection on his life isn't really a chronological narrative of his experiences. Nor is it a panegyric to Fleet Street - "which now fatigues and bores me to the point where I have not, other than accidentally, set foot in it since the death of the News Chronicle". Neither is it a travelogue. It just sort of is. And worth reading.

Writers are not the only journalists (as subs are constantly at pains to point out) - photographers are, too. So here are a couple of more recent books with the accent on visual reportage. They are both weighty tomes, but hardly coffee table fodder, given their subject matter.

Photojournalists on War is a collection of thoughts and images from Iraq that has been put together by Michael Kamber and published by the University of Texas Press. Journalists from various news organisations, including the Guardian, Times, Washington Post and Reuters, have shared their experiences on the difficulties of covering wars, of the moral issues involved and the problems of censorship and getting the message home without endangering lives. Many of the pictures are harrowing.  Vietnam: the Real War by Pete Hamill is in similar vein, the story of the conflict told through photographs from the Associated Press.

Finally, a reporter who did make himself the story, but through no fault of his own. Chris Ayres was a business writer for the Times who found himself covering 9/11 on his first day back on Wall Street after a holiday -  the new New York correspondent was mid-Atlantic on the QE2.

He was later despatched to Los Angeles to cover celebrity fluff, but the serious-minded foreign news editor had little appetite for such fare in the most peaceful of times - and the West was hurtling towards war. If Ayres wanted to get something into the paper, he had better file something a bit harder. So he went to look round an American warship. Before he knew it, he was being asked whether he'd like to go to war.

Ayres was to be embedded with the US Marines. 'Real' war correspondents don't care to be embedded; it limits their freedom to move and they fear they will be fed propaganda. But by a twist of fate, all  the real war correspondents found themselves kicking their heels in Kuwait - having been ordered out of Iraq by their editors - while Ayres found himself heading for Baghdad, the Times's only reporter near the front line.

His reports made spectacular reading because they were written by a man who knew he shouldn't be where he was and had no desire to be there; a man completely out of his depth. Eventually, Ayres was offered a way out. He dearly wanted to take it, but he hesitated.  Should he go on to the capital with the possibility of glory - or death - or should he quit while he was ahead? Advance and risk his life or retreat and risk humiliation? 

He discussed it with one of the Marines.
'So you don't have to be here?' he asked
'No,' I replied.
'But you get a big-assed bonus for this shit, right?'
'No. Nothing.'
'So you're not getting paid...and you don't have to be in Iraq?'
'No, not really.'
'Then what the f*** are you doing here?'
And so Ayres pulled out and found that he wasn't ridiculed. He wrote War Reporting for Cowards and has never looked back.


Ok, I surrender. SubScribe has missed her own deadline. If this package was to be of any use for the stated purpose it had to be delivered by today. And I've run out of time.

So planned sections on learning from the past, biography, the 'great satan', and style will have to wait for the website which is now, as they say, 'in development'. If you are going out to a real shop tomorrow, it's worth looking out for The Wipers Times, both Ian Hislop's account of the First World War trench newspaper and the book containing replicas of the paper itself.

You may also be able to find a copy of All the President's Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book about how a hotel robbery ended up with the resignation of Richard Nixon, largely thanks to their dogged journalism at the Washington Post.

That one should be in every journalist's library.

Thanks for reading SubScribe through the year. If you've enjoyed it, please do tell your friends.
A new website with archived blogposts and new features is being prepared and should be ready to make its first appearance early in the new year. If you have any ideas of elements that should be included - or avoided - please get in touch via Twitter, Facebook or email.

Wishing you a joyous Christmas (even if you have to work) and a happy new year. GoG



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