John Simpson's lively and engrossing history of the foreign correspondent's trade is based on a surprising premise. His thesis is that while much has changed for the foreign correspondent over the past 400 years, ‘the entire business has in essence remained the same throughout’. How can that be in a world where, in the words of A. G. Sulzberger, recently appointed publisher of the New York Times: ‘trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumour and propaganda over real journalism’? Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor with 50 years of experience on the road, begins by demolishing the idea that there was a golden age of news. The London stationer Nathaniel Butter, pioneer of English journalism, was a tabloid-style sensationalist. One of his front pages, from 1631, opens with the gripping headline, ‘Good news to Christendom’. According to sources in Italy, the Ottoman Sultan is about to embrace Christianity. As a sign of this miracle, blood has rained on Rome. The illustration shows the warlike Turks meekly hailing this portent as they gather to be baptised. Complete tosh, of course, but easily recognizable ancestor of today's popular press. Moreover, Simpson's choice of the finest scoop will make purists cringe. He gives the accolade to Henry Stanley who was sent by the New York Herald to central Africa in 1871 to ‘find Livingstone’. The fact that the words ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ (which Stanley seems to have made up to sound posher than he was) are remembered today is evidence of the lasting impact of this journalistic stunt. Not so different in spirit, Simpson concludes, from the celebrity chasing of the Kardashian era. Both erudite and flashy (his own word), Simpson is clearly the man to write a history of this dog-eat-dog world. No other journalist could mention in passing that Saddam Hussein, while on trial for his life in a Baghdad courtroom, smiled warmly at him or claim, as he unwisely did in 2001 after the withdrawal of the Taliban from Kabul, to have ‘liberated’ the Afghan capital. However, those looking for a comprehensive academic analysis of the decline of the men—and they were until recently mostly men—in shiny brown brogues should seek this elsewhere. The pages are full of stories of the morally challenged practitioners of this ‘odd-job calling’—tales of exceptional bravery and ruthless deceit, and some useful hints on how to disguise journalistic intent. The prize here goes to the late Sue Lloyd-Roberts who disarmed the powerful and foxed the police by going around as a dopey tourist in a straw hat and flower-print cotton dress. This is a view from the ground up, and full of surprises. The finest piece of British TV writing, in Simpson's view, is Michael Buerk's report on the ‘Biblical’ Ethiopian famine in 1984, which launched Live Aid. This piece was not commissioned to help the starving, rather it was to spike the guns of the BBC's rival, ITN, which was planning a special report on hunger. Such are the haphazard origins of agenda-setting reporting. There is an elegiac tone to the book. Even if the essence of the trade remains, it has been ‘diminished and controlled’ for technical, financial and security reasons. For Simpson's first 30 years, his job was a joy to practise and governments and rebels accepted representatives of the media as people to be courted, or at least tolerated. In Simpson's view, the magic spell which protected us lost its power in the 1990s: he came across drunken Bosnian Serb militiamen discussing how they were going to divide up his crew by gender into those to be killed and those to be raped. As for myself, I would date the change a bit earlier. When I was working for Reuters in Beirut in 1982, I was stopped by a group of armed men who piled into my Fiat and demanded to be driven to the front line in the war with the Israeli Army. They had a loud debate in the back of the car whether to dispose of me and steal the vehicle. In the end, their leader decreed that ‘the media serve the interests of the revolution’. The spell was intact. Three years later, Terry Anderson, my opposite number at the Associated Press, was kidnapped by Shia gunmen emboldened by the rise of political Islam. We did not serve their revolution. Next to this, technological advances meant that the editors in London were now able to micro-manage coverage. Top TV reporters were confined to a scenic rooftop where they mouthed platitudes for rolling news. Only Sky News—a motorbike to the BBC's bumbling bus—still allows its reporters, such as Alex Crawford in Libya, to act as free-ish agents. The new age has also dented the prestige of authority figures such as Simpson, along with other experts. But Simpson is not afraid to insist that real eyewitness reporting is still necessary and must be paid for. He quotes another old BBC hand, the thoughtful Allan Little: ‘It has the power to settle part of the argument, to close down propaganda, to challenge myth-making’ (p. 347). This, sadly, does not seem to be true anymore. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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