A service to commemorate and celebrate all those in the media industry whose mission to bring us the news faces peril and uncertainty was held at St Bride’s Church on Tuesday 12th November, 2013 at 6:30pm.
The word “mission” implies a sense of vocation, a calling to go to the frontiers and trouble-spots of the world to understand, to interpret and to bear witness. It is a word with unmistakably religious connotations but it is also an appropriate description of the journalist’s duty to keep in touch with all that is happening in the world, to spot the events of significance, and to relay them to others in a form which can be readily understood.
Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. As journalists we further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Recent events in the Middle East and especially in Syria have highlighted the importance of accurate reporting on the ground and the risks associated with this.
This year, our title “A Mission In Peril: Celebrating The Media in Troubled Times” refers not only to those on the front line, but to everyone in an industry which more than ever faces perils now and uncertainty ahead.
So tonight we remember once again all whose mission it is to bring us the news, sometimes at terrible cost, and we celebrate the profession of journalism, and the priceless value of freedom of speech.
The Venerable David Meara delivered the bidding:
Welcome to St Bride’s and to this special service of commemoration and celebration. Here at St Bride’s we recently made our second bursary award to a student on the M.A. course in newspaper journalism at City University, Rozina Sabur. She wrote in her application about her passion for investigative journalism and her belief in aspiring to the highest standards within her chosen profession. As we reflect on the role of journalism in society, and commemorate our colleagues who have died, it is encouraging to know that a new generation of young journalists is eager to take up the baton of investigative and frontline reporting, at a time when the industry is facing immense challenges.
As consumers of news in a fast changing world, we demand a great deal of our journalists and our foreign correspondents. It is right that we celebrate the contribution journalists make to the well-being of our society, and that we commemorate those who have died reporting from the trouble-spots of the world. Tonight we pray for all the members of our profession, especially those facing times of uncertainty, trusting that all our words, written and spoken, may be reflections of the divine word, and that beyond our brief day is the eternity of God’s love.
Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News
On August 21st I, like everyone else here, woke up to news of an attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Within a few hours I was watching some of the most distressing video I’ve ever seen. Children gasping for breath, choking, succumbing to a hideous death. Men and women screaming in pain. Rooms of tiny bodies in shrouds. It was a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, south east of Damascus.
No foreign correspondents were there. The pictures were taken by people we call activists or citizen journalists. A New York Times reporter recently said that citizen journalism is ‘information’ – ‘journalism’ is what we do with that information. I agree. Sometimes we see citizen journalists as the competition. But tonight I want to think of the risks those citizen journalists have taken in Syria. Without them we would have had no images of the chemical weapons attack. No visual evidence. Remember when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988? No images emerged until a few journalists got in a week later, and access was so restricted that our governments – who supported the Iraqi regime – managed largely to ignore it. The plethora of graphic pictures from Ghouta, coming out immediately, were essential for our journalism. They pressured governments and made a difference.
The activists who filmed and posted pictures online ran a huge risk of secondary contamination from the nerve agent sarin. It’s a mark of how difficult it is to cover Syria that I have been unable to confirm whether any of them died. But a new report by Reporters sans Frontieres says that 85 citizen journalists have lost their lives since the start of the conflict in Syria.
Syria, according to RsF, is the most dangerous country in the world to work as a journalist of any variety. 25 mainstream journalists – 5 of them foreign – have been killed, but the most terrifying and growing hazard is kidnap. One jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shams, recently said that all foreign journalists should be treated as spies and seized.
Numbers are difficult because news organisations often don’t release information about kidnapped journalists as it could endanger negotiations for their release, so these are conservative figures. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 37 foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Syria since March. Some have been released, but 18 are thought to remain as hostages, some alongside their Syrian drivers and fixers. Or maybe they’re dead – we just don’t know. Let us think of them tonight – the disappeared, abducted and arrested – and their families and friends enduring long months or years of fearing the worst, of not knowing, of maybe never knowing. In some ways living with the permanent shadow of uncertainty and thinking about the suffering and cruelty hostages may be subjected to is worse than dealing with a death.
It’s hard to stand here tonight. Some of you were in this church when Marie Colvin made this address. She was my friend, I sometimes thought of her as my partner in crime on the road. You know how as a journalist you worry whether you’re in the right place – if Marie was there I knew I was in the right place. I miss her terribly and I probably always will. I often think of what she said that evening, about how this job inevitably involves taking risks but it’s worth it. True, but don’t we also say: no story is worth dying for. After Mickey Deane, the Sky News cameraman was killed in Egypt this year, I was speaking to Sam Kiley, his correspondent, who said “We’re a small tribe but we look after each other.” That’s true, but the contradiction between it being worth it and no story is worth dying for does battle in my head – I suspect in many of your heads too, both those of us who go to war zones and those of you, as editors, who send us. Sometimes I struggle to keep the faith.
Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t think about Marie, but I also think of someone far less famous.
Richard Wild was shot dead by an unknown gunman as he walked across a university campus in Baghdad in July 2003. He was 24. I’m not the only one who wishes I’d discouraged him from going to Iraq, but I didn’t. Young reporters have always gone to war. I did it myself, and survived more by luck than judgement. But Syria is like Bosnia – much too easy to get to. Chancers, adventurers, bloggers, war tourists are all there, and young freelances. They’re British, American, Spanish, Italian and more besides. So tonight I’d like to commend the Rory Peck Trust, the Frontline Freelance Register and RISC – Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues – who are providing free or cut-price hostile environment training to freelances. Others are also contributing, including media organisations who sponsor the programmes, and I hope that by now newspapers are taking this training as seriously as the broadcasters. Nothing guarantees survival but these courses are tremendously helpful both for the first aid they teach and lessons in how to calculate risk rather than just blundering in.
Sometimes the risk calculation is simple: it’s too dangerous. I would say that about going into Syria with the rebels at this time. Being a war correspondent has always had an allure but I am concerned that we should not – like the jihadis – develop a cult of martyrdom. Of course we honour those who lose their lives – that’s why we’re here tonight. But must not fetishize it.
Non-journalists – civilians, we call them – often ask me, baffled, why I do this job. The answer is that I believe in eye witness reporting by professional journalists, and I want to be where history is happening. But there’s a secret answer too – the colours are brighter, the mountains are clearer, there’s nothing like cheating death to make you feel gloriously, wonderfully alive. I don’t believe we should leave it to activists and citizen journalists. Their lives are as important as our own, but they’re usually promoting a cause and we’re not doing the same thing. What we do matters and what’s more we love it. I understand any young reporter who wants to do it too.
Luck and happenstance play their part in survival but I think it’s important to assert that you can pull back, you can trust your instinct when the warning bells start to ring. It’s not easy. In Libya during the 2011 revolution, every day I went up to the frontline I felt like a fool, and every day I didn’t, like a coward. I always feel I’m not brave enough. Not as brave as Marie. So I would say to those starting on this career: you prove yourself by getting great stories not by taking insane risks and talking about it in the bar afterwards.
You shouldn’t file for any outlet or editor who doesn’t care about your life, but I know that’s rarely the problem. We are ones who push too hard and go in too far because we want that story. We fear failure more than danger. It’s less about being beaten by the competition as failing in our own eyes. But that’s not the point. Success is living to tell the tale – this one and the next.
Ian MacGregor, Editor, The Sunday Telegraph read Ecclesiasticus 4: 20-28
The writer urges us to speak up for what is right, even if that causes offense, and always to strive for the truth.
20 Observe the right time, and beware of evil; and do not bring shame on yourself.
21 For there is a shame which brings sin, and there is a shame which is glory and favour.
22 Do not show partiality, to your own harm, or deference, to your downfall.
23 Do not refrain from speaking at the crucial time, and do not hide your wisdom.
24 For wisdom is known through speech, and education through the words of the tongue.
25 Never speak against the truth, but be mindful of your ignorance.
26 Do not be ashamed to confess your sins, and do not try to stop the current of a river.
27 Do not subject yourself to a foolish fellow, nor show partiality to a ruler.
28 Strive even to death for the truth and the Lord God will fight for you.
Amanda Platell, Columnist, Daily Mail read The Deserted Village by Francis Wheen
This piece was written in 1999 for inclusion in The Penguin Book of Journalism.
When nostalgic types say that things aren’t what they used to be I am usually sceptical, but as soon as I walk down the old Street of Adventure I turn into a maudlin sentimentalist. The only nocturnal sound in the deserted thoroughfare – once a cacophony of rattle and hum – is the braying of lawyers and PR men in El Vino. Oh my Addison and my Steele long ago!
While wallowing in this lachrymose nostalgia recently, I decided to re-read the autobiography of GK Chesterton. My reverie was instantly shattered. ‘I belonged,’ he wrote in 1936, ‘to the old Bohemian life of Fleet Street, which has since been destroyed, not by the idealism of detachment, but by the materialism of machinery. A newspaper proprietor in later years assured me that it was a slander on journalism to tell all these tales about taverns and ragged pressmen and work and recreation coming at random at all hours of the night. “A newspaper office is now exactly like any other place of business,” he said with a radiant smile; and I agreed with a groan.’ Journalism, Chesterton concluded, ‘is [now] conducted as quietly, as soberly, as sensibly as the office of any successful moneylender or moderately fraudulent financier’.
It is simultaneously depressing and cheering to discover that the Golden Age to which one looks back with such yearning was itself regarded as dull and anaemic by a previous generation. Can it be that, in thirty years’ time, old hands will reminisce mistily about the 1990s, lamenting with a wild regret the day when national newspapers moved from the Bohemian precincts of Wapping and Canary Wharf to the sober, sensible outskirts of Milton Keynes?
Richard Norton-Taylor, Security Editor, The Guardian read My Friend Yasser by James Hider
This article was written by the then War Correspondent of The Times, and appeared on 27th January 2010.
Another day, another round of bombs in Baghdad. A blip that barely registers in the news after so many years of bloodshed, and quickly blurs into the endless images of familiar carnage.
Except this day was different for me and many of my colleagues who have covered the Iraq war. This was the day that my friend Yasser vanished in that inevitable cloud of grey smoke that you see on your television screens or newspaper pages.
Yasser was The Times’s driver for the past seven years, since the fall of the regime that he had hated so much. He joined the newspaper pretty much the same week I did, and together we worked through the bloodiest periods of the war. Yasser – whose surname I cannot put in print, even now, because of the danger to his brother, who also works as a Times driver – was one of the thousands of Iraqis who have made the media coverage of the war possible: uncredited, unsung heroes of a war most people would rather forget.
He had survived some terrifying episodes, from being “ethnically cleansed” with his family by Sunni insurgents from their home in 2006, when they moved into our hotel but did not stop working, to blocking the road with his car as a vehicle full of armed kidnappers tried to abduct a Times reporter one evening near the Tigris river. He saved my life and the lives of colleagues at the risk of his own, only to step out of The Times office at exactly the wrong moment on Monday, the moment when a suicide car bomber fought his way into the compound and blew himself up.
Over the years Yasser and his brother became close to all of us: they would be waiting at the airport when we flew in to drive us along the notorious Route Irish road when it was still a daily death trip; they would hug us like brothers when we left, always with a promise to return. But they did not just drive us into battle zones: they bought us cakes on our birthdays, invited us, when it was safe, to their home for meals cooked by their mother. Through the years we went to their weddings, saw Yasser become a proud father of two girls and, recently, hope for a better future for the country.
Yasser was a kind and funny man who had seen too much misery but retained his ability to crack a wicked joke. When we met, he told that me he had learnt English when training as a vet, but had never practised because he did not like any animals except for sheep. He was sweet and courteous, and called my girlfriend “Prince” until we pointed out that it was a male name. He cackled at his own mistake.
On one of my first outings with him through the lawless streets, he suddenly executed a U-turn through gridlocked traffic and sped off: he had spotted a gang of looters pulling people from the cars ahead, stabbing them and stealing their vehicles. Another time, when we were grabbed by the notorious al-Mahdi Army militia, masked gunmen dragged me and my translator off to an unknown destination in Sadr City. As a Shia from the area, Yasser could have driven off and no one would have blamed him: instead, I was hugely relieved to spot him through the rear window belting after us. He stayed with me until we managed to negotiate our release.
The last time I was in Baghdad, almost a year ago, Yasser made me promise to return. I will, very soon, but too late to see his smiling face. He was buried by his family yesterday in the Shia holy city of Najaf. Instead, I will be greeted by his inconsolable brother, who was too devastated to do anything more than cry when I phoned him yesterday. I cried with him, because Yasser was not just another faceless statistic. He was a friend and a heroic colleague who will be missed forever.
The choir & organist of St Bride’s performed the following anthems and songs:
Psalm 121 – Henry Walford Davies
Turn! Turn! Turn! – Pete Seeger, arr. R Jones
Here, O my Lord – Percy Whitlock
Bring us, O Lord God – William Harris
Bridge over troubled water – Paul Simon, arr. R Jones
Immortal, invisible, God only wise
O Christ the same
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
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