The courage of Marie Colvin

Wednesday 22 February 2012, 17:37

Jonathan Baker Jonathan Baker is head of the BBC College of Journalism

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Fifteen months ago I stood in St Bride's Church with many other journalists for a service to commemorate all those in the news business who had lost their lives in conflict. The principal speaker was Marie Colvin.

There were several BBC names on the list of those we were gathered there to remember. It brought back intense and painful memories of the deaths and injuries we suffered during the time when I was world news editor in BBC Newsgathering.

Kaveh Golestan, our cameraman in Tehran, killed by a land mine in Iraq. Simon Cumbers, another cameraman, shot dead in Riyadh in the same assault that left correspondent Frank Gardner in a wheelchair. Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed, a translator working for the BBC, killed by friendly fire in Iraq. Kate Peyton, our Johannesburg producer, shot dead in Mogadishu. I remembered too the long weeks and months of anxiety as we waited for correspondent Alan Johnston to be released in Gaza.

All of these incidents had a devastating and lasting effect on the foreign newsgathering team, who had lost friends as well as colleagues. And of course they were felt across the rest of the BBC as well. So we can well imagine the sense of despair and distress being felt today at The Sunday Times after the loss of Marie Colvin, one of the world's most experienced and respected war correspondents. Our thoughts are with them.

Most news organisations take it as a given that no story is worth the life of a reporter or any other member of a news team. But for Marie Colvin it was never as straightforward as that. In her speech at St Bride's in November 2010, she was typically unflinching in describing the increased risks taken by news teams in war zones, and in considering whether any amount of bearing witness could justify those risks.

She said: "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?... I faced that question when I was injured [in Sri Lanka in 2001]. In fact, one paper ran a headline saying: 'Has Marie Colvin gone too far this time?' My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it."

Why? Because she felt this sort of reporting could and did genuinely make a difference, and that it was essential to hold fast to that belief. As she put it: "The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen."

That faith is what took her on her fateful trip to Syria last week. 

Some of our own reporters, such as Jeremy Bowen and Paul Wood, have been in Syria in recent weeks and we know from their courageous reporting how dangerous, volatile and unpredictable the situation is there. Jeremy's producer, Cara Swift, wrote about it on this website.  

Marie Colvin told Jeremy this week that what she found there made her sick and angry, and that the piece she wrote in Sunday's paper was the kind of thing she had come into journalism for. For all her years covering war, and for all the terrible sights she had seen, she had not lost her ability to react as a human being as well as a journalist. In her last Facebook post to a friend last night, she said she could not understand how the world could stand by and watch - even though "I should be hardened by now". The last line of the post read: "Will keep trying to get out the information."

For her, that was the first and the only objective, and for her, whatever the risks, they were worth it.

Jonathan Baker is head of the BBC College of Journalism.

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    Comment number 1.

    Soliders die all the time in war zones. 5,000 pensioners died this winter because they can't afford to heat their homes. Weep for them - not a woman who knew the dangers, but walked about in an eye patch like it was a badge of honour. And while I'm here, if you are the head of the BBC college of journalism, why is the website content so poor? And why does it take five BBC journalists to do a job many other broadcasters achieve with one reporter? Why don't you worry about that, instead of blathering on a about a reporter who didn't even work for the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Totally agree w Sidney Monroe above. Journalists seem to have deluded themselves that they are the news, and what with all the well groomed talking heads on the telly, many others might even believe it. More thoughtful folks know better.


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