War reporting is not a spectator sport

Wednesday 24 August 2011, 13:57

Stuart Hughes Stuart Hughes is a BBC World Affairs producer. Twitter: @stuartdhughes

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Corridor of Rixos Hotel in Libya.

In the age of 24-hour news, every war needs a media star. In the early days of rolling news it was Peter Arnett of CNN. A decade later, John Simpson was credited with "liberating" Kabul from the Taliban. In 2003, Rageh Omaar's reports from Baghdad earned him the soubriquet the "Scud Stud".

In recent days, as power in Libya has slipped from Colonel Gadaffi's hands, the standout performer of the news channels has undoubtedly been Alex Crawford of Sky News.

On Sunday and the days since, Crawford - not forgetting her team of Garwen McLuckie, Jim Foster and Andy Marsh - has provided riveting live coverage of the rebel advance into Tripoli.

In his book Frontline, my colleague David Loyn wryly notes that "American television crews travel abroad with the same amount of kit as a major imperial expedition of the 19th century or indeed the ancient army of King Darius." Crawford and her team have scooped their rivals using little more than a laptop and a small BGAN satellite dish powered by a car cigarette lighter socket.

Crawford's reporting has unquestionably been world-class. She has been praised by all sections of the news industry, including many people who would normally be considered rivals. A shower of awards will surely follow, to add to her three RTS prizes - and rightly so.

Journalists gatherered Rixos Hotel in Libya.

But let's not lose sight of the fact that war reporting is not a game of football in which there are 'winners' and 'losers', title contenders and bottom-of-the-league strugglers.

While Alex Crawford was broadcasting from Green Square on Sunday night, my colleague Matthew Price was hemmed in with his team at the Rixos Hotel (above and left) as fierce fighting continued outside the building.

Flipping between the news channels, the political commentator Iain Dale posted a tweet of almost breathtaking ignorance. He described Price as a "wimp" for wearing his flak jacket inside the hotel, speculating that "he's been told he can't go out because of 'Elf and Safety'."

Earlier this year, Matthew won the Sony Gold Award for News Journalist of the Year. He has two Emmy nominations to his name. Dale's comment prompted an immediate Twitterstorm.

To his credit, Dale made a swift and unreserved apology and took up my suggestion of making a donation to the Rory Peck Trust, a charity working to support the welfare of freelance newsgatherers. 

The deteriorating and increasingly volatile situation in the Rixos since Sunday has highlighted the stupidity of Dale's ill-considered tweet.

Arguing over which broadcaster is 'winning' the Battle for Tripoli may be fine sport from behind the shelter of a laptop screen. In the real world, however - outside the hothouse atmosphere of Twitter and blogs - journalists are putting their lives on the line in the most perilous circumstances - as Rupert Wingfield Hayes' report from the Libyan frontline made vividly clear. According to Reporters Without Borders, almost 40 journalists have been killed so far this year.

In the fevered and competitive world of 24-hour news it's inevitable that comparisons will be made between each network's coverage. But, please, let's leave the post-match analysis of which broadcaster 'won' the media war until all our friends and colleagues working in harm's way are home safely.

Stuart Hughes is World Affairs Producer for BBC News.

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    Comment number 1.

    Great analysis, Stuart. Sunday, I was watching our coverage versus Sky News with Alex Crawford and I overheard the comment that Sky was "beating the pants off of the BBC." The illusion of competition comes into play when there are two television sets side by side--one on Sky and the other on BBC World. Maybe I should call it delusion.
    I actually thought that the BBC team were just playing it safe--quite wisely I thought. Little did I know our team was actually held in the hotel against their will. Gunfire is always dangerous and in an unstable situation like Libya, you just can't trust where it will be coming from. Having the courage to go into an unstable situation like Libya takes a lot of guts. Everyone there is brave and I pray that they all come home safely.

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    Comment number 2.

    I don't join Iain Dale in denigrating your man for keeping his protection on indoors. In fact, I think that this shows a greater grasp of the capabilities of modern weapons than Iain clearly has. There is also the small matter of not scurrying around to get vital gear in an emergency.

    Like most viewers I am also greatly concerned for the safety of the journalists and others at the hotel. Being held at gunpoint by a bunch of deluded members of the losing side in a civil war is very dangerous to say the least. Let us hope that the gunmen there slink away before the other side turns up and a battle erupts, or that nothing worse happens.

    However, you cannot argue that the Sky News reporting has not been both courageous and compelling, and it is not sensible to pretend that overall it has not been better than of the BBC, because it has been. I will say that at one or two points Alex Crawford does seem to have been too far forward, though to be fair that may have been because of shifting front lines more than deliberate positioning on her part. However, just hiding behind a corner during a gun battle still leaves you hopelessly vulnerable to RPGs or heavy machine guns or AA cannon used at ground level, all of which would easily penetrate a normal wall. This does make excellent TV though, and Sky have combined that very well with studio experts and an in-country broader view.

    I did find myself silently urging Mrs. Crawford to pull back a bit though.

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    Comment number 3.

    "Crawford's reporting has unquestionably been world-class."

    I am glad this is recognized even by rival organizations, but I am also glad to see the BBC is attempting not to be drawn into the petty attacks that have arisen from all this. It is remarkable to me that many have been attacking the organization on the basis that the most compelling footage has come from Sky and thus the BBC has somehow failed - the way I see it, the Sky coverage has been better on this occasion, but so many of the commentators who have attacked the BBC over not being as good have a clear undertone to them regarding their existing dislike of the organization. Personally, it seems Sky is hooked up with better coverage and I shall be following it, but I would be hesistant to attack any other broadcasters simply because this time they did not get as riveting coverage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "let's leave the post-match analysis of which broadcaster 'won' the media war until all our friends and colleagues working in harm's way are home safely."

    Are you asking for the sympathy vote? If so, it's not working.

    Crawford is paid out of advertising revenue. Her job depends on getting out there and doing her job.

    Price is paid by the tax-payer. He can afford to sit around the hotel with the rest of the pack, waiting till he's rescued.

    Crawford delivered. Price didn't. Sky delivered in Tripoli, Al-Jazeera delivered in Cairo earlier this year. The BBC hasn't delivered for a long time now. And let's not forget its blatant bias, e.g. describing criminal rioters as 'protesters'.

    It's time to sell off the BBC, return the proceeds to its owners, the licence-payers, and open it up to real competition.


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