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"I have written this book because many people have asked me why journalists risk their lives to go to war."
Thus Jeremy Bowen introduces this account of his many reporting assignments for BBC TV in the world's trouble spots over the last twenty years. During this period he was in Afghanistan (twice), El Salvador, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq (twice), Lebanon (twice), Israel/Palestine and Rwanda. There are conflict zones that have evaded Bowen's presence, but they are relatively few and relatively minor. During this period he has become, for British viewers at least, one of television news' most recognisable faces. He has also always struck me as one of the clearest and most balanced reporters of complex and chaotic situations, which is why I was keen to read this book. It did not disappoint.
Bowen may have been prompted to write it by being asked "why journalists risk their lives to go to war", but it is not a question he attempts to answer directly. Rather, he allows the reasons to emerge implicitly as he recounts his experiences and those of his colleagues amid the various wars and crises.
As he does so he addresses what seem to me to be some rather more important questions. For example: how the manner in which a conflict is reported affects the viewer's understanding of it; how this has changed with changing technology and news scheduling; the difficulties of encapsulating and explaining complex situations in a brief televisual report; and the problems for journalists in remaining objective when they are inevitably seeing war from either one side or the other. In doing so, he offers some thoughtful reflections on two ongoing conflicts with which he is closely familiar: Iraq, and Israel v its various adversaries. On all of these questions, he is well worth reading. For anyone interested in the techniques of broadcast journalism, Bowen also offers some useful precepts and observations, and they are well worth reading too.
But if I have a criticism of the book, it is that it does not go that one stage further and explore the most important question of all, although it is lurking behind many of those he does discuss, and which seems to me to be this: to what extent is it possible for the concerned citizen to discover the truth about the crucial events of our time from what is reported in the media?
The "war stories" that make up the substance of the book are related within an autobiographical framework. Bowen briefly sketches in his own background and initial training as a BBC journalist before describing in some detail each of the major conflicts on which he has acted as correspondent.
He relates how his own actions and reactions evolved: from being instinctively drawn towards the sound of gunfire on his first assignment in El Salvador, though front line danger dodging snipers' bullets in Sarajevo and bombs in Grosny, to a more cautious and studied approach after the death of a colleague when an Israeli shell destroyed their car in the Lebanon.
The reportage is first-rate, as one might expect. Bowen is adept at grabbing the reader's attention from the outset with a close-up description of an individual incident, illustrating the impact of war on the people caught up in it, before panning back to sketch in the political or diplomatic context in which the events took place.
He is also clever in using novelistic - as opposed to journalistic - technique. A reporter tells you the outcome up front, for ease of understanding, whilst a story-teller keeps you guessing, to maintain suspense to the end. For example, in one of the Bosnian chapters, having reminded the reader that taking the wrong road in a war zone can lead to big trouble, Bowen then takes the reader with him on a backwoods journey from besieged Sarajevo to turbulent Mostar without disclosing in advance how much trouble was met with on the way. For one who is a reporter by trade, this is subtle story-telling.
Mostly, though, he lets the drama of his experiences speak for itself, and he does so in simple language. "Only clear and direct words, and only one fact in each sentence" he quotes one of his mentors as having advised him, advice that he clearly tries to follow. As a principle of style, it is perhaps more suited to the broadcast than the written word, but it certainly makes for pace and readability.
"In modern war, everyone needs the right pictures. Control the pictures and you control the argument."
Even though he one of the people who writes and speaks the words of a news bulletin rather than does the filming, Bowen is quite clear that the televisual medium activates viewers by what they see rather than what they hear. Pictures of violent action and its results - torn bodies, for example or children in distress - command our attention in a way that words can't match. The power of what we are seeing - or what we think we are seeing - overwhelms the commentary. This is, of course, both the communicative strength of television and the danger it poses to our rational understanding of events. When it is so easy for viewers to be swayed by emotive images, it becomes all the more important for those who relay the images to maintain their independence and integrity.
Also important is that they should be able to use the words to put the images into context, not easily done in such a simplistic medium, especially when the background is complex. "Everything we put out is front-page stuff," Bowen quotes on of his controllers as saying, meaning that TV thrives on headline news, not interpretive features.
Bowen is rather dismissive of 'bang-bang' - "Hollywood-style shots of gunmen blazing away" - but admits that it is almost impossible not to use such footage in reporting from a battlefield, and excuses it provided its place within the wider combat is explained. He is even more dismissive 'rooftop journalism' - "pontificating from a safe distance without seeing things for real" - something that is alien to his approach, to judge from some of the hair-raising news-gathering escapades that he relates.
He explains the techniques of putting together a two-minute news bulletin together in some detail - how many sequences of film to use, and how they should be selected, both for their explanatory content and for contrast and balance, and how to construct the script to work in best unison with the pictures. You almost begin to believe you could it yourself, until you imagine trying to do it amid the confusion of war, and realise you couldn't. Or I couldn't, anyway.
"Winning the information war is no longer incidental; it is a top military priority."
With his experience in the highly politicised conflicts of the Middle East, it is not surprising that Bowen is acutely aware of the degree to which modern wars are propaganda wars. He is very good at identifying and portraying the various pressures on reporters to shape their reporting to the agendas of the combatants.
These pressures can be both heavy-handed and sophisticatedly subtle. Bowen relates how in the early days of the 1991 Gulf War he was the first reporter on the scene after the Americans bombed an air-raid shelter at Amirya, in the process killing many women and children, whose corpses he saw scattered around, whilst there was no sign of the site having been used militarily. Only very reluctantly did his controllers at the BBC, who were clearly being subjected to heavy persuasion by the military, eventually run the story, whilst Bowen was roundly abused by the flag-waving popular press. "My crime was to undermine morale at home in time of war by telling the truth."
More subtle are the temptations and dangers of being 'embedded' with the military, the temptations being not just the safety thus ensured but the fact that it may be the only way to see war at close hand, which is where a reporter most wants to be. But the concomitant dangers are that the reporter only sees what he is being shown and, more subtly, that he begins to identify with the soldiers escorting him. Clearly, the military authorities are aware of this, and reporters have to be equally aware. "Journalists need always to remember that if they get help and cooperation it is for a reason."
The notion that truth is the first casualty of war goes back at least as far as to Aeschylus around 500BC and probably longer, though it has never been more apposite than today.
We, at least in the West, can now watch twenty-four hour news live on television with images being beamed in from around the world complete with continual explanatory commentary. Never before has it been so possible to believe that we're in touch and know what's going on.
But is that belief illusory? Even when they are not deliberately contrived to influence us, or overtly censored, can these images convey a balanced reflection of the truth? Does the picture-driven nature of televisual reporting, especially when combined with the pressures put on the reporters, inevitably distort as well as simplify the reality reported on?
I don't know, which is why I wish Bowen had addressed the question directly.
But what he does discuss, he discusses clearly and persuasively. And he convinces the reader that he cherishes an old-fashioned respect for the truth and the importance of telling it insofar as it is possible to do so. "Our reports can sway public opinion and sometimes create it. I am very conscious of the need to use that power responsibly, which means, essentially, getting the story right."
All of which brings us back to Bowen's initial question of why journalists risk their lives going to war. That they do risk their lives is not in doubt; he cites a long list of friends and colleagues lost in battle. He wears his bravery and his dedication lightly, but the implicit answers that emerge are these: professional pride, personal pride, sense of mission, camaraderie, adrenalin-heightened experience, what he calls the "war drug". These are much the same reasons as soldiers go to war. They may or may not be wholly honourable motives, but it is as well for all of us that some people have them, or we wouldn't know anything about what's going on in conflicts which are crucial to the future of the world we live in. Possibly we will never know as much as we would like to about what's going on, but we stand our best chance when those people are as objective, collected and cogent about what they are doing and what they are witnessing as is Bowen.
For this reason, as well as for its lively readability, I whole-heartedly recommend this book.
War Stories, by Jeremy Bowen, is published in hardback by Simon and Schuster, ISBN-10: 0-7432-3094-9, 320 pages, priced at £17.99. Needless to say you can find it more cheaply by shopping around on the net. It is also due out in paperback this coming summer.
© First published under the name torr on Ciao UK, January 23rd 2007
Having joined the BBC as a trainee in 1984, Jeremy Bowen first became a foreign correspondent four years later. He had witnessed violence already, both at home and abroad, but it wasn't until he covered his first war -- in El Salvador -- that he felt he had arrived. Armed with the fearlessness of youth he lived for the job, was in love with it, aware of the dangers but assuming the bullets and bombs were meant for others. In 2000, however, after eleven years in some of the world's most dangerous places, the bullets came too close for comfort, and a close friend was killed in Lebanon. This, and then the birth of his first child, began a process of reassessment that culminated in the end of the affair. Now, in his extraordinarily gripping and thought-provoking new book, he charts his progress from keen young novice whose first reaction to the sound of gunfire was to run towards it to the more circumspect veteran he is today. It will also discuss the changes that have taken place in the ways in which wars are reported over the course of his career, from the Gulf War to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Rwanda.