The Obligation of War Correspondents to Tell the Truth

Roundup: Media's Take

British journalist Roy Greenslade, in the course of a lecture sponsored by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, which was established in memory of the Toronto Star's founding publisher, Joseph Atkinson (April 1, 2004):

Back in the early 1970s, two New York Times journalists — Drew Middleton and Herbert Matthews — set out part of the practical argument which faces war reporters. Middleton contended that the correspondent's duty is"to get the facts and write them with his interpretation of what they mean to the war, without allowing personal feelings about the war to enter into the story. No one," he added," can be completely objective but objectivity is the goal." Matthews, however, argued instead for"honest, open bias" proclaiming that"a newspaperman should work with his heart as well as his mind."

There, in a nutshell, is the dilemma every journalist — whether a reporter on assignment or an editor running a paper — must face in wartime. Heart or mind. Patriotism or professional detachment. Propaganda or objective reportage.

Now, I'm going to take you through a good slice of history because I find the structure an excellent way of ensuring that the dilemmas I'll be exploring are grounded in reality. Considering what happened in the past provides both detail and context for the contentions I'll take up as I proceed. So let's scare you just a little by starting way back in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar's legions invaded Britain. There were no newspapers around then, no cameras, no rolling news channels, not a scribe — not a war correspondents — in sight.

But Julius knew the value of telling the Roman people about the bravery of his army, about his battle victories and, naturally, about his own heroic part in leading the conquest of another country. So he played war correspondent to tell the story of his own war, bequeathing us the only report of what happened at a crucial moment in European history.

He had several advantages, of course, not the least being the fact that he didn't file his copy until years afterwards, well after British territory was indisputably Roman, thus allowing himself the luxury of telling of some of the reverses suffered by his troops. We can't be certain that he told the truth in his 'Commentaries on the Gallic Wars' [De Bello Gallico] — because there were no fact-checkers, what joy! — but it's generally accepted that he didn't embroider his story because he didn't need to. What isn't in dispute is that his account amounted to propaganda: Caesar's military exploits in Gaul and Britain added to the greater glory of Rome and, undoubtedly, to the greater glory of General Julius.

He wasn't the first soldier to talk up his triumphs — various Greeks did it hundreds of years before — and he certainly wasn't the last. Indeed, for many hundreds of years soldiers were virtually the only sources for wars and improbably were usually considered to be authoritative. British newspapers up to the mid-1800s relied on letters from junior officers and treated them as true accounts of what had happened.

William Howard Russell, the man who deserves to be known as the father of war reporting — well, the great, great, great grand-papa, if you like. His reporting of the Crimean war in 1854 is remarkable in all sorts of ways since, in almost every aspect, it prefigures the subsequent clashes between the government and its military on one side, and journalists and their editors on the other. The conflict between the two sides, put quite simply, was about whether Russell's attempts to tell the truth were unpatriotic.

Russell was sent to the Crimea by the London Times, which had been a cheerleader for the war against Russia. But Russell's Gallipoli dispatches revealed that British soldiers were living in substandard conditions and highlighted the administrative inadequacies of the army. The military hadn't wanted Russell there in the first place, having prevented him from sailing on a troop ship.

Once they realized what Russell was writing, they did their best to frustrate him, denying him the right to sleep within army lines and looking the other way when his tent was torn down. But Russell stuck to his task, won over many of the junior officers who agreed with him and also sent back descriptive articles — of the battle of Balaclava and the charge of the light brigade — which rank as classic pieces of reportage. He later told of the horrific deprivations suffered by soldiers during the winter months, concentrating especially on the lack of proper medical facilities.

Back in London, Russell's editor — John Delane — stayed local to his correspondents by fearlessly publishing his controversial reports. He did so in the face of considerable heat from a host of establishment critics, who included powerful figures in both the main political parties, not to mention the monarch, Queen Victoria, who called The Times an"execrable publication." One senior politician remarked:"If England is ever to be England again, this vile tyranny of The Times must be cut off." The British government reacted as war-making governments in a corner inevitably do, accusing Russell of exaggeration and sensationalism, while desperately trying to discredit The Times.

But people flocked to donate money to a fund set up by The Times to send out medical supplies — and Florence Nightingale. Several politicians made formal complaints about the paper breaching security and made vain attempts to censor it. Many of the attacks on The Times referred to it misusing its supposed"power." But it was The Times which came out on top: the government was forced to resign and The Times' status grew immeasurably afterwards.

Now, let's be fair here: Russell's writing style was florid, emotive and, yes, often sensational and it later became clear that he was far from 100 per cent accurate on occasion, getting many details wrong. But, in essence, he got the substantive story right: largely through incompetence, the politicians and the military high command had allowed more than a third of their army to perish through sickness. He had done a good journalistic job.

So, 150 years ago, at the very dawn of professional war reporting, we can see the schisms opening up: the reporter at the front was doing his job while the generals at the front were attempting to do theirs. The editor back in London was fulfilling his proper role while the government was fulfilling its.

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