Critique & critic
War correspondents risk their lives everyday to gather information. Often they are better informed than their own governments. Intelligence services ask for their help. The life of a war reporter, if internationally recognized and prized, is not without its vagaries. Multi-award winning Stuart Hughes shares his own experience as a BBC World Affair Producer.
Watching Stuart Hughes stepping into the room, a large smile on his face, no one could guess what the war reporter has gone through. From his 15 years of experience at the BBC, Stuart Hughes mentions determination as a major quality in reporting. However tenacity is not enough to insure war reporters’ safety, as Hughes calls himself “a war casualty”. In 2003, when on duty in Iraq, Hughes stepped on a landmine. He lost his right leg. Since then, he has continued on dangerous assignments with a prosthetic leg. He considers himself lucky to have done so, the blow could have been fatal. Numerous colleagues lost their lives while on mission, including his good friend the broadcaster Marie Colvin.
If in the past the status of an international journalist offered some protection on the ground, times have changed. Embedded journalists who travel with troops are exposed to the same risks as soldiers. Independent journalists are the privileged target of kidnapping. Citizen journalists have in turn no defence other than their resources can insure them. Independently of their affiliation, every journalist is subject to pitfalls, as Hughes’ own injury shows. He never held the BBC responsible for his accident; when on the ground reporters take responsibility for their behaviour. “If the calculation goes right, you win awards and if it goes wrong you end up injured or dead”.
Technology “is the biggest driving and changing factor”. It insures journalists to report from any part of the world. The competition is hard when social networks use contents uploaded from local sources. War reporters experience a constant pressure for results. Pushing the boundaries of safety, they often end up going searching for the unprecedented footage. 24 hours news channels encourages such competition, as Hughes underlines it; “Now when I look around the news industry I see that journalists are being put in greater and greater distress. The speed with which news is communicated is getting faster and faster and at one point people snap out”. If he never felt personally pressured by his management to go where the action is, Hughes recognizes that a newsroom’s expectations and ground reality are not always easy to reconcile. “You are spoken to by a group of people who had a nice night in bed, a lovely breakfast and a cup of coffee. When they read the papers, they have an idea of how the story has to be played out, which has in 99% of time no connection with reality”.
Finally, when back home, war correspondents might have to deal with another sort of problem. Insomnia, nightmares, anxiety or irritability are the usual symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). If the psychological trauma manifested itself only after three years, it took two years to Hughes to get over it. “I would rather loose my other leg and have no legs at all and not have gone through the trauma at all. In my experience, dealing with psychological trauma is far far harder than dealing with physical trauma because physical trauma doesn’t necessarily change who you are whereas psychological trauma does. It’s much more damaging”. If he found the courage not to fall into addictions, a symptom affecting more than 80% of patients, it is thanks to his family and friends encouragements. Medical helped too. News organisations have started to tackle the issue. Two years ago the BBC launched a form of training called Trauma Risk Management (TRiM), a programme helping journalists to cope with their personal history.
153 reporters have been killed during the war in Iraq in 8 years, while 150 are missing so far since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Stuart Hughes’ advice to stay safe if to gather as much data about the destination as possible. Remember that basic safety measures can make a difference on the ground.