Azara Blog: Kate Adie on Reporting Conflict

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Date published: 2005/02/25

The sixth lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2005 was by the BBC correspondent Kate Adie. She is best known as a war correspondent, and Norman Tebbit famously started a pathetic crusade against her and the BBC for her coverage of the US bombing of Libya in 1986. (As usual, the Americans bombed for the sake of bombing, and not very accurately, causing lots of civilian deaths.)

Given her roots in television, it was slightly odd that her lecture consisted entirely of her reading a manuscript, with no visual aids at all. She did not say anything controversial, presumably because when you work for the BBC you are advised not to say anything controversial. (New Labour being even bigger control freaks than the previous Tory government.) Her talk was mainly about the changes in war reporting over her time in the business.

In common with many people, she believes that news reporting, and so war reporting, has become more a part of the entertainment industry rather than news per se. Of course this trend started in America (she said circa 20 years ago) but she said this has now spread to the rest of the developed world. In media outlets there is more interest in audience share than in production quality.

Modern technology has made it easier to communicate from the war zone. She mentioned that she was on the American warship in the Adriatic Sea which fired the first cruise missile in the Kosovo war. Some photographer took a snap of the missile as it was leaving the boat, downloaded the picture to his computer and uploaded it to a newspaper in New York. And the photo was supposedly typeset even before it had hit its target in the former Yugoslavia.

Of course communication being easier does not mean it is any more honest. She mentioned the obvious fact that reporters become very patriotic when their own country is at war, and this is reflected in their reports. (Perhaps they are really patriotic or perhaps they know they would be in serious trouble if they did otherwise.)

Her most interesting comments were about the 2003 Gulf War, when the US invaded Iraq. We were all under the impression that the war was being reported "live" but she says this was not true at all. The only really live reports were for set-piece events like the launch of missiles from far away. (Or when reporters accidentally got caught in the line of fire.) A lot of the "live" reports were from Qatar or Kuwait rather than Iraq, and even reports from inside Iraq had much of the content sent to the reporters from London (or Washington, or wherever) by email. (Since the reporters on the ground did not have any easy way to get hold of information except via their colleagues somewhere else.) In other words, the "live" reporting was largely part of the entertainment factor rather than having anything to do with news reporting per se. (Of course there were exceptions.)

She said that when the NATO forces were getting ready to enter Kosovo from Macedonia there were around 15000 army personnel and over 2700 journalists (the war started before they could finish counting). And apparently in Qatar, where the Americans built their huge briefing centre for the 2003 Gulf War, there were around 8000 journalists credited. As Adie drily said, no doubt some of the tens of thousands of filed reports must have been worthwhile.

Apparently it's more dangerous to be a war correspondent now. She said that ten or fifteen years ago you did not need a flak jacket or need to drive in an armoured vehicle, but you do now.

She then talked about the role, or rather non-role, of women in war. Apparently even now it is difficult to get taken seriously in a war environment if you are a woman (soldier or not). Well, that is not very surprising. And frankly it is not necessarily a bad thing for women (no point being killed so that a male president can prove he's macho to the world).

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