'Even military guards have to wear disguises'

The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn
explains to Julie Tomlin how reporting from Iraq helped him to win the
prestigious Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism
 
THE FRONT page of The
Independent suggesting that the tide of violence in Iraq might be
turning would have been music to the Government’s ears as it geared up
for the 2005 election – and a campaign in which it would be paramount
that it presented the war as a non-issue.

The 12 May story with the headline “Iraq: is the tide turning?”
cited Pentagon claims that it could begin a withdrawal troops from Iraq
as early as next year based on figures showing a sharp fall in the
number of troops being killed in action and the number of attacks.
There was cause for hope, it was suggested, that the insurgency might
be on the wane.

Inside on page two, however, Patrick Cockburn,
The Independent’s correspondent in Iraq, criticised the notion that the
situation was improving – claiming that instead, US forces were on the
retreat.

“Slowly the great American adventure in the country,
which started with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is coming
to an end. But the battle to interpret its place in history is just
beginning. As with the withdrawal from Vietnam in 1972, the US
military, faced with a costly and unwinnable war, evidently want to
depart after declaring victory and before local forces collapse.”

It
is precisely this kind of journalism that prompted a panel of judges,
including John Pilger, to award Cockburn the Martha Gellhorn prize for
journalism – an award for journalism that cuts through “official
drivel” as Gellhorn described it.

Following her death in 1998,
the prize has been handed out to a journalist whose work “has
penetrated the established version of events and told unpalatable
truths, validated by powerful facts, that exposes establishment
propaganda”.

It celebrates the kind of journalism that, as Gellhorn said, “reports from the ground up, not the other way round”.

Far
away from Baghdad, in London’s Groucho Club, on the afternoon he is due
to pick up the £5,000 prize, Cockburn makes it clear that it’s only by
being on the ground and by moving among the Iraqis as far as is safely
possible, that a clear picture of the situation can be gained.

“I’ve
spent a lot of time in Iraq over the past three years. Although it’s
become more violent than ever over the past year, it’s been less and
less reported, ironically, because as it gets more and more dangerous,
people are less able to report it. So Bush and others can claim that
either things are getting better or they are static, and it’s not true.”

His
intimate knowledge – developed over years of working in the country –
was apparent as he continued to pull apart the claim that the situation
might be improving.

Cockburn, who has been reporting from Iraq
since 1978, says he often makes his way to the queues or places of work
in Iraq where he can test the official version of events on the ground.

On
the day that the Iraqi president announced that only three or four of
Iraq’s 18 provinces were now dangerous he went to a truck depot and
told them that Bush had said the situation was less dangerous than it
had been. “There was a great deal of laughter from the assembled
group,” he says.

“But it’s impossible to prove the opposite,
without running the risk of getting killed or kidnapped. If I went on
any road out of Baghdad without a massive armed escort I’d be killed or
kidnapped, and the same is true of any member of parliament or
journalist.”

Cockburn says he also questioned the claim that the
number of attacks on US soldiers had fallen. This is on the basis of a
conversation with a senior military source who told him that they only
bothered to report the attacks in which soldiers were killed or
seriously injured – partly because there were so many but also because
they knew it would keep their superiors happy.

Cockburn, who won
the prize for his reporting in The Independent and a regular diary for
the London Review of Books, says that despite the dangers of bombings
and the risk of kidnap, both by insurgents and commercial kidnappers,
he is determined that he will continue to report from Iraq. He admits
he is largely confined to Baghdad because travelling outside the
capital is an increasingly risky business.

“I went to Mosul, the big northern Arab city and even there I had an army escort who were all Kurds.

“When
we went to the outskirts of Mosul to an army base the colonel there
said: ‘Look, I can send you with three vehicles and uniformed soldiers,
but you will get attacked. It’s much better that my soldiers put on a
disguise, Arab robes, over their uniforms and get in a civilian car and
then we’ll get you to the centre of the city’.

“If even military guards have to go round disguised it’s symptomatic of how dangerous it is.”

But
Cockburn says it’s “completely the wrong approach” to say that it’s
impossible for journalists to report in Iraq and pull them out. “It is
reportable, just more difficult,” he says. “You can do it and people
ought to do it. This is the major foreign story in the world that most
affects Britain. It’s ludicrous that we have columnists giving
definitive opinions about the situation getting better in Iraq when
they haven’t even been out there.”

Cockburn, whose father, Claud,
founded the radical anti-fascist newsletter, The Week, is critical of
the media’s reliance on embedding, arguing that “you get a completely
biased view” unless it is balanced with reporting from journalists who
are not embedded.

“When the US marines captured Fallujah, many
journalists were embedded with the US army, so it was reported, not
unreasonably, as a US victory. At exactly the same time (this was last
November), insurgents captured Mosul, which had a population five times
bigger than Fallujah, but there were no embedded reporters, so it
hardly got reported. It was really very limited, which demonstrates the
perils of relying on embedded journalists.”

Cockburn says he is disappointed that the coverage of the war in Iraq has deteriorated, particularly in the past year.

“I
thought at first the reporting was not too bad, but it’s got worse and
worse. Many of us (journalists)n criticised the US Government for not
knowing what was going to happen, but actually the media has been
pretty poor in that respect too. They weren’t prepared for a long war.”

Television
news has been “particularly bad and increasingly miserable” says
Cockburn, who concedes that the British press has been “marginally
better” than its US counterparts.

“The British at least have
reporters who are willing to go out there. The bureau chief of one big
American paper told me that they had over 40 foreign staff, out of whom
only three were willing to go to Baghdad.”

Cockburn admits that
this conflict is more dangerous for journalists than any others he has
covered. Journalists are more likely to be seen as targets because they
are from the West – even in Beirut, the terrorists had press officers
because they believed they needed to work with them.

In Iraq
journalists are associated with the enemy and therefore do not enjoy a
privileged position, says Cockburn. But he believes that TV journalists
in particular are being influenced by security advisers.

Many remain in the vicinity of their hotels. “They’ve
either been intimidated by a lack of security or let their security men
take over,” says Cockburn. “Security men shouldn’t stop the media
reporting, they should make it easier.”

He describes a time in
February when a BBC journalist phoned at the last moment to cancel a
lunch with Cockburn and fellow Independent journalist Robert Fisk at
their hotel.

“This was a good, brave correspondent who rang up
apologetically to say he couldn’t go out becausethe head of security
had forbidden him and said the lunch was not ‘an operational necessity’.

“Some
of these security men claim to have experience of the situation, but
it’s not evident to me that they do. You have the ridiculous situation
of a presenter in the UK asking a reporter about the situation on the
ground, when they have no more idea of what the mood is on the ground
than they do of the mood on Mars.”

Cockburn says he goes out most
days when he is in Baghdad. It is important to try to keep a low
profile and to try to remain unidentifiable as a foreigner, he says.
“That means using an old car so as not to stand out from other Iraqis,
but it needs a good engine because you can’t run the risk of breaking
down in the wrong area. You also mustn’t have bad petrol.

You need people with you who know Baghdad backwards and don’t make mistakes.”

Cockburn
also says there are things you learn, like being careful not to stick
around in any one place too long – the Italian journalist, Guiliana
Sgrena, was kidnapped near a mosque where there were many refugees from
Fallujah.

“It was perfectly reasonable, she had gone there for an
interview and they had been delayed and she’d waited three hours but
I’d been there and sent someone ahead of me who had said ‘I think these
people are bad news, let’s get out of here’,” says Cockburn, who added
that you learn to avoid places that look like trouble – places where
there are a lot of young men, for instance, who could be Mujahadin.

Cockburn
also refuses to make appointments to meet with people he doesn’t know
and is careful to avoid places that would be likely to be attacked.

Cockburn
worked for the Financial Times for 12 years before joining The
Independent in 1990 and has worked as a correspondent in Moscow and
Beirut. He says he has tried to convey “what an incredibly complex
society Iraq is” and spends time each day meeting officials he has got
to know and will sometimes stop at a queue in order to talk to people –
sometimes he will even ask questions from the car, but he can be sure
of a quick getaway if needs be.

“I don’t want to sound too
smartypants but you have to be aware of the dangers. You don’t want to
be in areas where there are a lot of criminals. They think in Baghdad,
probably rightly, that two or three million dollars, probably more, has
been paid for the Italian aid workers, the Italian or French
journalists and this is the city where you can get someone murdered for
500 dollars; it’s a lot of money.”

For the next few months,
however, Cockburn is enjoying relaxing in London, promoting his book,
The Broken Boy, he has written about his childhood as a victim of the
last of the polio epidemics in Ireland in 1956.

The next few months will also be a welcome opportunity to relax and meet up with friends, he says.

“You
have to take the stress seriously,” he says. “I’ll be in the UK for a
few months and it’s important to relax away from that situation, away
from the dangers.”

The Broken Boy is published by Jonathan Cape at £15.99

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