On being presented with the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year prize at last month’s British Journalism Awards, judges quipped that the Government should “consider pensioning off the whole of MI6 and hiring Patrick Cockburn instead”.
The Independent journalist has nearly 40 years of experience as a foreign correspondent and was credited at the awards with spotting the emergence of the Islamic State “much earlier than anybody else”.
We meet at a coffee shop in Piccadilly around 24 hours after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Cockburn says he wasn’t surprised by the attack, pointing to the fact that there are “four quite serious wars going on, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya”.
He says: “It would be a bit surprising if sparks from these wars didn’t lead to flames in Europe.”
Does this mean a similar attack in the UK is likely to follow? “Yeah, I think it probably will happen here," he says. "I think not quite for the reasons that people imagine, but more for those that I have mentioned previously – with these wars going on.”
And should journalists expect to be targeted? “I think people have got this slightly wrong, or at least one could say additional things to what’s being said in the newspapers.
“People say this is an attack on free speech, this is an attack on newspapers because they publish critical stuff. And this is true enough.
“But also a characteristic of Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda-type organisations… is big attacks in very, very public to have maximum impact. And one way you can do that is flying planes into the Twin Towers in New York. But another way of doing it is attack a newspaper office – you’re guaranteed maximum publicity.”
As well as there being more danger for journalists on home soil, Cockburn also notes the greater risks faced by correspondents working in the Middle East. “I think particularly in Syria the rebel groups have all figured out that… getting a Western journalist is worth quite a lot of money. Because either you can sell him back to the country he comes from, or the organisation. But if he’s an American or a Brit you can sell him on to… the Islamic State, so you’re in the money either way.
“So of course that makes things more dangerous. And danger has gone up.”
'Maths' of survival is against experienced foreign correspondents
Talking about the risks faced by foreign correspondents, Cockburn speaks of colleagues such as The Sunday Times’s Marie Colvin (above), killed in Syria in February 2012, and David Blundy, who died in El Salvador in 1989, who ran out of “luck”.
“I used to think it would be young, freelance journalists with no experience who’d get killed… they’d be trying too hard to get those scoops and not see the dangers. But actually, when I think about it, it’s been the older ones who I know,” he says.
“And the reason is pretty simple. If you go to an area that’s being shelled or there’s fighting going on, most of the time you’ll be lucky – it’s probably not as dangerous as people are saying. But if you keep doing it, one day you’ll be standing where the shell comes down.
“Experienced journalists who get away with it for a long time, and imagine they’ll always get away with it, the maths are going to be against us.”
Cockburn started as a foreign correspondent in 1978 as a freelance reporter for the Financial Times after studying at Oxford University and Queens in Belfast, and working briefly under Richard Ingrams at Private Eye.
He went on to be the paper’s Moscow correspondent for “three or four” years and, after a stint at a think tank in Washington, was made a business reporter for the paper.
Cockburn joined The Independent 25 years ago and has largely worked as a Middle East correspondent since. The exceptions were three years spent in the United States from 1992 and two years again in Moscow.
After the 11 September 2001 World Trade Center attacks, he boarded the first flight to Tajikistan before making his way across the border into Afghanistan in “some very ropey old Soviet helicopters” and he has been reporting from the Middle East ever since.
Spotting the emergence of Islamic State
Cockburn was recognised in the British Journalism Awards for spotting the emergence of the Islamic State before his peers.
Iraq, he says, largely dropped off the “media map” from 2008 and 2009, but he became aware of the new terror group over two trips to the country in 2013 and last year.
How did he get the story? By being there, he says.
During the 2013 trip “it became apparent… that, as I sort of guessed, the Iraqi army was a completely dysfunctional kleptocracy, that the army probably wouldn’t fight because all the officers’ jobs were for sale,” he says. “But that wouldn’t be obvious from the outside.
“Then in early 2014 I wrote a series about the return of Al Qaeda-type organisations – this was in March, before the fall of Mosul… But again, you had to be in the area to see that.
“So the strength of Al Qaeda and the weakness of the Iraqi government was something you needed to be there for write about. And when you were there it was rather obvious.”
Cockburn comments that Iraq coverage from US, French and Italian news organisations has dropped off considerably in recent years, but he remains “fairly” impressed by British coverage – citing The Guardian and Channel 4 News – as a whole, despite resources being “a bit thinner”.
How media 'romanticised' rebels
On the other hand, he disagreed with the way the majority of the press covered the rebel uprisings in Libya and Syria. “I always thought that the rebels in Libya were romanticised by all the media at the time,” he says.
“I thought the… opposition [in Syria] was always more Jihadi or even criminalised than was reported.
“I thought that in both these places there were genuine civil wars, it wasn’t just black hats and white hats, and I don’t think this came across in most of the media reporting in any country.”
He adds: “Although it’s pretty demonstrable now in Libya that the white hats were not so white… if one was following television or reading the newspapers about the Libyan rebels in 2011… would people have realised that pretty well the first proposal of the transitional Libyan government after the fall of Gaddafi was a proposal to reintroduce legalised polygamy? I don’t think that’s what people would have been expecting.”
He credits the rebels in these countries with having strong PR.
Was the Western media guilty of wanting to simplify the story? “Maybe. It was also the Government line in many cases.”
He adds: “Often the governments were pretty nasty, you know. But I think often the way they presented themselves was quite sophisticated, initially in terms of the Syrian rebels, or the Libyan rebels, and this was taken at face value… while the government you had in Syria, their idea of PR was East Germany 1970.”
The importance of experience
The British Journalism Awards judges’ suggestion that Cockburn could do a better job than the whole of MI6 may have been tongue-in-cheek. But he clearly believes that sometimes journalists do know best when it comes to foreign affairs.
Asked what the most important skills for a foreign correspondent to possess are – languages are important, he speaks “a number very badly” – Cockburn says: “You have to be just extremely interested in what’s going on and you have to be able to write about it at speed.
“And you need experience in doing it. And a lot of journalists do.
“It amazes me the number of diplomats who are shoved into places for a year and actually serve shorter times in these places than we journalists do.
“Newspapers would be a bit aghast to have someone who hadn’t done it before to cover a whole big war. They’d look for somebody with some experience of doing that particular country.”
Will the media learn the lessons of recent mistakes covering the Middle East? “I don’t know. Usually people don’t learn from these things, frankly.
"Journalism’s like anything else. The number of really good people, journalists or surgeons or comic acts or anything else, the number of people who are really good, really experienced, it’s always going to be limited. This is true of diplomats, it’s true of everybody.”