By Paul Charman
BBC world affairs correspondent John Simpson has revealed that a quarter of the corporation’s foreign news budget now goes on maintaining a Baghdad bureau.
The commitment was in stark contrast to a massive withdrawal of western newspapers and broadcasters from the region in face of increasing danger to reporters and camera crews, senior foreign correspondents told a debate "Reporting the Middle East", chaired by Simpson in London.
According to former Middle Eastern war correspondent Giles Trendle, now producer of Al Jazeera’s Top Secret current affairs programme, western media increasingly relied on "the cannon fodder of an army of adventurers, young freelances taking risks when the big corporations pull out."
With the toll of journalists covering Iraq now standing at 16 ‘lost’ and 10 at the receiving end of death threats, it was "now impossible for Western journalists to travel freely", said Zaki Chehab, London bureau chief of Al Hayat and a correspondent for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
Local journalists from either the Sunni, Shia or Kurdish "tribes" had to be recruited, but free movement of journalists in southern Iraq was "nil.
Everybody has to travel with the security forces and there are limited places", he told the debate at the Imperial War Museum, held in association with the Media Society.
International editor at Channel Four, Lindsey Hilsum, said: "We now have to rely on Iraqi journalists because of the danger. We can no longer be our own eyes and ears… to be honest, I feel guilty about it but it is beyond our danger threshold. We only go embedded".
The Times’ diplomatic editor Richard Beeston agreed: "The British are now in retreat. Many of the papers have now pulled out. But this is a story that is going to define our lives and we have a duty to report it".
Hilsum said that if C4 wanted to establish a bureau in Baghdad, it would drain 50 per cent of her budget because of soaring insurance costs.
The internal Iraqi media had witnessed a substitution of coverage promoting Saddam to one that glowingly reported on the achievements of the coalition forces — with local journalists offered up to $1,000 to write favourable stories, Chehab claimed.
"Nobody dares tell the truth. Local police say we cannot protect you and you cannot protect us any more," he added. He cited the case of an Iraqi family where the father had joined the new Iraqi police while his son was secretly working for the insurgents, unbeknown to each other.
However, more widely throughout the Middle East, "the birth of the new Arab media is one of the success stories — the shackles have been broken and we are not going back".