When historians come to write the definitive guide to wartime journalistic fakery, it will be a shame if Sky News’s James Forlong merits more than a brief mention. His misdemeanour – failing to explain that footage apparently showing a cruise missile being launched from a Royal Navy submarine was in fact a reconstruction – is not to be condoned. But it was very small beer indeed.
It had no propaganda value at all. It was probably motivated by a simple desire to make his news report more interesting. Unashamed fakers have gone much further. In the Thirties and Forties, film-makers working on the March of Time newsreels were told by their boss to “employ fakery in allegiance to the truth” and staging scenes and using actors was not uncommon.
Reporter Claude Cockburn, once of The Times, invented a wholly ficticious battle in the Spanish Civil War to induce France to reopen supply routes to Spanish loyalists, while Arthur Koestler, of the London News Chronicle, mixed fake and authenticated atrocity stories. As Harold Evans writes in his new book War Stories, “such distortion is a betrayal of journalism”.
In the same conflict, photojournalist Robert Capa admitted he faked battle scenes when he couldn’t get the “real” footage he wanted. Some believe his fakery included his most famous photograph – “The Falling Soldier”.
Capa was able to redeem his somewhat tarnished reputation by going on to cover with distinction the Second World War and, finally, the war in IndoChina, where he was killed by a landmine.
The tragedy for Forlong is that, for many people, he will remembered as a faker and not as the passionate journalist who shone a light on some of the world’s murkiest trouble spots – Rwanda, Bosnia, Indonesia and Afghanistan.
The tragedy is that, unlike Capa, he will never be able to make amends for that one mistake.