American Pie 06.02.03

War is hell – but so is the cost of covering it. Many newspapers and TV networks here are concerned about what it may cost if war with Iraq does start. In some cases it could run to a million dollars a day, it’s estimated. CNN has in fact earmarked $35m to cover the possible war. What’s causing additional anxiety, beyond the actual physical costs of equipment, transmission costs and even reporters’ travel expenses, is the possibility of lost advertising. Many big advertisers are wary of their ads running alongside war coverage. American Express has said it may have to reconsider its ad placement if hostilities begin. Others are looking into their contracts for possible escape clauses. Whatever happens there is a big fear that the media may find a war over Iraq as money-draining as the Pentagon will.

Should the war start and New York suffers another terror attack, the NY Times is ready and prepared. It has set up an alternative newsroom – all stacked with desks, chairs and files -in a small town in New Jersey, some 35 miles from Times Square. A “disaster dummy” has also already been produced.

If Iraq is likely to be the No.1 danger-spot for journalists, then the No.2 danger-spot these days is Colombia, where South American rebels have for years been fighting a guerrilla war. Between 2001 and 2002 at least 14 journalists were killed – all of them Colombians. Traditionally foreign journalists have been treated as “independent observers”, but the US military’s increasing involvement in the guerrilla war has changed that. The first indication of the change was the kidnapping of two Western journalists, a British-born freelance reporter, Ruth Morris, and an American freelance photographer Scott Dalton, both on assignment for the Los Angeles Times. They were held captive for 11 days before being released.

Reports that Saudi Arabian officials have been giving expensive watches, including Rolexes, to Western journalists, presumably to curry favour, is not really new. It dates back to the Fifties at least. I remember travelling with Aristotle Onassis to Jeddah at the time when he was negotiating to build the Saudi’s a fleet of oil tankers in return for a big oil contract. Before leaving Saudi officials presented each of us with a set of Arab robes and a gold Swiss watch. Back in London we were confronted by British Customs who insisted on charging us duty – several hundred pounds – on our gifts. When we demurred they confiscated the gifts. Fortunately as the Mail got a page-one story out of the incident, illustrated with a picture of me in my Arab robe, they agreed to let me put the charges on my expenses. Some of my colleagues were not so lucky, as their newsdesks were not so generous.

Normally National Geographic covers whales, mountains and similar stories. But now it’s trying something new: swimsuits. It’s latest issue features on its cover a blonde Australian fashion model wearing, not a bikini, but three strategically placed seashells. The issue hit the news-stands just a few days before the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The editors of National Geo insist they are not abandoning tradition and trying to steal a march on SI. No-one at Sports Illustrated was very fazed.

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