Moment of truth as our colleagues go to war

What do journalists wish for in times of war? The TV news producer who, only half-jokingly, said recently that after all this preparation, there “bloody well better had be some action” may have paused for thought by now. But if he did so, it would only have been the briefest of pauses.

Newsrooms have their own ways of dealing with times like these. Adrenalin and the sheer momentum of unfolding events will have kicked in as the drama – and, yes, the excitement – unfolds.

But in the back of his and all our minds will be the worry that journalists out in the Gulf covering the conflict are going to find themselves singled out as targets. If there ever really were days when war reporters could send their dispatches from the front line with impunity, knowing that both sides would treat them as impartial observers and non-combatants, they are long gone.

The importance of the media to the war strategists has become too great to allow that to happen. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, of the 400 journalists who have been killed in the line of duty in the past decade, 16 per cent were caught in crossfire and more than three-quarters were targeted specifically because of who they were working for. In 23 cases, journalists were kidnapped and subsequently killed. Media centres were apparently targeted during recent conflicts in both Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders reports that Iraq – once home to one of the most vibrant presses in the Middle East – has become brutally repressive of journalists, all the more so since Saddam Hussein’s son Uday took control of all media after the 1991 war.

This is a critical time for journalism. Every new conflict brings with it a fresh set of dangers, challenges and opportunities for the media. This time it seems that the dangers will be greater than ever, and the opportunities more limited.

The challenge for up to 700 journalists embedded with US and British forces will be to retain their impartiality while eating, camping and marching alongside troops who will become their friends. They also face the difficulties of not knowing how much of what they are being told is pure propaganda.

For those who are not embedded and who try to mobilise themselves, the risks will be even greater.

For the rest of us watching our TV screens and reading our papers back home, the best we can wish for is that our colleagues out there can emerge, swiftly, safely and credibly, when the smoke clears.

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