Marie Colvin’s tragic death in Syria shows that social networks are only part of the answer. When it comes to exposing a cruel dictatorship to the world, there’s no substitute for a war reporter
There’s a lesson to Marie Colvin’s death beyond the torrent of tributes to her courage, eloquence and passion. "In an age of 24-7 rolling news, blogs and twitters," she said in that much-quoted St Bride's lecture a couple of years ago, "we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same: someone has to go there and see what's happening.
“You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that people, be they government, military or the man in the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.”
It’s important to reflect on that “difference” in Syria. Of course, as so often in the Arab spring, there have been horrifying street camera scenes of atrocity and video streamed on the net. Of course, the social networks were there and thereabouts when the Assad regime had closed Syria to foreign correspondents: Twitter and Facebook could carry some of the load.
Yet, as Marie Colvin said, the audience waiting back home needed something more than “unverified” pictures and testimonies (as the BBC puts it). They wanted a trusted presence who could say: “I was there and I saw what was happening – and it was disgusting.” You can flood the world with fake messages and confected blogs; pro-Putin groups, the Guardian reported recently, are doing that already. You can confect a phoney wave of digital opinion; Belarus was on to that game early. But the shock of truth depends on direct, trusted testimony. The good old war reporter – from the Crimea to Homs – still stands stage centre.
If you can keep him or her out, as Syria found, then slaughter becomes somehow second-hand. More depressing than desperate, lacking a reference point – just over there, seemingly beyond intervention. But known reporters on the spot turn that around. They are the vital spark of recognition that can light the flames of public revulsion.
Here was her point at St Bride’s, a totally counter-intuitive argument to slip in amid the vaulting ambition of the new breed of digital gurus (more often American academics than journalists) who preach mass participation, via net or tablet, rather than the now-despised old model where trained editors and correspondents play “gatekeepers”.
Clay Shirky of New York University, probably the greatest of the gurus, asks: “The question that mass amateurisation poses to traditional media is ‘What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What happens when there is nothing unique about publishing any more because users can do it for themselves?”
Well, in a way we begin to know what mass amateurisation brings in train: many good things, including innovation and participation. Those tweets from Tunisia again. But we also begin to see what the messages from the street – their pictures, their pleas – cannot achieve. They cannot topple a determined, brutal dictatorship. They cannot fully engage a wider, watching world. They are part of the answer, not all of it.
Too much debate about the future of news is confrontational, dogmatic and didactic. Your vision is either right – or dead wrong. The need for foreign reporting in a globe that YouTube can span in a second is either too expensive or too irrelevant. (“The whole notion of ‘long-form journalism’ is writer-centred, not public-centred,” according to the ineffable Jeff Jarvis). So the small, brilliant, courageous bunch of professional reporters – less Anthony Shadid of the New York Times and now Marie Colvin in two brutal Syrian weeks – can be made to seem somehow dinosaurs stuck on the edge of the action.
But think what Marie Colvin believed about bringing “truth to power”. Remember how the people of Homs welcomed her only a few days ago as a symbol of western concern and hope. She told the story, but she was also a part of the story of news. Been there, seen that … need to care deeply.
from Peter Preston