War Correspondents: News from the Front

I'm at the Canadian War Museum tonight, live blogging the War Correspondents: News from the Front, part of the "From Headlines to History" CBC/Radio-Canada’s 75th anniversary celebrations being hosted by the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. On tonight's panel you'll find foreign correspondents Nahlah Ayed (CBC) and Raymond Saint-Pierre (Radio-Canada), and museum historian Andrew Burtch (CWM). They'll be discussing the current and historical context of war reporting with moderators Lucy van Oldenbarneveld (CBC) and Michel Picard (Radio-Canada).

If you are on Twitter you can follow the #H2HCWM and #CBC75 tags.

The event starts with short video that takes us into the field to display the intersection of media and war.

AB: There's an evolving relationship  --  on one hand the military who needs secrecy and on the other hand the media who needs accuracy and wants to report. You have access given the to media for things that they can report and the military gets the chance to tell some of their side of the story while (sometimes) providing a measure of protection for reporters. It's a pendulum between secrecy and access.

RSP Do we agree to embedded access? It's very difficult to contend we are covering a war accuracy if we're always on the the one side. If we're not there we'd miss a whole part of history. We always want more access and information than the military are willing to offer but it's something. There's a risk when working with the military. Eg. in Afghanistan we couldn't say where we're reporting from.

NA: It really depends on the situation. I was in Afghanistan when the troops landed. Do we want the eyewitness account or the report after the fact? In Iraq we were not embedded with the military. We also had the offer to embed with the Iraqi side. We left and came back on our own -- a third, more dangerous, option.

AB: Every time there is a different conflict there is a different structure and how the two parties interact changes over time. The product of what reports comes out depends on what the reporter can observe. Eg. WWII the reporters who were posted overseas worked very closely with the troops and created a vivid and dramatic account of the march forward, especially after 1943. Being there, historically, has really mattered.

LvO: Now with that historical perspective, what is the expectation of being embedded?

NA: Depends on the situation. In Afghanistan, back then when we arrived, we had a house. You could do that then. We could spend the time with the troops and then spend time outside the wire. But there were rules involved being embedded with the troops. We stayed on base but we were very separated physically on base. It was more embedded when we travelled. It was me and bunch a men. I had to deal with what they dealt with. They want to know what you are writing and if it will compromise operational security.

LvO: What do you do?

NA: they give you the rules in advance and if you break them you're out.

LvO: Did you see that happen?

NA: Yes.

RSP: My wife wasn't so pleased to see me leave and go to Afghanistan. We were on a front line base. We wanted to see what the situation was and it was quite desperate. They were outnumbered and they were a token presence on the front. One day there were 3 IEDs. Why did we go back? Because it was important. It was a story that needed to be told. These were people we'd followed since bootcamp. We needed to tell their stories. The range of action was only 3.5 km.

LvO: Has the nature of war changed? Is it more impt for reporters to embed to avoid danger?

AB: If we are talking about WWII (on R's point that you go where the story is) --  in WWII they were not embedded. They were integrated. The uniform was almost the same and their job was to report on the progress of the war. They had certain regulations they had to comply with. Safety being rather secondary, you need to go where the story is. That's how you tell the story of Dieppe. How you record the artillery exchanges. You'd have a very hard time going it alone in WWII - you'd have been arrested as a spy or captured by the other side.

MP: War correspondents vs foreign correspondents -- we've changed the term somewhat.

RSP: A lot of things changed since the last global war. In the Cold War we had the Reds and the Capitalists. We had a lot of bases all over the world. It was important to get our people there, in a bit of a middle ground. The situation changed around the end of the 80s -- the fall of the Berlin War. We have different wars now and we've become targets in our own right. We have instant wars now and people could say that what we said had certain weight. In Yugoslavia there was a price on our head. We returned our first truck with bullet holes in it. You have to be well prepared.

NA: I'm a firm believer that to properly cover a place you've got to know something about. Either you're a really good reader of you can live there. We tend to report the spikes, not the mundane stuff in the middle. The in-between is what helps you understand the spikes. We can't tell the mundane in the spikes.

MP: As historian are the media doing a good job?

AB: Of course! (laughter)

MP: Do you feel something's missing?

AB: As a historian we fill in the gaps later. (laughter) No one has a monopoly on what's going to happen next. Coverage is always going to be spotty. Are they doing a good job? Being there is half the battle. There are some very fine things that come out of journalist observations.

RSP: We don't always have a lot of time to explain it -- once I had 2 minutes 20 seconds to explain a situations with a complicated historical background.

LvO: It's becoming rarer to have foreign offices.

RSP: The evolution of news and news gathering today - in the USA it's megabcorps and they have shareholders and they priorities that aren't news. Public tv... some of them are maintaining presence abroad. Has interested diminished in overseas news? Not at all. I wasn't be surprised if most of the people here tonight were first or 2nd generation from abroad.

NA: The public still cares -- that's my impression. The kinds of reactions we get at the CBC and personally -- my sense is that my generation and younger care.
I left the Middle East in 2009. I felt it was preparation. When I landed in Egypt and we were asked what was going on I was able to do 15 minutes live for why it was happening. (That never happens.) Because I had lived there and heard what had happened. It was explainable to me. It had been building for years.

LVO: How covering the news had evolved. Will covering become easier as the technology changes?

RSP: The first internlt coverage I did was that Thai/Cambodian borders. People were fleeing the killing fields and looking like the walking dead. We'd drive 7 hours from Bangkok, stay 3 hours, drive back to the airport, convince someone to talk our undeveloped film canister to Paris or London who would deliver it, it would get it developed and then so on. Fax! What a development. Tienanmen Square -- people were getting their messages our via fax.  Sometimes we had to travel with an editing table, we had heavy gear that we had to travel with [back then]. Darfur, not all that long ago... I was doing the camera work, someone would be in our laptop and solar feeda nd it would be in montreal.

NA: The fax turned out to be handy when the authorities turned off comms in Egypt. Even in the years I've been in journalism technology has changed dramatically. Even satellite phones have gotten smaller. The way we gather info has changed. At one point Canadians were going to be evacuated. There were so many people around that we couldn't film. I filmed a piece for the CBC with my blackberry.

LvO: Does it make it easier or harder now to do it all?

NA: Now you're also expecting to tweet on top of everything else! It does increase your workload. Reports for radio, a Q&A and two cut pieces for television and radio, tweet during the day to keep people updated.

RSP: When I was based in China it was a bit different. It was a bit slower. I disembarked in Kosovo and I had forgotten how fast the day could be. I'd be in the front, in the field, to go and come back it was 75 minutes to go base and come back. It was pointless to have someone in the field and trying to talk to people - we don't have the time to go from the front and talk to people.

MP: Social media - today news flashes across the globe in a few seconds. How does that impact your work? Reliable sources?

NA: The temptation to go forward with something you haven't double-sourced. It's ok to be late as long as you are right. But there's also the expectation to fill the time because there is a lot of time to fill. If you are on the ground already, if you live there, you have the sources already.

MP: Did you depend a lot on social media?

AB: I'm not sure the historical community has become to grips with the implications yet. The volume of what is produced... it's something I keep an eye on as news breaks. You get things like photographs that you normally wouldn't get. When you have soldiers with digital camera in their pocket... Photos of a blown up vehicle in Afghanistan taken by the solider themselves were on display here as part of our display [at the museum].

RSP: How do you respond to a rumour? It's head's up of what's going on but you have to figure out what's really going on. Social media can be a rumour mill - it can destroy reputations. Like the lesbian blogger in Syria that ended up being false. We have to verify sources, double check verify recheck -- behind the camera we need to find out who is saying it.

NA: The social media pitfalls can be enormous. On the other hand it can also be incredibly helpful. 2009 Iranian presidential election. I had never been to Iran. I spent a week there and they didn't renew our visas. We cont to report from Beirut. The coverage from Iran was coming from Twitter. Before we left we had met a lot of these people. They were our contacts. It wasn't ideal but without citizen journalism we couldn't have done it. It was Iranians who really started doing this with their uprising. Then Egypt. Now Syria. Now I can't live without Twitter as a source. If you see a bit of smoke on there -- you can follow it up. I follow a lot of people to cultivate sources.

RSP: Our historian can verify it was after WWII we started the lesson of propaganda.

NA: I can't comment on the development of propaganda in the Middle East but WWII was different. It was a total war. It's different from the media reporting. It's a state production... but an interesting record.

LVO: Before we get to the audience questions -- being a war correspondent seems so glamorous to us. But we hear the effect of being there. Romeo Dallaire, for example. Daily life looks a lot more boring when you come home from these assignment. The personal toll that this takes.

NA: The great thing about our jobs is that it's natural therapy. We discuss these things as we go through them. We see horrible things but we get to talk about it. Of course, it's difficult. The great thing about coming home is stepping back but it's really, really hard to come down.

RSP: Each time it's a bit of a counter-shock. Even just drinking the water from the tap. The backfire from a car and you don't have to jump under the bed. It leaves its marks. Even if we don't want to talk about something in particular, our near and dear will pull it out of us. We have to do a self debriefing. Those on the front lines that get involved deeply heart and soul... it will break them. We have to maintain a certain distance. We need to keep a distance in a bit of a cold fashion. If you get too involved you'll break down. (His friend, author of War Junky.) You can't continually cover these events. We're foreign correspondents who get involved in war correspondence. You can't cover war all the time.

NA: We've all had incidents happen to us. It's hard to ask for sympathy in cases like this. I made a choice to be there. I never wanted to be a war correspondent but it was part of covering that region. If I'm going to be there something could happen and I need to own that and be ready for that. At least I choose it -- some people live there. They don't have a choice.

LvO: The detachment of being a journalist helps you be there?

RSP: Of course it helps. Certainly.

LVO: Chris Hedges book   -- War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning -- draws on his experiences in war and looks to describe the patterns and behavior of nations and individuals in wartime...

NA: Anyone who has gone through a traumatic experience or sustained exposure to violence... For a long time I wouldn't sleep with a window closed after an explosion in Libya. I was close to it and missed it by a couple of hours. That's why we come home. We have outs, like diplomats do. So we can maintain a normalcy.

AB: A lot of parallels with the Canadian military experience. After the Cold War, going to bad situations again and again and again and being burnt out. It's a process to make the transition to being a country of peace. Little things like driving, getting involved in family connections again, are something that the military over the past 10-20 have begun to come to grips with in a very serious way.

NA: Canadian military introduced decompression and we adapted that in R&R in our profession.

RSP:  After the 80s we're more prepared to go into these zones. We need to know what we need to do after these events. In the 80s I was based in Paris and they'd send us place, like the front, where we'd need flak jackets. We had some made up but their approach at the time it was very nonchalant. PTSD -- they only started dealing with it in the 1980s -- today we're much, much better at dealing with it.

MP: Moving to questions from the audience. Please keep them brief.

Audience: In the context of being a university student in the 1970s and 1980s. I learned Spanish by listening to the BBC in Spanish, etc. on shortwave radio I really learned about the world that way. It was the Cold War. It [shortwave radio] was the internet of that time. I still listen today to BBC news. I feel reasonably well informed. Why can't we have a CBC world source news online?
AB: In a way we do. Radio-Canada international became the CBC international service. It broadcast overseas. It has always been around to some degree.

Audience: NA - I have a great deal of respect for you and your colleagues - like Mellissa Fung. How is as a woman to in countries where women don't have the same rights?

NA: It varies, depending on where you go. In several countries, as a foreign person coming and dressing and respecting their traditions we're treated almost as a third sex. I Saudi Arabia -- there's not avoiding dressing the way women dress there. I found there was some leniency. People were very welcoming to me. In countries like that in Afghanistan -0 I'm giving a diferent set of rules than the women that live there. Overall, it's a positive thing. It's easier to connect to people, to talk to women to connect to families. At times it's been awkward -- there was a man we were filming and he wouldn't no look at me -- out of respect or the way he was raised... I'm not sure. Until the very last minute I was asked if there wasn't a man that could do the interview. But on the whole, it's been a postive thing.

Audience member: Would you write a book?

NA: Maybe in the future.

Audience member: In terms of objectivity, how do you think media has been in terms of covering wars. Social media -- do you think there are risks that they pose in various countries in terms of propaganda. Will social media providetools to do that? Will you end up passing on the propagnda if you are not there?

RSP: In a war context, I try to be very careful to report only what I see. The temptation is there to report on things that you hear are happening but I report what I see. Otherwise we risk reporting on things that aren't true. You can lose credibility. In a war situation it's the only way to be objective to myself -- and a as defense. Stick to what I see.

NA: I would agree that. There are lots of journalists in the world and they are trained different but I like to think that I have been given the training with an education and I worked at the Canadian Press. Don't your feelings come into it? We all have feelings. If someone is dying on the street you are going to feel something. But what are you going to report? Your feelings? Or that someone is dying in the street?

AB: In a historical sense, when you are as close to the troops as people were in WWII there wasn't really an appetite at home for the view on the other side. It was a crusade. Objectivity came into for things like the Conscription Crisis but there weren't that many people who were asking why we were fighting. They were sold on the fact that we were fighting. It was different when it's not clear cut, eg. Korea. It all depends on the conflict. In WWII objectivity was a relative thing.

NA: There's a great emphasis on reporters being tough questioners. But there's also a flip side -- an ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes. If you can't do that, I'd argue you have no business being a reporter.

Audience: I'd like to congratulate whoever is putting these events together. My question -- I'm Hew who was brought up a Christian. My neighbour, a Catholic, asked me about the middle east. What is going on in the Middle East? Why? How do you explain it to people?

NA: It's many generations in the making. The frustrations of many people are coming to the fore. Many people who had not being able to express themselves previously are coming forward. They have had enough and they want to be heard. It goes beyond the economy, thought that's part of it too. They have nothing to lose.

Audience member: For NA - covering war... there tends to be a common narrative where there's a good side and a bad side. Libya is an example... do when we do that isn't it simplifying it way too much?

NA: Part of it goes back to what RSP said of we get 2 minutes and 20 seconds to tell a story. What is happening... the central subject was the pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces. It's only now that we're seeing that there's a rainbow of different opinions and groups. It's like there are a myriad of different types of Iraqis -- there is no consensus among all peoples.

RSP: Another element, of course, we have to give you news but we also need time to digest and integrate that in the larger context. We can go into more detail in longer programs, at later dates. You can't present it in a sound bite. It depends on the platform we have available to us. We don't explain anything anymore -- we just tell you what's happen. We need to find a better equilibrium.

Audience member:  Does gender matter? Women working as war/foreign correspondents in a historical context -- how has it changed?

AB: Historically it has been a small pool of people who are doing the reporting. Women would cover CWACs, for example -- give it a female tone. As the number of correspondents has increased the number of women has increased. In many ways more recent female correspondents are pioneers because they aren't covering the "soft" side of the war news.

RSP: I think we've seen a fair bit of change since the 80s. CBC/RC had a pool of correspondents. We had one female, the rest were all the guys. I think today we'd have a majority of women. Women have be mastered the trade. But it's not accepted everywhere. For example, in Egypt the sexual assault of Lara Logan. A lot of progress overall, but it's not universal.

Audience: Has there been an instance where being Canadian has helped or hindered your role as journalist?

RSP: during the Gulf War it was the first one where we being spit at. I felt it that time. That was the first time. Every Friday we were told we had to attend the mosque and we'd go to Friday prayers and then do interviews and they'd ask who we were and we'd say Canadian journalists. We'd get spit on. So I started saying I was Québéccois. No one knew what that was so I was ok. (laughter)

Audience: We have war moving away from clear fronts. We have the closing of overseas bureaus. What doee that do to reporting? How does that shape how we rethinking war correspondents?

NA: It's a big question. I think that what has changed is that there are so many more sources of information. What worries me, the kind of knowledge you need to cover a place... We are thrown into situations where we don't know the place and it makes it more difficult. It does do a disservice to the people who use that news source as the main source. But there aren't a lot of people who use one source. It makes it more difficult for journalists to understand the context. It puts more emphasis with the people we use on the ground -- our fixers. It changes the way we work. It think it's more difficult.

RSP - On the issues of fixers.. there are a lot I've used in the past. They've never necessarily lived some place that had free press before. One that I've used... now he's a professional fixer but he used to be in opera. He's learned. We can take the fixers under our wing and and not train them, but assist them. They become quite reliable.

Audience: The existence of media monitoring organizations -- organizations that can send out email blasts, that can send out updates, in minutes. Has that changed the way you report stories?

NA: It makes you aware of how much responsibility rests on your shoulders. It reminds you that there are people watching. You have to be very careful and as go straight ahead as possible

RSP: It doesn't change how we do business but reaffirms my insistence to cover only what I see. Cover what you are doing honestly, it's your best defense.

Audience: The role of the war correspondent as educator. How do you get to be an educator as well as a reporter?

NA: Good question. I'm not sure I see myself as an educator. As RSP said, I pass on information.

RSP: I think a lot of what we do is to sensitize people and make them aware of these situations. If we have a report on Libya tonight, we put a spark on their curiosity. We're just a point of entry.

Audience: There isn't as much coverage of the good news stories when they come out as the bad ones. Is that reflective of the time? Or a value judgement of what's more important.

RSP: We get asked that all the time. If it was only good news no one would read the newspaper. News is news, it's what's spectacular or sensational.

NA: The times when I've done a "slice of life" story, I get tons of mail. I know that people find it interesting.


That was the final question. Thanks to the Canadian War Museum, The Museum of Civilization and the CBC/Radio-Canada for hosting these events. There are two more events left in the series. There is limited seating but tickets are free to the public. You can get more information on the Canadian War Museum site.