About getting shot

From time to time, a Western journalist on assignment gets shot. It gets into the news and it upsets their family and friends. If they survive, they write about it, and the paper puts it on the front page, if they write for a paper.
This week, that was Andrew Buncombe from The Independent. He was apparently hit in the thigh by shotgun pellets while reporting from Bangkok. He seems OK at time of writing, which one judges by the fact that he has a piece on the front page of the paper.
It is an admirable piece, evocative and immediate first person reporting though with less use of the vertical pronoun than he might have indulged in given the circumstances. His injury is mentioned some way through the article, is not its main feature. and in my edition, anyway, is not featured on the front page. It made the BBC news this morning, though, so they will have sold papers, his wounds.
And that is his job: selling papers. He is very good at it. As a talented young home reporter Andy made a name for himself in London, went to Washington to cover America, which he did with great credit, and then got a job in India covering Asia from New Delhi. He is an unassuming guy with a great sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase.
Selling papers means the Independent will make a little more money today than yesterday (or lose a little less) which is good. That the paper still has correspondents of the calibre of Andy is a minor miracle, given their resources, and the fact that he was in place in Bangkok is testament to the paper’s continuing commitment to international news. But it is spread thin. Andy covers Asia, which extends from the Kamchatka peninsula to Afghanistan, including China and India. “Being there” is a critical part of Andy’s job, the bit he enjoys most and which is probably most important. “Being there” means seeing things and speaking with people and, sometimes, getting shot.
Lots of other people got shot, of course. Non-journalists get shot and it doesn’t make the front page or Radio 4. Lots of Thai civilians got shot and their faceless, nameless bodies lie on the street in the photographs we see in the papers. When a journalist gets shot his or her name and face get in the paper, and make us take notice of the fact that someone is loosing off shotguns in places where civilians get hurt. Which is the job of a foreign correspondent.
The “foreign” part matters. Foreigners bring a degree of detachment and distance (sometimes helpfully, sometimes not) to reporting. And the fact that Andy has reported conflict elsewhere gives him an advantage in reporting. Injuries to foreigners also get taken more seriously than injuries to locals. That is wrong, but given that it is a fact, it is good that an injury to a foreigner brings attention to what has happened to many others in silence.
Andy probably has insurance and a flak jacket (not on his arse, though) and an evacuation service and hostile environment training, and a foreign editor who (mostly) loves him, and a salary and expenses. These are the benefits of being a foreign correspondent and not a local or a stringer or a tourist or a citizen journalist. Citizen journalism has done terrific things, but if you ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers then you need to do more than just thank them. And we should ask people to put themselves in harm’s way to sell newspapers, because that ensures things get reported quickly, effectively, plurally, openly, that people with skill and insight and experience bring us the first draft of history. Selling newspapers means getting timely, authoritative information to large groups of people, at its best.
It costs. It costs lives, of course, but it is also expensive. My interest in its continuation is partly emotional but partly professional concern for seeing international affairs reported by professionals with appropriate support through multiple channels. This means money. I remember a foreign editor, years ago, being told by a colleague that a correspondent had been caught in a helicopter gunship attack. “He is OK,” the colleague said, “but the hire car is a write-off.”
“Hire car?” Said the foreign editor. “Who told him he could hire a car?”
The correspondent was fine. I hope Andy is also fine and wish him and Nisha well.

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