A tribute to the journalists who have died bearing witness to the truth
. . .Journalists like Marie Colvin [who died under murderous gunfire in the Syrian town of Homs] risk their lives to tell the truth, without regard for restrictions, and in the belief that their audience is composed of intelligent people who can make up their own minds.
Great journalism has the power to change the world every bit as much as a great political speech, and Marie Colvin reporting from the cauldron of Homs was in the tradition of the finest there has ever been. Journalism of the kind she practised was invented by the great Times editor John Delane, who sent his correspondent William Russell to report on the Crimea. That conflict, in which an Anglo-French coalition tried to oppose an invading Russian army, now seems eerily modern. Russell created scandal when he sent home a series of reports that told the truth about appalling facilities for the wounded, dreadful equipment and rank incompetence.
Clare Hollingworth of The Daily Telegraph – still magnificently alive at the age of 100 – is from the same school of reporting. In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, she borrowed a car to drive over the Polish border into Germany, only to discover hundreds of panzer tanks massed in wait. At the end of the war came the famous report from Wilfred Burchett, the first journalist into Hiroshima, whose opening words about the epidemic of radiation sickness afflicting the survivors were: “I write these words as a warning to the world.” The US general in occupied Japan, Douglas MacArthur, ordered Burchett out of the country.
At times, Colvin herself intervened in history, as she did in 1999 in East Timor when she helped save the lives of 1,500 refugees encircled by Indonesian troops in a United Nations compound. The situation was so dangerous that the UN commander wanted to evacuate, leaving the refugees to their fate. But Colvin insisted on staying behind, thus shaming the UN commander into staying – and averting a potential massacre.
In recent years the craft of war correspondent has become steadily more dangerous. No British reporters were killed in the First World War and very few between 1939 and 1945. A string of reporters died in the post-war era – among them Nicholas Tomalin, killed by a Syrian rocket while covering the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict; David Blundy, who was killed by a sniper in El Salvador; and David Holden, mysteriously murdered in Cairo.
Last year the superb British photojournalist Tim Hetherington (whose film about the Afghan war, Restrepo, is a masterpiece) was killed by mortar fire in Libya. Tim once told me that he saw his task as to “bear witness to the truth”. Great war correspondents such as Hetherington and Colvin are doing the most traditional and old-fashioned kind of journalism. They are at the heart of events, using their own eyes, physically turning over and assessing the evidence they find, then interpreting it for a domestic audience. They are aware that what they do may not make a difference, but they also know that as a result of their work nobody can claim they were ignorant.
Practised at its highest level, as it was by Hetherington and Colvin, the work of the war correspondent is a very severe vocation that requires many qualities besides raw courage: experience, judgment, practical knowledge of life-saving techniques, political intuition, a nose for a story. At its best, this kind of journalism empowers people. It empowers the victims of a conflict, enabling them to tell their stories to the outside world. It also empowers the readers and viewers, informing them of many hidden truths about the world in which we live. . .
American Marie Colvin worked for the Times, which wrote: 'Marie Colvin was courageous, dedicated and utterly determined to tell the world of atrocities committed by despotic regimes. Yesterday those virtues cost her her life.'