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The gift of information

February 25, 2012

“Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

“Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness, And yes, it means taking risks . . . It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.
Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”
Marie Colvin

Whenever I hear of a journalist losing their life in the course of their duty, it feels like a personal loss.

I’m not talking about any kind of Post Diana Trauma Syndrome; I know these people are not my friends, and I’m not seeking to climb on a bereavement bandwagon. Indeed, often I get the reaction when the writers or their work have been completely unknown to me.

I feel it personally because I believe, if it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t have been in mortal danger. They visit remote parts and war zones, they get dangerously close to the action, whatever that might be, and they do so, partly because, at their best, they have a mission to discover and inform, and at the most mundane, to produce copy for news junkies such as I, who scan the media avidly for quality reporting, reflective journalism, and detailed information.

I’m not making out that journos are heroic saints – although some have been and some are. They are as flawed as any other section of society and, as we have seen repeatedly over the past year or so, at their worst, they are pretty craven and disreputable in their attitudes.


I have almost immeasurable admiration for their ability to communicate, inform, provoke and explain. I love words and I love how journalists use them. In the time honoured phrase: some of my best friends are journalists, and I am comfortable in their company, I enjoy listening to their stories, and I admire the work they have done.

‘Wanting to know’ is one of the most basic instincts, I suppose. It’s what took stone age man out of his cave and towards the discovery of fire, it’s taken us to the moon, to medical progress, and to greater knowledge of our world and its history. Wanting to know why we are here and what happens after we die fuels universal discussion – of religion and philosophy, psychology and sociology.

And it’s the journalists who help us access the information – they may not be the inventors, but they are the link between the inventors, the explorers and the rest of us.

I saw my first live rock concert in 1966; it was a typical contemporaneous pop feast with the Who, Traffic, The Herd, Marmalade and the Tremeloes (yeh, I know), all playing for fifteen minutes each. I was obviously blown away by the spectacle, but I left thinking how great it would be to become a roadie. I loved the idea of being part of it, but not having to be the star – and maybe this attitude to life is reflected in my respect for journalism. God knows there are some huge egos in the journo world, and, yes, there are many journalists who, deservedly or not, become what you might call stars within their sphere. However, ultimately, I think I enjoy the fact that the reporter can give information and provoke reflection, which in itself can glorify, or at least contextualise, the discovery or great event.

The relationship between news and its context is fertile ground for thought and understanding, and when journalists get that right it can be exhilarating. There are few more satisfying experiences than that of reading or hearing words, or seeing pictures, and then reflecting on the thoughts they have created; a well written piece or finely balanced broadcast – be it opinion or straight reporting, can unleash myriad consequences in thought, decisions and actions. I like that power, especially as I believe strongly that the pen is self evidently mightier than the sword.

We want to know: and the journalists can help us find out what has happened, maybe why it has happened, and, sometimes, the consequences of it having happened.

All of this has been provoked, of course by the untimely loss of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in Syria – but it echoes how I felt when we lost photographers Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington, Rory Peck, or, for that matter, Veronica Guerin in Dublin. Whether through pictures or words, these folk use their talent to inform, to shine a light in places so murky that you or I, please God, would never get near them.

The question of the difference between bravery and bravado, as posed in the quote from Marie Colvin at the head of this piece, is often rehearsed, but I would never feel qualified to comment on why people do what they do. Uncovering information, particularly vital information, is going to involve exposure to risk – whether in a war zone, amongst Dublin gangsters, or revealing shady deals in local government – the degree and nature of risk may vary, but ultimately, the journalist takes the risks that allow us to make informed decisions.

One can always question the motive of talented people driven that extra mile – whether in business, sport or the arts, but it’s the end product that leaves its effect.

The Committee to Protect Journalists tells us that over 900 have died since 1992; mostly they take the risks aware of what they are doing; death is a big price to pay for ambition, and I believe the vast majority are driven by pride in what I still think of as the Fourth Estate, rather than personal glory.

None of this, of course, even begins to take into account the sacrifices made by the increasing number of citizen journalists in danger zones, who take the same risks without any of the rewards, and with no sure knowledge that their words will even be heard, and they die in their hundreds too.

John McGahern, as a writer, epitomized the power of linking words with place. In his last novel ‘That they may face the rising sun’, he portrays the folk living around Lough Allan in his native Leitrim as greeting each other, perpetually, with the enquiry: ‘Is there any news?’ They are talking about people and places they know – not international events – because in the end, all news is about the human condition, it is a way of seeking answers about ourselves.

McGahern would quote John Donne, who wrote that love ‘makes one little room an everywhere’. Journalists can bring everywhere into one little room. Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were just the latest to die in brave attempts to show us ourselves, albeit at our worst; journalists at their most vulnerable take risks to encourage us to learn from the horror of which man is capable.

They are the ones who, often literally, put their heads above the parapet – and that, allied to their craft with words, brings the inspiration of true courage.

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