The changing face of war - Danfung Dennis

The changing face of war - Danfung Dennis

Every year Polis runs a course on War Reporting at the London College of Communication. There’s a bit of context and history but the bulk of the course is made up of presentations and discussions with some of our leading conflict journalists. It provided us with the latest on how conflict is mediated in current warzones.

This year the speakers came from every part of the media and talked about conflicts including Gaza, South Ossetia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the new battlefield of the Internet.

This report on the guest speakers by Polis Intern Hannah Cooper.

James Rodger’s most recent posting was as the BBC correspondent in Moscow, and from here he reported on the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia. He has also spent time in Gaza, producing a report after spending time with the Israeli army. James discussed the journalist’s rare perspective of a conflict where he or she is able to report from both sides, thus gaining an insight denied to combatants. However, as we saw earlier in the week at the talk on war reporting during the occupation of Gaza a year ago, this impartiality is not simple to maintain and, indeed, does the journalist really want to remain impartial?

When Danfung Dennis said of his job as a photojournalist that “you should always be human first”, he implied that impartiality, though desirable so as not to present a piece of propaganda, was always going to be affected by human emotions. He showed clips from his new video which traces the efforts of US Marines in Afghanistan and is to be turned into a documentary called ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’, seeing Danfung move away from his traditional medium of photography.

Deborah Haynes of The Time is another journalist to have moved away from her original area of expertise. Having started with AFP in Japan working on financial news, she moved to Iraq to cover the war and has just arrived back, having spent several years at The Times as their defence correspondent. Deborah emphasised the difference between news agencies and print journalism, with the heavy demands that the former makes to always be on the frontline and the difficulties that presented in a city such as Baghdad, where the next car bomb could be two metres away from you. Journalists took to pooling their efforts, cooperating among competitors; after all, with the view of the typical Iraqi that they were a part of the occupation, they already had enough enemies to contend with.

Army embeds, that is, the assignment of a journalist to travel with a military unit during conflict, was a theme that came up frequently amongst the speakers. Other than Danfung’s touching camera work during his time embedded with US troops, Deborah of spoke of missions where she would be riding in an unarmoured Humvee with little more than a helmet to protect her from roadside IEDs, and remembers tucking her legs up onto the seat for what little this would do for her peace of mind. Having noticed this, the soldier in the seat in front said to her: “don’t worry, you won’t lose your legs in an explosion. That’ll be me. You’ll just get fourth degree burns all over your body.” But Deborah tells us she is a wimp, and she isn’t the only one.

Stephen Grey pressed upon his audience his complete cowardice, and shows us a video of being embedded with British troops in Afghanistan. He spends much of the time crouching behind a thin clay wall, with people around him shouting in unidentifiable languages. It is nice to know that journalists, too, are human.

But Stephen is no lightweight in the field of journalism. His work in Afghanistan has seen him cross borders illegally disguised in a beard and Afghan dress when he was unable to obtain a visa, only to be arrested when re-entering Pakistan. He tells the students that there are a lot of things he looks back on and can’t believe how crazy he was, that there are a lot of things that he wouldn’t do if he was to encounter the same situation now. But you can’t help thinking that this is just a disclaimer (how much does his employer, The Sunday Times, know of his illicit adventures?) and that he would not be the journalist he is without experiences such as these. His embeds in conflict zones impressed upon the audience just how much of a balancing act reporting is between respect for the people you have been surrounded by for several months and the journalist’s ‘responsibility’ to show everything.

Mina Al-Lami gave us a completely different perspective on war reporting; her job is very much conducted from the front line, but her medium is a chatroom in an extremist website rather than the battlefield. A visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, Mina’s work centres on the analysis of Jihadist videos and whether or not ‘new media’ has a radicalising effect on Muslims. Media Jihad, she tells us, is an actual stream of Jihad and not just a Western term; accessibility to the internet, plus its quick, cheap and anonymous usage, has facilitated this explosion of multimedia struggle and its suppression is impossible to manage. More progressive sites, however, give us some hope that extremists can be combated by intelligent debate and an appeal to their logic.

This report on the guest speakers by Polis Intern Hannah Cooper.