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Libya five years on... And why we need war reporters more than ever...

Libya five years on... And why we need war reporters more than ever...

We need war reporters for the same reason we need eyes: to see - and to see with the confidence that what we are looking at is credible, and authentic. 

In short, the role of the war reporter is to be our own eyes in places where we cannot see by ourselves. 

Reportage by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has its place – in war, all information is potential gold - but it needs to be thoroughly sifted, tested and ultimately edited. Unlike citizen journalists, professional war reporters work within strict legal parameters that we as a society have agreed upon: they are required to be fair and honest; they are bound to protect their sources and the safety of their subjects; and, if they break those rules, they are held accountable.
Courageous local journalists often do an amazing job of collecting source material: much as western news crews like to boast about being first on the scene, they necessarily nearly always arrive well after their local counterparts. But as my friend and experienced war reporter Tim Hetherington once said, “Witnessing is not enough”. What the best war reporters and foreign correspondents do is translate “over there” to “over here”. Their job is as much one of interpretation, as it is of recounting hard facts. Our eyes: war seen and understood through the filter of our cultural perspective.
When Alex Crawford bumped into Tripoli on the back of a pick-up truck with Libya’s rebels in 2011 she achieved, perfectly, what every reporter aspires to: to tell a difficult story from the ground up, exclusively, and with no delusions of grandeur. What her reporting said was deceptively simple: this is where NATO has brought us. You’re bankrolling this, and this is what’s happening – right here, right now. And consequently she posed another crucial, if unspoken question: and how do you feel about it?
Five years later, as the country slides deeper into the abyss of a failed state, that unspoken question still needs to be answered, and urgently. But with a dearth of war reporters in Libya who can translate the facts and feelings of the ongoing consequences of that intervention to an audience who partly paid for it, we seem to have forgotten not only that there needs to be an answer, but that there is even a question to be addressed at all.
What the great war reporters of our time know is that on the frontline, what you understand of the conflict at any one time is what you see of the conflict at any one time: about a hundred square meters. Analysis and editorials come second to, and depend upon, the act of being there.
And there is no substitute for having eyes on the ground, and hands to turn over fresh evidence. We will, for example, probably never truly know the exact circumstances surrounding Colonel Gadaffi’s death, and why those he terrorised were denied the chance of seeing him stand trial. I’d gladly swap all the grizzly cell phone footage, breathless rebel accounts and columns of hubris for one eye witness account by a professional reporter.
And it is important that we see war: just because the lives of those marginalised, oppressed and victimised by the obscenity of violence are hard to pull into focus does not mean they are any less worthy of scrutiny. On the contrary. Whether it’s in the headline conflicts of Iraq or Syria or the secret wars in Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia your taxes are being used to lethal effect. As Tim and I used to remind each other, “We may not change a thing, but they’ll never be able to say they didn’t know.”
A version of this article was previously published in Monocle magazine.
Image credit: LIBYA. Misurata. April 18, 2011. Backstreets of Misurata. Tim Hetherington/Magnum Photos.

Views and Voices is a strand of guest blogs that reflect the personal views of their authors.

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