“There’s been a fatality.”
Those words, spoken by Captain Jim Bewley, our British Army media operations chaperone, are the worst you can expect to hear when embedded with forces in the field. This was the third time I have heard such words while out with British troops.
Deaths are part of war, and soldiers are trained to accept them. But for a reporter, they can test your relationship with the men and women around you.
Perceptions matter. Suddenly, some of the people who may have tolerated a journalist as a harmless civilian in their midst are bound to see you as a pest, or worse: a ghoul out to
make a fast buck off a widows tears. (For the record, I get paid a salary, not by the story. I earn just as much if everyone comes home safely.)
In this particular case, the man who was killed in an ambush near our town was not part of our unit. The men around us, rather than preoccupied with mourning a loss, were driven by efforts to hunt down the Taliban fighters responsible.
The British Ministry of Defence, like most Western militaries, becomes very sensitive when someone has been killed. Rules bar embedded reporters from disclosing any details until
family members have been notified: that is to ensure people dont learn about their loved-ones deaths from the newspaper.
In this case, the facts of the incident were relatively straightforward, and I was able to limit myself to publishing official material at the time it was released, without missing
any important part of the story.
Six months ago I was with a British unit when a marine was killed. Eyewitnesses told me they were certain he had been hit by a U.S. air strike, news that was potentially explosive in Britain. I agreed with the British Ministry of Defence that I would delay reporting that fact for 24 hours while they responded. They eventually confirmed that friendly fire was
one of the possibilities that they were investigating.
A word on embeds.
The concept of embedded journalists is a source of much controversy both inside and outside of the profession. I can understand why: saying a reporter is in bed with his sources is about the worst insult you can hurl. At a conference in 2003, I heard one speaker declare that the term embedded journalist was a contradiction in terms.
But although I understand why people are suspicious, I think much of the concern is based on a misunderstanding of what it means to be embedded.
I first heard the term embed in early 2003 to refer to the plans the British and Americans were devising to send reporters with their troops to invade Iraq. It sounded ominous, but the concept was hardly new. The issues that arose from accompanying
fighting men into battle were pretty much the same ones that I first encountered when I went to my first war zone with Chechen separatists in 1994.
I have long since learned that it is possible to work in close quarters with people who fight, and even develop a close personal bond with them, while still questioning the war they are fighting or the way they fight it. They, in turn, often appreciate the view of an outsider.
Of course, we accept reporting restrictions on embedded assignments. The British and Americans both make you sign up to a complicated document drawn up by lawyers. But if the embed is run properly, the purpose of the restrictions is solely to make sure you dont disclose military secrets. No soldiers are going to let a journalist come anywhere near them if they think you are going to reveal to the enemy where they are and what they are planning to do next. Fair enough.
Journalists outside war zones make similar promises all the time. We keep somebodys secrets in return for information – whether it is agreeing to withhold the name of a source or to refrain from publishing market-sensitive economic data until the embargo time when it can be officially released. In war zones, the stakes are higher: the soldiers around you are trying to kill people, and someone is trying to kill them (and possibly trying to kill you too). But the ethical ground rules are exactly the same as in any other situation journalists face every day. Find out as much as you can. Dont pick sides. Dont lie.
You have to stand your ground. Lord knows, I have written stories while on embeds with both American and British forces that have, shall we say, not entirely pleased my hosts. But they have never succeeded in preventing me from writing anything that was true.
Lastly, of course it is important to remember that the viewpoint of soldiers on one side cannot possibly represent an entire conflict. Embedded reporting can be great, but it should never be your only source of news. This should be obvious.
During the invasion of Iraq, for example, Reuters had reporters embedded with British and American troops. We also had reporters in Baghdad working under restrictions imposed by the authorities there, and brave teams operating as unilaterals, on their own on the battlefield in armoured cars, working with no restrictions at all. Finally, we had journalists in Washington, in London and at CentCom headquarters in Qatar. Only when you put all that information together can you begin to get something approaching a full picture of a war.
Here in Afghanistan, we have a fantastic bureau of mostly Afghans with a single foreign correspondent in Kabul. They in turn have a network of Afghan stringers, non-staff journalists scattered throughout the country. Our reporting from a trip like this one alongside NATO troops is hardly the entire picture we produce from Afghanistan, but it is an important part of the story and one we are committed to covering as best we can.
Stuart McDill, a Reuters cameraman embedded alongside Peter and photographer Ahmad Masood, has sent a couple of eyewitness accounts from the field — ‘On patrol in Afghan killing fields’ and ‘Troops and locals – an Afghan scene’.