Rundle: Colvin was brave in Syria, but her cause is unjust
That suspicion is reinforced by remarks she made, about her continued work after losing the eye in Sri Lanka in 2001: “So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night … Equally, I’d rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offence to desk jobs.” Front-line reportage or dinner party gossip, are those really the only alternatives? What about something more interpretive, that explained to readers the roots of the conflict, and the complexities of the situation? Would that not be — desk job though it is — in service to the Syrian people, perhaps more so than reportage, sometimes shading into war p-rn?
The suspicion that something more is going on — as it is with many war correspondents — is reinforced not only by that damn eye patch, a largely superfluous affectation that seemed to emphasise the narcissistic dimension of war reporting — but also by her comparison of Homs with Srebrenice, despite the many differences between the two situations. Having decided that the West should intervene, Colvin was, by her own account, trying to gather stories that would shame the West into acting. She seems to have achieved that with her death, with Nicolas Sarkozy stating: “That’s enough now … This regime must go,” the death of two European journalists apparently capable of tipping any scale you might want to offer.
Thus the whole cause is neatly contained within the Western drama of salvation, and the Syrians themselves become a backdrop in their own country — as in the last photo of her that has now become iconic, and a more telling picture than many war correspondents would want to admit to. Did her death add to our understanding? Or become part of the drama in ways which make clear-sighted action less possible?
The question can be widened to one that is rarely asked, and that is abut not merely the personality, but the class basis of many such journalists. Overwhemingly drawn from a fairly privileged elite — especially in Britain — or ex-forces personnel, their default setting seems to be a cynicism about organisational politics of any type, and a celebration of individual “conscience”, tied in with eye-witness, and often uncontextualised, accounts of suffering. For many such correspondents, trying to understand the meaning of a conflict is what Colvin disparagingly called the “desk job”, a hint of the wilful anti-intellectualism that often pervades war reporting (making all the more visible the quality of the work of those — such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger — who do put in the desk time).
Such journalists’ careers also serve the interests of other journalists, trapped in a profession that is increasingly devolving to rewriting press releases to wrap around advertising on a page of lifestyle features. The exploits — constructive or otherwise — of war correspondents becomes a way of retaining some meaning in a diminished profession, and their deaths consequently become a rallying point for professional self-celebration.
Bravery is a virtue, and Colvin clearly had it in spades, but it’s a virtue of means, not ends — and when attached to a series of agendas that are anything but those of the wider Syrian people, such exploits can have a contrary effect. At a time when an ever larger proportion of war reportage is being done by the people themselves, and then posted/smuggled/emailed to the wider world, there’s all the more reason to cast a critical eye over large organisations such as the BBC, and individual hero correspondents and the narratives they bring to complex struggles.
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