Friday, 11 September 2009
The cost of free reporting
Back to more serious issues now. There has been some controversy surrounding the successful rescue of New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell - held by the Taliban in Afghanistan - by the British armed forces. The operation resulted in the death of a British soldier, two Afghan civilians and Mr Farrell's translator. There has been criticism from some quarters - particularly from within Afghanistan itself - that such a raid was both unnecessary and reckless, given that the Red Cross, the UN and tribal elders were all involved in "optimistic negotiations". The army have defended their actions, arguing that it was the best chance of saving lives.
Whether or not Farrell and his translator Sultan Munadi could have been freed via diplomatic means - never a guarantee in the kidnap-prone country - the rescue does raise the issue of whether journalists should limit their investigative activities if they know they may be putting other peoples' lives in danger in addition to their own.
Brigadier Gordon Messenger made this very point. A former commander of Task Force Helmand, he suggested that in future journalists reporting from war zones should be 'embedded' within military units for their own protection. Senior officers are thought to be furious with Farrell's decision to ignore warnings from local police and village elders.
The problem with this idea, however, is that the opportunities for free reporting are greatly diminished. Having a contingent of armed soldiers following you around is not the most incongruous method of gathering news stories.
And their are questions of political impartiality too. The story that originally led to Farrell and Munadi's kidnap - an investigation into an apparent NATO air strike on two hijacked fuel tankers that resulted in many dead - might not have been deemed worthy of investigation by the army, who would in effect be able to dictate what exactly a journalist would see.
On the other hand the price for true investigative journalism in this case has been four lives lost. It's a poignant reminder of the difficult and painful balancing act between free access and the right to life.