Frontline dispatches: Martin Bell, famous for his BBC reports from the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, celebrates the life and work of the man whom modern war reporters admire the most, The Times' man in the Crimea, W.H. Russell.
These days there is much academic theorizing--maybe too much--about the political effects of war reporting, especially in television. First it was called the CNN effect. Then for a while the BBC effect. It involves governments taking actions, whether to engage in armed conflict or to withdraw from it, which without the pressures of television they would not have taken. These despatches remind us that there was once a Times effect: Russell would not be silenced. He brought down a government.
He was with the Army but not of it. That remains the crucial relationship in our time as in his.
Set to one side those war reporters--and they exist today as they always did--who are what the Army calls 'Waits' (Walter Mittys) and for whom soldiering is the career that they wish to have had. They will always be so embarrassingly onside as to be (in nay view) a waste of space and short of the authority and credibility that mark the best of what Russell called 'luckless tribe' of which he was in a very real sense the founding father. For the rest of us, soldiers and journalists are, quite simply different sorts of people. The journalists' instinct is to publish and be damned; the soldiers' is to censor and be safe.
There are two permanent sources of tension between them. One is the reporting of defeats and of casualties. The other relates to operational security--plans, capabilities and troop movements. Russell was not the last, but was one of the first, to be accused of endangering the lives of the soldiers whose battles he reported. Prince Albert called him 'that miserable scribbler'. And a former Secretary of the Army wrote 'I trust the Army will lynch The Times correspondent'.
Occasionally, copies of Russell's despatches filtered back to the Crimea, having not been greatly appreciated back in London. He wrote, 'I was honoured by a great deal of abuse for telling the truth. But I could not tell lies to "make things pleasant". There was not a single man in the camp who could put his hand upon his heart and declare that he believed one single casualty had been caused to us by information communicated to the enemy by me or any other newspaper correspondent.'
And his Editor stood by him, which took courage of a different sort.
William Howard Russell was not only the first but I would say--with the possible exceptions of George Steer of The Times and James Cameron of the News Chronicle--the most distinguished of our kind, or at least the British section of it. He was also, indirectly, the cause of the profession's peculiar scourge of censorship. Because of the impact he had, the idea took hold that reporters in war zones should not be free to tell the truth as they saw it--whether because it was politically embarrassing or operationally dangerous. After the death in the Crimea of Lord Raglan, the new commander-in-chief, Sir William Codrington, issued an order authorizing the ejection of any correspondent who published news of value to an enemy. By the time that it reached London the war in the Crimea was over. But censorship both formal and informal has been with us ever since--by diktat at the point of transmission, by exclusion and denial of access, or more subtly by the modern practice of 'embedding'.
Look carefully through these remarkable dispatches, note Russell's sympathy with the soldiers whose ordeal he chronicles, and you may conclude that he was actually the original 'embed'. He spoke of the soldiers alongside him as 'our' forces and their encampments as 'our' encampments. There was none of the studied distancing that those who came later, myself included, tried to observe in the cause of objectivity. But still, he stood apart from them.
He was, as all of us are to this day, a creature of his time. He wrote in a consciously ornate and literary idiom. He was appalled by what he saw, but only semidetached from it. He thought it deplorable, for instance, that the officers should have to share the Crimean hardships of the other ranks. We today would be disturbed if they did not. Although he antagonized the high command, and at one point even had his tent cut down, he was careful to exonerate the generals in the field. 'The officers at Gallipoli were not to blame,' he wrote, 'the persons really culpable were those who sent them out without a proper staff and without the smallest foresight or consideration.' Time and again he made the contrast between the neglected British and the well-provided French.
Russell never knowingly underwrote. He described the Battle of Inkerman, a confused collision of armies fighting at bayonet point, as 'the bloodiest struggle ever witnessed since war cursed the earth'. He couldn't be everywhere, and wasn't. But events he couldn't see for himself he found others to describe for him. What comes over in his accounts is the sense of participation and being there, the first-handness of it all.
This is what distinguishes him from so much of the war reporting of a century and a half later. His heirs and successors are for the most part more prudent and more constrained. The armies they are alongside impose certain rules on them and access is more easily denied. Those who choose to work unilaterally, without accreditation to an armed force, are at increasing risk of being blown away. Even a satellite dish can be seen by an army in the field as evidence of 'belligerent activity'. The dangers are actually greater now than they were in Russell's time.
War reporting is therefore less authentic. Especially in the world of television journalists have to a significant extent withdrawn from the field of battle. They have found a way of copying each other's material and folding it into their own reports. They stand on the rooftops of hotels and in front of palm trees in fortified areas, answering questions from unknowing anchor people and broadcasting as if from the front lines without actually being there. Rooftop journalism is a retreat from reality. William Russell would not have understood it.
Rereading his despatches, I am struck by the conflicting impressions of how much has changed and how much stays the same. The methods of transmission, from satellite dishes to mobile phones, would have baffled the Times man considerably. Indeed the hero of the Crimea was scooped by younger rivals in the Franco-Prussian war, who found a faster means of getting their copy to London.
The technology advances, but human nature remains obstinately the same. The qualities required of a good war reporter are just as they ever were: courage, resourcefulness, cunning, an understanding of the military and a way with words which does not diminish, but sharpens, under the coincident pressures of danger and deadlines. William Howard Russell possessed them all. We have much to learn from what he did and how he did it.
Despatches from Crimea, by W.H. Russell, with an introduction by Martin Bell, is reprinted by Frontline Books in 2008, price 19.99 [pounds sterling]. History Today readers can order the book for 15.99 [pounds sterling], plus free p+p in the UK. Phone 01226 734 55.
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|Title Annotation:||FRONTLINE; William Howard Russell|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2007|
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