Radio: Points of Departure/ Our Father the Mountain Radio 4

'While those around you have to fight or be shot, you always have the option of flying home club class'
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One of the difficulties of war reporting is that it pushes you towards moral absolutism; the finer shades disappear. It's a point made by James Cameron, whose memory was conjured up in last week's opening edition of Points of Departure: after a while, he was quoted as saying, "You realise that the only morally tenable positions are absolute pacifism and absolute communism."

The trouble with this approach is that, inevitably, you can't live up to it and self-disgust becomes a theme in your life. Certainly, it was one of the things that came over most clearly on this Wednesday's Points of Departure, in which the Independent's Robert Fisk was the first of six foreign correspondents, all winners of the James Cameron Memorial Prize, to talk about the moral mainsprings behind his work. Fisk found something fundamentally sordid in the life of a war reporter: while those around you have to fight or be shot, you always have the option of flying home club class. And, he suggested, much of the time you aren't really telling anybody anything useful.

This was hard to square with the tapes he played here: the night sounds of wartime Beirut, with the continual snap of rifles and machine-guns; or a panting, panicked sequence, recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in which Fisk and some colleagues are running for their lives during the Iran-Iraq war. That one apparently caused one Canadian truck- driver to pull up and call the radio station to ask: "Was that for real?" It wasn't, according to Fisk, because it didn't have any context, hence didn't convey any truth.

Possibly he's right. But you wonder just what would count as context: foreign parts are often so foreign that you never can explain them properly. The point was illustrated last night in Our Father the Mountain, in which Edward Marriott described his journey into the heart of Papua New Guinea's vast rainforest to meet a supposedly "lost" tribe, the Liawep. He found them without too much trouble (assuming you don't think a five-day trek through mosquito-, snake- and possibly cannibal-infested terrain is trouble), and was admitted to their village on the mountain which doubled as their home and their god. But the trip ended disastrously: the Liawep were suspicious of Marriott's motives, and when four people were killed by lightning, Marriott and his interpreter sensibly decided to run before anybody started pinning blame.

This was an odd piece, flawed by muddled liberal piety, but it made extraordinary listening: Marriott's recording of night sounds in the jungle dwarfed Fisk's tape of Beirut gunfire for sheer din and strangeness. But the main thing Marriott conveyed was the utterly alien nature of the place. It jerked you out of any cosy ideas you may have had about how the world works. Fisk's reporting has also done this on countless occasions - and even if that was all it ever did, you have to say it's a worthwhile contribution.

n 'Points of Departure' Wed 7.20pm to 20 Dec

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