Branded for life

War in Iraq made a star of Rageh Omaar. But when the fighting stops, a 'brand' journalist's fortunes can soon change
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Every conflict throws a correspondent up the ratings charts. In the liberation of Paris, one of the anointed was the novelist, and correspondent for Collier's magazine, Ernest Hemingway. They did things in style in those days. Hemingway celebrated the freedom of the French capital by ordering 50 martini cocktails in the bar of the Ritz. It was the sort of chutzpah that appealed to his wife, that genius of war journalism Martha Gellhorn.

But recently, television has made and unmade new stars with extraordinary speed. In Afghanistan, the great discovery was the BBC's Lyse Doucet. Before her, we witnessed the accelerated ascent of Fergal Keane, Allan Little, Jeremy Bowen, Orla Guerin and Mark Austin. The latest beneficiary of the process of promotion-by-war is Rageh Omaar, the BBC's Africa correspondent, whose work from the Gulf has made him the most prominent in a category of reporters that the BBC refers to internally as "brand journalists".

And there is the problem. Omaar was an excellent reporter long before he became a household name. Critics of the corporation's desire to promote reporters as celebrities fear that the process may harm him. They point out that the publicity machine that has had Omaar profiled in titles ranging from The Guardian to the New York Post (which coined the epithet "Scud Stud") has little to do with nurturing journalistic excellence.

The BBC's former Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn is effusive about him. "Omaar is a very good journalist. He is first class. He has been lionised against his own better judgement. He has become a victim of the BBC machine. It remains to be seen whether he can survive it." Greg Philo, of Glasgow University's media unit, says that once a reporter has been branded, his network "has a tendency to send him into areas he simply does not know. The process of shooting people around the world is bound to leave them exposed."

Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, is sceptical. She has been lionised as intensely as Omaar and for much longer. She says: "You just have to keep your feet firmly on the ground and keep doing excellent work. There are few specialists these days. Sometimes, you get to spend a long time on a story, but good journalists do move from story to story. Good journalists remain good journalists, and Rageh Omaar is exceptionally good."

Llewellyn accepts that the habit of parachuting the best performers into a succession of trouble spots of which they have no detailed knowledge is not new. "Vietnam created stars. Brian Barron and Martin Woolacott cut their teeth there. People can come out of these things awed by what they have seen. They learn about the lies that are part of war. Networks have always scurried to put their best people on the spot." But he thinks the brand system does create problems. "It makes idiots of people. It sucks them in. First they are presented to newspapers to be profiled, and the next thing you know, they are having cocktails with Tony and Cherie."

Mark Damazer, the BBC's deputy head of news and current affairs, acknowledges that Omaar is currently enjoying a very high profile. He confirms that Omaar's press appearances are authorised by the corporation, but insists: "It would be a mistake if we denied him the right to talk. But Rageh is not a tart. He understands that there should be limits. We turn down most requests."

Other correspondents who have enjoyed the temporary fame bestowed by coverage of a major war say that the problem need only be a problem if the individual allows orchestrated adulation to distort his estimation of himself. One says: "Twenty years ago, people worried that it would harm Kate Adie and Martin Bell. It didn't any more than it corrupted a previous generation of correspondents, such as Charles Wheeler. If Rageh Omaar is sensible, and he is, he will see this as the temporary phenomenon that it is and go back to being a specialist correspondent in one place."

A few jealous souls take malicious comfort in the near certainty that Omaar, like Fergal Keane, Mark Austin and Lyse Doucet before him, will fall from the celebrity A-list as fast as he climbed it. Those with less Schadenfreude point out that, like them, he will continue to be just as good a correspondent as he was before matrons in the Midwest knew his name. It is pomposity, not profile, that destroys a journalist's judgment, and Rageh Omaar is not guilty of that. His status as the current big thing may not last, but his professionalism will.