Front-Line Journalism: The war reporter's dilemma: your family or your job?

The newsman out of work after refusing to go to Iraq. By Jane Thynne
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The Independent Online

What do you call a war correspondent who doesn't want to go to war? Unemployed, according to a journalist for the American network ABC who has launched a case for unfair dismissal, claiming he was let go for refusing to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan.

What do you call a war correspondent who doesn't want to go to war? Unemployed, according to a journalist for the American network ABC who has launched a case for unfair dismissal, claiming he was let go for refusing to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Richard Gizbert, a London-based reporter for ABC News since 1993, is suing his former employers for $4.3m (£2.3m) for terminating his contract after he refused to travel to dangerous war zones. With the death toll of journalists and support staff in Iraq now standing at 68, the case has highlighted the increasing risks faced by journalists, who have been transformed from their traditional role of neutral observers. The gunning down of the BBC's Frank Gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers in Saudi Arabia and the producer Kate Peyton in Mogadishu have pressed home the fact that journalists are being targeted in their own right.

"There's a huge perceived loss of neutrality and journalists are being targeted as never before," says Rodney Pinder of The International News Safety Institute, an organisation founded two years ago specifically to protect journalists in increasingly hostile environments, and which numbers the BBC, ITN and Reuters among its members.

It was after covering conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia that Gizbert, 44, father of Thomas, 14, and Nicholas, 12, decided to forego lucrative schooling and housing allowances in exchange for being paid on a daily rate at the London bureau.

"I was almost killed in Chechnya and that changed my feelings. My kids were of an age to ask, 'Why are you going there if people are getting killed?'" Having refused to go to Afghanistan in 2002, he then twice refused to go to Iraq, taking heart from an assurance by David Westin, ABC News president, that no-one would be asked to go to Iraq against their will.

Then, he claims, in a meeting in June 2004 with Marcus Wilford, ABC's London Bureau chief, he was told his contract, due to expire the following month, would not be renewed. In his place someone willing to travel to Iraq would be hired.

"The US networks are a reflection of the military. They did not foresee the war lasting this long and they've fewer people to turn to," he says. "There are now two kinds of correspondent who don't want to go to Iraq: those who have never set foot there, and those who would be willing to cover a conventional war but don't want to be abducted by bandits or have their heads lopped off on the internet."

Charles Glass, a veteran of Beirut and Sarajevo who has worked for ABC news in Iraq, claims the peer and career pressures on journalists to cover war zones will continue, whatever official safeguards are in place. "On one assignment we had a sound man who didn't want to be there. He was recovering from cancer."

Marcus Wilford, ABC's London Bureau chief, will not discuss Gizbert's case, but claims it is not fear but frustration that is causing resistance among journalists to covering Iraq.

"It's incredibly frustrating for journalists because they are incarcerated there because of security fears and so they feel they can't really do the job. They're surrounded by ex-SAS guys who tell them they mustn't spend more than half an hour filming in the street because that's how long it takes to get spotted and a bunch of guys to get together, find a car and take them out."

It is this inability to provide in-depth coverage that convinced ITV to keep no regular staff in Baghdad but rely instead on agencies for day-to-day coverage, according to Jonathan Munro, deputy editor of ITV News.

"There are definitely fewer people now willing to go to Iraq," he says. "The turning point was the level and unpredictability of the insurgency so that it was very difficult to declare any part of Baghdad safe. The second turning point was the videos of Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan. A lot of people here knew Margaret Hassan personally and these incidents really changed things. We've had to think carefully about the benefits of having people there versus the risks."

Jonathan Baker, the BBC's head of Foreign News, who has two correspondents stationed in Baghdad, is equally cautious. "We've taken a conscious decision to rely on tried and trusted people. We're not blooding new ones and one or two have started to say they'd rather sit it out."

It is not only the journalists in the field who face extra pressures. Having a journalist in a war zone means more work for news executives and demands a high level of daily contact. The Daily Telegraph employs a company called Objective, staffed by ex-SAS, to train its journalists in hostage situations and first aid.

"We're taking it much more seriously now and spending more on it," said a foreign desk spokesman. "In Iraq each journalist is accompanied by security consultants and we arrange special insurance cover. We're not seeing a shortage of people willing to go, but if it drags on there may be a shortage of people with the experience to take it on."

The major TV news organisations also offer hostile environment training to journalists before they enter a war zone and confidential psychiatric counselling on return. They claim to make it clear to journalists that they do not have to go. "If they're frightened, they're not going to do a good job and that makes them a risk," says the BBC's Jonathan Baker.

Gizbert has called numerous ABC executives to testify at his hearing next month, which is the first test of the health and safety provisions of the employment law relating to journalists. Whatever the outcome, it is one battle all news organisations will be watching very closely.