Yes, journalists do get killed. And those who risk their lives to do their job don't deserve to have The Observer's John Sweeney make a joke of it
Monday 09 June 1997
These are not my words. They were written by John Sweeney of The Observer and appear in the latest issue of The Oldie magazine. For some reason they really got to me, but probably not in the way Mr Sweeney intended. The intention, I think, was to amuse. The effect was nauseating.
Yes, 60 journalists have been killed in Algeria for doing their jobs, but they weren't doing the same job as John Sweeney.
He loves to project himself as an intrepid roving correspondent, kitted out with a trilby hat and mac. You may have seen him adopting that pose when he fronted The Spin, a media magazine series screened by BBC2 last year.
When he does don a flak jacket, or three, to venture briefly into some world hotspot, the copy he files invariably has the same self-obsessed sub-text: "Look at little old me up to my neck in flying bullets". In truth, probably the most daring thing he's done was to doorstep Kelvin MacKenzie, which doesn't really count for much in the bravery stakes. The former Sun editor does have a ferocious tongue on him at times, but there's no danger of his reaching for a loaded shotgun.
Mr Sweeney also thought he was revealing some great new truth to the world when he went to the Channel island of Brequou to film the neo-Gothic castle being built there by the highly secretive Barclay brothers. But, once again, that was mischievous rather than courageous.
John Sweeney's jaunty reflections on his recent (highly brief) reporting assignment in Algeria contained the inevitable encounter with a taxi driver: "This was against all the rules in the book. Taking a taxi from an unknown man in a country where massacres are commonplace. I could imagine the ugly little paragraph, led by a small, necessarily crisp headline: 'Observer man dead'."
Come on, John, don't underestimate yourself. If you had become the 61st journalist to be slain in Algeria, there would have been pages about you not just in The Observer, but in every national broadsheet and tabloid. Why? Because British journalists don't get killed very often - either here or abroad. The last Observer journalist to be killed in the course of duty was Farzad Barzoft, executed in Iraq after being arrested for "spying" at a military weapons base. An international outcry had predictably no effect on Saddam Hussein's brutal regime in Baghdad.
His was the sort of journalism that gets journalists killed. Bazoft was bravely trying to break real news - information that someone wants to suppress. Or, to quote another famous dictum: "Facts are subversive".
Farzad Bazoft's fate was truly tragic. Most of those who fall foul of the most brutal suppressors of subversive facts aren't intrepid foreign correspondents. Obviously there are chaotic war zones where bullets are flying with no one's name on them but simply "To whom it may concern". Chechnya and parts of Bosnia were like that at times. And in Algeria, I understand, many of the journalists killed were French (mainly because of France's continued interference in its former colony).
But journalists who are killed, in Algeria and elsewhere, are committed local journalists who have dared to oppose the governing regime in their own land.
Last week, when young John Sweeney was indulging himself in The Oldie, a journalist was shot dead in a taxi. Danny Hernandez, the news editor of a tabloid daily in Manila, specialised in exposing drug syndicates and police corruption. Having received numerous death threats, he decided to carry a pistol, but he didn't manage to shoot back when the contract killer struck. After struggling with his assassin, he was shot in the nape of the neck.
Reading about this brought back gruesome memories of the murder of Veronica Guerin in Dublin, almost exactly a year ago. She, too, stood up to the drug barons in her native land and paid the ultimate price.
I learned about the tragic fate of Danny Hernandez in a despatch beamed to the world's media by Reuters' correspondent in Manila. Just as well I spotted it on the wires, for, predictably, the story generated precious little coverage in any UK national newspaper.
Viewed from a London news desk, a brave man in Manila counts for a lot less than a courageous dame in Dublin. The Philippines are further away than Ireland and life there is, evidently, a lot cheaper: Mr Hernandez was the 32nd journalist to be killed in the Philippines since democracy was restored in 1986 when President Ferdinand Marcos was ousted. The Manila press is now one of the most open in Asia, plastering its pages with exposes of corruption and organised crime.
The purpose of this piece is not to lament the parochial news values paraded on the pages of so many London newspapers. Nor do I particularly enjoy taking a public swipe at John Sweeney, who has considerable writing flair.
I just don't see how anyone can joke about Algeria, given the appalling atrocities being committed there at present by both the state security services and the Islamist rebels. Call me a killjoy, but when any country is turned into a human abattoir, surviving as a journalist, or anything else, within its national borders is more than "slightly awkward".
Besides, there are plenty of other, funnier subjects for jokers such as John Sweeneyn
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