The Big Question: Should Western journalists be in Iraq, and can their reports be trusted?


Why is this an issue now?

Because two British journalists died in a car bomb in Baghdad this week. Cameraman Paul Douglas and soundman James Brolan were travelling with Kimberly Dozier, right, a 39-year-old American reporter for CBS News, while preparing a report on American troops in Iraq. She is now fighting for her life in a German hospital.

Douglas and Brolan are the first foreign members of the media to die so far this year in Iraq. Before Monday's attack, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists put the number of journalists killed in Iraq at 69, although this number climbs to 127 when we include translators, drivers and "fixers" used by the Western media. The death toll makes Iraq the most dangerous place in the world from where to report.

So is it irresponsible to keep sending journalists to Iraq?

This question keeps editors awake at night. It is dangerous, but Iraq has become the great crisis of our time with unforeseeable consequences for our democracies and future security. If we fail to send reporters, the story of the war will be told by professional propagandists in the White House, Pentagon or No 10.

Most editors conclude that despite the risks and the restrictions, we still add value. We still get Iraqi voices and occasional eye-witness accounts into our stories, and we can still often highlight meaningful issues and trends that the military or diplomats would prefer us to ignore. In all wars, both sides lie to advance their own interests. Nobody is forced to cover the conflict, but we rely on a small group of brave and experienced reporters who keep returning to the country out of a sense of duty.

The unsung heroes may well be the Iraqi journalists, translators, fixers and drivers who help keep our reporters safe and well-informed. The international press generally magnify events. Iraq is a rare example of a story where it is as bad, if not worse, on the ground than the reports suggest.

Are reporters just staying in their hotel rooms?

Not at all. During his last assignment in Iraq, The Independent's Patrick Cockburn stayed clear of Baghdad, but travelled widely to Iraqi towns Western journalists no longer go to.

The accusation is often made that foreign reporters spend most of their time barricaded in fortress-like hotels in the capital, sending local journalists, or freelance "stringers", out to do the reporting, and that their work therefore lacks credibility.

As the security situation has deteriorated, with foreign journalists - such asThe Guardian's Rory Carroll - being kidnapped, much of the burden of reporting has fallen on local Iraqi journalists. And while some Western media organisations spend vast amounts of money to ensure the safety of their staffers, the Iraqis are often left to their own devices.

It is seldom properly explained to the viewers or readers that what they are seeing is sometimes only possible thanks to the joint efforts. By contrast, under Saddam Hussein, Western media organisations were careful to provide health warnings that reporters were not free to move about and report at will.

Is there a right way to cover the conflict?

Rumbling in the background of the latest tragedy is a row over standards of journalism in Iraq. It started when Rageh Omar, the one-time war correspondent for the BBC, used an interview in The Independent to accuse Western news organisations of perpetrating a "fraud" on their viewers, with their misleading coverage of the Iraq war.

Omar said that by failing to inform audiences as to how their reports have been compiled, news organisations were falling down on the job. "Some of us, I feel, are engaged in some kind of a small fraud on the British public, the readers and viewers," he said. "I feel very uncomfortable that we are not putting a health warning on reports from Iraq, because to not do so lends an enormous legitimacy."

It is time, Omar said, for news organisations to "fess up" and make clear that many of the pictures that comprise what are in effect "pooled reports" have been shot by anonymous Iraqi freelancers, while the Western journalists have remained inside the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. His words deeply angered the increasingly small cadre of journalists who travel into Iraq to report the conflict at considerable personal danger.

John Simpson best summed up the anger when he told the BBC's Today programme: "Please don't take any notice of that ignorant stuff about Western journalists huddling in the Green Zone, there are not many news organisations still working in Baghdad, but all of them, including the BBC, are based in the city itself, not in the Green Zone ... it still isn't too dangerous to operate here if you are sensible and careful - and lucky."

Who needs journalists? The US military revealed Abu Ghraib

The US military is more open with information than most armies. But it is the presence of independent journalists that keeps it this way. And as the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha last November has revealed, the US military is also capable of lying. The Haditha episode, compared with the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam war, was covered up by the soldiers involved. It was only through the reporting of Time magazine's Tim McGirk that the scandal was exposed.

The American military initially refused to believe the Iraqi villagers who accused the Marines of murdering civilians, even when presented with evidence by McGirk and his colleagues. They accused the reporters of buying into enemy propaganda and stuck to their original story that the villagers were killed by Iraqi insurgent bombs. Without on the ground reporting, the lies of the soldiers and their superiors would never have been challenged.

Does embedding compromise media independence?

The days of the gung-ho reporters excitedly reporting on the successes of the military are long gone. But the embedded reporter can still provide another glimpse at the conflict that it would be otherwise hard, if not impossible, to obtain. The important thing is that it is made clear to the reader, or viewer, that the reporter is travelling with the military, so that he can make up his own mind about the state of the conflict.

Is it worth risking reporters' lives on the Iraqi frontline?

Yes...

* Iraq is the biggest news story in the world and only journalists can provide an objective account - however imperfect - of what is going on.

* The British and US military are acting in our name and someone must monitor their behaviour.

* The lack of UN authority for the war demands the presence of independent journalists.

No...

* Iraq is now more dangerous than Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war and it is reckless to send people without a military background.

* Western journalists stay holed up in their well-protected bunkers.

* By giving an impression they are reporting freely, the media have been co-opted by the occupying forces who want to demonstrate that things are improving.

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