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The parachute columnists are back with a vengeance

They can write about what they want from wherever they want, not needing to know much about their chosen topic so long as they write well - this time it's Syria

A parachute journalist, according to one attempt at a definition in the Columbia Journalism Review, is a reporter who “drops into a country for a relatively short period of time, files a story or handful of dispatches, and then leaves.”

It’s commonly used as a pejorative term to decry the unfortunately widespread practice of sending a journalist to cover a story or a country they know very little about.

When I lived in Beirut we used to groan when the parachutists dropped in. They wrote cliche-ridden, unenlightening dispatches, invariably for the readers back home who wouldn’t know otherwise.  All with the best intentions of course.

“After years of civil war”, they would all begin, before going on to describe how the Lebanese had moved on from the conflict. “We’re in the Middle East, but they have clubs and bars here!” they would note, unoriginally.

There is such a thing as a good parachute journalist of course — those with experience and knowledge of the country they are writing about, or at least some kind of relationship. Sadly, they are a rare thing.

But even a bad parachute journalist is a mere annoyance in comparison to their more sinister cousin.

This other breed does not write in cliches — indeed, they are paid not to. They are read by politicians and policy makers, and depending on their publication can influence them both. They can write about what they want from wherever they want, and they do not need to know much about their chosen topic so long as they write well. Allow me to introduce you to the parachute columnist.

No, not those people who writes five hundred words each week on that terrifying “hobby” of jumping from a plane. The columnists I am referring to are those who parachute themselves into a new topic every week.  Their status as a non-expert is a virtue, or so they believe. They offer a new perspective, a more accessible one perhaps.

Most of the time this is a good thing. They dip their toe into politics, the arts, sport — or whatever people are talking about that week. They are entertaining, and what is the purpose of a column if not to entertain?

But on some topics the parachute columnist can be an entirely destructive force. This is most evident in coverage of the Middle East.

In the run-up to the Iraq War columnists, opinion-formers and writers — all of whom could turn a phrase and convince a fence-sitter — devoted thousands of words to columns about a country they had never visited, about a people with whom they had little or no interaction.

Many of them played a prominent role in making the most unreasonable of acts seem entirely reasonable.

Those who supported the war, many of whom knew very little about Iraq, argued and convinced and then, figuratively at least, they left.  This was true of many anti-war parachutists to a lesser degree — they at least had reason to revisit the topic when things went bad.

Just compare the amount written by pro Iraq War columnists about the plight of the Iraqi people in 2003, when our politicians also had an interest in doing the same, to their output on the same topic today.

More than two hundred people were killed in Iraq two weeks ago — many of them unarmed protesters, the rest in clashes between security forces and gunmen from a Sunni community that feels increasingly marginalised. But there has been barely a whisper from those who supported the war that set Iraq on the path to violence it now seems incapable of shaking off.

Their silence was broken on the ten year anniversary of the Iraq War — a war that has all but finished for them — but that was only so they could remind their readers why they were right and why they would argue the same all over again. Then “poof” — they disappeared again.

It is not just the callousness of this passing interest in the fate of others that angers — it is that the same mistakes are being made again. The parachute columnists are back with a vengeance, and this time they have Syria in their sights.

They are here to offer their wisdom once more on a country which they have never set foot in and pontificate on the fate of a people whom they have never met.

A flurry of claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria have rightly drawn the world’s attention, and with that attention comes renewed calls for action. But what action to take? And who should take it? 

A call for urgency is fine, but it should not be controversial to say that when a UK columnist argues for boots on the ground in Syria, they should be aware of the full implications of what they are advocating. That is a lesson that should have been learned with Iraq.

There is no doubt that they mean well, and that just like everyone else they are desperately searching for a way to end the intolerable and unimaginable suffering in Syria, but for the same reason a well-meaning electrician would do more harm than good to a broken sink, they should take a step back.