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Katherine Butler: We'll always need the Marie Colvins

Covering wars and revolutions properly is expensive and requires skills
  • @ButlerKatherine

Was it right, Twitter wondered yesterday, that Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times correspondent killed in Syria, should be referred to as a "female war reporter"? Of course, it's wrong. It doesn't matter a damn whether Colvin was a man or a woman. Until her life was quenched by a Syrian army rocket, she was there on the ground. In Homs. Reporting. That is what mattered.

Amid all the sound and heat the Leveson Inquiry has generated over such media transgressions as the phone-hacking of celebrities in this country, it's been easy to lose sight of one of the most important raisons d'être of a vibrant, professional and diverse press, free from state interference. And that's being equipped to cover events in those parts of the world where dictators can have you jailed for saying the wrong thing, where propaganda and news are interchangeable and where the hands of journalists are shackled by "Information Ministries".

Anyone can now tweet or upload images from a public uprising, and this has revolutionised politics from Tehran to Tahrir Square. But the skills and experience of the reporter who can get into a closed city like Homs, Misrata or any of the other benighted places that have entered our consciousness since the Arab Spring should also, I believe, be irreplaceable. This dwindling band of men and women risk their lives to tell us of the bombed hospital or the family massacre and then contextualise what they have seen or what locals have told them.

My experience of sending reporters into conflict zones is that it was humbling. They would mention casually that they were briefly abducted by rebels that morning, or that they possibly needed another flak jacket because the one they had wasn't strong enough for the Monrovia gunfire.True, some frontline reporting is driven by bravado. "That's when the fun begins, when the bombs are falling" a correspondent said to me once – a bit too lip-smackingly I thought at the time – as she headed for a flight to the Balkans. Such machismo is usually a front that masks professional dedication and extraordinary courage.

But covering wars and revolutions properly is expensive and time-consuming and requires skills and training. As the traditional media fight to survive, publishers understandably weigh up whether a blog on Adele flipping the bird isn't an easier option than investing in an exclusive dispatch. No wonder foreign reporting is in danger of obsolesence. The real tragedy about Marie Colvin would be if regimes like the one that wanted her silenced triumphed because of brute economics.

The writer is Comment Editor and former Foreign Editor of 'The Independent'