Wednesday, 22 February 2012

RIP Marie Colvin

In the last few hours, Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin has been killed* in Syria, in Homs, in shelling by the forces of Bashar Al-Assad. Colvin was one of those old-fashioned beasts, a proper war-reporter. She'd done every war since Bosnia, and lost an eye in a grenade attack in Sri Lanka. She was also, clearly, female. So what? you might say. Aren't dozens of other people, many female, dead, as well? Yes, that's why Colvin was there.

But I still think it matters. It matters if you care about knowing what's going on in the world, and it matters if you're a woman.

First, many news organisations these days are so twitchy about accusations of bias and protection of their journalists that they like to station reporters in neighbouring countries where nothing is actually happening, or endlessly obsess about negotiations at the UN while the real action happens elsewhere. This strategy does not always pay off. Last year in Libya, dozens of journalists got stuck in the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, effectively hostages of the Gaddafi regime, parroting press releases that became more and more surreal. When rioting broke out in London, the BBC were so concerned about the safety of their journalists that they didn't even have any pictures until about an hour after the riot was underway, and were totally trumped by other stations who had (perfectly safely) obtained footage.

As Colvin herself pointed out, none of this is a substitute for actually going to where the action is really happening.

Consequently, this gap, matched with improvements in internet technology, means that the space is often filled by bloggers and citizen journalists with a mobile phone. This is no bad thing in terms of getting the truth out, but it does mean that the unfortunate person has no backup in terms of medical, legal or consular support. They have to take their chances with the local population, of which they are usually a part.

Many of these amateur news gatherers, reporters and commentators are female. The point about this is that when you are a girl, you grow up with lots and lots of injunctions about looking after your own safety. Don't do this, don't do that, or something terrible will happen to you. And this is in a peaceful, Western Society, which is, by global standards, really pretty safe. Sometimes the worst offenders behind these well-meaning injunctions are other women. The amount of ear-bashing any young woman receives about 'safety' could lead them to believe that being 'safe' is the single most important thing in life, ever.

However, a little intellectual investigation shows that safety is a pretty negative concept. You could get so anxious about safety that you never left the house, and had a heart attack on the sofa instead. In the end, safety is a false concept. There are only greater and lesser risks, and things which might or might not be worth those risks. But there are also things of greater and lesser value, and for some people, letting the world know what's happening, trying to get out news of a great wrong, is worth that great risk. It's the moment when you fight your urge to run away, to hide in the cellar, and you go back towards the noise, instead, to find out what's happening.

If you are a woman, this flies in the face of everything that you're taught. It is a deliberate repudiation of the idea that safety is the most important thing to you as female. It shows that you think truth, accuracy, curiosity, a desire for knowledge - or even your career, or the adrenaline rush - are more important than that all-nebulous, disabling thing, safety. I really believe that the moment when you choose something else over safety is the moment when you stop being a honorary child (women and children, etc) and stake your place as a fully-fledged member of the human race.

And that's why Marie Colvin was important. Female war reporters. Standing up for your right, as a woman, to do something completely frikkin' stupid, and dangerous as well. Which is a right worth dying for, in my opinion.



And by the way, if you are planning to follow her example, read this.

*I think 'murdered' is actually the correct term, since they were not in a military installation but a press centre next to a hospital.
** I don't have a picture because I can't find a copyright free one and I don't want to get sued by News International.

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