By Philip Whitfield
CAIRO: The first casualty of war is truth, US Senator Hiram Johnson reflected as America entered World War 1. The casualty of the Arab Spring is media male chauvinism, the victory of women war correspondents over their male colleagues.
Embarrassment engulfed newsrooms around the world as Sky News’s Alex Crawford reported the Libyan rebels takeover of Green Square and renamed it Martyrs’ Square.
She gobsmacked the global media monoliths, BBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Reuters and AP who were reporting Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were still in control.
Her gripping 45-minute live report is the crowning glory of women reporters covering events in the Middle East. No fear, no reticence to jump into pick-up trucks in the vanguard of the conquering heroes.
Alex Crawford emulated the courage of the women reporters who brought the inflamed atmosphere of Tahrir Square to the firesides of the world.
What’s more, the next day as BBC was reporting fierce fighting raging on in Gaddafi’s compound, Crawford reported on Sky News live from the compound itself that it had been overrun by rebels.
Her scoops were the subject of a tetchy debate on the BBC’s own Media Show on Wednesday. The presenter asked what had gone so right for Sky and so wrong for the BBC? John Williams BBC’s world news editor and Sky’s head of international news Sarah Whitehead explained.
Whitehead said Alex Crawford had been in Zawia some months ago and gained the people’s trust. When she returned last week her contacts told her the rebels had formed a very large convoy to take Tripoli and she could join them.
Her team had a rudimentary satellite dish and a compass. The decision to go was Crawford’s assessment of the risk. Her media competitors decided the risks were too great.
Williams, who said he took his hat off to Crawford for her “compelling, extraordinary reporting” explained the BBC’s misfortune was that the BBC’s Matthew Price was locked up with 30 others in the Rixos Hotel and backups were on their way.
As to the final push into Tripoli, Williams said Alex made a judgment it was safe to leave Zawia on the convoy. The BBC made a judgment it was not safe.
The presenter said he’d been told a senior BBC executive said the BBC was creamed on television that night.
An interesting defense by the BBC’s Williams was that as Alex Crawford’s piece was going out 142,000 people were watching Sky News, 243,000 people were watching the BBC News Channel and Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was cutting a piece to go out on the 10 O’clock news that would reach 5 million viewers.
But that wasn’t the right piece, the presenter said. Sky had the story. William said if Alex Crawford wins all the prizes he would be the first to raise a glass and congratulate her.
The BBC is said to be the world’s largest broadcasting organization, excepting China’s. The BBC’s £4.26 billion funding is mainly through a license fee on UK households of £145.50 for color and £49.00 for black and white TV sets. BSkyB funds its £5.9 billion operation, as any company does raising its revenues from investors, of which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns 39 percent.
The Vietnam War marked the rise in women covering wars. Upwards of 300 women were accredited to cover the war in the decade between 1965 and 1975. Of those 300, a total of about 70 women were identifiable as correspondents by their published or broadcast reports about the war.
Women went to great lengths to get to Saigon. They acquired letters from organizations as traditional as the North American Newspaper Alliance, as diverse as Mademoiselle and True Adventure, or as obscure as the Lithuanian Daily Worker.
Alex Crawford isn’t alone atop the stack of women journalists who are playing such a pivotal role bringing us the news from the Middle East. Al-Jazeera’s staff comprises women of extraordinary caliber.
In print journalism women are critical to presenting the news accurately and fairly. In a newsroom, bravery is often expressed by the choice of stories to be covered, intricate editing of the copy to ensure balance and fairness and headline writing that is entertaining, but not over the top.
There are lessons to be learned from the current coverage. It’s clear the media in Egypt needs overhauling. One of the suggestions aired in the state’s television and radio corridors of power is to model itself on the BBC, whose governance is independent of British government interference through the delegation of policy to an independent trust.
Yet the BBC is dependent on the British parliament voting its revenues through the license fee. If Egypt’s national broadcaster were to continue to receive funding from the government, who could claim it was truly independent?
The same goes for newspapers and magazines. Does the public believe the newspapers that are funded by political sources — the government, political parties and partisan business people — are telling all the truth? I doubt it.
Secondly, the staff of all media organizations should pay respect to the contributions of women. When I set off on a journey in journalism, women were tolerated in newsrooms. They were assigned cookery notes, fashion pieces and the odd spot doing an occasional theater review.
Nowadays that’s not the case. But more needs to be done to elevate women into the top posts, including regulatory bodies.
Which brings up another issue post revolution. How should the media be regulated? There needs to be a body that can be consulted if issues of national security are at stake. Every country, so far as I know, has a process of consultation between editors and defense officials to protect its intelligence secrets.
Egypt’s laws in this regard are draconian and do not reflect the new mood. They should be reviewed by the new parliament.
Among the most-celebrated correspondents of the 20th century was Martha Gellhorn, who became Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. She covered the Spanish Civil War and reported the rise of Adolph Hitler, later reporting World War II from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore and Britain.
Lacking official press credentials to witness the D- Day landings, she impersonated a stretcher-bearer to recall: I followed the war wherever I could reach it. She was among the first journalists to report from the Dachau concentration camp after it was liberated.
So contentious was Gellhorn’s professional rivalry with Hemingway, he wrote: Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed? If alive, what would the great man say now.
Philip Whitfield, a former BBC correspondent, is a Cairo-based commentator.