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Robert Fisk: War reporting: the heroic myth and the uncomfortable truth

IT took a lot of courage to get into Homs: Sky News managed it, then the BBC, then a few brave men and women who went to tell the world of the city's anguish and, in at least two cases, suffered themselves.

I could only reflect this week, however, how well we got to know the name of the indomitable and wounded British photographer Paul Conroy, and yet how little we know about the 13 Syrian volunteers who were apparently killed by snipers and shellfire while rescuing him. No fault of Conroy, of course. But I wonder if we know the names of these martyrs -- or whether we intend to discover their names?

We have grown so used to the devil-may-care heroics of the movie version of "war" correspondents that they somehow become more important than the people about whom they report.

The flak jacket has now become the symbol of almost every television reporter at war. I've nothing against flak jackets. I wore one in Bosnia. But on the streets, the impression emerges that the lives of Western reporters are more precious, more deserving, more inherently valuable than those of the "foreign" civilians who suffer around them.

The terrible truth, of course, is that journalists can fly home if the going gets too tough, business class with a glass of bubbly in their hands. The poor, flak-jacketless people they leave behind -- with pariah passports, no foreign visas, desperately trying to stop the blood splashing on to their vulnerable families -- are the ones who need "help".

The romanticism associated with "war" reporters was all too evident in the prelude to the 1991 Gulf War. All kinds of foreign journalists turned up in Saudi Arabia in military costumes.

One, an American, even had camouflaged boots with leaves painted on them -- even though a glance at a real desert suggests an absence of trees.

Oddly, I found that out in the loneliness of that real desert many soldiers of the genuine variety, especially American Marines, were writing diaries of their experiences, even offering them to me for publication.

The reporters, it seems, wanted to be soldiers. The soldiers wanted to be reporters.

Who can forget the words of the Israeli journalist Amira Haas -- Haaretz's reporter in the occupied West Bank, whom I often quote.

She told me in Jerusalem that the foreign correspondent's job was not to be "the first witness to history" (my own pitiful definition), but to "monitor the centres of power", especially when they are going to war, and especially when they intend to do so on a bedrock of lies. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent