N0 MAN IS an island." This is the title of a radio series by BBC journalist Fergal Keane, and John Donne's famous phrase seems to sum up the attitude of media professionals who risk their lives to bring us the news. Recently on Radio 4, Keane spoke eloquently about his experiences that range from his Irish upbringing to the atrocities he witnessed while reporting from Rwanda. His reporting, whether on radio or television, is tinged with the frustration journalists must feel when they are telling stories that are unfolding in a surreal fashion around them. However professional, they themselves are caught up in the dilemma of being present in but also being able to whisk themselves away from terrible, tragic events which you and I sec as just another item on the evening news.
Martin Bell (who sadly seems to be on the brink of leaving the BBC, as have other long-serving, loyal journalists such as Mark Tully) is a veteran correspondent who has made an appeal for journalism to get off the fence and to take a stand for what is right. He has said that being a witness to evil in such places as the former Yugoslavia makes him want to urge the media to abandon objectivity for engagement. The media, he is saying, should refuse to be pawns in power games that result in innocent lives being lost.
This issue, of how moral insight into conflict must distinguish between neutrality and justice, was once addressed in a simple but powerful pamphlet by Albert Nolan OP, Taking Sides (published by CUR and CTS), which asked whether, as Christians, we must always remain neutral or whether we need to take sides in fighting oppression. I was a theology student when I came across this small booklet for the first time, and it made a profound impression on me. The very test of Christian love is to love your enemies, but how can this be possible when we look at the "monsters" who perpetrate massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda? Fr Nolan was direct in his answer: "The only effective way of loving our enemies is to engage in action that will destroy the system that makes them our enemies." With his experiences in South America and South Africa, it seems to me that Fr Nolan was reflecting on the way in which we often fee); the need to reconcile without understanding the true nature of the conflict. Worse still, we often do nothing because we feel helpless in such cases. Yet, as Martin Bell is implying, those who do have influence and no question, the media has that must stand up for what is right, rather than stand aside for what is wrong, There is another question that springs to mind: how do media organisations them selves help journalists to follow their own personal moral ideals?
The national reaction to the BBC news reports by Michael Buerk and the images captured by the recently deceased Mohammad Amin of the suffering in Ethiopia was unprecedented in its outpouring of sympathy and clarity. Those reports have been described as "celluloid seconds that stabbed a billion hearts". Amin went on to cover the never-ending traumas in Africa, and he died in the crash of a hijacked Ethiopian plane at the end of November. He was committed to getting the news out, to the extent that, when his arm was destroyed in an ammunition depot blast in 1991, he had an artificial limb designed to hold his camera so he could continue his work. Bob Geldof said of Amin: "Mo Amin succeeded above all else in showing his own disgust and shame and anger and making it yours also".
Another journalist driven by moral ideals was Veronica Guerin, whose determination to expose drugs racketeering in Dublin led to her death this year. She downplayed the dangers she faced, even after being wounded in an earlier attack.
The media institutions that employ these professionals indeed have a duty to safeguard them, no matter how many plaudits they might receive for award-winning stories that are the end-result of high-risk reporting. Equally, however, these organisations must respect the journalist's consuming passion to alert the viewers/listeners/readers to dangers and dramas that affect them as human beings living on the same planet. Too often the risk seems too great.
Being a journalist is no cushy job; every year scores of them die in the course of doing their jobs. I'd like to think that, were I ever in their shoes, I could muster the courage to take sides.