Friday 21 Sep 2018 | 12:21 | SYDNEY
Friday 21 Sep 2018 | 12:21 | SYDNEY

War reporting: All-On-All-The-Time


Graeme Dobell

31 August 2011 13:59

Today's wars and conflicts are brought to your various screens by continuous, diverse coverage. Call these All-On-All-The-Time media events, driven by non-journalists just as much as journalists.

The Libyan civil war is the latest example of a multi-media phenomenon we now take for granted. The storm of information about an All-On story is generated by flows from correspondents to bloggers, broadcasting to the web, satellite images to someone streaming from a smart phone. For journalists, the All-On environment is forcing a Darwinian evolution. What reporters do is little changed – how they do it and how quickly is vastly altered. The same evolutionary forces face politicians, soldiers and diplomats.

Watching and reading the coverage from Libya, I reflected how it would have struck one of Australia's great war correspondents, Alan Moorehead. He traveled the same ground during World War II and produced an elegant trilogy of books on the war in the desert. Moorehead would have looked beyond the body armour of today's correspondents to marvel at the size and diversity of the international press corp (the number of females and the number of nationalities), the lack of censorship, the live coverage, the capacity to file from the field in an instant and the ability to report from both sides of the conflict.

The actual reporting on the battlefield involves the same difficulties, dilemmas, dodges and dangers as ever; what the correspondents then do with the material they gather has produced a significant evolution of the species.

Like Moorehead, the TV correspondents of the Vietnam War would immediately recognise what was involved in the reporting on the ground in Libya. But the Vietnam-era hacks – who shot film and then airfreighted the footage out of Saigon – would be in awe of day's mini-satellite dishes and the capacity to do a live cross anywhere, any time.

Vietnam broke the censorship tradition, but the film reports that correspondents like Neil Davis produced for TV proudly shared the qualities of the film Damien Parer shot for cinema newsreels in the World War II. The Vietnam War was reported on TV, but it was not televised with the rolling coverage that was again on display in Libya.

In the two decades after the Vietnam conflict, TV networks began to develop the elements of a new tradition: Continuous Coverage.

The attempt to provide Continuous Coverage was driven by big Western media groups and networks. For TV, especially, it meant reporting that would run for hours, not just the few minutes of an individual news item. Continuous Coverage was an extraordinary expansion of the capability of mainstream media. Journalistic ambition leveraged off expanding technical capabilities as the satellite age blossomed and video took over from film.

In the 1980s, a few conflicts hinted at what the networks could do when they threw resources at a burst of Continuous Coverage of a major event: in 1982, Israel's  invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut; in 1989, the tragedy of Tiananmen Square or the triumph of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. The defining Continuous Coverage event was the 1991 Gulf War.

Those examples, though, tell us something of the information limitations of that era: the power held by governments and denied to individuals. In Beirut in '82, the people of the Palestinian quarter of Sabra and Chatila had no ability to call for outside help when the Christian militia went in to slaughter. In Beijing in '89, the Chinese Government could shut down coverage of the massacre by pulling the plug on the satellite uplinks. After Tiananmen, the only telephone technology that gave some limited voice to protests by the people was the fax machine.

Governments have lost much of their previous power to shut down coverage while individuals and groups no longer need big media to get out their message. That is what we've just seen displayed in Libya. In Syria, the outside media have little access, yet pictures and information flow out continuously. The phones and Facebook are working.

Bashar al-Assad may emulate his father in the force of his crackdown, but he has none of his father's power to keep the bloodshed secret. The distinction demonstrates the difference between the previous Continuous Coverage era and today's All-On-All-The-Time.

Professional journalists still have a key role. But many other people have a voice and the ability to feed the media machine. One element driving the debate about the Responsibility to Protect is the new Ability to Report – almost anyone can do it. Welcome to a media environment which is always live: All-On-All-The-Time.

Photo by Flickr user jrseles.