Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Wednesday 22 February 2012

A meaty, messy business.

JOURNALISTS are often accused of romanticising their profession, especially when one of our own dies.

It's true that a tendency to lyricise and the constant criticism we get means we often talk about freedom of speech and fighting for the little man and the nobler justifications of our trade.

Sometimes that's right. More often though we deal with humanity at its extremes - crime, death, birth, heartbreak, revenge - and whether you're dealing with a wronged lover, a violent criminal or the recently bereaved, journalism is a meaty, messy business which is not for the faint of spirit.

You don't get far wearing rose-tinted spectacles. And there is no higher part of my profession nor one so grisly as the work of covering a war. It is one of the most valuable and worthy things any reporter or photographer can do, the greatest risk they can take, and of course the one most likely to end badly. It is the thing most guaranteed to impress other journalists beyond measure, an extremely difficult feat among seasoned cynics.

Today Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik - both of them award winners - were killed in the Syrian city of Homs as they covered the shelling of civilians by President Bashar Assad.

The snapper working with Marie, Paul Conroy, was injured. He's probably being cared for by the very limited resources of the opposition, while Marie and Remi's bodies have yet to be recovered. Their editors are trying their best to bring them all home, while the city remains under fire.

I do not know any of the people concerned, so it's not for me to write about them. Their friends will do that I am sure. And I've never been to war, a fact which makes my mother glad and me a little wistful.

There are those who, when those obituaries are written, will say we hacks treat each other better than we do others, that we show more grace and remorse when a fellow vulture tumbles off the perch than we do to the average deaths we deal with. Perhaps that is case. But then average deaths are usually due to accident, insanity or circumstance - when a hack dies in harness it's usually because they chose to take that risk.

At a memorial service at the journalists' church St Brides last year ITV news anchor Mark Austin said people often do not understand why we run towards danger rather than away from it. Usually it's for those higher goals, and sometimes if we've done it too often it's because we've become addicted to it, as we become attached to so many things in this job - the stories, the gossip, the black humour, the free drinks.

Because, you see, there are two sides to a journalist's brain. On the one hand there is a human part, the bit which knows your mum worries, that this job is bizarre, the side of you which is moved to tears when someone tells you a heart-rending tale. A good journalist never, ever loses that side to them because it is what makes them good, it gives them empathy and understanding.

On the other hand is the news gatherer, the bit of your head which is occupied with getting the right turn of phrase, capturing an image, and getting a copy of the receipt. The bit which fires up, when you are stood amid a sea of dead and rotting corpses and the human side of your head wants to vomit itself inside out and get on the first plane home, and tells you 'this is BRILLIANT'.

While I've never been to war, I've been to that place. I've sat amid carnage and wondered why I can't cry at the same time as scribbling notes and thinking 'this is writing like melted butter, it's going to sail onto the front'. When I was 18 and on my first local paper I came in to work one day to see my chief reporter crash the phone back on the hook and say to me excitedly: "There's been a murder on your patch!" And my response was: "GREAT!"

That's when you know you're a hack - when you run towards the bad things. Since then I've put myself in places where I was far from safe, where the mere fact of my presence meant my mum didn't sleep for a week or I've decided not to tell her I was there until I wasn't any more. I've stood and watched things I can't fix but tear my heart apart to see, and I've come home with a thousand-yard stare to my boss telling me to take some time off and put my head back together.

I have friends who have died and been injured. I have mates who quite literally skip when told they're going to Afghanistan. And half of me is envious of them, while the other half thinks they're nuts. Everyone else in a war gets a gun, and all we have is a pen or a camera. And half the time I can never find my pen.

Maybe we're just screw-ups, and this job keeps us out of the asylum and safely medicated in the pub. I've been on jobs that were horrendous by day and every evening, once our copy was filed, the press pack tore the town up and drank every bar in the place dry. In those circumstances the hangover actually makes you feel a bit better.

But the end result, whatever our motivation or however much of our brains is given over to trying to get a sexy byline shot or the front page, is that someone sees the things no-one else wants to. Maybe it means knocking on a rapist's door late at night, finding the right words to describe an unspeakable thing, or sneaking into a city under siege from the forces of a dictator to tell the world what's happening.

We bear witness, however unbearable we find it ourselves, and there's not a single journo dead or alive who will tell you that's not worth doing, and that usually it's as far from romantic or rose-tinted as you can get.

So while I didn't know them, I'll raise a glass to Marie and Remi tonight - and take my hat off to two brave people who didn't have to do what they did, but thought someone ought to do it anyway.