14 June 2005

One-for-All-Reporter from Rhodesia

The coverage of Rhodesia [during its revolt against white minority rule] was deeply flawed from the beginning. The problem, stated briefly, was this: how could any war correspondent give a balanced account of a war where one side was Anglo-Saxon, entrenched in the cities, with access to the resources and the techniques of public relations, and where the other side consisted of people of a different race and culture, operating in the remote countryside, and who had neither the means nor--and this may be more important--the inclination to compete in terms of propaganda?

The answer is that no war correspondent could. The better ones soon became tired of regurgitating official hand-outs from the Smith regime in Salisbury and went home. But no newspaper wanted to admit that it had given up trying to present a balanced view of the war, so stories from Rhodesia continued to appear, particularly in British newspapers. Who was sending them? Few readers of the London Daily Telegraph realised that the paper's correspondent in Salisbury, Brian Henry, was the same person as the Daily Mail's Peter Norman, who was in turn the same person as the Guardian's Henry Miller. And that in real life all these correspondents were a Rhodesian journalist called Ian Mills, who, as it happened, was also the BBC's correspondent!

The dangers in this practice of the "multiple correspondent" immediately became apparent. One is that Mills, a competent journalist, could have become too busy to do much else than take whatever official information he could get and send it off to his many outlets together with what comment he could obtain on the telephone. He would hardly have had time to investigate the truth or otherwise of what he was being told, especially if such an investigation could involve long absence from his base. Next, with similar stories appearing in a variety of newspapers under a variety of names, the reader could feel that each confirmed the accuracy of the other. He would then tend to place more weight on the story's facts than if he knew that all the stories were actually written by the one correspondent.
SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), p. 471

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