This piece is perhaps less polished than I would usually aim for, but it’s often difficult when writing about something that is particularly frustrating to view it with the usual clarity one aims for. Equally I suspect some will misunderstand what I mean in writing this, but I think what follows needs to be said. When Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in a mortar attack in the Libyan city of Misrata in 2011 I mused in a post on this blog that perhaps the media attention that followed would have been less massive had they not been fitting archetypes of the journalist-hero. Charismatic, western, male, white, cut down in their prime. I supposed that had they been Libyan journalists, or even more likely Libyan civilians, we might never have heard of their deaths, let alone in such widely reported and comprehensive detail.
I was using them as unfortunate examples of a wider tendency, and wondered at the time if I had gone too far with that post. In the following months however I saw things that seemed to vindicate the feelings that led me to write what I did. From this tragedy there seemed to emerge a lingering sense of something that was distinct from grief and memorialisation, something which verged on hero worship, and which just didn’t seem right. In my fumblings through the world I met numerous people who were quick to name drop either of the two dead men (but particularly Hetherington), boasting of some inconsequential connection to them much as people will talk about how they once shared a lift with a well known personage. In death it seemed Hondros and Hetherington were now to be treated more as celebrities to name drop than as journalists.
And then mid-way through last year I saw an announcement of a feature length documentary on Hetherington, and now more recently plans for one on Hondros, and this deeply uncomfortable feeling returned. Hetherington and Hondoros were both great journalists who did important work, and like with any death there is a need to remember and mourn. However I single these two out as an unfortunate example of a wider tendency, something I criticised in a post on the polarised perception of journalists, and particularly it seems photojournalists. A tendency on the part of many in the industry and those waiting on it’s borderlands to be allowed entry. A tendency to canonise, rather than question journalists, their motivations, and our reactions to them. It often strikes me as somehow disturbing that when journalists are killed those charged with announcing or commemorating their deaths often seem to employ a distant, slightly reverential patter similar to that used by officials of the military when reporting casualties in action.
Why is a documentary on a foreign war correspondent, who had the choice to pack up and leave but decided to stay, and died as a consequences, considered more important, compelling or appealing than a documentary about a resident who had no choice but stay and die? Is it somehow more tragic, the loss of life more poignant, for that fact that the deaths of Hondros and Hetherington, and so many others, appear so completely unnecessary? Even in our cynical age is there still some latent appeal in that old romantic idea of dying for a cause and what are the implications of this in an atmosphere that seems to be becoming increasingly dangerous for journalists? Profoundly disturbing ones I think.
I’ve heard the argument given that the deaths of Hondros and Hetherington helped to engage people in Europe and America with the conflict in Libya, but if that’s true, why have we now forgotten it? Perhaps because as a friend pointed out when we discussed this subject recently, these individual stories often start to overshadow the real issues. In the trailer for the Hondros movie the narrator suggests that ‘perhaps the most profound story is that of the man who gave us these images’. I have to wonder whether anyone really believes this story is more profound than the post-war malaise in Libya. The ongoing violence and dysfunction which has hardly been mentioned by the media, who quickly lost interest as, or even before, the last of our bombs had fallen on Tripoli. It took the recent kidnap of the Libyan Prime-minister to restore interest, but even then only for a matter of days.
If this is what it takes to spark an interest or put a face on these conflicts, if we are that detached that we need these hagiographies of western journalists in order to feel something, that we can’t feel the same thing for a local journalist or even a civilian, on whichever side of the conflict they are, it just makes me wonder if we are beyond help. With the conflict in Syria showing no signs of abating, and a frightening atmosphere where young freelancers appear to be increasingly encouraged to go out on a limb to gather material with little support from editors and agencies, it seems likely there will only be more martyrs for the canon of journalism’s fallen.