Marie Colvin stressed that the victims were the story, not the reporter | Michael White

The veteran war reporter belonged to the heroic end of the newspaper trade but I'm uneasy with the coverage of her death

I usually get nervous when I see journalists making news on front pages and at the top of the news bulletins. It is not just because lately it's often meant that more of them have been arrested in the hydra-headed phone-hacking affair. The Sunday Times war correspondent, Marie Colvin, killed in Syria on Wednesday, belonged to the heroic end of the trade, not its sleazy underbelly. But the unease remains.

Why so? Lots of reasons. Let's start with the easy one. The hacks are probably no worse than bus drivers or accountants in being preoccupied with their own line of work, its challenges and perils. As in "there's a really tricky double bend coming up, folks". "Or just look at this lovely tax dodge, sheer craftsmanship." Unlike them, the hacks are better placed to impose their own self-fascination on the paying customers.

It's a temptation the trade should resist and has resisted less and less in my working life. Thus when the late Louis Heren wrote two slim volumes of memoirs – a working-class Cockney who started his working life at 14 as a messenger boy on the Times and ended up deputy editor – he had plenty to tell; he recalled how he had offered his paper a piece explaining how he had walked the Himalayan range to get a scoop on the Anglo-New Zealand conquest of Everest in 1953.

As I recall the passage, a lofty telegram came back from the foreign desk along the lines of "Readers of the Times are not interested in the adventures of its correspondents". Austere but admirable in its way. As recounted in Heren's memoirs, the readers missed a good story of enterprise and physical endurance. What he had in abundance was what a star of a later generation, Nicholas Tomalin, famously called the essential qualities of journalistic success — "rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability".

I remember seeing the "Fleet St man killed" Evening Standard billboards in EC4 when Tomalin (then husband of Claire Tomalin, the great biographer) was killed – like Colvin by a Syrian shell – during the battle between Syria and Israel for the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Newspaper billboards were an art form in those innocent pre-internet days and that one must have sold plenty of papers locally. I doubt if it was used in the suburbs.

Times readers might have enjoyed Heren on Everest, but surely there's a better balance to be struck. Nick Tomalin got a good send-off in less-uptight 1973, but there wasn't the kind of wall-to-wall coverage we relentlessly endure now from 24/7 media. At PMQs on Wednesday, even David Cameron joined in. Surely, the actors are always the focus of the story – the soldiers and civilians killed – not us.

It's obvious from today's obituaries that Colvin, 56 at the time of her death, was one of that rare breed of war correspondents who keep going back for more, to bear witness to horrors and savagery which most of us are lucky enough never to have to see except on TV footage, which is often cleaned up to protect the squeamish from too much unpleasantness in their own homes.

"Courageous" is a better label than the widely used "fearless". All sensible people are sometimes afraid (holders of the VC often stress this) and Colvin's speech in the Fleet St church, St Bride's sums up her credo impressively. Her last dispatch from Homs suggests she knew all too well how much trouble she might be in as the city came under renewed attack from the Assad regime. She'd been wounded before, in Sri Lanka. As elsewhere in recent years, both attacks may have been targeted at foreign journalists.

In one of Thursday's tributes it is noted, too, that Colvin always stressed that the victims were the important people in any story, not the reporter or – she thanked them in St Bride's – the drivers, fixers and translators who make a foreign correspondent's work possible (and are often more at risk). So would she have been alarmed by the scale and focus on her own death in media coverage over the past 24 hours, rather less space given to Remi Ochlik, just 28, the French photojournalist who died with her? (Incidentally, Colvin gets top billing in Le Monde too this morning).

Perhaps. Embarrassment would certainly be an understandable response to such laudatory coverage, though she might have thought – and might be right – that the coverage may help press the international community into taking more robust action to halt the Syrian government's ultimately doomed assault on its own people. On Radio 4's Today programme, William Hague stressed how much more complex the situation is than in Libya (Libya had few friends) and how much bigger is the Syrian army than that of Muammar Gaddafi, whom Colvin interviewed before his death.

In reality, eccentric Libya had long been an easy whipping boy for all sides, whereas Syria has often escaped blame or punishment because it is a pivotal Middle East state with powerful friends in Russia – which enjoys Syrian port facilities on the Med and sells it weapons – and Shia Iran, which plays a major role in its politics and that of neighbouring Lebanon. Any action to stop the bloodshed has always been tricky and will remain so.

Here's one point where I part company with what Colvin said in St Bride's, where she spoke of the need for "objective reporting". She was an American and it's a phrase – popular in journalism school over there – that comes more easily to American reporters than more world-weary Europeans, who no longer kid themselves that what our side does is basically right most of the time. Over the years I've become more comfortable with the word "fair" – as in "hostile but fair" which is (so I was once told) how I stood in Tory HQ press files. That'll do.

The fact is that foreign correspondents, like all reporters, go where their news desks send them and will pay for, as along as it's reasonably safe and the readers/viewers will be interested to learn more. The proprietor's interests (or lack of them) may also have a role.

That understandable formula means that our own values and interests come into play. As has been not-so-widely noted, there was less coverage of last year's suppression by Saudia Arabian forces of the Arab spring revolt in the neighbouring pocket kingdom of Bahrain than there was of the Libyan civil war or the current, well-covered conflict now under way in Syria.

A Bahraini commission of inquiry in November confirmed the brutality. But Bahrain is host to the US fifth fleet, vital to keeping Gulf oil flowing our way during the current standoff with Iran and also for dealing with those Somali pirates whom the London conference is supposed to be addressing on Thursday. As for Saudi Arabia, well, we all know the score there. It's even more difficult, dangerous and expensive to cover the sustained bloodshed in, say, the Congo, where vital interests of outside powers are less pressing.

Which is not to say than Colvin did not fight life's battles pretty magnificently from what we can read; only that we should stand back from our own loyalties and prejudices as citizens and reporters. I am also pretty sure that Marie Colvin might have wrinkled her nose to see her sacrifice yoked to the self-interest of newspapers busy resisting accountability over the sordid side of her profession, as evidenced by the Leveson inquiry and much else.

There is plenty of evidence of that today, ringing phrases about the importance of brave and honest journalism which brings the truth of what is going on out there into people's homes. Some of it comes from newspapers which feel free to bash foreign countries that they wouldn't dream of sending a reporter to report in – the foreign country of Europe is a prime example – let alone picking up the bill.

Yes, Marie Colvin worked for Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, a paper with a pretty distinguished record (Nick Tomalin did, too) in all sorts of ways. No one ever said Murdoch is not a great newspaperman whose papers don't do good things as well as unforgivable ones. But it seems pretty shabby to hide behind Colvin's death – as some papers do now – to renew their attack on "lawyers and their publicity-hungry clients" who want to curb media intrusion and illegality.

Cynical stuff, it sullies what should simply have been a tribute to a brave spirit.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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