Journalism – the dangerous business

April 22, 2009

I wrote recently about the moral purpose of journalism, in part I noted:

The bottom line is that, consciously or unconsciously, reporters and editors often concede their independence to political actors. Equally, states often go to extreme lengths to coerce or cajole the news media into toeing the line

There’s another deep philosophical argument: Is the conscience of the journalist easily equated with the broader public conscience?

In this context, one of journalism’s most important roles is that of awakening the public’s conscience. Journalists must decide when the alarm must be sounded and how best to do so.

(The Global Journalist, p.4)

I am still thinking about these issues, they’re not yet fully resolved in my own head, but I think it’s a debate that anyone with an interest in honest, truthful and insightful news media should engage in.

However, it’s never too late to sound the alarm: journalism is a dangerous business for courageous reporters who threaten powerful political and economic interests.

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Robert Capa’s Falling soldier – does the evidence stack up?

November 1, 2008
Sonw in London - October 2008

Update 19 July 2009: Fresh argument erupts

[Traveller's tip: Don't miss: This is war! at the Barbican till 25 January 2009]

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a ‘private viewing’ of the Robert Capa and Gerda Taro exhibition at the Barbican this week. Helen and I got doused by a storm walking from Moorgate, but once we were inside, the magic of the Barbican Centre took over. We spent the next 90 minutes immersed in some great war reportage and an installation of contemporary photojournalistic and new media commentaries on Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the way home I was caught in that wonderful (for an expat of 40 years) October snow. It was bitterly cold, but the chance to take this photo made it all worthwhile. The white blobs in the foreground are snowflakes.

Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were an amazing couple as well as great photographers. This retrospective provides hundreds of images showing how they worked together or alone and using a variety of cameras and techniques.

Many of the images in this collection are clearly staged and posed: including many famous images by both Capa and Taro from the Spanish civil war.

They first went to Spain in 1936 and their sympathies were with the Republicans (also known as Loyalists) who were defending their newly established (and left-leaning) government from the Fascist militias led by General Franco.

I don’t doubt Taro and Capa’s political allegiance to the Republicans. That was always the right side of the barricades and many fine socialists, intellectuals, poet, anarchists, workers, women and children died defending and extending working class political rights against the rising tide of European fascism.

But did this ideological sympathy for revolution in Spain create ethical problems for either Capa or Taro? One famous series of images by Robert Capa sheds some interesting light on this debate.

Known universally as ‘the falling soldier’, one iconic image is at the centre of a longstanding question hanging over Robert Capa’s reputation as one of the finest photojournalists of the 20th Century.

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Four interesting items in the New York Times

September 12, 2008

I picked up the New York Times yesterday, it’s a thinsheet too, like the LA Times.I ripped out four pages from the newspaper, only one of them was a piece of journalism.

Columnist Bob Herbert wrote a great piece about the proud achievements of what Americans coyly call “liberals”. That is US citizens with a modicum of intelligence and a social conscience.  I put that last bit in there to distinguish them from intelligent conservatives-they’re the ones who know they’re f&8k9nG the rest of us over and get sadistic pleasure from it. They’re the ones who know it’s torture, think it’s OK and actually enjoy it being done to “terrrrists”.

Herbert’s column’s called “Hold your heads up” and it argues well that American liberals should be proud of who they are and not ashamed to be identified as liberals, even though it’s a swear word in the red states.

The other stuff I pulled was a series of interesting display ads.

[dribblejaws alert-you should go here]

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Gopalan Nair free on bail – still facing charges

June 6, 2008

I just saw an AFP news feed, 8 hours ago [around 7 on Thursday evening Sydney time], saying the Singapore blogger Gopalan Nair has been released. As of now I can’t find any coverage in the NZ Herald or the Dominion Post.

Nair posted $5000 bail and walked out of prison after four days, but without his US passport. Nair arrived in Singapore on 25 May and challenged authorities to come and get him from his hotel.

He had posted his room and phone numbers on Singapore Dissident [link inside]. Gopalan’s charged with insulting a judge in a defamation case involving two of his political allies. His blog, regularly criticises the government.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is protesting Nair’s arrest. He was in Singapore to cover the defamation trial involving Democratic Party activists Dr. Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin.

That trial is also a story worth following as Nair is trapped in Singapore and now facing serious defamation charges himself.

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Robert Capa – was that photograph really real?

September 7, 2007

For many years I’ve been talking to my students about the ethical dilemmas associated with photojournalism. One of the key case studies that we discuss is the image of a Spanish soldier at the point of death that Magnum agency photographer Robert Capa took in 1936.
In the shot the Loyalist soldier appears to be falling back after being hit by a sniper’s bullet.

For years there’s been controversy around this image. Some historians and journalists, notably Philip Knightley, have argued that this is a faked image. Posed by the soldier for Capa’s camera.

In a review of a biography of Capa (Blood and Champagne by Alex Kershaw), Knightley is scathing in his attack on the man, and the famous image.

Let’s get the bad stuff over first. Robert Capa was a liar, a compulsive gambler, a depressive, a heavy drinker, and a womaniser (especially with prostitutes). He used people, broke promises and when he was accused of being a communist and the U.S. State Department kept his passport, he “named names”, to get it back.

At the urging of the appalling Henry Luce, the founder of Life and producer of the March of Time newsreel series, he staged Republican attacks on Fascist positions during the Spanish Civil War and filmed them, noting that they looked “more real” than if they had actually taken place. And, I maintain, he faked the most famous war photograph of all time, the Spanish soldier at the moment of death.

But the Wikipedia entry and other bloggers have suggested that it’s real. The entry is quite clear on the story, but doesn’t mention Knightley’s criticism:

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. Historians eventually succeeded in identifying the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Valencia) and proved it authentic. [1] This is one of the best-known pictures of the Spanish civil war.

This position receives some support, for example this comment from a discussion thread at

The photo has been proved to be in no way “a set up” by the photographer, despite a claim by someone who wasn’t anywhere near the place where it happened.

In a response this this, another post suggested:

I never said the photograph was a hoax. Robert Capa had asked the soldier to perform for a photograph(duck and roll I believe) when he was shot and killed(in reality)

In amongst all the discussion of cameras, lenses and focal lengths, there’s some support for Capa on the site. Here’s another post on a different thread that seems to support the Wikipedia entry:

Knightley claims to have proved in 1974, Capa Falling Loyalist Solider photo was faked. Well, a few years ago, the soldier was positively identified by records and family members. Knightley still refuses to accept this. A long time ago, I read his evalution and found it lacking. In addition, I believe, he did not have access to the Capa archives and never saw the original contact sheet(s) from the event. The original negative has been lost. The very best source of ACCURATE Robert Capa facts, is the Richard Whelan biography, first published in 1985.

There is a piece by Richard Whelan online that backs this story and provides more detail. This extract talks about the controversy and maintains that the image is real. However, it says here that the soldier was a Republican fighter. I thought the Loyalists were Francos’ fascists. I’ve always thought the image was of a Republican and given Capa’s political leanings I would imagine he would have been with Republican units, not Franco’s.

After photographing in Barcelona, Capa and Taro went to the stalemated Aragón front, where they visited the militia of the Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) that George Orwell would serve with that winter. Capa and Taro then moved south toward Andalucía. Republican forces had begun an offensive to recover Córdoba, and the Madrid government reported new advances daily, even emptily boasting that its troops had entered the city. For photographers eager to cover Republican victories, the Córdoba front was a compelling destination.

There, just outside the tiny village of Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, a 22-year-old Capa made one of his most famous images, perhaps the greatest of all war photographs—that of a Republican militiaman who has just been shot and is collapsing into death.

The internal evidence of the series of photographs to which that picture belongs suggests that Capa ran down a barren hillside with the vanguard of a Republican attack, and, as they came into range of an enemy emplacement, he threw himself down and hugged the ground (as we can see from the camera angle); from there he photographed several men as they were shot in succession. “Falling Soldier” received its first publication soon afterward in the September 23, 1936, issue of Vu.

In 1975, a controversy began over the authenticity of Capa’s great photograph when O’Dowd Gallagher, an elderly British journalist of failing memory, charged that the photograph was staged. The claim was published in Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.

In a world always eager to believe the worst, Gallagher’s allegations spread rapidly. Refuting evidence was largely ignored. In September 1996, however, the controversy was definitively settled in Capa’s favor by the discovery of the identity of the man in the photograph—Federico Borrell García, whose death at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, is recorded in the Spanish government’s archives and whose identity in the photograph was confirmed by his younger brother, Everisto.

Through circumstantial evidence, which I pieced together while working on my biography of Capa, we know for certain that Capa and Taro were in Cerro Muriano on that day. Indeed, on the vintage prints preserved in the files of Capa’s estate with their original chronological numbering, the numbers on the sequence of pictures to which the “Falling Soldier” belongs immediately precede those of a Cerro Muriano refugee series. The numbering on the vintage prints clearly suggested that Capa made his “Falling Soldier” picture at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Capa repeatedly confirmed during his lifetime that he had made his photograph on the Córdoba front.

There is another, more detailed account of this story from Richard Whelan at PBS, written in 2002. This image purports to show the relative positions of Borell Garcia and Capa, taken from a trench on the front lines.
Here’s Whelan’s final thoughts on the subject, from the PBS American Masters documentary on Capa:

The arrow indicates [in the photo above] where Federico Borrell García was standing when he was shot; the X indicates where Capa was hugging the side of the gully.

There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. May the slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa’s reputation for more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a verdict decisively in favor of Capa’s integrity. It is time to let both Capa and Borrell rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.

Whelan provides more photographic evidence in this piece, published in 2003.

I haven’t been able to find any response to this from Phillip Knightley. If you know of one, perhaps you could let me know.

Was Orwell Trotskyist?

August 23, 2007

New Zeal: S.A.P. 17 Dr Martin Hirst

This is an interesting rant from some far-right goons in GodZone, I feel like I’ve arrived on fucking Mars! Not really, as my mate Helen pointed out. It’s not a bad place at all. Just got the same quota of loony-tunes as any where else really.

If you bother to read the thread I’ve linked to you’ll see that the rampant revisionism of the right regarding Orwell is in full swing. In fact Orwell was basically a Trot. If you read Goldstein’s “The Principles of Oligarchical Collectivism” in the centre pages of Nineteen Eighty-four, you’ll clearly see that he was elucidating a theory of state capitalism.

Changing the world, not just reporting it

August 16, 2007

it seems like I didn’t make a friend of Fairfax columnist Karl du Fresne at the EPMU’s Journalism Matters conference last weekend in Wellington. Karl’s written a column that appeared today in both the Press (Christchurch) and the Dominion Post (Wellington) Politics threaten media progress – Perspectives in which he criticises me for arguing that objectivity in journalism is dead and for declaring my socialist politics. You can read a previous post on market journalism and objectivity to see where I’m coming from.

I stand by what I said – that the point of journalism is to change the world, not just report it. I’ve written a letter to the editor in response to Karl’s column and here’s the text:

Letter to the editor

The Press

16 August 2007

I’d like to quickly respond to Karl du Fresne’s piece about the Journalism Matters conference in Wellington last weekend (The Press 16 August). The idea that journalism is more about changing the world than merely reporting it is not something new that has recently become entrenched in journalism schools. If readers care to look beyond the rhetoric it becomes clear that the news media has played this role for more than 200 years.

The original press in Britain, Europe and North America was a highly partisan operation. Newspapers took a stand on issues and attempted to influence their readers. The press was influential in changing public opinion about slavery for example. The French and American revolutions were also stirred by the press of the day. Radicals were keen to have their own press in order to inform and mobilise supporters.

If Karl thinks that this has ever disappeared from the news media he’s wrong. William Hearst and Joseph Pulitizer both used their newspapers to push the United States into a war with Mexico in the late 19th centuries. The American press was a propaganda tool used to great effect to generate public sympathy for the allies’ cause in both world wars this century.

The news media took sides during the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict too. Today, Rupert Murdoch is proud of the role his newspapers and television networks played in building public support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In a nutshell, the freedom of the press is now, and always has been, the freedom of the news owners to push their own views. On the other side of the ledger, some of the best journalism has also led to galvanised public opinion and, yes, world-moving change. The BBC’s Michael Burk reported famine in Africa and mad it clear that he was angry and upset about what he’d seen. This mobilised huge relief efforts that no doubt saved thousands of lives. The exposure of thalidomide in the UK in the late 1960s led to that drug being taken off the market as a treatment for morning sickness. John Pilger’s crusading work over many years is another example of what I describe as the journalism of engagement.

Objectivity as a principle of journalism is no longer the holy grail. The fact that some journalism educators are prepared to say so and to put such ideas in front of their students is just a recognition of this idea. In the respected Columbia Journalism Review, Brent Cunningham has written a thoughtful piece called “Rethinking Objectivity”. He makes the point that often it is an excuse for lazy journalism and that it forces reporters to rely on official sources. He also argues that it allows the news agenda to be captured by the “spin doctors”.

Finally, I would commend George Orwell’s famous essay “Why I write”, in which he argues for an engaged and partisan journalism that tackles the difficult political issues of the day. He was writing at the close of World War Two, but if you read between the lines, the sentiments expressed echo down the years. I come not to praise objectivity, but to bury it.

Martin Hirst,

AUT, Auckland

The information age: George Orwell’s worst fear – Editors Weblog- Analysis

July 4, 2007

The information age: George Orwell’s worst fear – Editors Weblog- Analysis

This is a review of Paul Moreira’s latest book, Les Nouvelles Censures. Moreira is a French investigative journalist and this book discusses overt and covert manipulation of the news media by the spin meisters. I’d love to seen an English-language version. If you know of its existence in English, please let me know.

One of the best and the brightest

April 27, 2007

David Halberstam dies on way to meet with Y.A. Tittle to talk about football

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam was killed Monday doing what he had done for more than four decades: chasing down a great story.

Halberstam, 73, died in a car wreck just a few miles away from a long-sought interview for a book he was planning about a legendary 1958 football game. Driving the author was a UC Berkeley journalism graduate student drawn by the chance to spend time alone with a living legend.

Menlo Park police are still probing the cause of the fiery three-car accident that injured two others. Halberstam, of New York, was in the front passenger seat of a car that was broadsided as it was making a left turn off the westbound Bayfront Expressway, which connects to the Dumbarton Bridge, onto Willow Road about 10:35 a.m., authorities said.

The car in which Halberstam was riding, an older-model Toyota Camry, was hit by a late-model Infiniti. When paramedics and fire crews arrived, they found Halberstam unresponsive and trapped in his seat, said Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire District.

The engine compartment was on fire, and the passenger side of the car had been crushed, Schapelhouman said.

A rescue crew member was able to pull Halberstam from the car while another doused the flames, the chief said. The author had no pulse and was not breathing when he was freed, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, Schapelhouman said. Halberstam was pronounced dead at the scene.

The author appears to have died of massive blunt-force trauma, but an autopsy scheduled for today should confirm the cause of death, said Kristine Gamble, senior deputy coroner for San Mateo County.

Police declined to say who may have been at fault in the crash. Cars turning left at the intersection onto Willow Road may proceed only when they have a green arrow.

The Infiniti driver suffered minor injuries, and the driver of a Nissan coupe that apparently was hit by one of the other cars was unhurt, authorities said.

The Berkeley graduate student driving the Camry, Kevin Jones, suffered a punctured lung and was taken to Stanford Hospital.

“It’s just a really hard time for him. He’s feeling really sad and freaked out,” his wife, Lily Jones, said by telephone from the hospital’s emergency room. “It’s just a very traumatizing thing to have gone through.”

She said she had not discussed the accident with him in detail.

Halberstam was in the Bay Area to deliver a speech at UC Berkeley about what it means to turn reporting into a work of history, said Orville Schell, dean at Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism.

Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 at age 30 for his reporting from Vietnam. He later turned to long-form writing and wrote 21 books, including “The Best and the Brightest,” about how the United States became involved in Vietnam. His other works covered a wide range of subjects, including civil rights, sports and the auto industry.

But Halberstam’s own journalistic career was anything but history, said John Eckhouse, a member of the journalism school’s alumni board, which arranged the event this past Saturday.

“He had just finished the galleys on Thursday for his latest book, on the Korean War,” Eckhouse said. “He spent Saturday in his room at the faculty club. He said if he could come over to our (afternoon) event he would, but he had some editing to do, some writing to do.”

Halberstam’s Saturday evening speech was a rousing success, Schell said, with a packed house of journalists and members of the public.

“He was speaking about the need for passion to be a journalist, and the importance of it to the whole healthy functioning of the American political experiment,” Schell said. “I think those two things were what made him something of an evangelist to the role of the journalist in our society.”

Afterward, Schell said, he and Halberstam dined at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, talking late into the night about the parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Over the years, Halberstam had developed a habit of alternating weighty historical books with sports books, and he planned to follow up his Korean War book with a work about the 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, often called football’s greatest game.

The game, won by the Colts in overtime, is widely regarded as having contributed to pro football’s modern popularity.

In his typically careful preparation, Eckhouse said, Halberstam had tracked down former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who did not play in the championship but who had played the Colts two weeks before. Halberstam hoped to gain insights into the play of Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas.

To get to the interview, Schell said, Halberstam approached the journalism school’s students, seeking a driver and offering unique compensation, as described in an e-mail from the school to the students: “He said he’ll give you a private seminar on the way back. Details are vague, but this could be a really cool opportunity.”

Kevin Jones, a student whose resume already included awards from stints as a freelancer and at several small publications, had seized on that chance to have some face time with a journalistic icon, his wife said.

“He just wanted to get a chance to talk to somebody that he thought was interesting,” Lily Jones said. “He doesn’t have class on Mondays, and he thought this would be great opportunity.”

Tittle said he was in his Mountain View insurance office waiting at 11 a.m., when he expected Halberstam would arrive. At 12:30, he said, his secretary came in and said he might as well go to lunch.

“I thought maybe something had come up with his family,” a shocked Tittle said Monday evening. “He was only 2 miles away, 3 miles away.”

E-mail the writers at and

This article appeared on page A – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

YOu can read more about David Halberstam in this Poynter Institute memorial


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