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DogBitesMan » Featured, Journalism, Media » Look-at-me journalism all the rage from Cairns to Cairo

Look-at-me journalism all the rage from Cairns to Cairo

Photo: Channel TenYou can tell journalists have lost the plot when they start reporting on themselves.

A rash of “look what happened to me” reports has broken out amongst journalists covering the unrest in Egypt and the ham-fisted attempts by the Egyptian authorities to intimidate them and impede their work

Of course, one doesn’t actually need to look so far afield for examples of reporters making themselves the news when covering major breaking disasters such as floods, cyclones and bush fires.

It doesn’t take much to get an Australian television reporter spruced up in their corporate survival gear, network logo prominently displayed.

If there is a television reporter covering Australian disasters over the past few weeks who hasn’t told their own tale of standing knee-deep in water or feeling the evacuation centre shake with the force of a cyclone then they haven’t been at the scene.

To some extent, that’s what many viewers want to see, their own personal guide to an unfolding cataclysm, someone who can turn from the camera, throw out an arm and ask viewers to “see the devastation behind me”.

None of the channels are immune and ABC TV gave its reporters wide leeway, reporters like Paul Lockyer covering the flooding in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, though that was probably just a coincidence.

All the Australian broadcasters except SBS flew their main news and current affairs anchors to Ground Zero to host their live coverage and when there was enough happening this worked well. Of course, when things got slack, they were forced to resort to repeating stock footage and interviewing each other.

Terror in Tahrir Square

This lack of breaking news partly explains the rash of journalists writing stories about themselves in Egypt. Things had gone quiet there following massive and very photogenic demonstrations in Cairo in the preceding days. Having flown expensive correspondents halfway across the world, the major agencies, newspapers and broadcast networks still needed copy and footage; this is, after all, the shoulder of the “silly season” in news.

And the inclination towards grandstanding – never too well suppressed in many journalists – was pushed along by the foolish, often brutal treatment of journalists by the Egyptian government and their vigilante supporters.

It started with reports of some foreign (i.e. non-Australian) reporters being roughed-up and arrested and quickly broke out into an epidemic of “mee-tooism” among the Australian media corps.

Don’t get me wrong, there were real examples violence against these journalists. They may have been gilding the lily somewhat but they certainly weren’t making the lilies up.

And some of them had wit enough to recognise that what they were suffering was but an taste of what many Egyptians had suffered over a generation.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 February, Channel Ten reporter Hamish MacDonald admitted that his experience – dragged out of a taxi by thugs and escaping to the dubious protection of uniformed soldiers – was an example of a much bigger injustice.

“The truth is,” he wrote, “the attacks on journalists these past days are probably just a small window into what this 30-year-old regime is capable of, and the kind of treatment that has been meted out for decades on Hosni Mubarak’s own people.”

Examples MacDonald gave of brutality and intimidation against journalists by people actively trying to suppress coverage of the demonstrations included a news crew from Al-Jazeera’s English network, led by reporter Ayman Mohyeldin , pulled from a taxi and beaten by a mob before being detained blindfolded for several hours by the military.

This example highlighted probably better than MacDonald knew the fact that Western reporters are, generally speaking, well-blessed as far as their working conditions in trouble spots are concerned. They’re generally well-provisioned, kitted out with the latest gear, able to afford protection or the safety of a good hotel, under instructions from their editors not to risk their lives and generally protected by an aura of Western (read “white Anglo-Saxon”) invulnerability, perhaps the leftover of colonial deference.

So a more valid story is not Australian reporters being pulled from cabs or questioned by authorities but journalists from Egypt or living in other repressive regimes being routinely kidnapped, incarcerated without trial, tortured and murdered every week of the year.

From farce to tragedy

The same day MacDonald suffered his alarming experience in Cairo, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 850 journalists around the world had been killed in the line of duty since 1992, five of them so far this year in Egypt, Vietnam, the Philippines, Tunisia and Pakistan. A sixth journalist, Ilyas Nizzar, was also murdered in Pakistan, although the CPJ was still to confirm that his death was work-related.

Again, this is not to downplay the inconveniences, dangers or even terrors suffered by Western journalists covering violent events overseas. Nor is this an argument that they don’t suffer because others suffer more.

But there is an element here of the journalists getting in the way of the real story.

Two-thirds of the way through MacDonald’s article in the Herald he wrote: “During the interrogation I began hearing screams. There were roughly half a dozen detainees five metres from me. They were on the ground and tied up with cable. The soldiers, for reasons unknown to me, fired stun guns at their captives at close range. The cries were horrific.

“When the soldiers paused, the captives lay slumped, mutely on the pavement. It was impossible not to stare. The officer with me said: ‘Don’t worry. It is nothing. Please don’t look. This is not for you.’ I quickly obeyed. The noise told me the whole story anyway.

This was the story, not being pulled from a taxi, however harrowing.

MacDonald has doubtless reported extensively and well for Channel Ten on the unfolding events in Egypt and the brutality inflicted on civilians and local media. Doubtless also he backgrounded the issues behind the protests and the resistance of the Mubarak government.

And he was far from alone in recounting his own bit of history. The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons and Fairfax’s Jason Koutsoukis told how they were held blindfolded and handcuffed while they were interrogated by Egyptian soldiers. The ABC’s Mark Corcoran was assaulted and Greg Wilesmith was held for several hours. Interestingly, ABC Radio National turned post-modern by having reporter Shane McLeod interview Corcoran on the morning AM news program. At least Corcoran had the good grace to attempt some perspective by stating: “We are able to retreat to a safe place whereas tonight there are still many tens of thousands of people down there on both sides fighting it out.”


Journalists tell their own tales from the field often and in all sorts of ways, some well and some appallingly. Like many national broadcasters with a worldwide network of reporters, the ABC has programs such as “Correspondents Report” on Radio National where, every week, staff correspondents give a more personal take on happenings in their bailiwick.

Unhappily though, too often its reporters deliver the equivalent of a “What I did on my holidays” report. They frequently tell personal anecdotes of strange or exotic things they’ve encountered without using the possibilities of their own narrative to connect their listeners to the wider issues. It may be a tale from an exotic place peopled by strange inhabitants, but mostly it’s as gripping as listening to someone describe their gall bladder operation.

The first person report is not easy to do, even for experienced journalists, but too often it is an indulgence, delivering lots of pyrotechnics but very little illumination. The warning signs are always there. The reports almost invariably start with “I” and the word or its variants such as “my”, “me”, “you” and “one” are repeated with greater frequency than at a kindergarten show-and-tell.

Young journalists are especially prone, though older ones who should know better will frequently indulge. One could blame Hunter S. Thompson and a generation of “gonzo journalists” or Tom Wolfe and his “New Journalism” for making acceptable the reporter-as-part-of-the-story style, although this would be to ignore the way it was done.

Firstly, the story a good gonzo journalist covers is interesting in its own right. Secondly, their report illuminates a bigger issue than the incidents they describe. In the case of Thompson’s seminal “Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs” this was American society in all its charm and ugliness. Thirdly, they recount what’s happening to the people around them – the main characters in the story – and keep their own involvement to that of a subsidiary observer, what is sometimes called a “viewpoint character”, through whose eyes the reader or listener can gain a direct and knowable perspective. Finally, they write like angels.

Ed Murrow and Alistair Cooke were amongst foremost exponent of the art of engaged reporting on radio. Murrow’s battlefront reports or Cooke’s long-running “Letter from America” offered their listeners a guiding hand without ever allowing their own voice to overwhelm the narrative.

In more recent times and closer to home are journalists such as Fairfax’s Paul McGeough who – though criticised by some for wearing his heart visibly on his (left) sleeve – manages to make personal observations sound like common truths. He won a Walkely Award in 2010 for his reports from the ill-fated Gaza aid flotilla with a style of journalism that makes the local universal and the momentary transcendent.

The tragedy for our profession is that journalists such as Murrow, Cooke and McGeough make good reportage seem too easy. Too many young reporters or lazy hacks think they can do it too. Most of us cannot and we should not try.

They are encouraged by their editors and the marketing people at the networks wanting to “personalise” their coverage.

The influence of the brand managers is considerable. Networks – and increasingly old media publishers too – have a product they need to sell and they see their reporters as part of that product. Journalists with commercial networks have struggled for decades to be taken seriously when what the network marketers want is for them to look and sound good, scrub up well in front of the cameras and occasionally pose for appallingly cheesy group publicity shoots, looking desperately serious/friendly/light-hearted on cue for promos that can be scheduled to match the mood to the needs of any particular moment.

Public broadcasters increasingly take part in this process of celebritisation. The ABC, for example, has a priceless brand and some excellent journalists, so the marketing gurus argue what’s the harm in focusing on their assets?

Well, nothing if you were selling journalists rather than news. Otherwise it just gets in the way.

It’s the editors who deserve the greatest opprobrium, if only because they should know better. They’ve either forgotten the basic tenets of independent journalism or they’ve been so convinced by the company spinmasters that they see nothing wrong with celebritisation of the news. They justify is as “injecting personality” to better connect on a personal level with the audience and thereby develop channel loyalty, but in their heart-of-hearts they should know this way lies folly and – ultimately – trivialisation.

They’ve forgotten a basic law of journalism: If the story is strong enough, if the characters are worthy and the events sufficiently significant, most journalism writes itself.

And it doesn’t need the journalist standing between the story and the audience saying: “Look at me!”

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