Writing the introduction to a collection of TV criticism for The Observer, in 1983, Clive James made wry note of the small irritations of his job.
He once spilled a tray of ice cubes in his lap when watching Barbara Woodhouse, the dog trainer, kiss a horse on TV. Another time he thinks he sprained his wrist reaching for a drink and working the remote control. Meanwhile, as he noted, other people did dangerous jobs.
Things have changed a bit since the early 1980s. These days a danger of the job is the barrage of venomous insults that can pour in. Occasionally an obsessive hater goes postal, online, and spews jibber-jabber of the toxic kind. If you pay attention, you need a thick skin. Still, writing about arts and culture doesn’t qualify as dangerous when the main threat is an insult.
Back when I began writing for this newspaper, when a letter in the mail or a hissing voice on the phone was the main source of aggravation, there was a young man named Finbarr O’Reilly toiling in the trenches of arts reporting. Then he went away to do other things.
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (CBC documentary channel, 9 p.m.) features the same O’Reilly in its opening scenes. He works for Reuters now. We see him, somewhere in West Africa, prepping to go outside and cover a war zone. “Of course you’ve got to take the flak jacket,” he says. Then he holds up ballistic glasses that offer some protection to his eyes, from shrapnel. “Everything has to be cotton,” he says of his clothing. He takes something fleece to stay warm at night, but is reluctant to wear it. “If there’s a fire or explosion that stuff melts into your skin. In the hospital they use a cheese grater kind of thing to remove that stuff, and you really don’t want that.”
Directed and written by Canadian Martyn Burke, a veteran writer of novels, films and documentaries, Under Fire is chilling, saddening and very powerful. The doc (on the short list for an Oscar nomination last year) points out, at the start, that only two journalists were killed covering the First World War, 63 journalists lost their lives in the Second World War and 1,397 members of the news media have been killed in the last 15 years covering conflicts and wars.
The doc deals with two issues. First, the appalling fact that the murder of journalists has become so routine that few people care, and, second, the attempts by some journalists to deal with the appalling mental toll of what they cover in war zones.
We meet Finbarr O’Reilly often. At one point he’s photographing the aftermath of a NATO air strike in Libya and locals are pushing him to photograph dead bodies and body parts strewn, obscenely, on the road. “I don’t think I’m one of those junkies who is there for the thrill of it,” O’Reilly says. He is now taking advantage of therapy offered by psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who specializes in journalists suffering trauma. We see O’Reilly on the phone to Feinstein, explaining the depression that can follow a narrow escape from death and the inability to deal with normal life when at home in a peaceful place. “There’s a disconnection leading to depression. This wasn’t acknowledged before. It was a very macho profession,” O’Reilly says.
It isn’t only male reporters who tell their stories here. Susan Ormiston of the CBC talks about the dread that comes with leaving family to go to a very dangerous place and convey its horror to the world. Christina Lamb of the London Sunday Times talks about fearing death in Afghanistan. “It just seemed really, really stupid to die in that field.”
The British cameraman Jon Steele tells a truly harrowing tale of getting footage in Sarajevo during the war in the Balkans. He is still profoundly disturbed by it. And he describes his mission: “I was trying to reach through the TV screen to grab people from their comfy chairs and drag them into my camera and say, ‘Look, look, this is what it’s like!’”
Chris Hedges also appears. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, he describes himself as being, once, a “war junkie.” Hedges last appeared on our radar when he was on CBC-TV’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange, talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Kevin O’Leary famously and obnoxiously called him “a left-wing nutbar.” Which takes us back to the matter of insults.
Often the insults I get are rooted in allegations of partisan TV coverage of some crisis. From the vantage point of online anonymity, journalists reporting from war zones are mocked and ridiculed. But language is beggared by the images the journalists in Under Fire capture and convey. Remember that. Go ahead and insult.
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