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News from City, University of London

'Taste the dust, feel the heat - but it's not worth dying for'

City hosts powerful debate on the safety of reporting from the Middle East

The Olive Tree Middle East Forum, in partnership with the Journalism Department at City University London welcomed some of the most highly acclaimed foreign correspondents for the discussion 'The Middle East: a story too dangerous to cover?'

The BBC's Chief International Correspondent Lyse Doucet and Foreign Editor Andrew Roy joined ITN's International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar, The Independent's Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent Kim Sengupta and the Director of the International News Safety Institute, Hannah Storm, to tackle one of the most powerful and emotive issues in international journalism at present.

The panel was chaired by Professor of Journalism Suzanne Franks.

Doucet kicked off proceedings by reminding the packed lecture hall of the two golden rules of journalism. Firstly there is no substitute for face-to-face interviews. In her eloquent manner she described the importance of 'tasting the dust and feeling the heat'. However, her second point stressed that absolutely NO story is worth dying for, especially in a digital world where face-to-face can now mean a conversation over Skype. 

Next Franks introduced Omaar, who began by amusing the audience with the tale of his first overseas journalism assignment, armed only with an electric typewriter. Next, Omaar raised the question of journalistic objectivity in the modern reporting of war. The practise of 'embedding' within a particular side, in his case within the Allied forces in Iraq in 2003, whilst a necessary safeguarding precaution has, he suggested, eroded trust in journalistic objectivity and weakened their neutral position. 

Omaar also expressed concerns over freelancers reporting from conflicts. His feeling was that they might be tempted to take bigger risks to secure a story due to the fact they are often self-funded and are trying to make a name for themselves.

Kim Sengupta took up this point, "The danger is not the 'bang-bang' stuff, it's the fear of ending up on video in an orange jumpsuit", he said. He acknowledged the difficulty of balancing safety with the need for telling the untold stories of conflict. He gave Syria as an example of a 'journalistic vacuum' and described his last visit to Damascus as 'unnerving'. He stressed that international reporters were trying to find ways to get back to the region safely; a point that drove home to the audience how dedicated these journalists are to reporting stories from troubled regions.

Hannah Storm broadened the discussion by highlighting the dangers that local journalists, translators and fixers face when helping foreign correspondents report from conflict zones. She quoted the shocking statistic that for every foreign correspondent killed in war, there are eight to ten local journalists who die covering the same stories. She also asked the audience to consider not just the physical trauma of war reporting, but the under-reported mental trauma of conflict journalism.

Lastly, Foreign Editor Andrew Roy broached the logistics of sending journalists to report in the Middle East. He made the excellent point that his job was to evaluate the risk versus the reward when commissioning journalists overseas, "Tell the story, don't be the story", he said.

Commenting on the evening, Professor Franks said, "It was an insightful and thought-provoking evening, enabling students to hear from some of the leading figures in international news reporting."

A video of the evening will be made available on the Olive Tree Middle East Forum website 

Follow the evening's twitter conversation on Storify

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