I’m sorry about the old canvas Billingham bag, but it’s been with me for 20 years of reporting all over the world and so seemed appropriate,” apologises Mike Wooldridge to the audience.
The BBC World Affairs Correspondent is in Oxford to speak at the Oxford Network of Peace Studies conference ‘Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding’. He’s been sent to all corners of the world by the BBC – to Spain in 1975 to cover General Franco’s death; to Iran, in 1978, to report on the earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people; to Ethiopia, to cover the 1980s famines; to India, Africa, America, Georgia and Russia as religious affairs correspondent in the ‘90s, and more recently to Africa to cover violence in Sudan and Kenya.
Do journalists not simply stand back and watch or, worse, run the risk of stirring problems when actively reporting on violent or potentially violent situations?
“I do worry about being seen as voyeuristic, or unwittingly instigating something.” Wooldridge recounts an incident from his time as South Africa Correspondent at the end of apartheid: “I was reporting from the edge of a funeral and there was a ‘necklacing’.” (A punishment for those believed to be collaborating with the apartheid regime, in which the individual would be beaten with a stone, before being forced into a rubber tyre that was then set on fire). The crowd set upon a man they believed to be an informer, and I suddenly realised… all sorts of things went through my mind – were they more likely to do this because I was there? Probably not the case, but I remember it going through my mind – that normal human reaction – was there anything I could do to stop this happening? I remember looking round and a rock had been thrown on this man’s head, and they were putting the necklace on him… Someone dragged my arm and said ‘you need to get out of here’…it was deeply unsettling, as you can imagine, and I still think to this day whether I could have done anything to prevent it.”
Do news organisations go to the stories that are going to make the best headlines, and neglect countries still facing enormous difficulties as soon as they are no longer 10 o’ clock news material?
Wooldridge is acutely aware of the issue. “We try to ensure we cover as consistently as possible countries that may not be the top news item. Taking the Sudan as an example: we were, of course, covering the referendum over the independence of the south earlier this year […] But we feel it’s important to see not only that moment of independence but also to see how that move to independence would work out. And there have been some troubles… it’s a chance to go back and look at those kind of issues.”
Wooldridge treads diplomatically. In any case, the BBC is not constrained by the need to generate sales like other news organisations: “We’re lucky – our bureaus around the world mean we can be consistent in our coverage.” Even issues that “aren’t top of the news agenda” can be reported: “We might make programmes for radio or a longer film for Newsnight instead”. This allows more contextual information and reports of longer term impacts on individuals.
One of the speakers at the conference pointed to the problems in reporting on the recent wave of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. If you’re covering a country that has banned journalist entry, what on Earth do you do? Surely reporting from an office desk in W12 on the political situation in Syria is hardly likely to be accurate?
“It’s a real challenge – Syria has been a good example of that. We’ve been getting a lot of information coming in through various forms of social media.”
But how do you check that information is not just someone making it all up?
“We’ve got an Arabic service, so we draw heavily on them – and we’ve got people who come from Syria and can give an immediate judgement as to whether that thing we’re seeing or hearing is plausible. Does it square with what that person knows of that area? And we can go back to people, check, cross-check.”
Even when specific information is correct, how do you set it out, so it doesn’t seem to a viewer or listener back in the UK like a whole country is on the verge of severe violence, when in fact it may be confined to certain areas of a country?
“It’s about how you package the information you have. You might say ‘This is unverified information, this is footage apparently taken in X place’. Often it’s about an evolving truth. But we don’t put stuff on the air because they’re particularly striking images or whatever. And if we have a particularly dramatic event happening in one particular place, we will try to make it very clear it is in that one place. If it’s right to do so we will say there was no evidence of this happening anywhere else.”
Unsentimental but sensitive reporting is what is needed, according to Wooldridge. Experience of “great human resilience” comes with the job. He recounts a time in Mozambique at the time of the civil war, when he flew with a food drop aeroplane: “I remember it was old because it had the date it was built on the side, which was the same as year as I was born… I came to a village that was surrounded by the rebels. There was a man in a white coat. And I thought, ‘how can this be real? They’re under such pressure, life is so difficult here…’ The man was a government health worker – a rebel target – and he kept this clinic going because it was his duty to do so, to serve the community. To keep it supplied, he would walk – often at night to avoid being attacked – 40km each way to a town where he could get drugs. That was a remarkable story.”
But at the same time, he stresses the need not to “romanticise” cases of human resilience. “We can underplay the trauma we know [people] go on experiencing. Alongside that, they feel they have to get on with their lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s had any less traumatic effect on them. As journalists we need to tell that story as well.”
The life of a world affairs correspondent brings more than its fair share of close encounters. You’d be unwise to choose it as a career if you didn’t know that. Wooldridge tells his anecdotes and views his opinions mindfully in a calm voice. It’s exactly what sensitively approached reports from the most destitute environments should sound like.
“My first editor told me that the most important thing was to listen carefully. That applies to everything you do.” Wooldridge is certain that academics and journalists can work to research and report on violence, ultimately ensuring that the truth is what prevails.
We’re all ears.