“I’d love to ask the British public, do you feel that the media has done an adequate job educating you as to why troops are in Afghanistan?”
The Guardian’s man in the Middle East talks about the dangers of selective reporting, taking a bullet to the chest and clashing with the Canadian government.
May 14th 2007: Embedded journalist John D McHugh lies bleeding behind a rock in north-eastern Afghanistan, the victim of an Al-Qaeda ambush. As one bullet has torn through his body, so many more cut through the air around him. The battle rages, and US troops engage in a gunfight, which leaves seven of their men wounded and 18 Afghan soldiers dead. With a hole in his chest and large exit wound in his lower back, John thinks about his girlfriend back home – how his death might affect her.
A year and a half has passed since the blood-spattered disarray of that day. John’s girlfriend is now his fiancée and, amidst the fresh chaos of wedding plans, I reach him in fine fettle at his London home. Winter has taken hold of the capital, and he readies the kettle as we talk.
“When I’m back, I drink a lot of bloody tea,” he says in his fast-talking Irish tenor. The comment is telling. Being back suggests that he still goes away.
The doctors told him he was going to make a full recovery. “As soon as I knew that, I knew I was going to go back to Afghanistan. It was very hard explaining that to my girlfriend.”
He draws a parallel between his childhood in the Republic of Ireland, the time spent riding horses on the family farm, and the need to clamber back on once he had been thrown. His recovery this time dealt with more than just a bruised spirit.
He underwent numerous surgeries and complications, and had to live with a colostomy for several months. After further procedures to reverse this, he disposed of his cane and embarked on an intensive exercise regime.
Barely six months after being shot, John braved the saddle once again.
“It hurts all the time and boo hoo poor me,” he says. “18 guys got killed and I didn’t, so I think I came out of it lucky.”
The dust had barely settled on the 9/11 attacks when the War On Terror began in October of 2001. Since that time, 151 journalists have been killed covering the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many more have been kidnapped and wounded.
Casualties are heaviest among unilaterals, journalists who work without the immediate protection of the military. Being embedded with the army is not a cure all, but, as John’s situation attests, it is an advantage.
“If you get wounded, you’ve got a much better chance of survival because you’re going to get medevaced much quicker. The day I got shot, if I’d have been up there on my own, I’d have died.”
Journalistic Bias in the Battlefield
Critics of embedded journalism believe there is a tendency for reporters to psychologically identify with the troops whom they accompany, and on whom they rely for their safety. This, they say, leads to reduced objectivity and the practice of self-censorship.
John describes himself as a very pale Irish boy. In Afghanistan, even as he learns the Pashto language, he believes his status as a Westerner will keep him from fitting in. It will also make him a natural target for enemies of the coalition.
He feels he can track down the best stories by accompanying the military. It is one piece of the whole picture, but he considers it a vital piece nonetheless.
“I’m embedded with the army; I haven’t hidden the fact from anyone. There are other sides to the story. But I go out and cover the war, and it’s going to be from the soldier’s viewpoint.”
In 2008, a gang with links to the Taliban and acting independently of the military kidnapped Channel 4 reporter Sean Langan in Afghanistan., He was held for 12 weeks and subjected to mock executions before terms for his release were finally met.
John commends journalists like Langan for having “balls of steel” but says occasionally the risks they take are unrealistic.
“I absolutely think unilaterals are needed. I’d love to go and be able to wander around on my own. But you can’t because if [the soldiers] walk off up the road and you are left there, you’ll get killed or kidnapped… I think it’s better to deal in realities than be idealistic and dead.”
But John insists his moral compass is strong. If a soldier crosses the lines and laws of what is acceptable, he says he would report the matter regardless of personal relationships. There is one thing that would prevent him from reporting a story, though:
“I’d never want to have on my conscience that someone got killed because of a picture I took or a story I wrote.”
Censorship for “Safety”
The military has policy in place to prevent such breaches of safety. Information such as place names and troop numbers cannot be reported or revealed within a picture, as in the case of photojournalists like John,. Doing so could tip off rival forces, so reporters must remain keenly aware of the rules at all times.
Experience has taught John that understanding these rules are not only essential to protecting the military, but to protecting himself. In the spring of 2006, while embedded with a Canadian reconnaissance unit in Kandahar, he photographed a raid that saw several Taliban fighters captured.
“The Canadian government were telling their people this was a peacekeeping mission. Those photographs I took, showing guys kicking in doors, grabbing people at gunpoint, blindfolding them, tying them up, they’re not peacekeeping pictures.”
When they returned to base, John was immediately ushered into a tent. Tired and in need of a shower, he was greeted instead by a team of lawyers. They claimed his pictures breached military law, but had not bargained on his in-depth knowledge of the rules. When that approach failed, they demanded he surrender his work. With the law on his side, and with an admittedly large stubborn streak, he told them: “The only way you can do that is by physically taking my laptop from me.”
Instead, they tried to put a spin on events, telling the Canadian public that John’s pictures were deliberately misleading. Still unwilling to bend, he appeared on Canadian television to defend himself. He released his pictures into the public domain, and let their inability to prosecute serve as vindication. He had acted within his rights and, in a final twist of irony, the Canadian military now use the photos in training material as an example of the perfect raid.
But still the critics remain.
Gay Talese, one of America’s most seasoned and respected feature writers, tore into embedded journalism in a recent online interview, describing them, as “those correspondents who drive around in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, who are spoon-fed what the military gives them and become mascots”: “I wouldn’t have journalists embedded if I had any power!” he says.
He paints a portrait of embeds as compromised yes-men: safe, submissive and unlikely to ruffle any feathers in pursuit of the truth. John strongly rejects this notion. “The people who badmouth it are the ones who’ve never done it,” he counters.
He describes how, just months ago, he accompanied a small unit of US Marines to the Chowkay district of Afghanistan. Sent as back up for the Afghan National Army, the unit remained holed up in a tiny mountain outpost for almost a month, subjected to long spells of daily fire from Taliban fighters. Yet he was not safe inside a tank, nor inside an armoured personnel carrier. His basic defences were the same as the Marines: caged cylinders filled with rocks, and being sure to always keep his head down.
Journalist v Soldier
One thing John does not have is a gun. I put it to him that forces must bear the extra responsibility of his being there without gaining any military advantage. Does this not put an inherent strain on their relationship?
“I don’t think I’m a soldier, I definitely don’t.” But the first thing he says to them is, “Look, you shouldn’t have to babysit me.” “Actions speak louder than words,” he says. “If the shit hits the fan, I’ll be able to look after myself.”
John carries his own equipment and supplies and, with the exception of picking up a weapon, lives exactly as the soldiers do. But, he says, the ability to interact socially is just as important.
Building trust allows him greater insight and makes soldiers more likely to discuss things openly with him. Reporting these stories accurately and without sensationalism is something he takes great pride in, and something he believes not all reporters do.
“Some units don’t want you there because the last journalist they had stitched them up. I have tried to give the soldiers a voice because they don’t get a voice and so many people are quick to say they’re murderers… This lack of compassion for the soldiers, it astounds me, it shocks me. Nothing in life is black and white and it’s the same for them.”
War and Football Scores
John places the burden of responsibility on the mainstream media – ITV and the BBC in particular – believing they focus on entertainment rather than responsible reporting. He says their loose focus on the conflict and preoccupation with numbers over names has numbed the general public to news of casualties: “It sounds like the football scores sometimes when you hear these reports coming in.”
The war is a complicated issue, yet John agrees that, more often than not, the public sees Afghanistan as a glorified Benny Hill chase – British troops behind American troops chasing Osama bin Laden through caves. “There’s a whole lot of different groups fighting, it’s not just the Taliban. That’s too difficult to explain in a three minute report.”
He has accompanied American, British and Canadian troops, and says unbalanced reporting can occasionally stir up panic amongst them. He points to the mainstream media’s fondness for so-called “Friendly Fire” incidents and the effect it has on morale. It definitely worries them, he says, but not in the way you might think.
“I’ve had British soldiers tell me their biggest fear is one day they’ll call American planes for help and they’ll say, ‘No, we’re not allowed to come and help because we’ve had too much bad press.’” And whether military or medical, the need for aid in warzones is something John appreciates more than most.
He recalls vividly the conflicting emotions experienced as he lay behind the rock that day: the temptation to let go, the desire to hold on, and the voice of a soldier calling to him that everything was going to be okay.
Escaping the scene in a torrent of gunfire, he and the US Marines – many of them wounded – arrived at an outpost to await an airlift to medical facilities. On the ground, receiving treatment, he guided a soldier through using his camera. The soldier reluctantly agreed, snapping John in what he thought might be his final moments.
Looking at the pictures now, it’s difficult not to think it would be hard for him to do the same. “People always ask that! ‘It must be really difficult to look at them, it must be really upsetting.’ No. It’s just a picture of me shot.”