May is such a busy month for birthdays and anniversaries in the Gums world that I hardly ever get to the Sydney Writers Festival, even though it is not much more than 3 hours drive away. I was consequently thrilled to discover that this year the National Library of Australia, Canberra, would be one of its live-streaming sites (#AWFLiveAndLocal) – and I was determined to support it (as well as attend because I wanted to). Overall, some 15 sessions were streamed over three days to around 35 sites.
This year’s theme is “The year of power”, one which is close to the revived Canberra Writers Festival theme of the last two years, “Politics, Power, Passion”.
Conflicting Narratives, Friday 4 May, 3pm
Panel: Ben Taub, Alexis Okewo, Alec Luhn, Ben Doherty (MC)
This session was billed as being about “the role of storytellers in a time of ongoing conflict, terrorism and refugee crises.” The panelists, for those of you who don’t know them, were New Yorker writer, Alexis Okewo, who has written about extremism in Africa in her book A moonless, starless sky; the Moscow-based reporter for The Telegraph, Alec Luhn; and another New Yorker writer, Ben Laub, who writes about Syria and the jihadi movement in Europe. The moderator, Ben Doherty, writes for The Guardian.
The discussion started with Ben asking each panelist about his or her recent work. Okewo spoke about the moral complexities faced by people in extreme societies, arguing that the decisions they have to make aren’t simple. Individuals often aren’t all-victim or all-perpetrator and can be forced to commit violence. She talked about the aftermath, about how you live after terrible things (which made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, my review).
Taub talked about Syria, and how the Rome Statute is clear about what you can and can’t do in conflict. The problem is, however, that Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that while there is “no ambiguity in international law”, Russia “protects Syria” at the UN Security Council. He noted that although there are currently geopolitical obstacles to pursuing accountability, this doesn’t mean you can’t collect evidence for later.
Luhn clearly confronts similar problems, asking how do you resolve problems when countries don’t agree on fundamentals. It’s more than simply “trying to beat the Russians at their disinformation game.”
Discussion then moved on to processes, such how journalists do their research in such tricky regions. They all agreed that journalists’ main job is to find reliable/trustworthy sources, and that there is a lot of newsworthy material out there “if you know the right people.” Okewo spoke of the difficulty of getting into the remote regions, for example, where Boko Haram is operating. Obtaining good information is particularly difficult in places where “the government is broken” and “resistant to being transparent.” The narrative regarding Boko Haram, for example, tends to be that it didn’t happen, but is a political plot.
Laub talked about the need to use trusted sources, some of which can come via NGOs. However, he did comment that the narrative you get can be “true but not the whole story”.
Related to this, and scattered throughout the conversation, were discussions about what readers can trust. Luhn, in particular, emphasised the importance of teaching media literacy. (My friend and I felt that this is something that’s surely always been taught. Of course, the environment in which we apply assessment techniques keeps changing, but the principles remain the same.) Responding to a question during the Q&A about what readers can trust, Luhn (I think) said that the best thing is to read widely because each media form/outlet has pluses and minuses. It comes back to media literacy, and understanding different outlets.
Another questioner from the Q&A wondered whether it would be possible to have a rating system for journalists, like we have for, say, Uber drivers. MC Doherty was not convinced about this. He wondered who would make the assessment, and worried that ratings could affect freedom of speech. Luhn pondered an organisation like UK’s OFSTED. He also said, though, that we need to trust the professional standards of the traditional newsroom and non-profit journalism centres.
Luhn, I think, quoted Churchill’s “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
From here, the discussion moved on to journalists’ safety, an issue of critical importance if we are going to get reporting from the ground. Alexis, the only woman on the panel, had quite a different spin on this: women journalists, she said, can be threatened by their own sources. They must trust that the people they are reporting with won’t hurt them. She also talked about dealing with vigilantes, about writing on people who are doing admirable but also disturbing things! You can’t fully trust them.
Luhn commented that it’s important not to work alone but journalists are increasingly are doing just this. He mentioned the Rory Peck Trust and the “hostile environment” training they offer freelance journalists. (The things you learn!)
Laub, I think, talked about relying on locals – drivers etc. What happens after you leave can be problematic, he said, because these people can face retribution for working with foreign media. Journalists need to continue the relationship after they leave. On the other hand, people, such as your fixers, can turn on you.
The session ended with quite an engaged Q&A, some of which I’ve included above. It ranged from questions about journalism itself – including one asking for advice for young writers – to questions about the regions the journalists are working in and the causes of the problems those regions are facing. The panel talked about Russia’s troll factory, and the future of Syria for example, but I’m going to close here!
It was inspiring to hear this bunch of engaged – and brave – young journalists talk about their work and their profession.
PS: I apologise if I’ve wrongly ascribed the speaker. I mostly captured the speaker’s name, but I slipped up a couple of times.