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Drones, 'War Porn' and Manipulation

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Replacing photojournalists with drones will only bring us 'war porn', proclaimed The Telegraph in response to my suggestion that unmanned drones will be sent into action to cover wars in the next decade.

It bemoaned the loss of the human touch when covering that most human of dramas - war. I can't disagree more. The human touch will still be there. The drone is just a tool in the hands of brave men and women who will still be needed to uncover the human drama.

I salute the countless reporters and photo-journalists who over the years have put their lives in danger to bring the news from inhospitable places to the viewers in the comfort of their living rooms. I was one of them.

The reality is that the footage we, war journalists, capture in the field isn't always 'striking' or insightful. In many cases we are forced to stand a good way from the frontline for our own safety, or if we are on the frontline, we can't stay there for long.

This is why I passionately believe that within the next decade or even sooner unmanned remote control drones fitted with high definition gyroscopic cameras will change the role of the war reporter, as we know it.

Drones will also help verify footage taken by ordinary people, activity that became known as 'citizen journalism'.

Drones will not replace reporters although inevitably fewer journalists will be needed in the field if journo drones are in use. They won't replace the 'human touch' because reporters with experience and knowledge will be needed to interpret the pictures and put them in context.

Drones will not eliminate the need for reporters to conduct interviews from dangerous places although I can envisage a day when a small drone will be flown into an inaccessible dangerous place and a reporter will conduct a live interview from a safe distance using the drone's camera, microphone and transmitter. It will be beamed live around the world.

Reporters are often accused of manipulating the story by choosing what to broadcast. The use of drones will not eliminate that. I applaud reporters who go into the most dangerous conflict zone because they believe strongly in a particular cause. Sometimes such reporters are seen as taking sides. Their reporting is not seen as 'unbiased' because their independence is viewed through the prism of their moral values. In my opinion, there are regimes and terrorist organisations, which cannot be afforded the benefit of the doubt and we must not be afraid to exercise our moral judgement. This is not manipulation. Taking a moral stance is not to be discouraged or diminished.

Drones can't do that.

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Brave journalists put themselves at the centre of the story and often become the story. And they are highly praised for it. Drones won't get plaudits. The journalists who will operate them would.

I wish the BBC had drones when it reported from Grozny during the two Chechen wars in the 1990s. The place became a 'no-go' area for independent journalists after indiscriminate murder and kidnappings. And the world knew very little of what was going on there. The Russian forces and their local henchmen were able to operate with impunity away from the gaze of the TV cameras.

I wish I had a small noiseless drone to assemble and operate in Tehran during the Green Revolution in June 2009. It would've provided priceless pictures of the scale of the demonstrations, which the authorities frequently branded as 'small' and the work of a handful of people in the pay of foreign powers.

I wish we had drones in Syria where often conflicting reports, especially about the alleged use of chemical weapons, remained unverified because no one was able to visit the locations in question.

I wish we had drones now to offer a glimpse of life in Mosul today under the control of the brutal Islamic State (IS) or beam harrowing pictures of untold human suffering from Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq.

Some may call it 'war porn'. I call it responsible journalism. Whether the opponents of journalistic drones like it or not the technology is already here. And it's here to stay. Some new models are so quiet that can be flown in the dead of the night without being heard. The range of the small and midsize drones is constantly improving. They can go behind enemy lines, overflow a running battle, or transmit live pictures from inaccessible natural disasters.

New technology always brings uncertainty and fear. We need not fear the journo drones. All we need now is a rational debate about the legal and ethical sides of their usage.

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