"We both know that the sooner you get coverage after an event the better. No matter what happens after, it's the original coverage that sticks".
Uttered by the fictional foreign correspondent Nick Hammond to a fellow reporter in the intensely powerful play Gibraltar, those words resonate with any journalist who has broken news in a similar situation. Sifting fact from fiction whilst simultaneously rushing to file copy is a high-stakes affair, the repercussions of which are felt long after the story has been subbed, laid out and published for mass consumption.
The play's script deals with the media response to the infamous Death on the Rock affair in which three unarmed IRA members were gunned down by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988, and is a gripping analysis of the power concentrated in the hands of journalists and the oft-flawed methods they use to set the news agenda. The incident sparked a sea-change in public opinion towards the UK government's anti-IRA strategy, thanks in no small part to a television documentary which accused the British of operating a 'shoot-to-kill' policy based on contested testimony from a controversial source.
Gibraltar also skilfully handles the inquest into the terrorists' deaths, in which a barrister's relentless grilling of a key witness produces a trite but crucially-important response: "Like I said, each person can give a different interpretation of what they see". The witness refuses to contradict his wife's statement of events, even though there are significant differences between their two accounts, and asserts that such nuances are perfectly acceptable given the unique prisms through which we each view the world. The barrister is suitably unimpressed.
That eye-witness accounts can be so varied is a hardship not only for lawyers at trial, but for journalists too as they seek to apply their own perspectives to the accounts they send back to their editors. In such emotionally-charged arenas as war-reporting, there is far more at stake than in more run-of-the-mill, mundane situations - and despite their best efforts, reporters routinely find themselves hauled over the coals for their perceived bias.
I encountered just such a venomous response during my four years writing for the Guardian from Israel and Palestine, with every piece of on-the-spot reportage I filed subjected to outraged polemical parsing by critics from both sides of the political divide. While I assuredly stood up to my detractors for the course of more than 300 articles, the response to my op-ed on the Gaza flotilla proved the straw that broke the camel's back.
I argued in my piece that the IDF had no choice but to respond with force when faced with violent activists, backed up by the incontrovertible footage of soldiers being attacked with knives and metal bars as they rappelled onto the boat, as well as by testimony of crew members declaring their intention to violently resist the army and to become 'martyrs' to their cause.
All hell broke loose when my piece was published, with readers outraged at my stance on the affair. Hundreds of condemnatory comments flooded into the Guardian, culminating in my being taken to the Press Complaints Commission by a reader who claimed I'd breached the press code over a dozen times in my piece. He cited in particular my suggestion that the activists on the flotilla had initiated the violence, and accused me of twisting events to suit my own political stance.
Inevitably, I was cleared on every count, with the PCC backing my right to free speech to the hilt, and recognising repeatedly that I had relied on hard facts to form my opinion, despite what my critic alleged. However, the episode took its toll on my already waning desire to keep reporting and commenting from the front line of such a high-octane conflict.
Foreign correspondent peers of mine told similar stories as to why they eventually called time on their postings abroad, and - as is so devastatingly shown in Gibraltar - it's no wonder so many reporters burn out so quickly, given the crushing pressure under which they find themselves. And, while I stood by how and why I came to my conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the flotilla incident, I was reminded yet again how much of what I and others see is so indelibly influenced by the eye of the beholder.
The play shows just how easy it is for journalists to be seduced by accounts they want to believe are factual, in order to fit in with their overarching personal theses, and is thus essential viewing for anyone working in the field. But to the layman, the message gleaned is just as crucial. When so much public opinion is formed on the basis that 'it's the original coverage that sticks', how much of what we think we know about far-flung events is actually based on hard truth at all? And whose agenda is really being served by the so-called first-hand, front-line reports served up to us in the press?