Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tripoli Witness - balancing naivety and professionalism, a template

Rana Jawad - from BBC World Service site
Listening to Rana Jawad on the BBC's Woman's  Hour I'm struck by one comment.

At the point where she wants to become a journalist and tells her father, she acknowledges the enormous risks she would take. This, she adds was down to her naivety.

Rana, at 22 years of age, seven years ago, would relocate to Tripoli,  and become a BBC Reporter.

But she could not do her job for fear of her life and her husbands.  As a Lebanese-Brit she, conceivably she would have stood out in areas of customs, mannerisms etc.

She turned to blogging and became the figure head behind the highly successful blog Tripoli Witness, now turned into a book by Gilgamesh Publishing.

That naivety is not one to mock. No, but it presents a double edge sword. It helps in ways that are unimaginable, but is at the mercy of so many other forces - when matters turn the other way.

Seven years on, and deservedly so Rana can recount something that isn't just journalistically profound in her professionalism,  but also phenomenological.  Her documentary Knitting in Tripoli may allude to that.

But back to naivety. I believe I know what she's talking about, because at one point I did, and many others have done similar.

In my case the transition of Apartheid South Africa to democracy did not involve war, but the townships and agents seeking to undo the country's march to freedom meant you had to have your wits about you.

Balancing Naivety
I too was naive. One day I was in London seeking contracts to no avail, the next I had boarded a plan to a place I knew little of and found enough work freelancing for the BBC World Service.

South Africa's civic life was one thing, but as a journalist it was your job to go into the heart of conflict zones.

I did not have to go into hiding, so any comparisons to Rana, which I'm not out to make are moot. But that sense of naivity meant I was prepared to go anywhere to find a story. Blind faith indeed. Partly a symptom of being young and adventurous.

So it's a paradox when I have new grads ask me how they make it in journalism. I used to say with a degree of excitement: find a place in the world and make it your own.  Be prepared to give up five years. If the place is high on the agenda for international news all the better. Then build your portfolio.

My journey culminated in a documentary, First Time Voters, that was the only British made doc aired by the South Africa broadcasting one day before their historic elections. It would also be my first multimedia piece.

However as regards risks at the same time following a spate of unfortunate accidents, I have toned down my advice.  Hypocrisy?

Advice for Journalists
David in Soweto writing Dispatches for th
BBC's Magazine Ariel
When I wanted to be a journalist I didn't know the risks, but got through. I remember my night time drive through Katlehong, then designated murder capital of the year with frightening clarity.

Last year a couple of students wanted to travel to agitated zones for the docs.  I wrestled with  a risk assessment issue and how to minimise dangers.

Blogging today lets you work under the cover of anonymity e.g. Rana or  the Baghdad Blogger from 2005. But the journalism is still about putting yourself through risks to get the story.

Something has changed. Respect of the journalist being neutral was never sacrosanct, but attacks on journalists have no doubt increased. The profession appears to inherit less and less to detractors this veneer of the observer communicating realism.

A journalist, to combatants unfortunately so, has become the enemy. Witness Syria at the moment, the BBC had to sneak in under the cover of darkness. The team, correspondent and camera operator, were hugely experienced, but the risks were still high.

Being in the right place at the right time is still a rare gift or involves immense engineering  for journalists. And so it's each one for themselves. Jana's naivety worked for her and many others.

Perhaps perversely its better not to ask to many questions or become to analytical before you set off. Then again, not knowing may place you in positions where you're living by your wits, which is something  you'll probably wish you did not countenance.

Rana's book can be is published here