William Howard Russell’s dispatches for The Times from the Crimean war inspired Tennyson’s most memorable poem, led to Florence Nightingale’s mission to reform nursing, and brought down a government. Before Russell news from abroad came mostly from official sources – soldiers, diplomats, and messengers sent by traders.
With increasing use of video shot by official MoD cameramen (often not attributed by broadcasters who use it) and ‘quasi-journalism’ from NGO activists we may be returning to the pre-Russell world.
The decline in foreign reporting in red top tabloids shown in this MST report is perhaps no surprise. But the slide in both column inches and prominence of foreign stories among the ‘broadsheets’ should ring alarm bells.
This decline has two significant consequences. Firstly it reinforces insular values – prejudices – and discourages understanding among British voters. What is going on for example inside the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America is transforming global architecture. Britain needs to be nimble-footed and flexible to cope – and that requires engagement.
Secondly the decline of foreign news coverage makes those organisations that do still have global news ambitions feel a little lonely and out of step – particularly the publicly-funded BBC. It would be far easier to justify foreign news spending because of robust competition than for more abstract public service reasons.
There is still some brave and distinguished foreign reporting in The Sun and Mirror Group newspapers. The last British journalist to be killed in Afghanistan, Rupert Hamer, was after all working for the Sunday Mirror. But there is far too little of it, as is comprehensively shown in this report, Shrinking World.
Russell, the ‘first’ war correspondent, liked to think of himself as the father of a tribe. His successors may need to find a new economic model if foreign correspondents are not to become an endangered species.
David Loyn is a foreign correspondent with the BBC, and author of two books, Frontline: The True Story of the British Mavericks Who Changed the Face of War Reporting and Butcher & Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. This is the foreword to the MST’s report on the decline of international reporting in the British press, Shrinking World.