Huffpost Canada ca
Tim Knight Headshot

Watching the Watchdog: Inside a War Correspondent's Head

Posted: Updated:

Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

Program: Mansbridge One On One

Date: Saturday, July 14, 2012 (first broadcast February 21, 2012)

Peter Mansbridge the interviewer, is a lot different from the pedantic, condescending and emotionally distant anchor of The National on your T.V. screens four nights a week. Having a real person to talk to -- instead of a camera to talk at -- makes him much more human and, as a consequence, a great deal more interesting.

In this edition of One On One, Mansbridge does a competent job debriefing the distinguished CBC foreign correspondent Susan Ormiston, back in London after her latest foreign assignment.

Seems she's the first Canadian broadcaster to report from inside Syria since the start of protests against the Assad regime -- protests which have since turned into murderous civil war. Already this year, four journalists have been killed reporting that war.

(According to the indefatigable Reporters Without Borders, 29 professional journalists, along with 26 "netizens and citizen journalists," have died in the line of duty around the world so far this year. Nothing unusual about that. Over the past few years, roughly one journalist a week is killed while on the job.)

Watching the interview, I'm fascinated by Ormiston's matter-of-fact description of war reporting and why she does it.

Ormiston: "It's a dangerous business out there. You know ... we have to do it. People take chances. Some don't work out. Homs was the scene, the second day I arrived in Syria, where the French journalist was killed."

Mansbridge: "What is your major takeaway from the Syrian experience?"

Ormiston: "From a purely selfish journalist's point of view ... how critically important it is to be where it's happening! I got such a better sense, we all did, of what's going on there -- where the pressure points are in the power struggle -- from being able to report from there. So now when I continue to report on Syria I have that much better understanding of what's going on."

If I may paraphrase, she's simply saying that as a journalist you sometimes have to take serious risks to get the real story. There's no choice. And you have to be there, on the spot, to actually understand the real story.

For more than 25 years, Ormiston's been there. Such often dangerous assignments as Afghanistan, Libya, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Haiti and South Africa -- as well as filling in notably successfully as replacement anchor on The National.

So she's obviously got guts. But not just in choice of assignment. She's also one of the very few top ranked broadcast journalists anywhere with guts enough to expose herself on camera -- as she is, not as she would like to be seen. To watch Ormiston deliver a story is to see an intelligent, vulnerable, deeply human and honest person who clearly cares greatly about both her story and the people in it.

And isn't afraid to show it.

Which reminds me that the most fascinating picture possible on a T.V. screen is an intelligent human face thinking aloud.

So why do journalists like Susan Ormiston volunteer to go to all these places where people kill each other, and too often kill journalists who might as well have targets painted on their flak jackets?

A few are crazy, death-courting maniacs. Known as cowboys and avoided by colleagues at all times. But most live fairly routine lives in between the calls to arms. Many are married. Some with children. Ormiston herself has a husband and two sons. So why does she constantly fly off to cover the world's most dangerous trouble spots?

I've done some of that myself in the past, so know a little about it.

Accordingly, allow me to fantasize about a morning, sometime in the next few weeks, in a house somewhere in London.

Susan Ormiston sits in her study working on yet another story about the Queen and her damned dogs.

But all the while she's listening. For the muted drumbeat of the next and distant war. For the far off thunder of the guns. For the thwunk-thwunk-thwunk of the gunships and the noisy, gritty, urgent camaraderie of men in battle.

When she senses these sounds, Ormiston's eyes will narrow. Nostrils flare. She'll paw the ground like a warhorse, develop a more than usually avid interest in newspaper, radio and T.V. news.

And after a couple of days she'll casually mention to her husband and sons that she's thinking of dropping over there, wherever it is. After all, she knows the place well. Better than any of her colleagues.

Don't worry, she'll tell her husband, I'll just hang around some safe hotel and work on backgrounders and forecasters. Nothing too strenuous. Nothing too dangerous.

She'll be lying, of course.

Ormiston, and war correspondents like Ormiston, are addicts. They need the excitement, the risk, the adrenalin rush, the proving that they can beat the odds and get the story.

So they always want just one more battle. To go back where they belong. With the other women and men who go to war, not to fight, but to report and reveal and enlighten. To scoop the opposition, risk their lives, and hang out in hotel bars with fiercely competitive beloved colleagues, and swap stories of past glories and disasters.

And colleagues who died in the line of duty.

And smell napalm in the morning.

Her husband will know Ormiston's lying when she says the next war will be her last. He'll smile sadly and shrug and remind her that she swore the same thing last time.

But he'll understand.

Because he knows Ormiston, whatever else she's doing, however old she gets, always wanted to be -- and at heart always will be -- a war correspondent.

And war correspondents, both by nature and need, simply can't resist the thunder of the guns.

They go because they must.