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Interview: BBC reporter Jon Sopel

Haider Saleem catches up with BBC World Service journalist Jon Sopel on the difficulties of covering war zones

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When TedX came to the University of Manchester on the 2nd of March BBC World News correspondent Jon Sopel gave a talk on reporting in war zones. The Mancunion’s Haider Saleem caught up with him after his talk to discuss war photography, the risks of reporting in war zones and the disney effect of war.

You mentioned in your talk that ‘war is ugly’. Then how would you describe your job? What is it like reporting if war is ugly?

My job can be exciting, scary, tedious it can be everything. You often have long periods of waiting for something to happen and then all of a sudden jaw-dropping adrenaline. It can be upsetting, seeing things that are difficult to absorb, whether it be death or other people’s pain, which I find very difficult when you see people who are really suffering. But you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They always say the most miserable solider when a war is going on is the one who’s stuck in barracks. If you’re a journalist and there’s a big story, then you want to be where the big story is.

“You can’t take good photos if you got a tear in the view finder”

I think it was the English war photographer Don McCollum, I couldn’t find definitively the quote. However it is one quote that I have always grown up with in my journalistic career. I think he meant ‘you must never show any emotion, you must stay cold and distant’

As if you’re a ghost?

Yeah – like you’re just an observer, you’re not there to feel. It is like you’re in the Roman Colosseum and the lions are about to tear apart the Christians. You don’t feel anything – you’re just watching what’s happening, you’re just a spectator. I think that’s true up to a certain point but I think there are times when you have a degree of emotional involvement and commitment because you are watching people suffer. You can’t just say ‘get over it, you just had your legs blown off, your wife and children have just been raped.’ I don’t think you can be cold and impassive to what you see around you. That doesn’t mean you are taking sides, but it means there is a blend of the two, is what you have to do.

You said you were worried about the ‘Disney effect of war’ – what exactly is this?

I think you can show war as a theme park, you can show things going bang, rockets being fired and bullets whizzing past and you never show what the effects are of what has happened and I think that is what creates the ‘Disney style’ effect of war. That it all looks kind of harmless – no one gets hurt. For a reporter, ideally, if you want to live, you don’t want to be standing underneath where a shell lands – you’re going to be blown apart. There are realistic constraints about showing – you’re going to be a pretty unlucky correspondent if the bomb lands on top of you, because it means you’re not going to be able to file your report and your dead. However, I think that we have to show that war involves suffering as well and real pain and that’s why I showed a clip in my talk of what the effect of the chemical weapons strike were because it was shocking to see that small child shaking and covered in burns. I think it is incumbent upon us not to sanitise war, that is what I meant.

In Syria, North Korea and other places, journalists and reporters are being captured and imprisoned. How does it make you feel – that journalists are being kidnapped for doing the same job as you? Does that upset you?

Of course it does and it affects other people’s judgments about whether we are willing to go down there. I think at the moment the BBC is thinking that Syria is too dangerous, and believe me we got some pretty brave reporters and cameramen who are prepared to go there, but just the risk of capture – if you’re out in certain areas, the risk is so great and so unclear who is doing the capturing (we had the same problem in Baghdad) that it mean it is very, very difficult to report in these places.

Do you not feel like people look at you and insanity recognise that ‘yeah, there another westerner here to report what’s happening’?

 I feel that often people want to show their conflicts. If you give people a camera and a microphone and a change to explain why and what they are doing, whether that is in Africa or the Middle East, for most of the part people are receptive. There’s no way I can mask myself and pretend that I’m a black African or an Arab. A lot of thought and you would be amazed about how much thought goes into what we call ‘high risk areas’. The planning, execution, where we are going to stay, the methods of exit, what contingency plans are in place. We also have kidnap plans, those things are talked about when you go there.

You have previously talked about the effects of social media and journalism. Who do you think is becoming more powerful, social media or Murdoch?

(Laughs) What a good question. I’m not going to answer, I’m going to be a bit of a politician. I’ll tell you what I think, I think that 20 years ago, Murdoch had huge, massive undeniable power and now I’m going to say to you that it is much more balanced and that social media is immediate and instant, and if you don’t deal with it you’re a fool. Your going to see in the next election social media play a more prominent role than it has done. People who say social media is irrelevant are wrong.

Harry Fear, who had also spoke, said ‘when the blood in the middle east spills, it doesn’t really bother us’ – is he true in saying that?

I didn’t hear the quote; I’m not going to comment directly when I haven’t heard the context. What I would say the Middle East is one of the most important geo-political issues of our age. The idea that we don’t care what happens  n the Middle East strikes me as wrong. The Middle East is one of the stories that people feel is hugely important, a lot of resources are devoted to and we have a very good bureau and reporting in the Middle East.