Last week’s conference on “War 2.0: Political Violence and New Media” amounted to a loya jirga of different tribes – old media, new media, academics, and the odd military representative.

The conference generated some interesting discussions on the implications of the seismic shifts in media for our understanding of war and other political violence, with presentations from Paul McGeogh as the grizzled Lion King of Old Media, Julie Posetti as Warrior Princess of the Tweets,  Sophie McNeil via Skype from Paris, and Crikey publisher Eric Beecher, among others.

McGeogh acknowledged the failures of “old media”: “It is not a clear-cut case of murder. There is an element of suicide”. But he dismissed the suggestion that new media was equipped to fill the gap, with its emphasis on commentary rather than reportage.

He quoted New York Times journalist Roger Cohen on the need to “be there”, not only to fact-check, but also to gain the experience necessary in order to adequately distill the deluge of raw material:”…presence is required. Because part of the choice lies in something ineffable — the air you breathe, the sounds you hear, the shadow light as a bird’s wing that falls across fearful eyes — something that cannot be seized or rendered at a distance.”

But of course, you don’t only need to “be there” – at certain points, you need to be the only one there. And McGeogh did not seem to believe that new media had any entitlement to “be there” at all, ridiculing a website that had raised $8000 to send a correspondent to Gaza – you cannot cover Gaza on $8000.

Yet legions of independent journalists are “there”, reporting on a shoestring, and new media is provides a forum for their reportage. Independent journalist and author Anthony Lowenstein says that he has reported from Gaza and elsewhere euqipped with:

“…a laptop, a few contacts, a fixer (only in Gaza), cheap hotels, persistence and online and print outlets to publish my work. I covered Gaza with a small amount of money and arguably was more trusted because I wasn’t associated with a Western corporation. In the last years, bloggers and freelancers have often beaten the corporate press to the story (witness human rights workers and Palestinian bloggers during the recent Gaza war) because they don’t always travel with as much baggage personally and professionally.”

The territorialism that simmered below the surface at the conference – among journalists old and new as well as academics – seemd to be to go beyond professional rivalry.

People who voluntarily take themselves to locations of great human crisis are often drawn by the desire for an intensity of experience, to beat witness to extremes. Reflecting on the compulsion to “be there”, I was reminded of the British poet James Fenton writing about his desire to witness the fall of Saigon:

“I wanted to see a war and the fall of a city because…because I wanted to see what such things were like. I had once seen a man dying, from natural causes, and my first reaction as I realised what was happening was to be glad that I was there. This is what happens, I thought, so watch it carefully, don’t miss a detail…”

Fenton’s journey to Vietnam was financed by a poetry award. These days, he’d probably be writing – reporting – for new media.

Those who have chosen to “bear witness” (as opposed to most witnesses, who are given no choice) can be very possessive of that experience. But possessiveness seems misguided. Sadly, there is more than enough bloodshed to go around.
Podcasts of the conference can be downloaded here and  here.

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