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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 11:57 GMT
Newsnight at war

By Mark Urban
Diplomatic Editor, Newsnight

Peter Snow and the sandpit during the first Gulf War
Peter Snow's famous sandpit is now in London's Imperial War Museum
If there is one consistent theme to the Newsnight coverage of war and peace, it has been of a struggle to look beyond simplistic "good guys versus bad guys" coverage.

The first great episode in this was the 1982 Falklands War.

Shortly after Argentina invaded the islands a Newsnight team - all non-British passport holders - was dispatched to Buenos Aires. There were all kinds of risks to broadcasting from the "enemy camp".

The team was provided with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, bogus ID from an American network and the departing producer told by his foreign editor, "if anything goes wrong, we don't know you".

The Argentine broadcasts started off as a covert operation, but were so successful that the military regime turned a blind eye, and the programme's foreign legion ended up with printed "Newsnight Buenos Aires Bureau" letterheads.

This coverage, along with scrupulously fair accounts of both sides' claims led to presenter Peter Snow being denounced as a traitor by the Sun.

We aim to get the views of all sides, although this is harder... where seeking interviews with militants runs the risk of being kidnapped and murdered
There were many wars during the early years where the shortage of video from the conflict zone itself was so crippling that Peter Snow's sandpit - on which the military moves of the day would be played out - became a highly popular feature.

Whether it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1980), Falklands or 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the models would be commissioned. Tim Gardam, later Newsnight's editor, sometimes claimed his happiest moment on the programme was lying under the sandpit, twirling a model helicopter's rotor.

Close shaves

For those teams engaged in covering conflicts the humour was often of a blacker variety. There were many close shaves. Julian O'Halloran and his team were exposed to chemical weapons when reporting on the Iran/Iraq war.

Taking cover under fire in Kosovo
Mark Urban comes under fire during a live broadcast from Kosovo
As time has worn on those of us who have done the frontline reporting (Charles Wheeler, David Sells, Robin Denselow, myself and several others) have come under greater risk from warring parties who do not accept or care about our neutrality.

I cannot speak for the others, but my years on the road have involved: being shot at by snipers (Karabakh and Bosnia); under artillery bombardment (same places); abducted by armed men (Tajikistan); pursued by mobs intent on harming us (Jordan and Macedonia); had to take cover from fire during a live broadcast (Kosovo); being led into a minefield (Kosovo); conducting an interview in a minefield (Afghanistan); and being a few hundred yards from falling cluster bombs (Kuwait).

We aim to get the views of all sides, although this too is becoming harder, particularly in the Middle East where those seeking interviews with Islamic militants run the risk of being kidnapped and murdered by them.

The cases of Daniel Pearl, Frank Gardner and his camera man Simon Cumbers pose very uncomfortable dilemmas for us - not only whether talking to all sides is too risky, but also whether we ought to have dealings with terrorists of this kind.

There is no doubt that the pressure of today's "news cycle" makes in-depth coverage harder
This pressure has been accompanied by changes in technology that mean we can now broadcast live from almost anywhere. Since we usually perform for Newsnight only, we have not been subject to some of the pressures that our news colleagues have.

Context

We can still stand back, trying to view events in context - even if that detachment means only that we our filing at the end of the day instead of throughout it.

There is no doubt that the pressure of today's "news cycle" makes in-depth coverage harder. Our passion, a desire to prepare a banquet for our viewers, something lovingly crafted over several days, often now has to give way to snacking, providing daily bites instead.

With so much competition, we struggle harder to come up with different ways to report what is happening.

Mark Urban reporting for Newsnight
Snow's famous sandpit was finally replaced by Screenwriter graphics
During the 2003 Iraq war, the sandpit was finally replaced with Screenwriter, a system that allows us to use maps, satellite imagery or moving pictures to chart the day's significant events.

Although many other programmes use graphics, Screenwriter proved a useful tool for live broadcasting, seizing on significant information and allowing the day's images to be de-constructed.

Whatever the treatment of stories, our mission has remained essentially the same during these years; trying to understand why wars start, why they end, as well as what happens to those caught up in them.

We try to be the awkward squad, undermining received wisdom (of journalistic colleagues as well as those in power), getting around roadblocks and censors alike.

It isn't easy, but Newsnight has a way of inspiring its people to go to the ends of the earth.


Newsnight is broadcast every weekday at 10.30pm on BBC Two in the UK.

Newsnight is 25 on 30 January, 2005. Click on the links on the right-hand side of this page for more on the show's history.

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