The Journalism Foundation talks to journalists and media professionals about one of the most formative days in their career. This week Peter Bale, Vice President and General Manager Digital of CNN International, recalls his time reporting from Kuwait City for Reuters during the 1991 Gulf War
How did you first get started in journalism?
Reading Reuters reports in the New Zealand Herald opened my teenaged mind to world events and gave me the motivation to push my way onto a local newspaper and eventually to Reuters. I have been incredibly lucky in my career, which has owed a great debt to the influence of Reuters – its ethics and its reach – at a formative stage in my career.
What was one of the most definitive days in your journalistic career?
One of the most formative days in my career was probably going into Kuwait City with the Kuwaiti Shaheed (Martyrs) Brigade for Reuters in the 1991 Gulf War and connecting that day with the Kuwaiti resistance movement, which was a terrific story. The soldiers even let me use their satphone to file it.
When I was in Kuwait, Jonathan Burchill from the BBC, Tony Horwitz from the Wall Street Journal and I had – some might say – rather foolishly driven onto the battlefield from Saudi Arabia, unescorted and certainly not embedded with the military. We sort of attached ourselves to a brigade of eccentric Kuwaitis for whom the Americans had cleared the entrance to Kuwait City so as to allow a national force to ceremonially retake the city. It was highly risky, very funny in the end and we were, frankly, incredibly lucky.
Events moved so fast once the air war shifted to a ground war and it became a mad scramble to get to Kuwait as the Iraqis were driven out by massive allied artillery and air attacks.
Once we connected with the resistance forces in Kuwait City they showed us how they had maintained communications throughout the Iraqi occupation and carried out attempts to undermine Iraqi rule. We also connected with Kuwaiti oil leaders and learned a lot about the truth behind the spectacular oilfield fires.
How were you affected personally by what you saw?
It felt then – and still does feel – like a privilege to have been able to witness and report on events of that scale, encountering life and death situations and being lucky enough to emerge safely from them.
The war became known in some circles as the Video Game War, due to the immediacy of its reporting. Did you feel part of a shift in how the media reports war?
In retrospect the technology we were using back then now seems wildly antiquated: we had two or three BGAN satellite telex devices we could use to send text but they were rarely where you needed them to be at a given moment and they were rather large. At the time they seemed fantastic and they were very reliable. Today we would have been Tweeting and reporting constantly all the way.
I recall Reuters and others – including CNN – doing an amazing job of reporting both from Baghdad and from the allied side and making huge efforts to be balanced and clear about any restrictions. I think the different nature of recent wars has changed the climate and raised the risks for journalists. Big armies tried to – and could – control journalists’ access to news and some of the risks we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the chaos of Libya and Syria today makes for a very different situation for journalists: a combination of limited access and huge risk.
Were you given a taste for war reporting?
I had always wanted to be a war correspondent since watching the Lebanese Civil War unfold and I am glad to have had some exposure to that kind of journalism, but also to have stopped before I became too fond of it. Having had experience in the field made a big difference when I had to start sending or supporting other people in those situations. It made me a much better news editor and hopefully a better person for reporters to have on the other end of the line.
Your career has covered other significant moments in history. You were at The Financial Times in September 11, 2001 and at The Times during the 7/7 attack on London in 2005. Were they equally significant in the evolution of your own career?
The biggest thing in my career though has not been related to war or sensational news events, but rather the explosion of the Internet and the opportunities it provides for instantaneous communication, audience engagement, real witnesses reporting themselves and the curation of all those sources into a coherent whole.
Despite the economic challenges faced by digital journalism, the opportunities it presents are by far the most exciting development I have seen as a journalist. The change is ceaseless and exciting, and the opportunities for reporting are extraordinary. I am incredibly lucky to have moved into internet publishing when I did in 2000 but we’re all Internet publishers now.
How much of the experience you had in 1991 stays with you today?
When something happens like the tragic death of Marie Colvin this week, those experiences from my time in the field become very present again. I would never put myself in her league but I have worked with equally brave and committed reporters at Reuters and elsewhere and now at CNN, and I strongly believe in the importance of “bearing witness”. Whether you are a news editor, a digital producer or a publisher at your desk, you are behind the reporter who is out in the field and must do whatever you can to support them and honour their remarkable commitment to telling the story.