President George W. Bush has suggested that journalists should be pulled out of Baghdad. You may ask what business it is of his. On the other hand, perhaps he knows better than most of us what is likely to happen to the Iraqi capital over the next few days and weeks. There has been talk of Saddam Hussein and the Republican Guard making a last stand there, and drawing coalition troops into a fight for the city which they might not easily win. Fanciful comparisons have been made with Stalingrad. Even if there is no conflagration, Allied aircraft are expected to target government buildings with 'precision bombs'. We can recall from the assault on Belgrade during the Kosovo war that these bombs are not always as precise as they are cracked up to be.
Editors and foreign editors are therefore faced with a problem. Do they ask their journalists to remain in Baghdad under the watchful eye of the Iraqi ministry of information, facing risks which, though difficult to quantify, may be considerable? News organisations are split down the middle. The Daily Telegraph has decided to pull out its man, and the Times has asked Janine di Giovanni to pack her bags, reportedly much to her annoyance. The Financial Times is also withdrawing the 'stringer' whom it shares with the BBC, partly because it fears that she would not be able to operate freely. In the other camp, the Guardian is expected to have Suzanne Goldenberg in Baghdad, while the Independent's legendary Robert Fisk has arrived in town. The Daily Mail still has two reporters there. The Sunday Times has a journalist called Hali Jaber who, as a Lebanese, might conceivably be at less risk were the Iraqi authorities to turn nasty. The BBC will probably reduce its correspondents in the city to two or three: Andrew Gilligan is still there, and reports for us this week.
Many journalists would say they would love to be sent to Baghdad, but they know they are unlikely to be asked. Those who are staying are undoubtedly in danger, and I take my hat off to them. Apart from the threat of fighting and of misdirected bombs, there is always the possibility that Iraqi soldiers and even civilians may take the law into their own hands if many of their own people are killed by coalition forces. (British and American journalists are obviously particularly vulnerable.) So one can understand why some editors have decided to withdraw their reporters. They do not want to be held responsible for someone's death. But I don't think that the fear of supervision by the Iraqi authorities is such a compelling reason for asking a correspondent to come home, since enterprising journalists can always pick up a great deal even if they have a minder on their backs. My general feeling is that if experienced, grown-up reporters want to stay on the spot, their editors should let them. I can see why Janine di Giovanni, who has made a career out of covering wars, and undoubtedly knows how to handle herself in tricky situations, should be peeved at being called back to London.
It is an interesting point that many of the best hot-spot journalists should be women. An editor who thinks of them as the weaker sex is barking up the wrong tree. In addition to those I have already mentioned, there are Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian and Emma Daly of the Independent. Doubtless there are many others whose names I have momentarily forgotten. The tradition is not new - one thinks of the great Clare Hollingworth of the Daily Telegraph - but there are certainly more female war and trouble-spot reporters than there were 20 or 30 years ago. I suppose this reflects the general change that has taken place in society. And yet in some areas of journalism - say, the writing of political columns - there are still relatively few women. Why are they drawn to war reporting, and why are they so good at it? They are often braver than men. Perhaps they hate war more, and are therefore better at writing about it. They are also sometimes able to play on the natural sexism of genocidal brigands and thugs who are apt to get sentimental about their own mothers and may regard women as less of a threat. However, such people can equally well assume that women exist to be abused.
Journalists, I know, are not greatly loved. But over the next few weeks, as you peruse your morning newspaper or watch the ten o'clock news, spare a thought for the reporter who at some risk to herself or himself is bringing you the news. It is a lonely business: all you have on the other end of the line is a foreign editor who may be out to lunch, and a deputy foreign editor who is on the telephone to the correspondent in Shanghai. It is dangerous, and you never quite know where the danger is coming from. Let's hope for every conceivable reason that Saddam's forces collapse like a pack of cards, and that there is no fighting in Baghdad. But as I write the handful of brave correspondents who remain there do not know what is going to happen.
Am I the only person not to see the point of the Daily Mail's new Peterborough column? To start with, it was quite a jape. The Daily Telegraph dropped its ancient Peterborough column which it had carried since the Norman Conquest and, as I remarked a couple of weeks ago, idiotically renamed it London Spy. The Mail then thought it would revive Peterborough on its own pages. In so doing it seems have harked back not to the recent version of the column but to the blander and more staid Peterborough of 20 years ago. It is in that sense a brilliant re-creation, and students of the form such as myself can only admire it. But what do readers make of it? There is also the danger of cluttering up a paper which already has two much more readable columns of a similar type, namely Ephraim Hardcastle and Wicked Whispers. As a result of the changes, one unfortunate columnist has been shunted into a siding surrounded by advertisements, and it seems unlikely that anyone will ever read him again.
Rebekah Wade's Sun is more brutal than that of her predecessor, David Yelland. It tracked the former minister Ron Davies down to his badger lair to establish what most observers had already assumed - that he enjoys having sex with male strangers. A few days ago I saw a copy of the paper lying in the gutter, and a headline which proclaimed something along the lines of 'Adam Faith two hours before he died'. Ugh. Rebekah's Sun is a subject to which I shall return at greater length.
In writing about the Daily Telegraph last week, I said that 'The paper remains essentially solid and will become profitable again.' Dan Colson, chief executive of the Telegraph Group, assures me that the company is currently making substantial profits, as last year's results, soon to be released by Hollinger International, the Telegraph's parent company, will confirm.