What should one make of the tale of Stephen Farrell--the seemingly reckless New York Times reporter who was rescued by British soldiers on Sept. 9 after spending four days as a captive of the Taliban? A soldier died in the course of his rescue, leading sections of British public opinion to go ballistic, accusing Farrell not merely of selfishness, but of moral responsibility for the soldier's death. Is this reaction fair and justified?
Stephen Farrell was a British citizen reporting from Afghanistan. He'd received very strong advice from British troops to stay out of a Taliban-controlled sector into which he was planning to venture in search of a story. Ignoring that advice, Farrell entered the sector with his Afghan interpreter. Both men were seized by the Taliban within hours, and held captive in conditions that led the British to fear for the life of one of their citizens--hence the rescue mission, in which a British soldier was killed. (The hapless interpreter died, too.)
Let me begin by inverting the moral question and asking not whether Farrell--whose action in defiance of advice had generated an entirely avoidable need for rescue--bears moral responsibility for the soldier's death, but whether the Brits were entitled not to seek to rescue him. The rational answer has to be "yes." After all, the disregard of specific advice has to have some consequence. And did not Farrell assume the risk of some harm befalling him? So why not allow him to suffer the effects of his own recklessness? Fine military people spend huge amounts of thought and energy on trying to avoid
casualties. Farrell's reckless rejection of their obviously correct advice was a choice as massive as its consequence for his dead Afghan associate.
Yet as the actual fact of the rescue demonstrates, matters other than mere reason are in play here. There is a long political and moral tradition in democratic societies by which endangered citizens are sought to be safeguarded. Rescues of this kind--of foolish hikers in mountains, of stubborn homesteaders who stay put in a flood, of gung-ho journalists in the enemy's lair--are a hallmark of civilization. Had Farrell been left to die in Talib hands, the British would have been the first to regard a failure to rescue him--or a failure to contemplate a rescue--as a blot on their escutcheon. So however inclined one might be to hold Farrell in contempt as a reckless Pulitzer-grubber, the question of leaving him to die simply does not arise in a great and self-sacrificial society like Britain (or the U.S., for that matter).
Could one argue--as defenders of Farrell inevitably will--that there is another moral claim competing against the one that asserts that Farrell was responsible for the soldier's death? To wit: the need to get information of public value, for which journalists must--and do--take risks. And isn't the military always asking journalists not to go places, for what might indelicately be described as cover-your-ass reasons? Nobody wants to be blamed if something goes wrong, so it's always easier to exhort cautious behavior. Besides, the "dangerous war zone" argument can also be used by governments to hide all manner of beastly things. Just think of the Sri Lankan army recently, in its final offensive against the Tamil Tigers; or the Israelis in Gaza last December. I have no doubt that there would have been fewer civilian deaths if the press had been around in both cases.
To continue in this vein: Surely the enterprise of journalism would be much poorer if all journalists heeded every government edict. To some extent, does not the enterprise of democracy and informed consent depend on people like Farrell? Pushing the limits is an inherent aspect of press behavior: How else to get past the known to the unknown? Reporters often, and rightly, inject themselves into dangerous settings to provide information that is important to the public. The coverage of wars has always involved a balance between the risks taken by the reporter and the value of the information that can only be gained by physical proximity to a fight. The question is whether Farrell's particular incursion, against advice, was foolhardy rather than courageous.
That said, let us put moral questions to one side and ask what--now--the duty of The New York Times is. What price should it pay for the trouble caused by its reporter? Here's my answer: If The New York Times really does subscribe to this philosophy--the public's right to know, the journalist's duty to be skeptical of authority, etc.--it should reimburse the British government for the cost of the mission to save Farrell (even if it means taking another loan from Carlos Slim) and compensate the dead soldier's family. (That it should compensate handsomely the family of the Afghan interpreter who died is not even open to discussion.) After all, the military has quite enough on its plate not to have to worry about extracting reporters from deadly contretemps of their own making.
Farrell took a huge risk on behalf of his for-profit employer to give it an edge in the news business. Afghanistan is an extremely competitive beat; and war and competitive journalism make for a very perilous--and profitable--alloy. So whereas one would be loath to corral and stifle reporters, why can't there be some financial incentive for journalists to behave responsibly when they venture into battlegrounds? Why not bill publications for the cost of a rescue and require journalists to give half the royalties from any books they write to the military, in the event of a costly rescue?
Embedded here is a broader question regarding the costs and benefits of war reporting. As the Farrell tale demonstrates, journalists tend only to consider the benefits, but not the costs, of their actions. This is a problem in a country like the U.S. in which the majority supports the military in its endeavors, but the press is disproportionately from a minority that reflexively dislikes the military and is suspicious of its motives--and so intuitively discounts the costs of journalistic actions to the effectiveness of our forces.
Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at NYU's Stern Business School and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is executive editor for opinions at Forbes. He writes a weekly column for Forbes. (Follow him on Twitter, here.)
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