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Friday, 19 January 2018

Book review: The First Casualty, Peter Greste (2017)

The old saw goes that the first casualty of war is the truth and Greste – the Australian journalist who spent 400 days in a series of Egyptian jails after being charged with and convicted of aiding terrorists because he interviewed people associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – twists it slightly to claim that the first casualty of the so-called War on Terror has been journalism. Or, more exactly, objective journalism of the kind that is so difficult to produce.

The narrative that deals with his stay in Egypt – he had only just arrived there in 2014 to take up a job with Al Jazeera English – is interleaved with a series of meditations on the state of the craft. He starts by looking at his own experience back in Afghanistan in 1995 when he was covering the war there for the BBC and the Taliban entered the fray. He shows how their entry into the war made life more dangerous for journalists, as they had no tolerance for such things as objectivity and merely wanted someone to parrot their collective line in the international public sphere.

When he starts talking about more recent events, such as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre, these sketches become slightly tendentious as he is dealing with material that has been covered in detail elsewhere, but you assume that he is writing for posterity as much as for existing audiences, and you just skip the parts you don’t need to read. A similar thing happens when he starts talking about Donald Trump’s attacks on the media.

His descriptions of the ways that governments of both colours in Australia have passed laws in Parliament that make life more difficult for journalists is rewarding, and his expertise in such matters were no doubt part of the reason Greste was chosen this week by the University of Queensland School of Communications and Arts to be their UNESCO chair of journalism and communication.

Trump’s dealings with the media, he thinks, are particularly troubling as they provide unscrupulous leaders in other parts of the world with a license to persecute this critical segment of their countries’ communities. Journalists serve an essential purpose in the conduct of democracy, which is no doubt why, for example, Australian James Ricketson is still under arrest in Cambodia for doing journalism that clashes with the dynastic impulses of the country’s corrupt leader, Hun Sen.

The story of Greste’s incarceration itself is of especial interest, even to those who experience loneliness in a free country and who are looking for tips on how to deal with it. Being shut away in a small space for weeks on end, Greste developed a routine including exercise and meditation that allowed him to unshackle his mind from the depressing tracks it might otherwise have been left to follow in its default mode. He experienced panic attacks on occasion when the pressure became too much and the idea of spending years inside loomed large.

This is also a good book to read to understand how the Middle East has changed since the rise of radical Islamic terror, and it offers insights that are otherwise unavailable elsewhere in the public sphere. Greste is focused mainly on facts but does include passages where he teases out the meanings of things that happened to him and where he talks about his feelings they are particularly rewarding.

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