ABC Radio (AUS) "Cultures of Journalism" -- 8:45

A series of radio interviews about journalism's future, episode 10 featured this interview with Michael, speaking by sat-phone from Baghdad.

ABC Radio -- 8:45

Spin, PR and Truth in Reporting
Sunday December 11 2004

Donna McLachlan: One journalist who has a passion for finding the truth at all costs is Australian, Michael Ware. He's the bureau chief for Time magazine for Baghdad. And as you'll hear in this interview, has very clear ideas about how he gathers facts for a story.

I've included the preliminary chat that I usually do with interviewees, in order to set a sound level, because in this case it's already setting the scene for the way Michael Ware works.

Michael Ware: Actually it's another typical day in Baghdad. Not a cloud in the sky, warm and balmy and a bit hazy. I'm sitting here in the room of my house surrounded by armed guards—is that enough of a level?

Donna McLachlan: That's amazing. Great. So, I wanted to start by asking you about the fact that you're sitting on top of one of the biggest stories in the world right now. How mindful are you of wanting to get the whole story and tell as much of the story you can into print?

Michael Ware: Look, that's foremost in my mind. This is in some ways a defining issue for us right now, this American war being fought Iraq. So to try and understand exactly what's happening here and to try to fathom what is the dynamic that is really driving this war, both here on the ground in the Iraqi desert and beyond the confines of Iraq—it's vital. We, the public, need to understand this, because this is being done in our name. But we're the ones—and it's our sons and it's our daughters who are bearing the costs of this. So if we just rely on one voice for our understanding of this story, then we're not doing ourselves a justice. We need to hear as many voices as possible from all sides of this conflict, so that we can really come to know what is happening here. We don't want a sanitised version, we don't want a propagandised version. So that means there is enormous obligation on the journalists who are here, in my opinion. And I feel the weight of this personally to get out there and go beyond and find what we can see of the truth. And we can only ever hope to capture shards of the truth. Little windows, or vignettes. But I feel that we've got to gather as many of them as we can and present them, and try and give as accurate a sense of the big picture as is humanly possible in the midst of a war.

Donna McLachlan: Is that why you chose to make a relationship with Iraqi insurgents—to show a bigger shard of that story?

Michael Ware: Absolutely. This conflict has at least two sides. Indeed, there are many others. From the beginning, after the initial invasion, I quickly turned my attention to what would the Iraqis do, and specifically what would become of an insurgency, that I just knew was going to emerge. So by developing contacts from the former regime of Saddam Hussein, I was able to slowly begin to meet some of those senior military officers and intelligence agents and security officials who were holding out, and who way back in May 2003 were then just starting what was an embryonic insurgency—very loose-fitting, very ad-hoc, very opportunistic and anything but sophisticated and organised. But by tapping into them at that point, trying to understand ideas that were continuing to resist and how they were doing that, I've been able to follow them and mark their progression, and document the evolution of not just these individuals but of the insurgency itself. And in doing that, that adds incredible value to our reportage and understanding of the war here.

If we rely on the US military to tell us about them, if we rely on the US military to give us insight into their enemy, then that is not a real picture. I wanted to hear from them what they were doing and why they were doing it. And not surprisingly, when you put the two pictures together, from what the Americans are saying and from what the actual men who are doing the fighting were saying—they were markedly different. The Americans from the beginning badged them as 'terrorists', trying to throw them into the same pot as al-Qaeda and the men who pulled off September 11—when indeed, nothing could be further from the truth at that time. And it became very clear these were not terrorists fighting for Islam, they were nationalists fighting to free their country from a foreign occupier, and making that distinction was vital.

Donna McLachlan: Have you ever disclosed a secret in your stories for the greater good of 'the truth'?

Michael Ware: No, I haven't. The American military, for example, is very adept, when dealing with journalists, at preventing them from obtaining secrets or being made privy to information that would be useful to an opponent. So with the insurgents, I made it very clear to them as well, that I expected nothing but the same. Indeed, I've gone to some pains to ensure that I don't have secrets. I don't want what military people call 'actionable intelligence'. I don't want to have access to information that would be militarily valuable, so I don't want to know about forthcoming operations, I don't necessarily want to know where your secret places are. So even if I'm taken to these places—I've been blindfolded, I've been shipped from car to car, I've been disorientated, I've had all many of guises to prevent me from knowing the exact location or the exact identities of the people I'm meeting with. So no, anything that is fed to me, anything that is shown to me, either by the US military or the insurgents, is on public record.

Donna McLachlan: How has the language of reportage changed for you, given that you are dealing quite often with Arabic and Arabic speakers—has your style changed dramatically since you started reporting from Baghdad?

Michael Ware: No, not particularly. I spent some time reporting, for example, from East Timor, or from Indonesia. And I actually lived in Afghanistan for over a year. And I've now been here in Iraq essentially since January 2003—months before the war. So trying to report in a foreign language from a foreign culture, pointedly being an Islamic, eastern culture—has not changed my style of writing nor my style of reporting. But obviously I've had to learn a whole new dialogue. I've had to learn an whole range of ways to express myself and to be able to culturally immerse myself in the milieu here. If I can't do that, then I can't gain the access that I'm getting.

Donna McLachlan: Is that, for example, about growing a beard? What other examples would you say …

Michael Ware: Yes, it's growing a beard. It's learning just a few phrases, either in Afghanistan it was in Pashkin language. Here it is in Arabic. Learning some religiously significant phrases or customs, coming to innately understand how things occur. And it's even things like body language. Knowing how to stand before a senior commander, or a senior imam. How to show deference and respect without any hint of subjugating myself. It's all about very subtle cues and non-verbal expressions in some ways. But by being able to do that, by being able to immediately engage in a dialogue that is familiar to them, it's a sign of faith and it's an engagement that they immediately respond to.

Donna McLachlan: Michael Ware was speaking to me by satellite phone from Baghdad, Iraq. And you can read his reports in Time Magazine.