From The Great War To Gaza, Evolution Of The War Correspondent

A century ago, those reporting on wars were little more than military puppets. Since Vietnam, journalism is freer and more complicated. Now social media is changing the equation again.

Journalist and photographer Jeremy Kelly files pictures from Surobi, eastern Afghanistan, in December 2009.
Journalist and photographer Jeremy Kelly files pictures from Surobi, eastern Afghanistan, in December 2009.
Mimmo Cándito


TURIN — For those “covering” the Great War, patriotic duty always prevailed over truth, with journalists expected to be as obedient as soldiers.

Who could imagine Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times reporter killed in 2012 covering Syria's siege of Homs, never moving freely amid the action. Or Martin Adler, the late award-winning war correspondent, and Robert Fisk, The Independent"s Middle East correspondent, never stepping foot on a battlefield? Can you imagine them dressed in fatigues with a required soldier chaperone, following military orders about what to write?

Aug. 4 marked the centenary of Britain’s invasion of Belgium, which was the real beginning of World War I. According to Philip Knightley, author of the book The First Casualty, it wasn't just the Great War but also a “great conspiracy.” He details degrees of government manipulation and media complicity, as evidenced by the “embedding” of reporters in military units and the uncritical, openly patriotic coverage of conflicts.

It would be a decade after the end of World War I when journalism could begin to reflect on the true dimensions of this tragedy that had been manipulated so shamefully. “No period in the history of journalism has been as dishonorable as the four years of the Great War,” British politician Arthur Ponsonby wrote in 1928.

Emilio Lussu, an Italian soldier and writer who fought in the trenches of the eastern front, gave his memorable account in A Year on the High Plateau. In it, he severely condemned the journalists there, likening them more to poets than journalists. “They described a hundred battles without even seeing one,” he wrote.

One hundred years ago, the world was undergoing a profound transformation that gave way to a new modern era. Mass society was forming, and a general consensus became the essential objective of political systems. Joseph Pulitzer had just written that “well-informed public opinion is the supreme court of any society,” and the conflict involved millions of citizens across Europe.

There was a crisis of social equilibrium — even in the most insignificant daily events — and government-controlled information seemed necessary to keep the public on their side. This wasn’t just in terms of functional construction of knowledge, but surveillance and censorship too.

Pulling strings

Wherever they were, war correspondents were shown among the armed forces, dressed in uniform but without insignia. Even if they had the rank of captain, they were followed by both a liaison officer, who controlled their work, and a soldier paid for by the newspapers.

The Italian government required war reporters to be over the age of 40, with no criminal record and some military experience. They lived out their days almost always at the back. The rare “trips to the front” were organized by a liaison officer, to whom all stories were sent before being filed to the papers.

There were examples of professionalism, but the reporters had no autonomy. Only a few — especially some Americans— preferred to go back to their editorial offices rather than be extra puppets marching to someone else’s tune.

Canadian Press war correspondent Ross Munro in Italy, in 1943 — Photo: BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives.

Patriotism was the most important consideration. It was essential that the correspondents were truly faithful to their homeland. In what was a very vertical society, with very little mobility between classes, nationalism defined belonging — whatever the form of government. The fate of their country was the single most important duty. They were obliged to be silent when troops were withdrawn (for “strategic repositioning”) and to echo triumphalism after any military action (with “heroes” stifling any faults that the general might have made).

After World War I came the Russian Revolution, then the Spanish Civil War, until finally the obligation of patriotic duty lessened. It was only in Vietnam when networks sent portable cameras and correspondents that war finally became a narrative in which front-line journalism found freedom.

A lost century had passed since 1854, when one of the first war correspondents, Sir William Howard Russell, told the story of the Crimean War faithfully in its utter brutality. After backlash from the public, the British government put a gag on reporters who went to war.

Puppets no more

Today, reporters can move more or less freely on the front lines. They don’t have uniforms to wear nor officers to follow them around anymore. They rely on their own experience, knowledge of the fighting forces, and luck. But this freedom, enhanced by Twitter, Instagram and other networks that enable them to have a constant connection to publish what’s happening at that very moment, also brings high risk.

In recent years, more than 1,500 war correspondents have been killed. Journalists are no longer considered neutral observers. They are also part of the conflict, or considered as such by the armies and militias who fight because they know well that their stories and articles determine a knowledge of “reality” that is utterly out of their control.

War reporting is intrusive, troublesome and dangerous, because real journalism investigates, interrogates and reveals.

Now, technology determines the nature of the story like never before. Images and clips flow from YouTube and other media sources, changing the correspondent’s traditional role. It’s no longer a question of wearing a military uniform anymore.

Professsional war reporters risk being overwhelmed by the 21st century, and yet their survival is the survival of journalism itself.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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