Two decades ago, the destruction of the World Trade Center plunged many novelists in the West into feelings of powerlessness and marginality. Fanatics of seemingly obscure background and motivation had set off colossal explosions in what Don DeLillo in Falling Man called the ‘narcissistic heart of the West’. Martin Amis was not alone in ‘considering a change of occupation’. Ian McEwan claimed to have found it ‘wearisome to confront invented characters’. ‘I wanted to be told,’ he said, ‘about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.’
Ed Harriman, who has died at the age of 77, wrote half a dozen pieces for the London Review between 2004 and 2007, reporting on the waste and corruption that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq. An award-winning documentary film-maker as well as a print journalist, who had worked for Granada TV’s World in Action during the 1980s and Channel 4’s Dispatches since 1991, he went to the Middle East in 2003 to make Secrets of the Iraq War for ITV. His previous films included investigations of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, of the mismanagement of nuclear waste by both the US and Russia, the handover of Hong Kong, and new houses in Britain built on contaminated land.
In the winter of 2005, I was summoned by the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was in New York to promote his new book, The Jewish Prison. I had just published an admiring essay on his work in the New York Review of Books. Over a long lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, he recalled his conversations with Ben Bella, Bourguiba, Ben-Gurion, Kennedy, Castro and Mitterrand. Daniel did not hesitate to drop names, but there was no denying that he’d won the confidence of some of history’s great men (they were nearly all men). I looked at my blazer and slacks and regretted that I hadn’t worn something more formal. Daniel was dressed in a suit and tie without a crease, and spoke with a solemnity that would have been easy to ridicule had it not been so spellbinding. I had the impression of speaking to a retired ambassador or foreign minister rather than a journalist.
The reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs in February 2012. A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s movie based on her life, begins with archival footage of Colvin being asked by an interviewer what she would want a young journalist to know about being a war correspondent. Her answer comes in two parts: first, that you should care enough to write in a way that makes others care; second, some tough-sounding advice on not acknowledging fear until the job is done.
When Islamic State moved into Mosul in 2014, Omar Mohammed observed and documented everything he could, from public executions to the inner workings of the hospitals. And even though it put his life in danger, he posted many of his observations online using the handle ‘Mosul Eye’. He is now concerned that the history of the city under IS could be compromised. After the 2016 operation to drive out the caliphate, the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi took nearly 16,000 documents produced during IS rule – everything from birth certificates to judicial rulings – stuffed them into bin bags, and flew them back to New York. In Mohammed’s view, the history of Iraq, and of Mosul in particular, has too often been told and controlled by outsiders.
Burma’s decades-old regime of pre-publication newspaper censorship was dismantled in 2012. Three years later, ahead of the election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, ten journalists were in prison. According to an Amnesty International report, Burmese journalists were labouring under a new ‘climate of fear’. ‘We don’t have any safety,’ the reporter Lawi Weng told the Amnesty researchers. The authorities ‘can arrest us, they can take us to court anytime.’ Lawi, a former colleague of mine and one of Burma’s most talented reporters, was arrested late last month.
When I lived in New York there was another dimension to the annual snowstorms, and that was the weather reporting of Robert McFadden, one of the New York Times’s great journalists. Now 78, he has been writing for the paper since 1961. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 'for his highly skilled writing and reporting on deadline during the year'. Among the pieces the judges mentioned was one about a shooting rampage in Harlem and another about cockfights in the Bronx, as well as McFadden's coverage of the Unabomber case and the Oklahoma City bombing. They also cited a feature on Easter Day in Corona, Queens. It began:
On 4 March the UK Supreme Court ruled that police surveillance of John Catt, a law-abiding 90-year-old peace campaigner, was legal, and that a detailed record of his movements would remain in the national domestic extremist database. ‘The composition, organisation and leadership of protest groups,’ Lord Sumption said, ‘is a matter of proper interest to the police even if some of the individuals are not themselves involved in any criminality.’ Using the data protection act, Catt obtained a copy of his police file in 2010. At one protest, it recorded, he ‘sat on a folding chair... and appeared to be sketching’. At another, ‘he was using his drawing pad to sketch a picture of the protest and police presence.’ Another entry noted he was clean-shaven. The Network for Police Monitoring said that the ruling ‘allows the police extraordinary discretion to gather personal information of individuals for purposes that are never fully defined’.
In January 1983, police in Los Angeles arrested frogmen bringing 400 pounds of cocaine ashore from a Colombian freighter. But they missed their main target, the drug importer Norwin Meneses, who may have been tipped off by officials. In August 1986, a US Customs informant, Joseph Kelso, told his handlers that Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Costa Rica were sharing profits from Meneses’s LA drug shipments. The Costa Rican police arrested Kelso.
Murray Sayle, who died on 18 September, began writing for the LRB in his seventies. He’d already been a star turn as a journalist during the great days of the Sunday Times, known for his report that Che Guevara had left Cuba to wage war in South America, his dispatches from Vietnam and his dashing accounts of sailing solo across the Atlantic and tackling Everest. His work for the LRB was an energetic, thoughtful review of the log, with plenty of new material added: on the handover of Hong Kong; on the economic crisis in Japan, where he was living at the time; on climate change and the shortcomings of Kyoto.