By David Flin
We’ve all seen the pictures of war correspondents reporting from some war zone or other. The reporter talks to the camera, while dressed in camouflage khaki, usually sleeveless. They usually have sunglasses perched on their forehead, presumably protecting a small part of the top of their head from sunburn. They’ll typically wear a helmet, a flak jacket, and look for all the world like an overweight, elderly soldier.
Maybe that’s the case with the modern version, embedded comfortably with one of the warring participants. Back in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut in 1976, they weren’t like that. Not even a little bit. Back then, there was a rather different attitude to what a war correspondent did.
For a start, the situation was different. This wasn’t a neat battle between two sides. It was an unholy mess without clear sides, and where looking like a soldier wasn’t the best idea in the world. War correspondents were individualists.
Beirut 1976 was not a safe place for war correspondents. In the three months that I was there, three were killed in pursuit of stories. War correspondents here tended to be an eccentric lot. They certainly were quite happy to be creative with expense claims.
“If they want to check up on my claim, they’re welcome to come here and do so.”
That was the general attitude of this cynical bunch. They had every reason to be cynical. Every day they risked their lives to bring news of what was going on here, showing the human tragedy taking place, bringing the obscenity of events to the attention of people in the West. Every day, producers of news programmes and newspaper editors decided what stories were important and which weren’t, and the grim situation involving unimportant people far from home was rarely considered important.
Still they tried to do their job, wearing cynicism almost as a badge of honour. But they were, in their own way, highly professional.
This applied especially to how they dressed. Anything to improve their chances of survival.
Most important was the most common piece of apparel worn by the guests at the Commodore Hotel. This was a tee-shirt, worn over everything. An enterprising local entrepreneur recognised a gap in the market and produced tee-shirts with a simple message. The message was in three languages: English, French, and Arabic. It read: “Journalist. Don’t shoot.”
Sometimes it worked.
Less obvious to the casual observer was why they insisted on wearing very thoroughly starched shirts and trousers. Not just cleaned, but crisply starched. The reason for this becomes apparent on venturing outside the Commodore Hotel seeking significant players to interview.
That involved being searched on numerous occasions. Searching involved being patted down for weapons. Inevitably, the searcher would keep checking until they found some cash or other valuable, which would be removed, and then you could pass. Call it a ritual over a bribe. The approved technique on getting through a check point was to have a carefully calculated amount of money in a pocket for the searcher to purloin.
Failure to properly recompense the searcher at a checkpoint usually resulted in the searcher deciding you were a potential threat and killing you. Many things were acceptable bribes: watches, pens, cameras, drugs, jewellery. Best of all was, of course, cash.
You would pass the checkpoint, and move on to the next, where the procedure would be repeated.
After three or four such friskings, you’d come to the person you wanted to see. Their bodyguard would do one last check, taking his bribe in the process. Then you would get to speak to the person.
It was customary at this point for the war correspondent to show his appreciation by handing over a significant sum of money or other valuables. Failure to do so was usually a briefly painful experience.
The essential problem is clear. The journalist has to somehow smuggle a significant sum of money past several – maybe as many as six – searches. The standard method of concealing money was to flatten it as best you can, and then tape it tightly to your body. You kept several small denomination notes rolled up and tucked deep into pockets, for the searchers at the checkpoints to find and confiscate. Obviously, you didn’t leave money in your hotel room (it would be stolen in your absence by your fellow guests), nor with the hotel staff (they might keep you alive, but the pile of money you got back would be significantly smaller. Ten percent per day was the accepted rate for safe-keeping in 1976).
Those factors meant that well-starched shirts and trousers were valuable. The crisp, sharp, stiff texture of an over-starched shirt does a lot to disguise the texture of notes beneath taped to the body.
It also helped to justify inflated expenses claims by the journalists. The Commodore Hotel was very accommodating when it came to charging to the general category of “laundry”. This was mentioned in a comic by Doonesbury that ran on 21 August, 1982.
In fact, Hedley the journalist is well-depicted. His shirt has numerous pockets that he could put a couple of rolled bank notes into right at the bottom of the pocket. The shirt and trousers are loose, so notes taped to the skin beneath are harder to find. The shapeless hat doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to distract attention and to make the wearer look less intimidating.
It’s important not to look intimidating, for obvious reasons. Being a journalist in Beirut at this time was high-risk, and you could rely on there being no protection from the authorities.
The war correspondents had a job to do, to get the story out, and they took insane risks to do so. Many of them were killed doing it, but they continued to try to get the story out. It was a pity no-one outside cared, but that was someone else's job.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages