‘The Last Column’, a collection of final dispatches by journalists who have been killed in the line of duty, reminds us of the importance of a free press.
It’s one of the most important books about conflict journalism. It’s also a book that confronts, full on, what happens when the powerful shout “fake news” from the podium and encourage the public to turn against those who dedicate their lives to finding “the moral courage to dare to speak the truth” (the words of Diane Foley, mother of James Foley who was abducted and beheaded in Syria). And it’s a book that no journalist wants to be included in. For now, you cannot buy a copy. But that’s not the problem.
The problem is the daily targeting of journalists and photographers who seek to report from the frontline – of real battles and social ones too. That targeting leaves journalists vulnerable. Worse: dead. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent non-profit, some 1,337 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1992.
The book, which has just been published by HarperCollins in a first run of only 2,000, is called The Last Column. It contains the final dispatches and photographs from 24 journalists. Some are names that made headlines with their deaths – including Marie Colvin, James Foley, Daniel Pearl and Jamal Khashoggi – while others are reporters whose focus was more local and granular but whose reputations deserve global recognition. Complex rights clearances mean that the books will not be sold initially, rather given to key bookshops and sent to people who can perhaps change the deadly narrative. But The Last Column is not just a book. It’s a project, a movement that, unfortunately, looks like it will run for some time.
Behind its creation are journalists, the families and partners of those slain, media companies, the CPJ – and its Global Campaign Against Impunity. And also the creative agency Fred & Farid (FF) and its head of strategy, Colin Nagy.
Nagy is one of those figures who knows people. He is a connector. A politics and culture junkie. He gets things done. So after some conversations about what was happening to journalists with his creative director Laurent Leccia, and then speaking with the CPJ, the duo came up with the idea for The Last Column (getting key support along the way from the likes of Ilana Ozernoy at NewsCorp, who had been instrumental in setting up the Marie Colvin International Center for Reporting after the journalist was killed in Homs in 2012). Dow Jones also gave financial support and HarperCollins underwrote the printing costs.
We track Nagy down in Scottsdale, Arizona. Even down the phone line his passion is palpable. “We need to recognise the human cost of journalism; the broader context of the rise of dictators, and the people being emboldened to stop journalists doing their job,” he says. “It happens sometimes in subtle ways – correspondents getting booted out. But we don’t want these stories lost in the attention-deficient news cycle. We have to keep this front and centre.”
What’s his big hope for The Last Column? “Letting journalists do their jobs.” Nagy says that the focus around the Last Column mission has seen the book go from nascent idea to printing presses in about eight months. Its striking logo is made up of the names of journalists who have been killed doing their jobs – all supplied by the CPJ. “The logo will keep updating but it’s the logo you never want to have to update,” he says.
The book is just a starting point: Nagy will be heading to the sxsw festival to spread the word. And the team now also includes Ron Haviv, a photographer who has covered 30 conflicts in his career and who is also co-founder of the vii Photo Agency. He is making a series of short films, also called The Last Column, that will bring the voices around the movement to a greater audience. For Haviv the book is emotional: many of the bylines are for people who have been his friends and colleagues. “From the beginning of my career I have seen friends wounded and killed,” he tells me. “I’ve just been luckier. I have been in the field with many of these people; I could easily have been on that list.”
While some journalists are murdered by a stray bullet, others are targeted in pre-meditated attacks in their home towns. Machetes and knives are used to stop a story. And Haviv is clear that the global rise of the “fake news” chant is putting the lives of journalists at risk from such attacks. “Those using [the term] ‘fake news’ have a large responsibility. They are taking us down an incredibly dangerous road. The ramifications are incredibly dangerous and it’s incredibly uncomfortable, coming from a country [the US] that so respected the freedom of the press.”
His clarity on the kind of person who gets killed is also sobering. “The running theme is that these people want to make a difference, want to have an impact with their work. They are not doing it for financial gain. I was just in Greece covering the refugee crisis – people are still coming – I know my work will have a benefit.” And that’s why journalists get killed. While their – our – enemies may pretend otherwise, the stories, photographs and posts they create offer the hope of justice, truth and a different tomorrow.
The last images:
Chris Hondros was killed alongside fellow photographer Tim Hetherington on 20 April 2011 in Misurata, Libya, while travelling with rebel fighters. Born in New York in 1970, Hondros covered numerous conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and his work appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – and many more outlets. He worked for the renowned agency Getty Images. Known as a photographer with deep care for what he saw, the images on the previous page are the final pictures he shot.