Callaghan reporting amid rubble in Raqqa, Syria John Beck

Against the sounds of horns blaring and people shouting, the Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times, and winner of the 2016 British Press Award for Young Journalist of Year tells me “I am stuck in the worst traffic jam ever.”

Louise Callaghan spoke with me as she attempted to get across Istanbul, her home since January 2016 and for the foreseeable future. When I ask if she sees herself staying in the Middle East, her response is enthusiastic. “Yeah, absolutely! If they let me. It’s great here, it’s very interesting. At the moment I’ve been reporting from across the region – Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. There’s so much going on and so many under-covered conflicts as well, like Yemen and Libya.”

Comparing living in Turkey to living in the UK she confesses that “it’s extremely different,” but goes on to explain that the more she sees of the Middle East the more she realises “there is so much the same”, adding that “people across the world generally want the same things.”

"I’m really pleased that there are still people that want to invest in on the ground reporting"

“They want to be fed and clothed and they want their families to be happy.” With a laugh she adds “some things are really similar – they drink a lot of tea here.”

Taking the never-ending tea and traffic in her stride, Callaghan has well and truly thrown herself into covering one of the most tumultuous regions in the world. Her interest in the Middle East came after university, she says. Graduating from SOAS with a degree in History and Development Studies specialising in West Africa and Swahili, she began work for the Sunday Times as an intern in 2013. “At the time there was lots of really interesting stuff going on in the Middle East, especially in Turkey with the Gezi Park protests, and I kind of got interested in [the region] from that.”

Reflecting on the period where she was based between Turkey and Northern Iraq covering the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS, she says “I’m really pleased that there are still people that want to invest in on the ground reporting. It’s really expensive and inconvenient and in many ways it would just be easier to have people in the office that sit there and reproduce stuff that they find online.”

"The news should show the reality of what’s happening on the ground, not some idea that’s dreamt up of hordes of terrifying people coming to Europe"

Callaghan insists that on the ground reporting remains crucial in a modern world, where it can be difficult to glean the truth from the abundance of material available online. Citing the chemical attacks in Syria, she says “there can be so much lost in this fog of fake news, and the way that actors try to influence public opinion over various events.” She admits there is a real danger in this manipulation of facts by powerful actors with access to the internet. “The democratisation of information means that views that are completely incorrect, or just lies, are sometimes taken as seriously by the average consumer as those which come from reputable news organisations.” I ask Callaghan whether she thinks the ability for news about the Middle East to be selectively reported and disseminated in Europe has contributed to the anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.

“In many ways, yeah, fake news has. We can see recently with the protests in Chemnitz in Germany that misleading sources of information that are spread on Facebook or other platforms really have the power to cause rallies or gatherings of people who are responding to information that might not be true at all. And that’s really scary.”

To my question on whether she thinks journalists in the Middle East have a responsibility to increase understanding among those in Europe of the reasons why people are fleeing the area, Callaghan is quick to respond that she is “in no way an activist or a campaigner”, saying that journalists “have a responsibility to report the situation as it is” and let people form their own opinions.

However, she adds: “I think people too easily become numbers, and we need to show that they are real people with lives and families. They should not be dehumanised by what we’re reading in the newspapers. The news should show the reality of what’s happening on the ground, not some idea that’s dreamt up of hordes of terrifying people coming to Europe.” Callaghan’s words display a wise mix of pragmatism and compassion.

“We need to see the actual numbers and the facts, but we also need to understand who these people are and why they’ve left where they come from.”


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I ask her whether she thinks it is becoming more difficult for journalists to operate in the Middle East. She doesn’t hesitate to answer. “It’s definitely harder, across the board, as the world becomes more globalised and the governments realise that it’s very hard to hide what they’re doing from journalists, and also from their own citizens, who can take a video during a protest and put it online. And that means inevitably that the tide turns against people who are trying to tell the truth under a dictatorial regime.”

Speaking of the nature of the profession more generally, she adds that “jobs in journalism, especially foreign journalism, are becoming fewer.” However, Callaghan remains positive for the future of the field she has immersed herself in. “There’s still definitely scope for great journalism to be done on new platforms which are opening all the time. The nature of the industry is changing but I really hope that it will still remain.”

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