October 12, 2003
Television journalist James Forlong killed himself last week after admitting he made a misleading Gulf war broadcast . His sister-in-law Christine Toomey retraces the tragedy
The phone call from my sister telling me James had died came in the early hours of last Saturday morning. Her husband, James Forlong, had hanged himself in the family study.
My sister had found his body after their teenage son Christopher, who suffers the dual burden of Down’s syndrome and aspects of autism, had woken her up shouting at about 2am as he has done since he was young. Elaine tried to revive James as paramedics rushed to the scene. But it was too late. Prominent media coverage meant all this became public knowledge.
Television presenters, many of whom knew James well, and journalists rushed to explain what had happened. Beyond the human incomprehension at such times of how a much-loved husband, father, son and brother could feel so desperate as to take his own life, it all seemed clear-cut.
James had resigned from a job he loved after a misleading report he filed for Sky News from the Gulf during the Iraq war was “exposed” in a BBC programme given pre-broadcast publicity by The Guardian. The headlines all ran along the lines of “War reporter ashamed of faked story kills himself”. But life is always more complex than that.
Those not in the media may gain some insight into how it works by reading on. Those in the business, including Martin Bell, are already talking about what might be learnt from my brother-in-law’s death; lessons about the pressures and dangers to journalistic integrity of 24-hour rolling news and questions about news organisations’ duty of care.
In the aftermath of any suicide both those within the very private circle of family pain together with friends and former work colleagues are left haunted by constant thoughts of what else they could have done to help prevent it. Maybe if I had written this piece several months ago my brother-in-law would still be alive. Maybe those who, while he was alive, told him in private they supported him but in public did little to help him find alternative work would have had second thoughts.
Maybe, not only for James’s sake, we all needed to say publicly, at the time, what every journalist knows: journalists make mistakes — as the Andrew Gilligan/David Kelly affair has also tragically highlighted. Everyone ultimately has more respect for those who admit their mistakes and James did admit he had made an error of judgment, though he always denied he intended to deceive. I am convinced that is true and so, too, I understand, are many of the “big beasts” in television news.
At the service held at St Bride’s Church, off Fleet Street, last week to remember those who lost their lives in the recent Iraq conflict, John Simpson paid tribute to James Forlong as a fine colleague and journalist and said he should be considered among the media casualties of this war.
James believed he had acted as a gentleman in admitting to his human fallibility. He was a deep-feeling sort of person. Instead of the respect he should have been shown for his honesty James was shunned and, worse still, ridiculed and humiliated. He deserved better than that.
His foremost passion was for his family. Some of my fondest recent memories of James are of him sitting on his handicapped 15-year-old son’s bed reading the same Fireman Sam and Postman Pat stories Chris has insisted on hearing every night. Sometimes I could hear James slipping a hilarious few lines into the simple narrative to see if Chris noticed. He didn’t. Chris was simply soothed by the voice of the father he adored. Chris’s behaviour has become increasingly difficult and sometimes violent in recent years. To ease the strain on my sister of looking after him, James would often cook a late-night meal.
But James’s professional passion was journalism, particularly his work as a foreign correspondent and war reporter. Before Sky he had reported for ITN from Somalia, Syria, Lebanon and Bosnia. In the words of David Mannion, a former colleague who is now head of ITV News, he was “a fine journalist who took great pride in what he had achieved”. James, he said, was “a decent, honest man” who made just one mistake.
That mistake happened after he was recruited as senior foreign correspondent for Sky News in 1993. First James was posted with his family to South Africa. He then moved to Beijing to set up Sky’s China bureau before returning to be based in the UK as joint defence and royal correspondent. As a foreign correspondent he reported from most of the world’s worst troublespots over the past 10 years, winning several awards.
During the recent war in Iraq he was embedded mainly with the US Navy. After working very long hours under difficult circumstances aboard USS Kitty Hawk, filing reports for which he was sent congratulatory messages by his editors, James worked his contacts hard to get aboard the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine HMS Splendid.
It was there that James made his one mistake. Due to the extreme diplomatic sensitivity of the vessel’s mission he was prevented from identifying its location — reporting restrictions that applied to many journalists during the war — and the fact that it was in port and not at sea. Neither could he say what the submarine was doing in the location he could not reveal. In order to make the best of the rare access he had been granted he asked the crew of the submarine to simulate the procedure they would undertake to launch a cruise missile so that he could at least film that.
James introduced the piece in the rather melodramatic way often adopted in war reports by saying the sub was “beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf”. This was misleading. But what was more seriously misleading is that James failed to make it clear that the rest of the report, which included library footage of the firing of a cruise missile, was an exercise. Had he made that clear in his report he would still be alive today.
He later described this as “a single lapse of judgment in 10 years” which was a “source of deep regret”. To the day he died James could not understand why he had made that omission. He had not tried to pull a fast one. That was not the sort of man he was. It was one report that he got wrong amid thousands that were right. James had long held a reputation for accuracy and speed — he was largely responsible, for instance, for ensuring Sky was the first news organisation to break the news of the death of the Queen Mother.
He did not put up a fight. He offered his resignation. I would put it a great deal stronger than checks and balances not working well. But my sister has asked me to leave it at that.
In order to get the Reporting the War series some publicity a discreet call was made from the BBC to The Guardian to alert the paper to the programme’s “exposé” — a brief mention buried in a lengthy programme broadcast months after the event.
Nobody on The Guardian bothered to speak to James personally to check whether there were any mitigating circumstances surrounding his report — a report that had been vetted and “security cleared” for broadcast by the MoD. James bore all the blows and took sole responsibility for what had happened. He was an honourable man. The way he was treated was much less so.
The media can be the most brutal of industries and never more so than when one of its own is wounded. There were some who offered James as much support as they could. Only those who have worked under the intense pressure of a war zone can really understand how mistakes can be made under such extreme conditions. Some of the reports written at the time of James’s resignation did acknowledge this but others contained cheap shots.
One piece comparing James to Damien Day, the fictional reporter in the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, who went around placing a child’s doll at the scene of a tragedy to give a news bulletin more emotional charge, was particularly ridiculous and hurtful to James.
Did the writer ever pause to analyse the background of a man who had reported with distinction from the scenes of some of the worst atrocities of modern times?
There was nothing “fake” about James Forlong. He was an honourable, decent, brave and extremely hard-working journalist who had the courage to admit he had made a mistake. I don’t believe he was ashamed or had lost self-respect, as some reports have suggested. But as he paced the garden every day putting in calls to try to find work, he had moments of deep despair about how he would provide for his family. He learnt that acting decently yourself does not mean you will be treated decently in return.
Perhaps his tragic death will give all those in the media pause for thought about their own courage, personal accountability and complete honesty at all times.