Baghdad's "monumentally awful" traffic jams encapsulate wider problems of state failure, says Porter. Credit: DPA picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

The hardest thing about being a foreign correspondent

Journalism in the Middle East isn’t as dangerous or glamorous as people assume
May 10, 2023

The comment was meant innocently: “You must be very brave, working in Iraq.” It was a bright Sunday morning and I was on leave in the UK. The kind man at the café breakfast table next to me was asking about my job, as his three dachshunds sunned themselves at his feet.

Spiking a grilled mushroom with my fork, I cringed, and said something like: “Well, it isn’t really like people think it is,” desperate to change the conversation back to his dogs’ morning routine.

The truth is that as a Baghdad-based foreign correspondent, I mostly don’t feel very brave at all.

I cannot speak for journalists in countries such as Ukraine, who are in the midst of active conflict. But in Iraq in 2023, the most challenging part of my work is not navigating moving frontlines, avoiding snipers or anything else that might need a handful of conventional courage. The reality is more mundane. 

The greatest difficulty lies in dealing with the failings of the Iraqi state, two decades on from the US-led invasion. Successive governments have not built proper infrastructure so there is abysmal provision of basic services such as water and electricity, plus chronic pollution.

Baghdad’s monumentally awful traffic jams encapsulate the problem. Because the roads aren’t wide enough and public transport barely exists, the city’s residents spend hours every day in the car. My colleague and I pass so much time chatting while stuck in fume-choked streets that we know a great deal about each other’s lives. I know that he likes to rise early and is a fan of the Irish. He knows that I eat my muesli with yoghurt, not milk, and rarely travel light. It’s great to have such good company—but I also wish that it didn’t take an hour to crawl a few kilometres through the city centre. 

When government officials are more interested in self-enrichment than city planning—Iraq frequently ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt nations—why would the traffic run seamlessly? Why would the air be clean when there are few alternatives to smelly diesel-powered generators and gas-guzzling car engines? Why would the country’s majestic waterways be pristine when so much raw sewage and industrial waste is pumped directly into them? 

The pollution, power cuts and non-potable water are things that Iraqis, of course, feel 10 times more forcefully than any foreign correspondent. The question that local people most often ask me is, “Why are you here? Why don’t you work in the UK, where things are easier?” 


I have been in the Middle East in body, spirit and soul for over seven years and it has taken its toll in certain ways. I don’t see friends or family in the UK nearly as much as I’d like to. Relationships that others take for granted are difficult to find or maintain when you’re exhausted and it’s hard to let loose. Work is such a focus that you end up wanting different things from most people anyway. I was coveting that man’s dachshunds more than I’ll ever want children of my own.

None of this is a complaint. Often in possession of powerful passports, foreign correspondents are in the lucky position of (mostly) choosing when and where we travel. I love Iraq. I also have the privilege of being able to leave when I want to. 

Our work is probably not going to clear the pollution or lead to an overhaul of unfair policies. The truly brave ones are the Iraqis who face these things every day

One Iraqi friend calls me Sinbad in reference to the sailor hero of One Thousand and One Nights. It’s endearing, but also bitterly ironic. In 2023, the average Iraqi cannot travel like the great Baghdadi voyager of lore without having applied for multiple visas. Meanwhile, a westerner with a passport can get up and cross the seven seas as if borders didn’t exist.

There are also tough-to-swallow inequalities between foreign and Iraqi media. A strange psychology exists among some Iraqi officials who clearly prefer speaking to westerners than reporters of their own nationality. I’ve had senior government personnel tell me not to bring my Iraqi colleagues to meetings or say outright that they don’t trust local journalists. Is it internalised racism? Are these people measuring their own worth by how often they are seen to be sitting with westerners? Is the distrust a relic of Saddam Hussein’s era, when it was all-pervasive? I don’t know the answer. Many of the best journalists that I know are Iraqis, with the experience to see past politicians’ hot air. As foreign correspondents, it’s our duty to promote their work and to push back against recalcitrant officials. 

Yes, we need perseverance to keep going, knowing that our reporting probably isn’t going to change the often-­miserable conditions we see around us. Unfortunately, our work is probably not going to make people treat each other more respectfully, clear the pollution or lead to an overhaul of unfair migration policies. The truly brave ones are the Iraqis who face these things every day. 

Back at breakfast in the UK, I wonder if it’s worth entering into a long conversation with the man about the lack of razzle-dazzle in my average working day. He clearly means well. But instead I stroke the dachshunds again, and prod another mushroom with my fork. I’m not sure that he wants to hear my diatribe on traffic jams.