Remembering the fallen

The dedication of Jaume Plensa’s giant glass vase ‘Breathing’ on the roof of the BBC at Portland Place as a memorial to all who have fallen in the cause of news and reporting  was moving, fitting and strangely remote.

It is fitting and timely because reporting is an increasingly dangerous business. The grim numbers of the killed and wounded and disappeared among reporters and news people of all kinds in conflicts from Iraq, Afghanistan, to Darfur, Zimbabwe and the Caucasus are testimony enough to this.

The sense of remoteness of the BBC memorial ceremony was encouraged by the fact that the giant sculpture is way up on a roof. The public can’t see it close-up to read the names and James Fenton’s verses on the fallen of  the ranks of journalism.

In some ways this is a metaphor. We all see the fruits of journalism in increasing volume and intensity, through TV and radio, print, the blogosphere, telephone text and video, Youtube and MySpace. But the essence of what is going on in, say, remoter Zabul, Bulawayo, the water wars of the Fergama valley and Darfur is perennially baffling. As Gordon Burn writes in his wonderful fable ‘Born Yesterday’ (last year’s news a novel) of “the feeling we all increasingly have of seeing everything but of being able to do nothing.”

Remembering the fallen and the wounded in body and spirit of the craft and calling of news reporting touches the core of  Frontline. Prominent in our memory are our fallen friends and comrades, Rory Peck, intrepid cameraman and Kurt Schork, king of the agency correspondents, Nick della Casa, who with his wife Rosanna and Charles Maxwell were murdered by their guide in northern Iraq in 1991, Carlos Mavroleon died in his Peshawar hotel in 1998, Roddy  Scott, ambushed and killed by Russians in  Chechnya (2002), James Miller cut down by the IDF in Gaza in 2003, and Richard Wild, murdered in Baghdad in 2003.

Most of these were not salaried, insured and protected correspondents of a large news organisation, but worked by the piece and day, freelance or on short contract. They did what they did because they believed in what they were doing, and telling a story that was vital.

They were prepared to go to the dark and dangerous places, on the map of the world, and into the darker inner map of human minds. So much of the news coverage in the most difficult but crucial zones of conflict depend on the freelance going the extra mile, or in most cases extra hundreds of miles, to get to the story.

In this motley crew of the non-staffers the vital links, the turn-keys of the whole enterprise, are the fixers, drivers, interpreters and helpers. They have no insurance policies, or regular income to support them when one of theirs is killed or wounded – and of course there is no safety in hazardous environments procedure, or health and safety regulation to protect them. Nearly all of us owe our lives, and our stories, to this strangely uplifting band – who do not seem  to know the meaning of the word ‘whinge’.

Some 21 years ago I was wandering the shores of the Mediterranean for a book when I went down to Tyre, to look, among other things, at the remains of the Roman circus (which was used in the Charlton Heston movie of Ben Hur). Under one of the arches of the auditorium I interviewed a bunch of ‘soeurs Islamiques’ supporters of Amal, when my companion and driver Abed spotted some Hezbollah gunmen going down for a spot of target practice. Realising they hadn’t seen me, he neatly diverted them with a torrent of  aimless conversation. Abed and his family worked for the BBC for decades, particularly for Jeremy Bowen. He was killed when Israeli gunners deliberately targeted his car in southern Lebanon a couple of years ago.

The Frontline Club’s Fixers Fund is a vital line to the families, often pretty extended, of those stringers and fixers  who are killed and injured – or simply never come back.  I would hope something can be done for educational facilities, just things as simple as books and DVDs are welcome, both for the young interpreters and their families.

As the news world becomes an ever expanding and fragmenting universe, we should remember the pioneers and bold spirits who did, and said something new – though their bosses didn’t want it. Ernie Pyle lived the life of a soldier on the frontline in Normandy, Belgium and the Pacific, telling the story through the words of his archetypal hero, GI Joe. He was killed in Okinawa in the last weeks of the Pacific war in 1945 – when the Japanese took back the island recently, his was one of only three American memorials they allowed to stay.

We should remember other bold spirits who showed courage in a different way in bringing us the news deemed unfit by the bosses  to print or broadcast, yet they believed it should – people like I. F. Stone and Ed Murrow. 

From the roof opposite Jaume Plensa’s memorial sculpture Murrow made live broadcasts in the Blitz to a reluctant audience in America.