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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Is a story worth a life?
Jonathan Baker, who has just ended five years as the BBC's world news editor, explains how trying to keep correspondents safe has become an overwhelming preoccupation of the support teams back at base who deal with the logistics behind each foreign assignment.

BBC reporter Frank Gardner
Frank Gardner was left paralysed and his cameraman Simon Cumbers killed while reporting in Saudi Arabia

My feet had been under the foreign editor's desk for barely 100 days when two aircraft were flown into the World Trade Center buildings in New York.

Though nominally in charge, I was little more than a spectator as the awesome BBC news machine swung into action.

Someone did ask me whether I would approve the hire of a jumbo jet to fly our news teams to New York - at which my mouth fell open - but a decision on that was about all I was able to contribute.

But 11 September was a transforming day for everyone in the business of overseas newsgathering, not just for me.

Foreign correspondents have always put themselves in harm's way, and exposure to risk goes with the territory.

But now many factors were conspiring to make our jobs more difficult and dangerous than ever before.

The days when journalists could rely on their neutrality for protection were already a memory.

They are now targets. Many of our number have been the victims of conflict rather than its impartial observers - nearly 150 killed last year alone.

Editorial ambition

Our equipment is ever more sophisticated, ever lighter and more portable.

BBC producer Kate Peyton
Kate Peyton was shot in the back while in Somalia

We can report live for radio and television, and send back recorded TV reports from any point on the planet.

In wartime, the military afford us ever more access - sometimes putting us literally on the frontline.

As our range expands, so does our editorial ambition and so too our vulnerability.

We earnestly believe it when we say that no story is worth a life.

But we also believe in getting as close to the action as we safely can and reporting what we see with our own eyes.

We know that is one of the things audiences value most.

Iraq operation

This tension has been in daily evidence in the last three years in our coverage of Iraq.

The security situation has steadily deteriorated and with it our capacity for wide-ranging first-hand reporting.

We are seldom able to venture far beyond the confines of our Baghdad office.

We have to set the editorial value of what coverage is possible, against the risks we ask our staff to take in providing it.

No-one signs up in the hope of being imprisoned, kidnapped or shot at, but these are becoming occupational hazards

Fifteen journalists were killed in the space of three weeks during the invasion of Iraq. Two of them were working for the BBC.

In all, four people working for us were killed on my watch and a number of others were grievously injured.

So taking a front seat in the making of history as a foreign correspondent is seldom as glamorous as it might sound - still less so for the support staff who keep them on the air but never taste the fame themselves.

We list 60 countries in which we consider reporting to be dangerous.

No-one signs up in the hope of being imprisoned, kidnapped or shot at, but these are becoming occupational hazards in more and more places.


What they do expect, and what they get, is a relentless work schedule, often in conditions of extreme discomfort.

They struggle to reach the scene of a story - war, earthquake, famine - as thousands of others are struggling just as hard to flee from it.

Martin Bell
Martin Bell was wounded by shrapnel in Sarajevo in 1992

They are on the air on one of our myriad of outlets for most of their waking hours.

Every assignment adds to the folklore of how we got the news to air.

Experiences are by turns tragic, surreal, pathetic, farcical. Tales of triumph and disaster, deadlines missed and deadlines narrowly made, of courage, luck good and bad, dedication, resourcefulness, and yes, heroism is often not too strong a word.

Much relies on organisational back-up in London. Every broadcast from some far-flung location is the result of a detailed process of planning and support.


Last year's earthquake in Pakistan gave the London team less than eight hours to catch that evening's flight from Heathrow if we were to be broadcasting live from the scene the following morning.

Eight hours to obtain visas, book flights, mobilise correspondents, producers, camera crews and engineers, research risk assessments, gather safety and camping equipment, assemble box after box of technical kit, book satellite feeds, sort out the money, and - finally - get everyone to the airport.

This support for our news teams in the field - and when they come back, sometimes traumatised by what they have seen - is vital of course.

But at least we are relatively safe in London; although it is hard to sleep easy in your bed having sent more than 300 people into a war zone, as I did for the invasion of Iraq.

It was them taking the real risks, not me.

So after five years of counting them out and counting them back, my prevailing feelings are of gratitude and admiration for those who do what most of us are far too timid or frightened to do, and for all of those who make it possible for us to hear, the year round, from every corner of the earth, the news From Our Own Correspondent.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 1 June, 2006 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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