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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 16:41 GMT
A liberating experience
John Simpson, live action picture
Making history: John Simpson enters Kabul
Few could blame BBC reporter John Simpson for his excitement in entering Kabul in advance of the Northern Alliance, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie.

In getting there in the advance guard Simpson not only beat rivals to the story, but joined the select band of reporters who can genuinely claim a place - if only as a footnote - in the history books.

Two BBC correspondents - Rageh Omar and William Reeve - were already in the city at some personal risk to themselves, but Simpson's bravado in marching in ahead of Alliance troops has captured headlines, and some controversy.

Washington Post publisher Philip L Graham said in the 1960s that journalism at its best provided the world with "a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed and written about a world we can never understand".

As we walked into Kabul city we found no problems around us, only people that were friendly and, I am afraid, chanting 'Kill the Taleban'

John Simpson
John Simpson was drafting furiously on 13 November.

"It's an exhilarating feeling to be liberating a city," he told viewers.

Lucky strike

The moment was based on journalistic drive and bravery and, as in any journalistic coup, an element of chance.

Coincidently the Kabul base of the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera was destroyed by an American missile just as the Northern Alliance was mustering for its march on the city - thus guaranteeing exclusive pictures to the first western journalists to arrive with them.

The channel had operated throughout the conflict as the only news operation in Kabul. Despite claiming independent stance the station has been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden.
Bin Laden on TV
Exclusive: Al Jeezera broadcast messages from Osama Bin Laden

The BBC man's report was immediately compared to that of the London Evening Standard's Max Hastings who became the first man into Port Stanley during the Falklands war in 1982.


Hastings, now editor of the Standard, excitedly claimed to have "taken" the Falklands on behalf of British forces.

"I thought, if I can walk up the road and get there first and survive and not get shot, I can bore everyone to death for the next 20 years talking about it."

Associates say Hastings has been as good as his word.

Knocked out: Al Jeezera was silenced by missiles
In 1945 Herald Tribune reporter Marguerite Higgins went ahead of allied troops advancing in Germany and became the first American to reach the Dachau concentration camp.

She wrote the first reports of the atrocities and - in the process - arrested 22 SS camp guards.

Earlier in the same conflict, Ernest Hemmingway claimed to have liberated German-occupied Paris with a pistol, notebook and a round of Dry Martinis ordered from the Ritz as a reward for his band of French Resistance fighters.

According to the story Hemingway had stood on top of the Arc de Triomphe with Nazi bullets whistling past his ears.

Hemingway - the first allied war correspondent to enter Paris after liberation
Times have become more complicated. Underlying the heroics of individual journalists nowadays are the realities of modern war reporting - a hugely expensive, politically sensitive and complex operation carried out by large teams of specialists.

All the major western news agencies have close and sometimes controversial relationships with the US and coalition military who can offer or withdraw vital help and protection to reporters.

Vital Fixers

Then there is the cost of keeping reporters - supported by camera crews and technicians in the field.

A vital role is played locally recruited "fixers" - translators and guides with the contacts to set up interviews and provide tip offs about the military situation.

News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read. And it's only news until he's read it. After that it's dead.

From Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Like Sherpa guides, they do much of the work but get little of the glory.

Just before the entry of the Northern Alliance into Kabul, Afghan fixers were reportedly charging $150 per day - more than a year's wages for some Afghans, where average annual income is $800.

Costs are high

Money certainly plays its part in the coverage of a modern war. Prices for fixers have been pushed up by the arrival of big American TV teams. And one channel is reportedly paying $15,000 a day for hotel accommodation in Islamabad alone.

There was no shortage of takers when the Taleban charged $2,000 per person for a guided tour of bomb damage and civilian casualties in Kandahar.

The Northern Alliance has been charging $300 per person for helicopter rides into its Feyzabad headquarters. The alternative is paying up to $4,000 to hire local gunmen outriders for a protected car journey.

See also:

04 Oct 01 | Americas
US urges curb on Arab TV channel
04 Oct 01 | Media reports
Al-Jazeera goes it alone
13 Nov 01 | South Asia
Eyewitness: The liberation of Kabul
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Taleban in crisis
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