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Dispatches to the sound of gunfire
Jeremy Bowen
Jeremy Bowen
BBC special correspondent

A cameraman and soundman
Working alongside soldiers in the front line
From the D-Day beaches to the war in Iraq, Jeremy Bowen traces the history of TV reporting from the front line.

Reporting war can be the most satisfying job in broadcasting.

In a war zone, every day is a challenge. War reporters have to get the story right and then deliver it on deadline. They have to learn how to survive - and they have to be lucky. It can be upsetting and it can be fun. If it goes well, there are plenty of rewards.

From Richard Dimbleby onwards, the BBC's top war reporters have become stars of the news business. But there are risks, no matter how well or badly the job goes, to your mental and physical health.

By the time BBC Television News was established in 1954, viewers already trusted the BBC's coverage of wars. That trust was not automatic.

World War II

During World War II, there were complaints after the BBC put out a commentary of an aerial dog-fight during the Battle of Britain. The BBC was accused of treating combat in which men were being killed "as if it were a cricket match or a horse race."

We have been criticised by the Board of Governors, by the Minister of Information, and by No.10...
Memo from the BBC Director of News, 1942
Finding the right reporters - or news observers, as they were known at first - was difficult. Two-and-a-half years into the war, on 3 April 1942, A. P. Ryan, the controller of news, wrote a gloomy private memo to Sir Cecil Graves, the then director-general. Ryan came straight to the point:

"We have been criticised by the Board of Governors, by the Minister of Information, and by No.10, for not having a high enough standard of news observing. We must, you will agree, admit that this criticism is justified..."

Only Edward Ward, who covered the war in Finland in 1939, had "added to the prestige of broadcasting." But by 1942 he was in a German prisoner of war camp. So the BBC set up the "War Reporting Unit" to prepare for the invasion of continental Europe.

D-Day landings

In 1944, the BBC provided a typewritten guide for staff about to splash ashore from landing craft or to be parachuted into battle on D-Day.

World War II correspondent Frank Gillard
BBC correspondent Frank Gillard at work on the front line in 1944
Helpfully, it told them that "a war reporter is entitled to make himself as comfortable as he can - but he must strike a balance between taking everything he might want and carrying more than he can conveniently manage."

For bedding, the BBC recommended: "Houndsfield bed, quilted sleeping bag, Jaeger bag or two blankets, ground sheet, sheets, pillow and pillow cases."

Everything except the sheets, pillow and pillow case would be provided by the corporation. A long list of military must-haves followed: "battledress, service dress or second battledress, greatcoat or detachable lining for macintosh, four shirts and six collars...".

Again the whole list went on for almost a page. Again, the BBC would pay for everything, except pyjamas and underwear. The list ended with a stern reminder, in capitals, "suitcases must not be taken".

Never seek to jazz up a plain story. You are not dramatists...
BBC guidance to war correspondents, 1944
Correspondents about to be mobilised received a letter from Ryan, "Never seek to 'jazz up' a plain story," it admonished. "You are not dramatists... You are broadcast reporters sent out to observe and tell us what you have seen... If a correspondent is in the front row on an historic occasion - as some of you will be with luck - then he should let his story run... [but] it is a very good broadcast indeed that stands more than five minutes."

Increasing demands

Ryan's letter is as relevant to war reporting now as it was in 1944. In fact, the evidence in the BBC's written archives in Caversham is that the journalistic fundamentals of the job have been constant.

What has changed is technology. As it has advanced, the demands made on correspondents and crews have increased, steadily until the late 1980s and exponentially ever since.

When the Assistant Controller (News) wanted Richard Dimbleby to join the Mediterranean Fleet in 1943, he wrote him a letter. Twenty years later, Charles Wheeler was being badgered by TV producers in London who all seemed to want different things. He said: "These people come up on the control line just before a live insert and turn upside down what they had originally asked him to do."

During the 1960s, broadcasters, viewers - and governments - became much more aware of the power of TV news
In 1970 the "remarkable performance" of Michael Clayton on his return from covering the events of Black September in Jordan was considered important enough to record in the Television Weekly Programme Review: "Although exhausted, he had come straight to the studios from the airport and had stayed all evening to work on his commentary and to present it live."

In 2004 Caroline Hawley and her colleagues in Baghdad live and work in an environment that is increasingly toxic for Western news teams. What was once considered exceptional has become normal.

TV news impact

During the 1960s, broadcasters, viewers - and governments - became much more aware of the power of TV news to record events and to form opinion.

In 1968, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia produced "astonishing television coverage bringing unprecedented pictures of lightening aggression and remarkable resistance", according to a report produced for the Director General.

Peter Black in the Daily Mail raved about the "enlarged sense of reality" of news pictures in colour that were transmitted on the new network, BBC Two: "... the camera, shooting through the car window, caught first the pastoral scenes of yellow cornfields and white flocks of geese... then the first Russian tanks, olive green against the lighter grass, finally the ancient facades of Prague... It deepened one's awareness of watching an invasion and counter-attack unique in the world's history."

British troops raising a flag during the 1982 Falklands War
As television became more influential, the pressure from governments and lobbies increased. After Israel's victory in the 1967 six-day war, friends of the Palestinians tried, unsuccessfully, to get the BBC to sack Michael Elkins, its correspondent in Jerusalem, who was an excellent reporter as well as a fervent Zionist. During the 1973 war, reporters in Israel found "enormous hostility against the BBC", just as they often do now.

In 1982, Brian Hanrahan and the other journalists with the British Task Force on the way to recapture the Falklands had to resist a plan to use disinformation against the Argentines. After the war, Hanrahan lambasted Ministry of Defence censorship as "nit-picking and back-biting."

In Baghdad during the 1991 war, John Simpson tried to outwit Iraqi minders by broadcasting on a satellite telephone when he was supposed to be trying to fix it.

After I replaced Simpson I had a number of tricks for distracting the Iraqi censors away from anything controversial in my reports, from loudly knocking over chairs to offering them cans of beer that had been fiercely shaken. The idea was that the beer would explode over their trousers at the crucial moment in my report.

Extreme danger

The more time you spend in the firing line, the more likely you are to be hurt
In recent years, war reporting has been transformed by the fact that we can broadcast live from the battlefield, 24 hours a day. This new age of instant news is full of opportunities for fresh, fast reporting from places that used to be hopelessly remote.

It also holds many hazards. The journalistic danger is that reporters are tied to satellite dishes, reduced to repeating wire copy that they have downloaded on to their laptops.

And, today, news teams now spend much longer in places of extreme danger. Until the 1990s war reporters would have physically to leave the front line to file their dispatches.

The rule used to be: get what you need and get out. Now you can stay and broadcast. This reduces the dangers inherent in travel, but the risk is clear: the more time you spend in the firing line, the more likely you are to be hurt.

And no matter how experienced you are, or how careful, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will be killed.

A BBC TWO series presents the best archive footage from five decades of BBC Television News.

1954-1974: BBC TWO, Monday, 5 July 2004, 1430BST
1974-1994: BBC TWO, Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 1430BST
1994-2004: BBC TWO, Wednesday, 7 July 2004, 1430BST



 

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