Journalists now accept they are a prime target for the rioters

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The Independent Online

Among all the gadgetry deployed in modern journalism, a skateboard helmet would rank as one of the least technologically sophisticated pieces of kit on show. But it was one of the first things that photographer Jess Hurd reached for when she first received a tip about burning police cars and rushed out to cover the recent urban riots.

For journalists on the frontline of reporting this story, it has been a particularly dangerous assignment. Not simply because they are working amid broken glass, rubble and flames, but because they are so often themselves the targets of the rioters.

A BBC radio van was torched and destroyed in Manchester, another BBC vehicle in Croydon was surrounded by a mob and wrecked, despite the fact that the camera crew inside was accompanied by two security guards. Elsewhere, an ITN broadcasting van came under attack in Tottenham and countless reporters and photographers were beaten and robbed of mobile phones and cameras. "You get used to the usual abuse covering these things, but last night they were definitely targeting journalists," BBC producer Paraic O'Brien told after the Croydon incident.

Susannah Ireland, photographer for The Independent, took what precautions she could to keep a low profile. "I took pictures under my coat so the camera didn't get snatched," she says. "If you are too overt when they are looting they will mug you there and then, even in front of the police."

She normally works with two cameras and two flash guns, plus a laptop on her back to send images. "Now I'm only taking my press card and phone and one camera." Some photographers resorted to using compact models. Ireland contrasts the hostility with the way journalists were treated at the violent student protests earlier this year when "they expect the cameras to be there to record history".

What is clear is that while the broadcast media are prepared for the worst, many of the press reporters and freelance photographers had minimal protective equipment and no specialist training. TV networks deployed hardened correspondents with experience of conflict zones. But there were trainee press journalists in the riot zone too. Lone local newspaper journalists and junior reporters were among those mugged.

Mark Evans, home editor of Sky News, believes that the efforts of journalists have not gone unnoticed by the public and says his network has enjoyed "massive support" for its efforts. "People feel they need to be kept up to date with what is happening and feel the need to be informed."

The safety precautions of TV networks were most obviously shown in footage of the CNN correspondent Dan Rivers reporting from south London in helmet and body armour. His garb looked less incongruous after he came under fire from a hail of bottles. ITN ensured that camera crews working for ITV News and Channel 4 News worked with security consultants, who are known in the trade as "back watchers" and usually have a military background.

Keir Simmonds, UK Editor for ITV News, covered the Hackney riots in a camera crew of five (on a story with no risk he might work in a pair). "Unusually for me, my sense then was let's not go any nearer. There was a greater sense of threat."

But Ed Fraser, head of Home News at Channel 4 News, says television crews too have minimised their visibility. One C4 News team was cornered by a mob in Manchester, which tried to steal its camera. "The equipment has become a focus for some of the looters and protesters. So we have deployed small flip cams or smaller cameras like Z1s," he says.

Photographer Hurd decided against wearing a stab-proof vest, thinking it might hinder her mobility. But in Hackney, on the second night of rioting, she had to help a colleague to hospital after he was attacked while picturing looters. "He had a bottle of wine to the back of the head. People were rushing in [to take photographs] without [riot] training or any safety equipment." She has written for the Dart Center for Journalism, describing her experiences covering the riots. She had to warn colleagues of the potential lethal consequences of using flash photography. "Kids as young as 12 or 13 were threatening to kill us. They were drinking straight vodka from bottles looted from the burning off-licence."

Hurd has helped set up a Snapper website on Facebook for photographers to share safety tips and is setting up a course on public order training for members of the National Union of Journalists. Included in the advice for those covering civil unrest is to check that you have insurance, to wear protective clothing from shin guards and knee pads to a helmet, and to have an exit strategy at all times. "We are going to look to news organisations to help us fund [the training course]," she says. "Photographers are putting themselves in the frontline at serious risk."