War reporters up against bullets and London 2012

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The Independent Online

The fighting is as fierce as any witnessed in last year's so-called Arab Spring. Sniper's bullets fizz through the air and rocket-propelled grenades explode into family homes, as rebels and pro-government militia wrestle for control of every street in Syria's largest city.

Yet unlike last August when we were gripped by the day-to-day progress of the Libyan revolutionaries as they surged towards Tripoli in an effort to topple Muammar Gaddafi, the battle for Aleppo which will determine the fate of Bashar al-Assad's regime is going largely unnoticed.

It doesn't help that Britain, indeed most of the world, is transfixed by the mesmerising spectacle and great human drama emerging from London 2012. Furthermore the situation in Aleppo is so dangerous that reporters have been largely unable to enter the city and bear witness to the growing claims of human rights violations and summary executions.

Some journalists have made it through. Kim Sengupta's dispatches for this paper, compiled under mortar attack, give a compelling first-hand account of Syria's most ferocious fighting, for the rebel stronghold in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of Aleppo.

Then the BBC's Ian Pannell delivered a salutary reminder of life beyond the Olympic Park when he dodged sniper fire to illustrate with stunning effect the nature of the street fighting that will settle Syria's destiny.

The footage was more arresting for the fact that it contained the gripping narrative of a wounded Syrian rebel leader's fight for life and the doomed attempts of his comrades to save him. It was no great surprise that the material had been gathered by Darren "DC" Conway, one of the world's best news cameramen. "Treat every shoot as if it's your own personal feature film," Conway told Christian Parkinson's Image Junkies blog earlier this month.

Although this was the story of the death of a rebel leader, Pannell's own peril was quite real and plain to see in an era when many television correspondents are inclined to be unnecessarily theatrical in front of camera.

This type of footage is known in the business as "bang bang" and is often the stuff that wins broadcasting awards. Having been on the judging panel in news categories, I've seen how entries are loaded with pictures of correspondents cowering behind walls under small arms or artillery fire.

Unlike the controlled work of Conway, a Vegemite-addicted Australian who uses his 5D camcorder as an extension of his arm, some of this "bang bang" is shakily gathered in the rush for cover, adding an extra frisson of danger for the armchair viewer. Thrilling as these life-threatening sequences are, not all such reports are helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of complicated international political stories.

Writers such as Sengupta who are not dependent on video images to tell their stories are able to give greater context and nuance to their reports without having to be seen to be dodging bullets. Another press reporter, Damien McElroy of The Daily Telegraph battled his way into Aleppo late last week, though his brave dispatch — a tank round struck a block of flats 50 yards from where he stood — was inevitably consigned to page 13, behind Bradley Wiggins's golden achievements.

Broadcast correspondents fighting for space on the television bulletins have even fewer slots to aim for and even less space to tell their story, especially without requisite pictures of gunshots and explosions.

That they are willing to do this at all in the aftermath of several high-profile journalist deaths, including that of Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times earlier this year, is testimony to the sense of calling of the war correspondents. We should not forget their efforts at a time when journalism, in a very different sense, is under fire.

When some of them are killed, there is still a tendency to suggest that they were somehow culpable: the foreign civilians who recklessly placed themselves at risk in a faraway conflict. Vaughan Smith, founder of London's Frontline club for war reporters, says that if one their number is killed, there is always an assumption that they "must have done something wrong".

This is no way to treat those who are putting their lives on the line for all our benefits. But if important international stories are allowed to fall from the news agenda, the chances are that war correspondents will feel the need to take ever greater risks — and more of them will die as they go in search of the bang bang.