All in the line of duty?

Embedded reporters who covered the recent Iraq war have been offered service medals. But as Kim Sengupta discovers, the controversial awards are splitting the profession
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Two very close friends and colleagues went to Iraq to cover the war. But, since Press Association journalists Nick and Vanessa Allen (no relation) returned to Britain, the Ministry of Defence has provided them with a dilemma that has put them in opposing camps.

It is the controversial offer of the Iraq Medal to reporters who sent back dispatches from the conflict that has polarised Britain's war correspondents.

Vanessa Allen, who now works for the Daily Mirror, and was an embedded correspondent during the war, is happy with the idea of a medal. "I will probably accept it," she says. "It is not a question of getting an honour but simply marking my experiences there. We were aware of the potential difficulties of being embedded. The danger was of getting 'into bed' with the Ministry of Defence rather than just being embedded. I think we all tried very hard to avoid that, and to retain our independence, and overall I think we succeeded. Getting the medal is just an extension of that. It will not make us any less independent."

But Nick, who because he was based at Centcom (Central Command) in Qatar, is not entitled to a medal, says that he would not have accepted one anyway.

"I don't think I deserve any kind of medal for bravery. Other journalists were in far more dangerous situations. But, also, personally, I don't think it is a good idea to have this kind of campaign decoration. I think it will leave journalists open to criticism that they are too close to the military and that their objectivity may be clouded. I can understand the desire to have something to remind us that we were there, but there should be some other form of doing this."

In all, about 150 medals are being issued, for those who were "embedded" as well as for others designated as "recognised war correspondents".

The argument of those who want to refuse the gong is that accepting it would compromise their integrity, and blur the line between the military and independent witnesses. There are also those who object to the justification given for the war by the American and British governments, and for whom taking the medals would be hypocritical. The National Union of Journalists opposes its members accepting the decorations.

The counter-argument is that accepting the medals does not mean approval of the war or any loss of objectivity. Instead, it is simply a recognition of an exceptionally arduous assignment covering a historic event.

There is also debate about whether the issue should be left to individuals or be the subject of a corporate decision. Reuters and ITN have already announced that, as organisations, they do not intend to receive the decorations.

An ITN spokesperson says: "We do not feel it is appropriate for our staff to accept these. The citation talks about the role played in the removal of Saddam Hussein. We feel this is overtly political. The journalists were there to report, not take part in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. If any of our staff feel very strongly that they should accept the medal, then we shall address the matter."

The two organisations are among those who suffered casualties from "friendly fire", and both have been pressing for fuller investigations by the British and US governments into what happened.

The ITN reporter Terry Lloyd and the cameraman Fred Nerac are believed to have been killed by American forces outside Basra. The Reuters casualties came when the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad was shelled by a US army Abrams tank.

Feelings among ITN staff who are eligible for the medal are divided. Some feel strongly that the offer should be spurned, not least because of what happened to Lloyd and Nerac. Others, however, maintain that to claim that accepting the award somehow demeans the memories of their dead colleagues is highly offensive.

Leonard Doyle, foreign editor of The Independent, opposes acceptance of the medal: "There's a great temptation in the heat of battle to be part of the war effort," he says. "Some, though by no mean all, of the embeds wore their Union Jacks on their sleeves, especially the television journalists. The idea that on top of that you get a gong from the British Government is, in my mind, a complete no-no. It tells the rest of the world that your journalists are not objective observers."

Audrey Gillan of The Guardian, who was embedded and won an award for her war coverage, has decided she will not accept. "I was there as an independent observer. I was not there as a soldier," she says. "I also believe that the stuff about taking part in the downfall of Saddam Hussein makes this medal even more difficult to accept. We were there just doing our job, reporting what we saw, not part of some plan to remove Saddam. I've also got deep reservations about the claims made by the Government about the weapons of mass destruction. I don't see how I can hold these views and still accept the medal."

Tom Newton Dunn, the Daily Mirror's defence correspondent, was also embedded, and will be taking the medal.

"Never has a medal given for service to Queen and country been more devalued than by giving it to a load of sweaty hacks," he says. "But, having said that, I will be applying to get it. It is something really for your family and your children."

Newton Dunn was placed alongside 40 Command, Royal Marines, and says he "cannot praise their bravery enough".

"I certainly wasn't anything like as brave as them, or had to endure what they did," he says. "I also believe that as an embedded correspondent I was not taking anything like the risk that 'unilaterals' like Terry Lloyd had to take. So I will take the medal, but I'll be too embarrassed to wear it in public."

As to the argument that acceptance of the gong would make war correspondents appear too close to the military, Newton Dunn says: "The people getting them were embedded with the military, so we were actually meant to be close to them. That was our job. What we were doing was giving a snapshot of what life was like on the front line. It was not meant to be an objective overview of the war. These medals should be treated in exactly the same way. There is no point in getting too hung up about this."