Bayeux Memorial: Some corner of a foreign field

In the Normandy town of Bayeux, the 2,000 journalists killed on duty worldwide since 1944 are remembered in a dedicated park. Robin Stafford pays his respects
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A Norman stonemason is preparing a 7ft-high white remembrance slab for the names of those who will be killed in 2008. There will be no room for any description of how the people in question died. The first name is already known – Carsten Thomassen, a 38-year-old reporter for Norway's Dagbladet newspaper who bled to death in the lobby of a Kabul hotel on 14 January after terrorists attacked a Norwegian foreign-ministry party with grenades and guns.

The stone is the latest addition to a memorial park, unique in Europe, which was inaugurated in 2006 in the historic Normandy town of Bayeux to commemorate every journalist killed on duty since the D-Day landings in 1944. There are a staggering 2,000 names so far, with, inevitably, more to come as it becomes ever clearer that the job of foreign or war correspondent should come with a serious health warning. The park was commissioned by Reporters Sans Frontières and the Mayor of Bayeux, Patrick Gomont, with contributions from regional authorities, banks, the Calvados département, and industrialists.

Until now, Bayeux has attracted visitors for two reasons – to see the 31ft-long, 20in-wide tapestry created nearly 1,000 years ago to commemorate William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066; and to visit the Normandy beachheads and museums commemorating D-Day – Bayeux was the first town to be liberated by the Allies. The memorial park for journalists is on the Bayeux ring road between the D-Day Museum and the British military cemetery, where 4,144 Commonwealth soldiers lie. At the entrance to the cemetery, a sentence in Latin alludes to the fact that British soldiers returned in 1944 to liberate the land from which William set out to conquer them.

Last year, 81 journalists were killed in 21 countries. Since fighting began in Iraq in 2003, 139 journalists have been killed, more than twice the number in all 20 years of the Vietnam War. And in the last decade, 1,000 media personnel have been killed trying to do their job.

It is not just enemy fire that kills reporters in wars. On the 2003 slab, for example, is the name of Terry Lloyd, the ITN war correspondent who died as a result of, as the coroner recorded, an "unlawful act" of US fire in Iraq – one of many killed by the ludicrously misnamed "friendly fire".

Military action of whatever kind is by no means the journalist's greatest killer. Three-quarters of the 2,000 dead were murdered because someone did not like what they had written or were about to write.

Among the most atrocious killings was the 1990 Baghdad hanging of Farzad Bazoft, the Iranian-born British-resident correspondent of The Observer, after a secret kangaroo court set up by Saddam Hussein claimed that he was a spy. On the 1978 slab is Georgi Markov, the dissident Bulgarian who fled to Britain to work for the BBC, fatally stabbed in the thigh with a poisoned umbrella tip near Waterloo Bridge, presumably by an agent of Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Among those that I knew, David Holden, chief foreign correspondent of The Sunday Times, flew to Cairo in 1977 and was shot in the back for still unknown reasons. His body was dumped in the desert. Nick Tomalin, also a Sunday Times reporter, was killed on the Golan Heights in 1973 when we were both covering the Yom Kippur War. His widow is the writer Claire Tomalin.

Kate Peyton, a 39-year-old BBC producer, was mortally wounded by a gunman in Mogadishu in 2005 just after arriving in the country. Simon Cumbers, an Irish BBC cameraman, was shot dead in a Riyadh street in 2004 by al-Qa'ida gunmen, who also shot the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner six times. Gardner miraculously survived, later returning to work in a wheelchair.

Some reporters lost their lives for tragically banal reasons. In 1991, for example, cameraman Nicholas Della Casa and soundman Charles Maxwell, filming the plight of the Kurds in Iraq for the BBC, were shot dead after an argument over fees with a Turkish guide. Nicholas's wife Rosanna, also a journalist, disappeared.

The first British name on the 1944 slab is Ian Fyfe of the Daily Mirror, who vanished in an invasion glider over the Cherbourg peninsula on D-Day. The Daily Telegraph's Peter Lawless was also killed in March 1945 on the bridge over the Rhine in the German city of Remagen.

In Korea, in 1950, Ian Morrison of The Times and Christopher Buckley of The Daily Telegraph were killed by a mine under their jeep. Morrison's death ended his affair with the Chinese-Belgian doctor and author Han Suyin, whose novel A Many-Splendoured Thing was based on their relationship. That year, too, Picture Post's Stephen Simmons died in a Korean air crash.

Larry Burrows, the award-winning London-born Life photographer, was another friend who was shot down in a helicopter over Laos in 1971. Dan Eldon, a Reuters photographer, was beaten and stoned to death in 1993 by a Mogadishu mob. That same year, the News of the World photographer Edward Henty was killed by an IRA truck bomb in London.

Neil Davis, an Australian reporter-cameraman I knew in Zaire, was setting up a camera to film a failed coup attempt in Bangkok in 1985. A tank fired as he stepped in front of his camera, killing him instantly. His camera kept running as he fell, filming his own death, and then rolled on the ground to film his fatally wounded US soundman William Latch crawling away to die.

The "crime" of all these people was that they were trying, unarmed, to report the news. A recent poll by BBC Radio 4's Today programme concluded that journalism is the fifth most detested and distrusted profession in the UK. But even more detested are lawyers, government ministers, estate agents and, most distrusted of all, MPs. None of those professions has had 2,000 of its members killed on duty since 1944.

Journalists may be detested for their nosiness. But the Bayeux memorial is a reminder that we should look carefully at those who detest them, and increase our efforts to prevent the shooting of the messenger.