Ian Burrell: No way to treat the reporters who are putting their lives on the line

The 'Independent' journalist Kim Sengupta is one of the few reporters to have accessed Aleppo in Syria
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The Independent Online

The fighting is as fierce as any witnessed in last year's so-called Arab Spring. Snipers' 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.

But compared with last August, when we were gripped by the daily progress of the Libyan revolutionaries as they surged towards Tripoli in an effort to topple Muammar Gaddafi, the battle for Aleppo that will determine the fate of Bashar al-Assad's regime is going relatively unnoticed.

It doesn't help that Britain, indeed most of the world, is utterly transfixed by the mesmerising spectacle and great human dramas emerging from London 2012. But there's another reason – 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, gave a compelling first-hand account of the 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 sense of peril was plain to see in an era when other television correspondents are 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.

Thrilling as these life-threatening sequences are, they are not always as helpful as Pannell and Conway's report was in providing a deeper explanation of complicated international political stories.

Writers like Sengupta who are not dependent on video to tell their stories can give greater context to their reports without having to be seen dodging bullets. Another press reporter, Damien McElroy of the Daily Telegraph, battled his way into Aleppo late last week, although his brave dispatch was inevitably consigned to page 13, behind Bradley Wiggins's golden achievements.

Correspondents fighting for space on television bulletins have even fewer slots to aim for and 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 Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin 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 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 of 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 benefit. 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.

Could Alan Titchmarsh save newspapers?

The Daily Mail has taken a substantial step into the world of retail by setting up a mobile app that sells products for more than 150 partner brands from Marmite to Wedgwood.

The technology – initially aimed at newspaper readers of the Mail and Mail on Sunday – could make print media more attractive to advertisers. The app from Mobile Money Network (MMN) will allow readers, as they sit on a train or a sofa, to use a smart phone to go to the "Mail Shop" website and buy products they see in the paper. Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Mail titles, will be able to share customer data with other MMN partners, such as HMV, Universal and Carphone Warehouse.

Of course, Associated will also take a cut of product sales. MMN, which has Sir Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer and advertising executive Johnny Hornby on its board, will later extend the service to the vast Mail Online audience. It could be the future – but the Mail's journalists will want to ensure that selling Alan Titchmarsh garden tools or Braun shavers does not encroach on editorial values.

Why are you so reluctant to defend yourself, Twitter?

Twitter likes to describe itself as "the free speech wing of the free speech party" but throughout the media furore over its embarrassing censoring of my colleague Guy Adams – closing down his account for criticising its Olympics media partner NBC's coverage and publishing an executive's email address – it failed to field a spokesperson to go on camera and tweet up on its own behalf. What's the avian equivalent of tongue-tied?

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

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