The day I scooped Rageh

ITV's award-winning reporter John Irvine left other journalists behind when he braved the streets of Baghdad to witness the arrival of the coalition forces. He tells Ian Burrell how it happened
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Just as the journalistic star of the first Gulf war was CNN's Peter Arnett, so the celebrity reporter of the second Iraqi conflict was Rageh "the Scud Stud" Omaar. By any account, Omaar had a great war, and he now finds himself courted by a host of rival broadcasters anxious to secure his services.

But, fine though his reporting was, the reality is that he was scooped to the big story by a lesser-known rival, John Irvine from ITV News. It was Irvine who left of the rest of the reporting pack behind and risked his neck to get the first story of the "liberation" of Baghdad.

"The truth of the matter", Irvine says, "is that I got out of the Palestine [Hotel] more than [Omaar] did." Irvine's achievement was honoured last week by the Royal Television Society, which named him journalist of the year. "It may have been the requirements of his bosses in London to have him always there," he continues. "That's fine, but the RTS is a television award. We went out and shot television."

The Belfast-born reporter isn't boasting. In fact, he refers to his meeting with the American Third Army on the streets of Baghdad as "pure luck", when it was clearly more than that. In the reporting of previous recent conflicts, there was competition between broadcasters to be first into Port Stanley, Pristina and Kabul with the conquering forces. This time, it was a question of being first to meet the troops as they arrived. Irvine's crew's pictures were the first confirmation that coalition forces were on the streets of the city.

Most of the American reporters were advised by their broadcasters to leave Baghdad, leaving the British journalists to report the assault on the city to the English-speaking world. A camaraderie developed, with the BBC and ITV on adjacent floors. "Rageh's great. He's a lovely guy, and we shared cups of tea together and would gossip and chat," says Irvine. "The relationship between the two organisations couldn't have been better. Good luck to Rageh - he has done well out of it."

The mood was "jittery" in the Palestine on the morning of 9 April, Irvine says. The day before, the Americans had bombed the al-Jazeera offices on the banks of the Tigris, killing a journalist, before an American tank shelled the 15th floor of the Palestine, killing two more.

Irvine had woken up with "a bout of Baghdad belly", and then there was a knock on his hotel door from his cameraman, Phil Bye, who told him that the word was that the Americans were not far away. "I said: 'Let's go'," Irvine recalls. "It hadn't been that noisy a night, and it wasn't that noisy a morning in terms of explosions or gunfire. I thought: 'They're out there to be found.' "

Most journalists had been warned by their bosses not to leave the hotel, but Irvine says he trusted the "amazingly hospitable" Iraqi people. "I had never, ever felt that the Iraqis were going to turn on me," he says. "I often say: imagine how an Iraqi TV crew would have been treated by Londoners if Iraqi jets were bombing England."

With his local driver, Hamid, his cameraman, Bye, and a senior producer, Ian Glover-James, he headed out from the hotel. "We just got on our flak jackets and drove out," he says. "I was aware that other journalists were not doing this, but there were quite a few Iraqis about on the road, and that gave us a bit of confidence."

They hadn't driven far before they saw Iraqis throwing petrol over images of Saddam Hussein and setting fire to them. "We came to this flyover and found the Americans chatting to these Iraqis, who were shouting: 'Freedom! Freedom!' It was quite emotional," Irvine says. The crowd of Iraqis parted, and the ITV crew walked towards the American marines. "I put my hands on my head, and Ian shouted: 'We are from British television.' They beckoned for us to come up and say hello."

Irvine says he was "stunned" by the sudden realisation that his team had got the scoop. "I just couldn't believe it," he says. "We got straight back in the car and sped back to the Palestine to broadcast." Irvine attributes his success to months of planning and endless negotiations with the Iraqi information ministry, which enabled ITV to assemble the largest team of journalists in Baghdad. He has since been transferred from the Middle East to Bangkok, where he is grateful not to have a war zone on his "doorstep".

Irvine, 40, considers working on the West Bank to have been more dangerous than covering the fall of Saddam. "I got in quite dodgy situations in Ramallah and Bethlehem that were much worse than anything that happened in Iraq, but of course it wasn't the big gig." He was also nearly beaten up while covering the Drumcree parades in Northern Ireland as a reporter for Ulster TV.

Irvine grew up in the more peaceful south Belfast. "I led a life that had very little contact with what was going on," he says. But working on the Tyrone Constitution newspaper schooled him for covering stories about communities in conflict.

The day he got to Israel was also the day of the outbreak of the intifada, and Irvine was well prepared. "People used to ask me what it was like in comparison to Northern Ireland, and I would say: 'Same story; better weather'."