The troubled past of a star reporter on 'News at Ten'

Bill Neely lost childhood friends to bombs and bullets but his coverage of earthquake and war has won the greatest accolade.
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A military barracks stood on one side of Bill Neely's school, with a prison on another and the main Belfast hospital on a third. "In the middle was our playground, across which prisoners used to escape and from which many of my fellow pupils used to stone the British Army," recalls ITV News's International Editor, the winner of the most prestigious award in broadcast journalism.

Neely grew up with a Catholic mother and Protestant father, avoiding beatings on the way home from school by deploying either his Unionist-sounding Christian name or his ability to sing the Irish national anthem, depending on the nature of the threat. But his mother's dance school in central Belfast was blown up "several times". And some of his childhood friends were murdered. "One was killed by a bomb, one was shot on his way to school, one was murdered by a gang called the Shankill Butchers – picked off the street, tortured and killed," he says.

"Growing up in that kind of environment gave you a very early knowledge of a conflict zone. I'm not saying I'm therefore comfortable with soldiers in the front garden but it maybe doesn't phase me as much as other people."

This ingrained battle-hardiness might help Neely when, as he hopes, he is relocated to Afghanistan to examine the impact of the American military surge against the Taliban in the south and east of the country.

Yet it was a different kind of instinct which, a year ago, drew him back for one last visit to a refugee camp housing victims of the Sichuan earthquake in China. He had already borne witness to the harrowing sight of a school buried in rubble and the "grotesque tableau of the classroom with the kids hugging each other and the teachers trying to protect some of the children". But he was drawn back to the refugee camp where, in a stroke of considerable good fortune, a woman emerged to hand a precious videotape to Neely's Mandarin translator. The footage therein was perhaps the most dramatic recorded of a natural disaster.

A freelance Chinese cameraman, who had begun the day expecting to film nothing more than a regular 2.30pm meeting at the mayor's office in the small town of Beichuan, saw his equipment thrown to the ground by a violent tremor. His response was to run into the street and started filming. "He was expecting to film a council meeting and instead he got a 7.9 earthquake which killed 90,000 people and killed his father," says a grateful Neely. "This was astonishing because the cameraman had begun filming after 20 seconds and had the courage to keep filming for an hour until his tape ran out. You see everything. There were some scenes we just couldn't show they were just too graphic."

Neely, mindful of the restrictions on the media in China, has never identified the heroic Chinese freelance, who told him he would "really like to be a television cameraman". The ITV correspondent won the Bafta news coverage award for his report and still doesn't know quite why he was given the film. "I don't know if they were looking for a foreign face to show the world, I just don't know."

The award was a boost for ITV News which struggles to compete with the far-better resourced BBC and Sky and, shorn of its news channel, relies on its ties with American networks CNN and NBC to compete on the world stage.

Despite the impact of his Chinese reports, Neely identifies a backlash in television newsrooms against footage which is "gratuitously emotive", particularly in the use of pictures of children. "As a journalistic community we're all a little bit suspicious of people who focus just a little bit too much on the flies on the baby's face in Africa, we almost shy away from those images now," he says. "You're not there simply to produce a piece of maximum impact television that is 90 per cent emotion and 10 per cent here are a few facts chucked in at the end."

He also thinks footage of reporters under fire in war zones no longer carries the same importance. "Ten years ago if you weren't in the middle of a firefight you couldn't possibly win an award. Across the industry there's almost less of an appetite for that kind of bang bang. People probably think they've seen that before."

Neely has had his share of scrapes. He will travel back to Afghanistan with the memory that, on a previous visit in 2001, he was dragged almost to his death when trying to produce a report while embedded with the Taliban. After three days as a guest of Mullah Omar and his "perfectly hospitable" followers, Neely – in a small group of Western reporters – was set upon by Afghans. "We were duly attacked by locals who were furious at Nato bombing. I was dragged out of the car and thought 'This is it.' But the Taliban beat the living daylights out of the locals, they protected us."

Though he says "you cannot let something like that put the fear chip in your brain", Neely believes the risks to foreign correspondents has grown considerably in the last six years. "It has got a hell of a lot more dangerous," he says, citing the risk from regimes that "have something to hide" and the threat to Western journalists from Islamist extremists. "I was very hesitant about the idea of travelling with a hired gun in the car, I really didn't like the idea because that very gun might cost you your life," he says of how he came to realise the value of travelling with a security advisor with previous experience in the special forces.

Working under such circumstances and often embedded with the military, he is aware of the need to do more than merely reflect the experience of British troops in conflict zones. A recent Neely report on the pull-out from Basra was critical of Britain's achievements in southern Iraq. He interviewed Iraqis at a football stadium built by the British in the 1920s, to highlight the lack of help given during the past six years. "We didn't build a single power station, we didn't build a single major water plant, a major sewage treatment plant or bridge that we hadn't destroyed in the first place. In terms of infrastructure we did very little to be really proud of," he says. "The military by and large did a very good job in winning southern Iraq in four weeks. What's hard for them and Britain to swallow is that four years later they lost it."

And Neely, winner of the Bafta in the face of better-resourced rivals, does not waste the opportunity to question the record of the BBC, where he began his career covering Northern Ireland in 1981. "The BBC should slaughter us all over the world, they should have beaten us in China where they have an infrastructure and correspondents, translators, drivers and contacts, they should have beaten us in Burma and on the tsunami, they should have beaten us in Beslan where in their Moscow bureau they have a pretty formidable force. I don't think they beat us on any one of those stories," he says. "I think, hand on heart, that our first 11 beats either of the BBC and Sky News."

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