War Reporting: Survival at the Frontline

Life as a war correspondent can be extremely hazardous, writes Eamonn Gearon. But a new London club, set up by a former Grenadier Guard and freelance war cameraman, is helping to make things a bit easier
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The Independent Online

After an army career that took him to the rank of captain in the Grenadier Guards, Vaughan Smith could have been forgiven for choosing a more peaceful existence.

But at least his military background made him a little better prepared than your average journalist when he had to deal with the inconvenience of coming under fire and having a bullet lodge in his mobile phone.

When Smith left the army he didn't so much turn his back on conflict as march forward to meet it, camera on shoulder. "We had got behind Serb lines and were filming the incident that broke the Kosovo story into the news. Having got the footage we were spotted trying to get back through the lines when we came under enemy fire," he remembers. "The bullet that hit me went through a thick bundle of Deutschmarks and a packet of Marlboro before it ended up lodged in my mobile telephone."

As a freelance cameraman Smith has covered every major war since the Eighties, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Gulf and Iraq. He has been shot twice.

But he knows he is far from alone in being drawn to the excitement of recording events in a battle zone, which is why he is a founder member of a London club for like-minded souls.

The Frontline Club, an impressive Victorian brick building close to Paddington station in west London, is quite unlike the other private member's clubs in more salubrious parts of town. The club room has its leather sofas and wood-panelled walls but rather than a tusk or a Tiger's head, the décor consists of trophies gathered by war journalists on their travels. So there are flags liberated during coups from government buildings and palaces, headgear used for travelling with the Mujahideen and a brightly polished Russian artillery shell now serving as a vase for dried flowers.

Smith founded the Frontline Club in order to "make a contribution to those who risk their lives for the news."

He became a cameraman 15 years ago. "For me, I was looking for opportunities to travel and for adventure," he says. "I discovered journalism later and found that it rather suited me. But I was not born a journalist. My commitment to journalism came later."

Since November 2003, the Frontline has provided a venue in which to meet colleagues and friends, as well as attend industry-related debates and film screenings. In generations gone by these people may have been explorers and travellers, coming back to London to share stories of their discoveries and adventures. These days they are war correspondents, cameramen, photographers. Women make up 40 per cent of the 560 members, a higher proportion than women in the media as a whole.

London is reckoned by many international news organisations to be the leading city in the world in which to hire experienced freelance journalists and cameramen. This is particularly true when it comes to those who make their living covering the conflicts. But many of these journalists are used to working on minimal budgets, putting their lives on the line to report from danger zones without the safety net of working as part of a larger organisation.

Away from the comforts of a London club, what can the practitioners of such a potentially lethal profession do to ensure their safety at work? Smith is anxious that more freelances take advantage of safety training courses, such as those supported by the Rory Peck Trust. The Trust, a rare organisation that exists to promote the security of freelances around the world, also assists the dependants of journalists who have been imprisoned or killed while working.

The Trust was set up following the death of the freelance cameraman Rory Peck, a friend of Smith's. The two men are both founders of Frontline Television News, an agency set up in 1989 to sell the work of freelance cameramen to mainstream media organisations. Peck was killed while filming in Moscow during an attempted coup in October 1993, caught in the crossfire outside the city's television centre. Tina Carr, the Director of the Rory Peck Trust, explains, "At the time of Rory's death there was nothing in place to represent the freelance journalist, or to support those left behind."

Much of the work of the Rory Peck Trust involves the distribution of bursaries to freelances, allowing them to take industry-recognised safety training courses. The bursaries allow freelances the chance to obtain the same training that media organisations insist on for their staff who are going to work in hostile environments. The courses are also mandatory for many aid workers and members of the Foreign Office who will be operating in volatile countries.

Having completed a course in, for example, surviving hostile environments, the benefits to the freelance are immediate and obvious, beginning with reduced insurance rates, often the last thing to be organised by an individual working on a shoestring.

The main purpose of these courses is to make the individual aware of the environment they are about to enter. Alerted to some of the potential risks, journalists are able to work in a safer manner. Only safer because there can be no guarantees, especially when filming a firefight or trying to negotiate safe passage through a roadblock manned by drunken militiamen. But even with the benefit of safety training, the names of journalists killed continues to grow.

Back in the Frontline Club - alongside the curios from foreign wars - pride of place goes to the memorial photographs and dedications to the journalists who died for their trade. In one cabinet a new photograph has appeared, that of the BBC producer Kate Peyton who was shot dead in Mogadishu in February. Ms Peyton had taken a safety training course but, for the journalist working in a conflict zone, even such precautions are not always enough.

The Frontline Club, Forum and Restaurant

13 Norfolk Place, W2 1QJ

Tel: 020 7479 8960


The Rory Peck Trust

2 Grosvenor Gardens, SW1W 0DH Tel: 020 7730 1411 www.rorypecktrust.org