The thousands of bodies I've seen prove that death is just a heartbeat away

The old question asked by those of us in the trade is: just how much is a journalist's life worth?
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Early on Thursday evening, I watched the Lebanese laying roses and lighting candles on the Beirut street where "they" murdered Samir Kassir just over a week ago. Who "they" are we may never know - though we may suspect - because Samir's widow Gisele has already said that she puts no trust in the Lebanese police investigators.

But Lebanon is an educated country whose people read voraciously and care about their writers. So it was good to see that a journalist's assassination could bring 200 people out to mourn his terrible end and to demand - as they have of ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri's murder - the truth. They want Furn al-Hayak Street to be renamed after Samir Kassir of An Nahar, who was blown up as he climbed into his car.

Two hundred did not quite equal the million Lebanese who turned out after Hariri's murder; the exchange rate of journalists to ex-premiers appears to be around 1:5,000. But it does raise the old question - so passionately asked by those of us in the trade - as to just how much a journalist's life is worth.

Samir wrote eloquent but brutal articles against the Syrian presence in Lebanon and against the dark figures within Lebanon's own security apparatus who worked for Damascus; which, so we all assume, is the reason for his killing, along with his work for the Lebanese political opposition. Indeed, the Lebanese have a long, unholy record of murdered journalists.

Among the first of the country's "martyrs of the press" was Salim el-Lowzy, who ran the magazine Hawadess. He had written against the Syrians and, after visiting Beirut to attend his daughter's wedding in 1976, was kidnapped while driving to the airport to fly back to London. His body was found with his right - writing - hand burned away with acid. Before or after death? - we all asked at the time.

I've known too many of my own colleagues who have died here. A German friend, researching an article for Stern magazine on Palestinian gun-running, received telephone warnings to leave Lebanon. He refused and, returning home one night, was shot down in front of his wife, almost certainly by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command.

I remember one bright March morning in 1985, bidding my friends Tewfiq Ghazawi and Bahij Metni of CBS television goodbye as we raced on our separate journeys to an Israeli-Hizbollah battle in southern Lebanon. When we got there, the blast of an Israeli shell blew me uninjured through the doorway of a house. But the same tank sent another shell into a neighbouring street where Tewfiq and Ghazawi were filming. I saw what was left of them later, in bits on the floor of the Sidon mortuary. Villagers were scraping their flesh off the walls of the street for the next 24 hours.

Some of my colleagues died because they behaved rashly amid war. Sean Toolan of The Observer was carrying on an affair with the wife of a Palestinian businessman when he was stopped on his way home from a bar and attacked by men who thrust ice-picks into his face.

Others lost their lives because they were doing their job in the most terrible of conflicts. I remember carrying Olivier Quemener's camera legs for him in Algiers one afternoon. Next morning, he set out to film in the Casbah and was found an hour or so later, dead of bullet wounds, his wounded reporter colleague lying weeping beside his body.

I'm still not sure why I still walk in harm's way. There's nothing vicarious about war and I'm no war junkie. The thousands of bodies I've seen prove that death is just a heartbeat away. But "monitoring the centres of power" - to use Amira Hass's fine description of journalism and its business of challenging governments - means witnessing the filth of the battlefield. To do that, you've got to go there.

More of us are dying in wars than ever before. And fewer people, I fear, care about us than ever before. This is not just because of the enormous toll of civilians who are being cut down in our modern wars - journalists deserve no god-like status above any other human (we, after all, can fly home business class if we tire of war, unlike the huddled masses who cannot escape) - but also, I suspect, because of the way in which too many of us like to pose on screen, to put military helmets on our heads, to parade our flak jacketed selves in front of tanks, to dress up in army costume.

I even remember a young American who turned up to report the 1991 Gulf War - Lou Fontana of WISTV, South Carolina, to be exact - wearing boots camouflaged with paintings of dead leaves, purchased for the desert at Barrons Hunting Supplies store. Anyone who has glanced at a picture of a desert, of course, must surely have noticed the absence of trees. But far greater problems ensue when reporters ostentatiously carry weapons.

I can still remember the chill I felt when I saw Geraldo Rivera of Fox News appear on screen in Afghanistan in 2001 toting a gun. Even worse were his words. "I'm feeling more patriotic than at any time in my life, itching for justice, or maybe just revenge," he vouchsafed to the world. "And this catharsis I've gone through has caused me to reassess what I do for a living." It was the last straw. The reporter had become combatant.

But Rivera was not about to face Osama bin Laden (or anyone else) in a duel to the death. It was pure show business. And alongside this growing habit of transmogrification from journalist into fighter - which started, I think, in the Vietnam War - has been the continuing culture of journalistic self-denigration, of journalists who regard their own profession as cynically as some of their readers.

We should not be self-important. But I, for one, dislike our constant use of the word "hack". Sure, we can call ourselves "scribes", and I'm all for self-mockery. "I'm off to hammer on the anvil of literature," I used to joke to AP photographers during the Lebanese war - and they would all dutifully groan.

But a "hack" is a suborned hand, someone who'll write anything for a pound, a horse for common hire. If we wish to be respected - if we wish to be believed - shouldn't we treat ourselves with a bit more respect?

The most recent British Press Awards ceremony, an exercise in self-abuse - which newspaper editors have rightly decided to boycott until it cleans up its act - is part and parcel of the same problem. It's a bit difficult to thunder about the iniquities and lies of our political leaders when we're wearing the clothes of the court jester.

Ditto with death. It's right to mourn a journalist, but the death of a "hack" is a matter of little count. Samir Kassir took himself seriously. He took journalism seriously. He was no "hack". But then again, I suppose that's why they murdered him.