John Lichfield: Our Man in Bayeux

A town fit for the heroes who report on conflict


Almost all of the towns in lower Normandy were pulverized by Allied bombing in the summer of 1944.

They were rebuilt in functional, Legoland style just after the war, preserving only glimpses of the medieval riches which had been passed down through the centuries.

The lucky exception, the great survivor, was the small town of Bayeux, which had the great fortune to be captured intact by the British Army on the day after D-Day.

Bayeux, built from soft, silver-grey stone, is doubly a jewel. It is one of the most beautiful small towns in France and stands as a reminder of the lost beauty of Caen and Falaise and St Lo and Argentan.

Long before its miraculous survival in 1944, the peaceful town of Bayeux was already indelibly associated with war. Its most celebrated treasure is the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde, known in English as the "Bayeux tapestry": an immense, embroidered, 11th century cartoon which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

In the last 13 years, Bayeux has made itself into a global shrine to those brave journalists who cover wars, and, more widely, to all journalists killed in pursuit of the truth.

In 1994, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, the town created the world's only series of annual prizes dedicated to war correspondents.

Patrick Gomont, the mayor of Bayeux, claims that the town's tapestry is the "world's first war report". Homer or Herodotus might disagree.

All the same, the Bayeux Tapestry can still reasonably claim to be the world's first piece of war reportage in pictures.

This weekend I was greatly honoured to serve on the jury of the 2007 "Baxeux prizes" (or to give them their full name in French, the "Prix Bayeux- Calvados des Correspondants de Guerre".)

Any gathering of journalists is more likely than not to turn into an argument, and the jury, under the chairmanship of the experienced British war correspondent, Jon Swain, was an impressively serious and combative affair.

Should print war journalism be judged for its bravery, or its depth of analysis, or its quality of writing? Should television war correspondents be invisible or should they themselves become the heroes, or heroines, of short war movies? Should war photographs be judged on the beauty of their composition or the starkness or dramatic content of their images?

One of the entries in the television category was declared "almost indecent" by a veteran French member of the jury. He objected that the reporter spent most of his report from the Lebanese war of 2006 sprawling ostentatiously in front of the news.

The BBC emerged with enormous credit, winning first prizes in both the radio and television categories (and also second place in radio). The print prize went to a French reporter, Adrien Jaulmes of the Revue des Deux Mondes, for his brilliant account of "Amerak", the parallel world that has been created by the US army in Iraq.

A special mention should also be given to the people of Bayeux themselves. The town has a memorial where it engraves the names of journalists killed in pursuit of the news – a plaque was unveiled this year to the murdered Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her apartment building a year ago.

In a large tent on the edge of town there was an advance viewing of a French film on Anna's life and death, and a public question and answer session with Russian journalists.

A huge crowd of local people turned up and asked the reporters impressively well-informed questions until almost midnight.

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