The real heroes of war journalism are the people behind the camera

'Every time you go to war, you lose a little bit of your heart. You see so much suffering it no longer personally affects you'
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The Independent Online

As a group, foreign correspondents don't tend to do humility. We live in a big ego swamp. We bitch and moan about each other a lot. As a rule we tend to be insecure and rather driven. The arrogance that others sometimes see is more often than not a mask for our fear. But there is nothing quite like an awards ceremony to bring out the secret worst in us all. We tend to say that awards don't really matter; it's the journalism that counts. Which is partially true, but also not true.

Not that you would guess from watching the assembled faces. At awards dinners we tend to look - in the early part of the night anyway - sombre and pious. We make speeches about the wrongs of the world, wagging our fingers at the corrupt, depraved, immoral and venal. You name the mountain, it's never too high for us to take the moral high ground. It can be fiercely tiresome. Ask any of the spouses, lovers, friends who have had to put up with the personal cost of the job we do.

But the other night I went to an awards ceremony that turned out to be one big exception to the rule. It celebrated freelance cameramen and women, those who go to the darkest zones of the world and are often killed or maimed in the process.

Ten years ago, at the height of the political crisis in Russia, a British cameraman, Rory Peck, was shot dead while filming outside a television station. I never knew him except by repute. He was, I was told, a handsome, intelligent, charming and extremely brave man. He had made his name reporting the Afghan war against the Soviets, becoming a legend in the community of freelance combat photographers.

On the front cover of the awards brochure there is a photograph of Rory. He is wearing a fur hat, sunglasses and is standing beside an Afghan mujahedin. Set against these is a quotation from Rory Peck:

Each time you go to war, you lose a little bit of your heart... you see people who are suffering in the most appalling way. And every time you see it, it affects you a little bit less each time. You reach a point where you see so much suffering but it no longer personally affects you, so you lose your sense of proportion.

That is one of the most achingly candid descriptions of what can happen to the human soul in combat zones. Rory left behind a wife and young family. Many others had died before him in wars from Vietnam to the Middle East. But as freelances they had none of the financial protection afforded staff cameramen. Their families were often left without support because there was no pension scheme or death benefits. The freelance war cameraman's financial existence was precarious by its nature - work fluctuated, gear could be stolen or destroyed - but the position of families was one of the silent scandals of journalism.

After Rory's death a group of friends came together with his wife and founded the Rory Peck Trust. The idea was to help families who found themselves in dire straits after the death of a loved one. The trust has grown stronger every year, hustling and pushing those in the broadcast industry to face up to their responsibilities.

It has become easier. There is a new awareness of the personal sacrifices involved. That and a degree of enlightened self-interest. News organisations can't afford to criticise the failings of others if they fail to meet a basic moral commitment themselves.

But I have digressed. Back to the awards. I had a strong personal interest this year because of two friends. I've worked with Fred Scott and Glenn Middleton for more than a decade. Glenn became my friend when I was based in South Africa and we covered the township violence together. Later we went to Rwanda and witnessed genocide and were changed for ever. Glenn is a white African and loves his continent. He is married and has triplets, loves to fish and sings the filthiest songs I have ever heard.

Fred is a quiet Californian. He too has a wife, and a baby girl. Fred is a serious thinker but with a mercilessly dry sense of humour. What he and Glenn share is visual artistry and a deep humanity. You see it in their pictures but also in the way they move in the presence of tragedy. There is no shoving and pushing and no hounding of the victims. Both men risk their lives on a regular basis to record painful truths.

Over the years in any number of bad places they have made my travels brighter. We have seen mounds of bodies and maimed infants. We have looked at death and been lucky to survive. I would go, and have gone, to the ends of the earth with either of them. They are remarkably tolerant for I am not always an easy fellow traveller. I get tired and cantankerous. I have a bad back and tend toward physical indolence. Do not ask either of them about my tardiness in helping to lift equipment.

Both were up for the same award. Glenn for his remarkable pictures from Iraq and Africa, Fred for a piece of journalism that was surely one of the most outstanding in the history of war. You may have seen it. Fred was travelling with John Simpson and others in a convoy in north-eastern Iraq when it was hit by friendly fire. An American jet fired a missile which killed 23 people, among them the BBC translator Kameran Abdur Razaq Mohammed.

Here is how Fred describes what happened: "I was blown flat. Blood was coming down my face. I thought I might have lost an eye. Men were screaming and car horns were blaring where bodies had slumped against them. The missile had struck 10 metres behind me. The soldier immediately to my right had his brains blown out. Plumes of flame and smoke were pouring out of the vehicles and ammunition was beginning to burn. I pulled myself up and tried to scramble for cover. I believed the pilots would circle back and attack again. I found my camera and managed to get it running. I kept it rolling for whatever would happen next but fortunately a second attack did not come."

I saw the carnage on John Simpson's remarkable report. I also saw Fred Scott's blood dripping on to the lens, and then Fred's hand trying to wipe the blood away so that he could film. The report won the prize and it deserves to win many more. Glenn was among the first to congratulate Fred. He recognised exceptional work when he saw it. I know John Simpson would be the first to acknowledge that without Fred Scott's amazing courage and dedication this extraordinary piece of war reporting would never have made it to air. People like myself and John and all the other reporters who get the glory owe a huge debt to Fred and Glenn. To them and the hundreds of other freelancers.

There was sadness too at the awards ceremony. We stood in silence while a list of the names of journalists killed in combat scrolled down on a large screen. The first name dated from the Rhodesian war. The last was from Iraq. I saw the name of James Miller, killed in Gaza last May. He was a brilliant journalist and, more importantly, an exceptional human being. I cannot speak for the other foreign correspondents who were present. But I came away feeling grateful and humble. Very humble.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent