Following the murder last week of Sander Thoenes, a Dutch journalist, and the ambush of two others, the Australian Defence Ministry appealed to news teams outside the territory to stay away; it asked those inside to reduce their numbers comprehensively. More than 300 journalists have poured into East Timor, with further arrivals daily, and the Ministry is willing to accept responsibility only for the 41 who accompanied the first wave of peacekeepers. The Defence Ministry Spokesman, Col Duncan Lewis, strongly urged the non-accredited journalists to leave.
Most of them will probably ignore his advice. Journalists, especially those of the war-zone variety, are ambitious and driven individuals who dislike being told what to do even by their own editors, never mind by an officer in someone else's army. They are veterans of a sort. Many of them will have more experience of combat and survival under fire than the peacekeeping soldiers alongside them.
The day after the death of the Dutch journalist, I happened to be attending a meeting in London of the Freedom Forum, an organisation that concerns itself with the rights and prerogatives of journalists. Proposals were made for an international emblem for journalists, on the model of the sign of the Red Cross, and for the protection of journalists to be written into the mandate of peacekeeping forces.
As an ex-journalist myself I was, as usual, in the dissident minority. My own experience tells me that the press enjoys much more protection in areas of conflict than those whose lives it reports. It has body armour, armoured vehicles and - most important of all - the means of escape, which they do not. The most dedicated and respected member of the press corps in Bosnia - Kurt Schork of Reuters - never wore a flak jacket during the three-and-a-half years of the war there, because he felt that to have done so would have been an affront to the unprotected people with whom he was dealing.
As far as the press is concerned, I doubt if the pleas for special protection would be sympathetically received by the general public; and I say this from the perspective of someone who left a profession that stands low in public esteem, journalism, for another that stands even lower, politics.
War-zone journalists are not conscripts but volunteers. They are paid for what they do, sometimes quite handsomely. They go into dangerous places with their eyes wide open. But in the special case of East Timor, they would be wise to heed the warnings of the Australian military. It would clearly be unacceptable for the international peacekeepers in East Timor to be deflected from the hard task ahead of them by the constant need to dig journalists out of trouble. There will be such incidents, which are inseparable from the hazardous business of newsgathering, but they should be kept to a necessary minimum. And it would be helpful if, for a start, the journalists could spend less time reporting on the scrapes that their colleagues get into, and more time reporting on the territory's people and peacekeepers. It is no place for gonzo journalism.
The answer lies with the journalists themselves, and with the organisations that employ them. The past few years have seen a huge increase in the number of newsgatherers - both journalistic and technical - in areas of conflict. More than 1,000 clamoured for access to the Gulf War. Some 2,000 poured into Kosovo with the Nato inter-vention force. Such numbers are unmanageable. News events get distorted under the weight of them. They bring an unacceptable increase in the risk of casualties from land mines, sniper fire and brigandage.
It pains me to say so, but my former employers are the worst offenders. The BBC managed to cover the Bosnian War for most of the time with just two correspondents, one for radio and one for television. I know that because I was one of them. It threw an entire platoon - 19 reporters of one sort or another - into the breach in Kosovo. That was editorial lunacy. It gave rise to unnecessary competition, absurd expense and an unacceptable risk of casualties in a province littered with unexploded mines and cluster bombs.
The same mistakes are being repeated in East Timor. I therefore urge the BBC, which led the way in training its staff to deal with hazardous environments, to set the example by reducing its manning levels to safer (and cheaper) numbers. This would also improve the quality of the coverage, because small teams work better than large ones. That was proved to them so many times that they forgot it.
The news organisations could also reduce the risks of casualties - and of becoming an unwelcome burden on the intervention force - by the simple expedient of setting up a voluntary pool and sharing their material. This was pio- neered in Bosnia in 1992. It lasted for more than three years before the news agencies' competitive instincts broke it apart. And since it involved sending only one cam- era to the scene of an incident instead of three or four, it undoubtedly saved lives.
East Timor is at least as dangerous as Bosnia - probably more so, because of the targeting of Western journalists - and provides a clear case for a revival of the pool system. No scoop is worth the casualties now in prospect, and the competing news agencies have to understand that. I venture to suggest that a special obligation in this matter rests with Reuters as the dominant agency. If they care about more than making money, now is the time to show it.
The most that has been achieved so far is a sort of negative pool between two networks. The BBC and ITN co-ordinated their temporary withdrawal from the territory some weeks ago, so that neither should have the advantage over the other - although both suffered from negative publicity when it emerged that the only three journalists remaining in the UN compound in Dili were all women.
A theory was floated about the decline of the press, and that they don't any longer send men like they used to. This gave rise to a diverting debate about whether women are braver than men. It was all nonsense, of course. Some people are braver than others, regardless of sex. And some of the bravest of all are such lunatics that if I found myself next to one of them under fire, I would definitely find another hole to go to. The people who scare me most of all are the ones who feel no fear. I've known some of these as well. They will certainly be among the 300 adventurers taking their chances in Dili.
I never believed in the idea of safety in numbers - in fact, rather the reverse. I know from experience that the chances of survival are significantly greater in a small press corps than in a large one. Less is better and more is worse.
So the Australians in East Timor are right in trying to cut down its size. The bottom line is a simple one. The peacekeeping operation in the territory needs reinforcements. The growing press corps does not. And one more news team hitting the beach is one more news team too many.
Martin Bell MP is a former war correspondent for BBC television.Reuse content