A salute to the brave reporters on the front line who risked their lives in pursuit of great stories

HEROES: Expressman Bob McGowan with members of 3Para with whom he was embedded during the Falklands War in 1982

I was pacing around lost in thought, trying to piece together the battle of Mount Longdon, one of the key engagements of the Falklands conflict, and marvelling at the courage of Sergeant Ian McKay, VC, who won his medal and lost his life that day in 1982.


The spell was broken by distant calls, urgent and accompanied by semaphore-like arm waving. As I looked down the mountain, I realised the shouts were coming from three Warrant Officers of Third Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.


Then I noticed right in front of me a familiar tin sign. It was red, with a skull and crossbones in white paint and the warning: Beware Mines. I froze, terrified. Were the three soldiers trying to alert me? Had I blundered into a minefield left behind by Argentine invaders when they were kicked out of the Falkland Islands?


I strained to hear what they were saying and finally made it out: “Do you want a lift?” I looked again at the sign. It was attached to a fence post on the perimeter of the minefield. I was still outside it. I breathed again and waved the paras on their way.


I had returned to the Falkland Islands with photographer Tom Smith to cover the 20th anniversary of the conflict. My editor sent me because I once lived in the Falklands; and he sent Tom because he was embedded with 3 Para when they stormed Mount Longdon and took it back in hand-to-hand fighting.


We met the three veterans, still serving then, who had fought there and were on a pilgrimage to remember the 17 close comrades who died in the two-day battle. They guided us round the battlefield, the soft peat and heather still littered with spent ammunition, and pointed out where the fighting took place.


We stood for a long time before the monument at the summit, which is said to mark the spot where Sergeant McKay fell. “He didn’t die here,” said one of the paras, “he died over there. That’s where they had the machine-gun nest. He got some lads together and stormed it.”


I shook my head as I read a plaque. Two of the dead paras were little more than boys, just 17 years old. Another died on his 18th birthday. My own sons were aged 22 and 18 and I tried to imagine waving them off as they left to die at the other end of the world.


Despite the shameless title of this column, my trip to the Falklands, with its comical interlude by the minefield, is as close to the front line as I have ever been (if you don’t count subbing the splash on the night the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy in London).


But I admire those with the courage and adventurous spirit of Tom Smith; men such as Bob McGowan of the Daily Express, who was a war correspondent in the Falklands. And Expressman Ross Benson, who reported from Afghanistan alongside another great photographer, John Downing, as the Taliban chased Russian invaders from their land.


As he yomped across East Falkland, past settlements I had lived in, did Smith wonder whether he would make it home? Was Benson afraid that at any moment a Russian helicopter gunship would crest a rocky outcrop and blast him and Downing to oblivion?


They all came back alive and apparently unaffected by what they had seen. Twenty years later, Smith was a prodigious drinker of red wine – trust me, I tried to keep up. But then, he had been before his war experience.


Benson, a little raffish, a Gordonstoun-educated dandy who had edited the William Hickey column, earned his reporting spurs in Afghanistan and a new level of respect on the paper, but he soon left for Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail, where he did great things.


Some journalists, though, cannot forget the horrors they have witnessed. I have been reading about the Bang-Bang Club. If you haven’t heard of it, this was journalism’s Wild Bunch: Four photographers from the privileged suburbs of Johannesburg who recorded the battle for power in South Africa’s black townships in the dying days of apartheid.


They worked out of rival newsrooms but became friends and comrades and took their name from Cape slang for violence: bang-bang.


It is a wonder that four white men were allowed to venture safely into the townships, let alone witness the merciless fighting between Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkata Freedom Party (IFP).


But they learnt how to survive and took some of the most frankly disturbing photographs ever printed. I doubt whether some of them would be deemed fit for publication now.


One of them, Greg Marinovich, was present when Lindsaye Tshabalala alighted from a train in Soweto. ANC members suspected he was an IFP man. He was stabbed and stoned and petrol was poured over him. The frenzied mob set him on fire and as the flames consumed him, an attacker buried a machete in his skull. Marinovich captured that final moment and won a Pulitzer prize for his picture in 1991.


Another of the group, Kevin Carter, was best known for a picture he took in a different benighted part of Africa: famine-hit Sudan. It purported to be of a little girl, ribs showing through her skinny frame, huddled despairingly as a vulture watched her from its perch on a rock just yards away.


The New York Times ran it in 1993 and Carter also earned a Pulitzer. The picture was so good that it had a title – The Vulture and the Little Girl. In fact, the starving child turned out to be a boy, who survived the famine but died later of an unrelated illness.


The picture mired Carter and the New York Times in controversy. Instead of taking pictures, why didn’t he do something, readers wanted to know.


But Carter was far from the detached observer; he was deeply affected by the story of the famine. He took cocaine and other drugs to cope and descended into a dark depression.


Then his fellow Bang-Bang Club member Ken Oosterbroek was killed in crossfire in April 1994. Carter would have been there with him but he was being interviewed about his Pulitzer triumph. He was overcome by survivor’s guilt.


When Mandela became President of South Africa, Carter felt his life had lost much of its purpose. On assignment in Mozambique for Time magazine, he lost 16 rolls of film he had shot there. Days later, he smoked the tranquilliser Mandrax, then ran a hose from his car’s exhaust pipe and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.


He left a note saying: “I’m going to join Ken if I’m that lucky.”


Marinovich was wounded in the incident that killed Oosterbroek but recovered and continued to cover wars in Iraq, Liberia and Afghanistan. But he knew the toll it was taking and feared he would lose his young wife with whom he was desperate to start a family. He quit the frontline but continued to take pictures of Africa.


As for the fourth member of the club, Joao Silva, he carried on with the same reckless disregard for his safety as they had all shown in the townships. In October, 2010, on assignment with the US 101st Airborne Division in Helmand province, Afghanistan, he stepped on a landmine and lost both legs.


It might be legend, but Marinovich says that when the smoke cleared and the medics moved in to save him, Silva begged them for a cigarette and began taking pictures.


Marinovich said: “I have been expecting the ‘Joao call’ for almost two decades. In truth, I expected to be looking at his coffin one day. We should be thankful he’s still with us, at least.”


They made a film of the Bang-Bang Club’s exploits, starring Ryan Phillippe as Marinovich. It took a critical caning.


Well, of course it did. How is a screenwriter meant to top unreal life?




When I was a young reporter serving his indentures on the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, we worked to a plan so cunning Baldrick himself would have envied it.


We wrote the story for the evening paper, holding back a bit of colour or a few non-vital details. Then we used that as the way into a “follow-up” for the group’s weekly series.


It worked like a charm until a couple of Fleet Street hacks came along and set up a rival weekly. This acted like a jolt from a cattle prod to the nether regions.


Those boys were good and every week they broke big stories, stirred up controversy and launched campaigns. All of which made our weekly offerings look second-hand and second-rate.


It geed us up, forced us to raise our game and put management into a blind panic as they watched circulation sink faster than a tropical sunset. They solved the crisis by buying the upstart paper, which is probably what the Fleet Street guys had in mind all along.


It just goes to show what a bit of competition and rivalry can do. But how times change.


My old paper is now owned by David “Rommel” Montgomery’s National World. So is the paper that was its bitter rival in my day, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. Now sister papers, they share each other’s news on their respective websites.


All this came to mind as I read a lament the other day for local news. It was written for The Times by Danny Cammiade, chairman of the News Media Association, a trade body that calls itself “the voice of national, regional and local news media organisations in the UK”.


Cammiade argues that local news media are important to democracy and for holding our institutions to account and they need and deserve Government support.


The Government could help, he says, by diverting more advertising spend to local news and “reining in the BBC’s expansion into local markets already well served by commercial providers”. Cammiade also advocates tax relief for local journalism.


It all sounds so defensive and cap in hand. Once there would have been buccaneering entrepreneurs eyeing up the possibilities, such as former Expressman Tony Boullemier, who left The World’s Greatest Newspaper in 1975 to found the Northants Post.


He and wife Marie, with their business partners, grew the Post into a group of 16 papers and magazines before selling it to Thomson Regional Newspapers.


Trouble is, it is hard to figure out what is the business model for local news media these days. The newspapers – expensive to print and distribute – are gradually giving way to digital versions. But not as quickly as you might expect.


If you go down that route, there are two choices: Cram the websites with pop-up ads that distract and irritate the reader; or introduce a subscription system with a paywall. But the hard reality is that no one wants to pay for online news any more.


For that, you can blame Facebook and Twitter/X and other social media sites, which lifted news without paying a penny for it – stole it, in other words. Their rationale was that they guided readers to the news media websites.


That’s important because the number of “hits” a site has helps to determine how much it can charge for its ads. But lawmakers here and in Europe are beginning to crack down on the story burgling and so the social media Goliaths are turning their backs on news.


Cammiade is right, local news is important and does indirectly serve democracy. But putting it before the readers should not depend on protectionism or giving handouts to David Montgomery or Reach Chief Executive Jim Mullen.


That’s not a plan, cunning or otherwise.




“Instead of storing my jokes in my word processor I accidentally put them in the food processor and I’m so upset … I was never a man to mince my words.” — Bob Monkhouse


25 June 2024