Review By Tom Allan
I’ve just finished reading “Frontline: The True Story of the British Mavericks who changed the Face of War Reporting” by BBC reporter David Loyn. It’s quite a story.
The founding members of this unique TV agency had no journalistic training, no broadcasting experience, and no money – but they had courage, an insiders knowledge of warfare, and a commitment to original reporting.
Reading the book, your struck by the almost miraculous way in which these camera men seem to avoid death and injury, whilst following the mujahedin in Afghanistan, or sneaking into the British army in the first gulf war. But in some chapters, sudden and shocking death occurs, almost without warning. Nicholas della Casa, one of the four founding members, died trying to cross into the Kurdish part of northern Iraq in 1991 – as did his wife, Rosanna, and his brother-in-law, Charlie Maxwell. Betrayed by their guide, who led them around in circles, they died in the snow covered mountains.
So what set them apart? Was it their willingness to risk their lives? They have been accused by some other journalists and news organisations of being gung-ho, not taking the risks properly into account. Certainly they would not fit easily into health-and-safety obsessed modern Britain.
I think they had something far more valuable than raw courage or bravura. They did not rush headlong into situations or conflicts (well, not usually.) These were men who had military training and experience, and often years of experience in the regions they began reporting. Peter Jouvenal in particular knows Pakistan and Afghanistan intimately. By the time of the Afghanistan war, some of the young warriors he had known from his earlier days in the mountains were warlords.
They did not parachute in and out of countries. They were loners, apart from the press pack. They knew what they wanted, and they didn’t need to see which way other journalists would swing in order to find it. Because they understood war – had grown out of it, perhaps – they could locate it’s most deadly and destructive edges in relative safety. During the Balkans conflict, for example, they often filmed in the open whilst many other news crews, such as the BBC, would film from within armoured cars (and understandably so.)
As a freelancer, the story of frontline helped me define some of the qualities that I most value about working outside established institutions. The time to tell stories without a ticking clock. The freedom to go where the stories are. The emphasis on your own judgement and resources. Being open to making connections with the people you meet, without having to feel like you are mixing “business with pleasure.” These things are important in their own right.
But they were also justified by the stories and the footage they produced. If everyone did journalism according to the same rules and regulations, with the same training and background, then we will just end up with a diet of smooth, consistent but ultimately one dimensional news coverage.
After a brief golden age, the agency’s fortunes declined; not because of deaths in their ranks (of which there were many,) but because news networks were no lonker willing to pay top dollar for unique footage. The contraction of money for news reporting, which has so decimated British Newspapers (see “Flat Earth News”) also hit the independent sector. Frontline had relied on brief spells of highly lucrative work to keep going.
More recently, the organisation has been reborn in the form of The Frontline Club in London, which champions independent journalism. From that base, a whole new generation of news mavericks are emerging.