The flak jackets aren't just for show

War correspondents put their lives on the line to entertain us and bring us details that no one else

There is an iconic image from every war. Sometimes it's a photograph, or a piece of film; sometimes it's a piece of iconic journalism, as happened this week, with Sky News's Alex Crawford's stellar journey along with the rebels into the heart of Tripoli.

The reporting, and the sight of other journalists trapped in the Rixos Hotel (but subsequently released), comes as a reminder of the lengths to which battle-hardened hacks will go to provide us with the inside story, and why war correspondents remain among the purest and most trusted sources in a profession that has its fair share of detractors.

If you harbour any doubts as to the risks taken by reporters to bring you these iconic images of war to your settee, you might want to check out the War Correspondent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North (open until January 2012). There, you'll see tales of courage under fire and desperate struggles to get the reality of conflict over to viewers and readers back home, and other evidence of the sacrifices made to get to the story - a bullet lodged in a mobile phone that saved one reporter's life; a news producer's false leg, made necessary by injuries sustained while trying to capture the action, and so on. And there are the other stories, too: those of reporters who didn't make it back home.

For those wondering why correspondents on TV are constantly decked out in helmets and bulletproof jackets, there's a more prosaic reason than safety. It might be tempting for us at home, we who live without fear of bullets whizzing through our windows or rockets exploding nearby, to imagine that these war correspondents are nothing but a bunch of showoffs, strapped into layers of protective gear, but the dress does more than protect: it shows as clearly as possible that someone is not a combatant, which can be the difference between life and death, as the death toll from 'friendly' and 'enemy' fire alike shows.

But one exhibit in War Correspondent - Michael Nicholson's battered helmet, which he wore while covering the Vietnam conflict - provides the answer. The helmet couldn't possibly stop a bullet, he explains, but if he did get killed, at least the word PRESS written in felt-tip pen on the side might get his body brought back home for burial.

Correspondents including Kate Adie, Jeremy Bowen and Brian Hanrahan describe the realities of trying to get to the front line, and there are exhibits that show how they did it - from a bullet-riddled Land Rover that was shot at in Gaza to Martin Bell's white suit and the burkha in which John Simpson managed to cross into Iraq, War Correspondent shows how ingenuity can be as important as bravery when it comes to finding the story.

A war correspondent aims to be neither 'friendly' nor 'enemy' but detached from the combatants altogether - not an easy thing to do in the days of embedded reporters, with some journalists even accepting campaign medals nowadays. There's a section from John Pilger's documentary, The War You Don't See, in which Rageh Omaar discusses his role in reporting the orchestrated toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the iconic images and how he may have been manipulated.

But there is still an uneasy relationship between combatant and press - and reporters can find themselves in the crosshairs. It's easy to mock journalists for going kitted out in flak jackets when they're on screen, but we're not there, and we aren't seeing the bloodshed that they are, or feeling the fear. They're the real journalism heroes, putting their lives on the line to entertain us during the six o'clock news and bring us the details that no one else can. The only thing I think we can hope is that, to paraphrase Brian Hanrahan, we count them all out and we count them all back. We need them.

War Correspondent is at the Imperial War Museum North, The Quays, Trafford Wharf Road, Manchester, until January 2, 2012.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide