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
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.