Out of shot

Frontline: the true story of the British mavericks who changed the face of war reporting

David Loy

Freelance photographers, frequently dismissed as "paparazzi", do not enjoy high public esteem. We associate them with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and with rows outside nightclubs involving celebrities. War photographers and cameramen are, notoriously, a breed apart from their celebrity-chasing cousins. A small band of mavericks scorn even the "usual channels" that war correspondents are invited to take, and wangle their way on to the front line to capture independent footage that commands a correspondingly high price. David Loyn's Frontline tells the story of four men - the founders of the Frontline Television News Agency - who chose this path.

One of their forerunners was Lord Cecil, son of the Marquess of Salisbury. In a preface, Loyn describes how, in 1977, Cecil was shot dead, a wind-up film camera in his hands, after jumping from a helicopter in Rhodesia. Those of us who reported the nasty little war that eventually drove Ian Smith to surrender - but reported it more securely, with notebooks rather than film cameras - became acquainted with his kind.

Most Frontline cameramen had done a spell of military service, and some were "public school men". They were not fearless or foolhardy. Indeed, they were better at assessing risks than most foreign correspondents, but to get good film they were prepared to take big chances. This book recounts some of the adventures that befell them in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Sarajevo, Somalia and other, equally bloodstained places.

They had to be ready to live very uncomfortably as well as dangerously. They had to be willing, occasionally, to cheat a little. Vaughan Smith, one of the driving forces behind Frontline Television, had to cheat quite a lot in Bahrain to win his way towards Iraq. He had been an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and it was their uniform he was wearing when he encountered a Guards sergeant major. "What the hell are you doing here, sir?" asked the astonished sergeant major. "I don't know anything about this, sir." The "sirs" were plentiful, but the questions were penetrating. Then the phone rang. While the sergeant major was distracted, Vaughan walked out to the Land-Rover waiting outside and put his pack in the back. The sergeant major came out. "Sir, I don't want you to get on that vehicle quite yet. I want to sort this out first. Sir!" Then the phone rang again. "While the sergeant major was inside [Loyn continues] Vaughan jumped into the passenger seat, put on his best arrogant Guards officer voice, slapped his palm on the dashboard as if on the neck of a horse and ordered the driver to set off. The driver had not heard the sergeant major asking him to wait, so off he went."

Naughty, but you had to dodge a bit to get film for Frontline Television. Much can be forgiven this breed of men. Loyn thinks that they were born at the wrong time - not long before television became a respectable, organised part of the establishment, and so could succeed without such mavericks. Frontline's cameramen were, perhaps, the last of the pioneers.

Having visited most of the places they filmed in - Kabul, Mozambique, Somalia, Sarajevo, Kosovo - I can testify that they were not, as they sometimes made themselves appear, vagabonds, but men of vast nerve and a spirit of adventure and daring. Filming conflicts, as Martin Bell knows, is a high-grade risk. A reporter can, if he chooses, observe and listen away from the front lines and write the results down in his notebook. He can choose which risks he is prepared to take. However, to secure good footage, a cameraman must get as close to the scene of action as he can, then hold the position while the camera rolls. This is twice as dangerous if you are aiming to work, as the Frontline team did, outside official channels. All army commanders look askance, rightly, at the man with a notebook or camera who threatens to increase the risk to their soldiers.

But this approach made a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to war coverage. Vaughan Smith thinks that television is now in danger of losing a diversity of ideas and images on the screen. As he told Loyn: "Organisations with big staff commitments often cannot afford to take a different view from the establishment. Frontline might, for example, be able to expose something in China where a larger organisation could not risk its Beijing bureau." And not only in China.

You can argue that the end of Frontline Television signalled the birth of a more orderly state of affairs. No more pulling wool over the eyes of sergeant majors in the Guards. Fairer shares for correspondents. Cheaper television footage. Or you may feel, as I do, that its virtues outstripped its defects. Men of this sort are still with us, and the enterprise and physical endurance Frontline demanded of its journalists survives. Temporarily, however, the mass market is the name of the game. Frontline's day is done.

An updated version of W F Deedes's memoir, Dear Bill, is newly published by Macmillan

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?