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Book Reviews

Frontline: The True Story Of British Mavericks Who Changed The Face Of War Reporting

by David Loyn

London: Penguin, 2006
458 pages, $36.00
ISBN 0718147278

Reviewed by Dave Devenney

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“Like soldiers we are going into harm’s way, but unlike soldiers we do not have a rigid command structure, we are not trained to be obedient, in fact quite the opposite. In the field journalists put a high value on general bloody- mindedness, quoting approvingly the definition coined by the late Nicholas Tomalin about the key qualities needed to be a reporter: ‘rat like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.’ reporters like to think that they are not easy to order around.” (Frontline, page 319)

Book CoverPhillip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way: Reflections of a War Zone Thug, and Miles Hudson and John Stainer’s War and the Media, are just some of the leading titles detailing reporters’ lives on the world’s frontlines, their relationships with war, and their interaction with various armed forces. I submit that Frontline: The True Story of British Mavericks who Changed the Face of War Reporting by David Loyn should also find its place on the shelf with these works. Frontline Television News consisted of freelance reporters serving on the frontlines of the world’s conflicts, Loyn traces the work of those journalists, who risked their lives to record history, and, as a result, have provided a historical commentary on the nature of the freelance business.

From its inception, Frontline Television News aimed to provide the news industry with stories untainted by the media industry’s biases, as well as stories that this traditionally risk-averse industry would not pursue. The result was imagery and stories that we can readily identify, and which have proven to be historically significant and rare. Take, for example, the blurred image of Mullah Omar in the cloak of Mohammed, which was seen throughout the Western world and which was shot clandestinely by Frontline reporter and founder, Peter Jouvenal.

Frontline tackles two insightful issues for military members. Firstly, it provides some insight into the media industry and to journalistic characters military members will typically meet on the frontlines. Ironically, many of the journalists working with Frontline had previous military experience, and they used this knowledge to the best of their ability to gain access to events in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Iraq. Vaughan Smith, a former British Guardsman, not only adopted the persona of a British officer, but he used it to acquire military kit, transportation, and access to the Allied frontlines. Void of embedding restrictions, he was able to capture rare imagery of the first salvos of the first Gulf War.

Secondly, Frontline provides information pertaining to the nature of the media industry, the decline of the freelance journalist, the dwindling price paid for imagery, and the rise of immediate reporting via satellite. David Loyn notes that the American embedding policy promulgated in 2003 was one of the most significant events to occur in the history of war reporting. The policy allowed for reportage while ‘on the move,’ and it ensured that all media organizations had access to the war, including those independent, cavalier freelancers who typically operated on shoestring budgets, independent of the military and large media organizations. Such policies were to lower the price paid for the freelancers’ imagery, and it ultimately helped to bring about the collapse of Frontline News.

I remember working with Jane Regan of Associated Press Television in Haiti, who was later nominated for the Rory Peck Award – a charity established in the former Frontline reporter’s honour to support journalists and families around the world. Rory was a founder of Frontline, and was one of 146 people killed in the coup and counter-coup during the last days of the USSR. The trust supports those who give their lives to the story, and, being freelance, have no access to financial support. Jane Regan was the first to capture imagery of the fall of Cap Haïtien and the rioting in Port au Prince before the departure of Aristide in February 2004. She is one of those journalists committed to capturing the imagery of Haiti, working full time in a region largely ignored by the mainstream media conglomerates.

Frontline: The True Story of British Mavericks who Changed the Face of War Reporting, is dedicated to those journalists who risked their lives on the world’s frontlines – but, in a military context, it provides one with an indication of what one can expect in the modern battle space. Military members can gain a better appreciation of how journalists, particularly freelancers, work, interact, live, and think. Frontline provides clear evidence that reporters are part of the battle space, and it provides current and future commanders with a war reporter’s perspective of war zones. With the current Canadian Afghanistan mission having as many as two dozen embedded reporters based out of Khandahar, one can identify instantly how the media industry has changed, and how these changes now affect Canadian Forces media operations.

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Captain D.A. Devenney is a public affairs officer currently serving at Canadian Forces Base Shearwater in Halifax.