Sunday, January 10, 2010

Front line press tragedy in Afghanistan

Rupert Hamer
Philip Coburn

Today Sunday Mirror defence Correspondent, Rupert Hamer, was killed in Afghanistan. His photographer, Philip Coburn, was seriously injured. They were in a US Army vehicle that hit an improvised bomb near Nawa, in Helmand Province.

They were on assignment embedded with the US Marine Corps. A US marine and an Afghan soldier were also killed in the blast.

This tragedy has brought heartfelt words of sympathy from the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. Fulsome praise for their previous work with the armed forces also comes from a former commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, as well as from many friends and colleagues including his Editor, Tina Weaver.

I never worked with Rupert or Philip but I know they were a brave and professional team in any conflict. I have worked with many war photographers and their correspondents, stretching from the end of Vietnam, the Biafran Wars of the 60’s, the Israeli Five Day War, the Falklands conflict and the invasion of Bosnia. I last assigned photographers to the invasion of Kuwait and the overthrow of Saddam in Iraq. My man stood on the roof of a hotel in Baghdad to record ‘Shock and Awe’ for the readers of the Daily Mirror.

All these brave men and women have one thing in common. Utter dedication to bringing the front line plight of our soldiers, sailors and airmen to our breakfast table newspapers. They wine, dine, cajole and court the top brass, doing whatever it takes to get to the private at the front. Often the MOD or the brass don’t want them there but they persevere. Their assignment is to photograph the sons and daughters of their reading public who put their lives on the line for our country.

Many journalists and cameramen have died doing so in the past. A total of 18 have died in Afghanistan since 9/11. Most recently, Michelle Lang, aged 34, from Canada’s Calgary Herald in a similar attack last month.

Now that tragedy has happened again. These newspaper warriors volunteer for these assignments. They are not fearless individuals, careless with their lives. They are mostly family men and women, like the troops they follow, but photographing the soldiers at the front means being with them and taking their risks, too. Oft times they come home to headlines and awards but, every so often, they pay the ultimate price for their dedication.

Rupert paid that price today. Philip nearly did. I add my condolences to Rupert’s wife, Helen, and her three young children as well as to the families of the US Marine and the Afghan soldier and my hopes that Philip makes a full recovery.

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