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A personal commentary on a very special service
I spent nearly 20 years in journalism, six of them as editor of a Midlands newspaper with an office in Fleet Street. During all those years I was never once confronted with life-threatening danger in a war zone. The nearest was when I accompanied the then Staffordshire Regiment on manoeuvres in a 'battlefield' one foggy, dismal morning in the middle of Cannock Chase. I felt nauseated, exhausted and terrified as the shells and rockets were fired all around me. That battle lasted the whole morning. It seemed like an eternity, and yet, to this day, it feels as though it happened only yesterday. It was, in fact, over 40 years ago.
On November 9, as I sat quietly among a large congregation on the south side of the high altar in St Bride's, the Fleet Street 'cathedral' of journalists, my mind slipped back to the Cannock Chase incident. I began to feel enormously humble almost to the point of being stricken with grief. And why? Because I was taking part in a special service to commemorate journalists, cameramen and support staff who have lost their lives in some of the bloodiest war zones while bringing us the news.
The service had the type of headline one could visualise in 72pt Century bold across the front page of a newspaper: The Price of Freedom. The names of more than 40 foreign journalists who died around the world during the past 12 months in the desperate pursuit of truth and for the cause of freedom were solemnly read out. Most of the congregation, representing today's Fleet Street, agencies, and from the world of radio and television, had probably never heard of any of them. But their deep expressions of sorrow summed up their feelings.
Some were killed in crossfire, or by a sniper's bullet from a rooftop or on a desolate piece of ground. Others, having filed their reports, were chased down dark alleyways and murdered, not by just one bullet, but often by repeater machine gun fire. And why? For the simple reason that their assassins were furious over clips they had seen on television, or read in their newspapers. And as ITN anchor-man Mark Austin pointed out in his thought-provoking address, none of the victims had any protection.
Listening at the back of the church was the BBC's Frank Gardner. He can tell you a few things about war zones. Seven years ago, he was shot six times at point blank range by fearless militants in Saudi Arabia. One of the shots severed his spinal nerves and he now has to rely on a wheelchair to get about. In that incident, his cameraman colleague Simon Cumbers lost his life. He was in his middle 30's.
The entire ambience of the occasion was highlighted by the Rector, The Venerable David Meara, Archdeacon of London, when he said in his bidding: As we honour our foreign correspondents, cameramen and support staff and commemorate those who have died, we pray for God's blessing upon them and the loved ones they have left behind, trusting that one day, freedom will reign and truth will prevail.
Down the years, St Bride's has witnessed many great events, commemorated by special services, ranging from joyous occasions to sad ones. Somehow, this service, which I shall long remember, is up there among the great ones. The price of freedom indeed...