Frontline by David Loyn

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Frontline by David Loyn

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Conor Murphy
Reviewed by Conor Murphy
Summary: Wonderful stuff, written with great affection and conviction. You couldn't make these stories up. Frontline is a gripping, flowing read, full of Boy's Own adventure stories. It's also a powerful defence of independent journalism. You can't help feeling that TV news is the poorer for Frontline's demise.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: August 2006
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 0141017848

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I absolutely loved it. There. Review over. Buy the book.

David Loyd's Frontline tells the story of a group of freelance war cameramen and correspondents who operated throughout the 80s and 90s, in some of the most bloodstained places on earth - Somalia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq. Frontline was responsible for many of the most striking news images of recent times. Do you remember the BBC's John Simpson going into Afghanistan disguised in a burqa? Or striding into Kabul after the Taliban fell? They were Frontline images. The pictures of rockets heading through the sky to Iraq during the first Gulf War? Frontline's pictures. Those images were not without cost; of the four founding members, Peter Jouvenal, Vaughan Smith, Rory Peck and Nick della Cassa, only Peter and Vaughan live to tell the tale. Rory was killed in crossfire in Russia and Nick was murdered in Kurdistan.

You couldn't make it up. The Frontline cameramen are impossibly romantic characters. They are larger than life in so very many ways. They don disguises, impersonate British Army officers, travel with the mujahadeen, dodge bullets, rockets, bombs, risk their lives. I was left with the image of a pile of eccentric, ex-army posh boys running around like Flashman (a character universally loved by them all) in all the right places at all the right times to make it into the pages of history. At the same time I was given a deep conviction that they were all passionately committed to providing independent, thoughtful and honest journalism. These are the kind of people who make you feel as though you need to be doing something more, something bigger, than anything you're currently doing with your life.

You warm quickly to the Frontline men. You are fascinated by the cast of players in the world's great affairs. You become gloomy at the thought of how rarely the great and the good are either great or good. You're amazed at the courage exhibited by the little people. You learn an awful lot about the complexities and shifting alliances of any conflict. You come to understand how the bottom line affects journalism and how this in turn affects your own perception of the world around you.

Loyn hits just the right note. He knows these men very well and the intimacy makes for a very personal read. Frontline has an easy, yet pacy style and sticks with the narrative. There are plenty of political points, but they don't get in the way of the story and this seems fitting, given that the Frontline agency always allowed the footage to do its talking. I found Loyn's book utterly gripping and read all 400 and odd pages in just a couple of sittings, unable to put it down.

Criticisms? It's a bit of a hagiography. Loyn dismisses any criticism of the Frontline guys as no more than mere professional bitchery by lesser - jealous - men. And there's more than kernel of truth in that. However, there is a meaningful debate to be had on whether or not a story can ever be worth a life, even a life willingly risked, and Loyn doesn't seem too open to that. Still, he's writing about his friends, friends who have, by and large, remained without deserved recognition for the public service they've performed, so who can blame him? And of course, the attitude that one of "our" lives is worth so much more than one of "theirs" that the stories of the suffering of thousands aren't worth telling, begs some very difficult questions.

In the end, you can't help but regret the demise of Frontline, and other agencies like it. You can't help but feel less well-informed as you watch the increasingly crass output from Helen Boaden and her cohorts at the BBC. Who wants to see a reporter standing on a hotel balcony in Amman sending in a report "from Baghdad"? And if not that, it's the other extreme and we're left only the "war porn" images on the internet, with no journalism behind them, that leave us feeling like the nastiest of voyeurs. Neither is the news that I want to see.

Frontline will appeal to anybody who likes a good adventure story, to anybody with an interest in journalism, independent or otherwise, and anyone with an interest in current affairs. It's easy to read. It's gripping. It also made me cry.

You can keep up with Frontline's new endeavours in the sphere of online news reporting at I hope it succeeds.

If you like the sound of Frontline, you may also like The Sewing Circles Of Herat by Christina Lamb, a lyrical book about Afghanistan.

(This book was kindly forwarded to Bookbag for review by Penguin Books.)

Booklists.jpg Frontline by David Loyn is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think.

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Magda said:

I almost went and bought it straight away, Jill. You have such effect on me.

I think our society today needs people whose claim to heroism is more that just surviving one or another form af emotional calamity and who are brave in a more, ahem, traditional style rather than for example 'brave' enough to publicly disclose sordid details of their terrible addiction to bingo and toasted marshmallows.

Or perhaps, as people like that have always existed and will exist, we need books that celebrate them.

If a story is ever worth giving a life is arguable - but the point is that those who willingly risk theirs should be celebrated. Too much store is being put on safety and minimising risks at all costs nowadays, to the diminishment of human spirit.

I am getting too serious. Night night.

Duncan Howarth said:

A most interesting review, Jill, and it sounds like a book worth reading. I don't know if you've also read Jeremy Bowen's recently published "War Stories", which covers much the same ground though from the viewpoint of a BBC correspondent; it's not only the freelances who take risks in combat zones.

Sue said:

Simon and Schuster actually sent us a review copy, Duncan and you'll find our review here.