Zawiyah and the story that doesn't exist

One shot that did make it out of the Libyan town of Zawiyah. Photo: ITV News

Originally published on 11th March 2011.

Journalism is a funny old game. Triumph and disaster are never far apart. You are, to some extent, only as good as your last story.

Like a great football match, you can have an exhilarating and successful day, only to see it all fall to pieces, especially in television where so much depends on the perfect chain of professionalism - from the cameraman, through the reporter, to the editor and onwards through the satellite or internet feed to the programme and its gallery of directors and editors, ending with the presenter and the words that frame your story. It is only as strong as its weakest link. All along the line is equipment; temperamental, digital, difficult to wholly rely on.

If you have equipment, that is. And that is the point of this story.

After four days of trying, I finally got into the destroyed centre of the Libyan town of Zawiyah.

Hearts pounding, my cameraman and I were immediately stopped by an army officer who grabbed my camera. I gestured to the cameraman, Eric Fux, to disappear and he did, down a side street. One camera gone,one to go. We'd had two small ones confiscated by a militia the day before. Then, surprisingly, after a little negotiation, the officer gave me the camera back and his boss gave us thirty minutes to film the damage in the square and the troops now occupying it. We were back on track. We filmed some amazing scenes of destruction, of charred tanks being loaded onto transporters, of bulldozers pushing away dozens of shot up and burnt militia vehicles.

We then left the square feeling elated. We had been the only journalists to get in. We went to the nearby hospital where I thought we might get some idea of casualties. At the gate we were detained by a different army officer. And that's where the disaster begins. To cut a long story short, he took all our equipment; three cameras, microphones, batteries, satellite phones, binoculars and, most importantly of all, the tape that contained the evidence of what had happened. My cameraman had hidden it at the bottom of his bag, thinking it would be secure there from prying eyes. But, no, this search was very thorough indeed. Many cameramen - and women - stuff tapes down their underwear to ensure they aren't taken. We had no reason to think - after getting so much co-operation - that that would be necessary.

So back we drove, an armed soldier in the car, escorting vehicles front and back, to our hotel in Tripoli. We were devastated. We thought we had an exclusive - a world exclusive at that.

All the other journalists were still waiting in the hotel either for an official trip to Zawiyah or for a rally by one of Gaddafi's sons. On any other occasion we would have scooped them all. But we had no proof we had even been to Zawiyah. And not a single shot of the damage. Then my cameraman said he had a few shots of the drive into the town on a phone camera. There was another shot - almost like a tourist video - of the square itself. Another, of men cleaning the square. Another of people chanting. A final one that even showed me in the square.

Out of these fragments, we created a story for the evening news. It all reminded me of the World War II photographer Robert Capa, who accompanied American troops landing on the beaches on D-Day. He shot several rolls of film. He said they were wonderful shots - he could still see them in his head. He'd risked his life to make them. The rolls went back to his photo lab, where an over enthusiastic lab assistant left them in the chemicals for too long. They were almost all lost. All but a few images of men struggling to get out of the water and onto French beaches under fire. They remain some of the most famous images of war and they helped make Capa's name.

I have to pretend that our shots don't exist. I am trying hard to convince myself of that. But I can see them in my mind. They will always exist.

However, like Capa, I have to be content with the fragments that we shored against our ruin.

I am.