Behind the lens

Robin Walsh was News Editor for BBCNI in the Seventies. He became Editor of the Network Nine O'Clock News and later Controller NI. He pays tribute to a group of people whose work is sometimes overlooked - the cameramen.

The Bogside, Derry, January 30, 1972. Bloody Sunday - members of the Parachute Regiment shoot dead 13 civilians. Cameraman: Cyril Cave; sound recordist: Jim Deeney. Lasting image: priest waving a white handkerchief as a wounded civilian is carried away.

Oxford Street Bus Station, Belfast, July 21, 1972. Bloody Friday - six people are killed as part of a Provincial IRA bombing blitz of Belfast which costs nine lives. Cameraman: Patsy Hill. Lasting image: body parts being put in plastic bags.

Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, March 19, 1988. Loyalist terrorist Michael Stone attacks mourners and murders three people. Cameraman: Peter Cooper; sound recordist: Karl Walker. Lasting image: a man firing shots and throwing grenades as people cower behind gravestones.

This is the stuff of television news, the medium whose lifeblood is the moving picture - brought to the screen, not by the instantly recognisable reporter, but by the anonymous cameraman.

In all three instances - as in countless others down the past four decades - there was much that was simply taken for granted.

There was courage. Cave could not have stayed hidden behind a protective wall as the Army bullets whistled by and manage to capture that image of Father Edward Daly any more than Cooper could have kept his camera behind the headstone as Stone approached with his lethal weapons. And although his life was not in danger, it took no little fortitude on Hill's part to capture the images that showed the real consequences of terrorism.

There was, as time went by, the virtual acceptance on the part of the camera crews that the abnormal was normal. No war-zone training. Limited protective clothing. No stress counselling on return to base - job done, where to next?

There was the equipment - particularly in the case of Cave and Hill: heavier and more visible with its umbilical cord that inextricably linked cameraman and sound recordist - a far cry from to-day's lightweight gear that allows mobility and independence.

And again with Cave and Hill, there was the rush to beat the on-air deadline, often as hair-raising as the taking of the pictures. The pre-video days of film demanded a return to the office and the time-consuming wait for the pictures to emerge from the processing machine. Cave's record for the 70-mile drive from the Bogside to Ormeau Avenue in Belfast in the days of limited motorway was under the hour.

The life of the pre-Troubles news camera crews was to be found elsewhere in regional broadcasting - the varied round of assignments that painted a picture of their communities on the nightly news magazines. From the early days of the Fifties to the late Sixties it was, by and large, the normal fare of provincial news.

From August 1969 all was to change and the local crews found themselves covering an international news story shoulder to shoulder with the battle-hardened outfits from the networks, fresh from the trouble spots of the world.

There were new tricks to be learned, and quickly.

Most were about survival. Rioters saw the camera as another enemy - when to produce it and where to shoot from were to become fine judgements.

The choice of crew car distinguished the street wise from the naïve: the former drove a two-door car, knowing it was of little use to hi-jackers on the prowl for transport for their next bombing expedition.

Then the editorial conundrum of what to shoot and what not to shoot.

Essentially they shot all they could, rightly leaving the delicate judgement of what to transmit in the hands of programme editors back at base. Yet, very quickly they were to display a sensitivity in spite of the pressure: "pulling out" from the covered body or pool of blood rather than dramatically "zooming in" and the same camera editing when dealing with the distraught burying their dead. It was a subtle message.

Unlike the "visiting firemen" from London and beyond, the locals found themselves in an unrelenting grind, covering a community that was their own, tearing itself apart.

Cameraman Dick Macmillan and sound recordist Brian Willis were on the way to an assignment in Derry on July 31, 1972 when they heard an explosion and saw the rising smoke as they neared the village of Claudy.

The scene they encountered was indescribable as nine people lay dead as a result of the IRA's no-warning bombs.

A politician of the time - still on the go today - accused the BBC of having advance notice of the bombing, such was the immediacy of the pictures. Little did he know that Macmillan had stumbled across the body of a young relative who had perished in the atrocity. When informed, the politician still refused to withdraw his gross slur.

Those of us now long retired continue to marvel at the work of today's camera crews.

Some of the problems and pressures of old may have gone but in their stead have come new ones.

The digital and satellite age, combined with 24 hour rolling news, has heralded the era of the never-ending deadline. The appetite for pictures has never been more voracious nor the competition fiercer.

The capacity to transmit live pictures from just about anywhere has put additional editorial burdens on the shoulders of picture takers. The death toll in the trouble spots of the world indicate that they are literally in the firing line to an extent rarely before experienced.

The pressure on programme editors has never been greater in a relentless news - gathering process that includes everyone with a home video or mobile phone.

But within the Northern Ireland context it was the crews of old for whom I shall have everlasting admiration.

They learned as they went along because the awfulness of The Troubles was new. The legacy of those who have now retired - or who, like Patsy Hill, have sadly passed away - is to be found in the excellence of the new breed.

Robin Walsh, News Editor

Robin Walsh, News Editor ©BBC

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Cameraman Cyril Cave and sound recordist Jim Deeney

Cameraman Cyril Cave and sound recordist Jim Deeney, the Bogside, Derry, 1972 ©BBC

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Patsy Hill, cameraman

Patsy Hill, cameraman ©BBC

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