When CBC’s Vietnam war correspondent Bill Cunningham left the plush surroundings of Phnom-Penh’s Royal Hotel in April, 1970, he knew he was taking a calculated risk. With his cameraman and an American reporter, he was setting out to document the presence of North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia.
“The day was hot, dusty and sleepy. We stopped half way for a lunch of chicken and red wine before hitting the road again. I was asleep in the back of the car when my cameraman shouted, ‘Jesus Christ, who are those guys?'” They had driven headlong into an ambush of Viet Cong guides and thousands of North Vietnamese regular army troops.
“When the shooting broke out I screamed for the driver to stop and jumped out with my hands up, shouting in French that we were Canadian journalists. One of the soldiers grabbed me and threw me on the ground. Another guy had a pistol right on my temple. He was all set to blow my head off.”
At that moment, a high-ranking officer stepped forward to hear the explanation that Cunningham was frantically fabricating. “I took out my passport, told my American friend to shut up, and told the officer that we were all Canadians. I deliberately lied because if my buddy was exposed as an American they would kill him and then have to kill us.”
After a few hours, and some skilful fast-talking, Cunningham had convinced the officer that the journalists were looking for supporters of Cambodia’s deposed leader, Prince Sihanouk. Cunningham said nothing of the army’s presence, which he knew was a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty. “I told the guys to turn the car around while I kept the troops busy. I started shaking hands with the North Vietnamese, trying to make eye contact. I mean, somebody really has to be a monster to look you in the eye and just kill you.” The last 30 seconds were agonizing. The officer could still have ordered his troops to open fire as the three drove away.
It was a terrible breach of security for the army to let them go, says Cunningham. But because they were freed unharmed, the journalists waited 24 hours before filing their stories. That gave the officer time to move his troops before the Americans acted on the news and made an air strike. “It wasn’t my role to bring the heavens down around his ass. It felt right to wait.”
Cunningham was lucky. In the four-month period that followed, he says 54 of the 125-member media corps in Vietnam were killed, many of them in similar situations.
And in September, 1983, Canadians were made painfully aware just how hazardous are the lives of the men and women who bring them foreign news. Clark Todd, London bureau chief for CTV, was wounded in heavy crossfire in the Shouf Mountains while covering the war in Lebanon. He died before help could reach him.
Todd had anticipated that a heavy fight for control of the Shouf area would come after the Israelis withdrew, but he had not entered the region foolishly. “It was not a conspicuous act of bravado,” says Cunningham. “It was a legitimate assignment. Clark Todd was an exceptional correspondent.” Now a producer and on camera reporter for CTV’s W5, Cunningham stresses that TV networks don’t push their correspondents into dangerous situations. “Nobody says, ‘Go out there and get your ass shot off.’ The time you decide if you want to take that chance is before you accept the job.”
Because of the medium’s visual nature, the television correspondent must often take extra risks. “The thoughtful print correspondent can take a look at the action and go back to the command post and write about it.” An added danger is that, from a distance, TV equipment looks like weaponry. “It’s very easy for a gunner to say, ‘There’s a guy down there with a mortar,’ and let you have it.”
Cunningham has had other close calls. During the Tet offensive in Vietnam he and several other correspondents were covering a large fire fight. “At one point we came sailing around the side of a building, and the first four or five guys around the corner were stitched with machine-gun fire. I. would’ve been next if I hadn’t stopped.” He says that, in a way, that experience was more frightening than being captured by the North Vietnamese. “The stuff was exploding all around us, and you can’t surrender to artillery.”
Despite these brushes with death, Cunningham doesn’t consider himself very brave. “The noise of war is so frightening, it takes your entire willpower to keep from running.” He says the correspondent has to be extra careful because it’s too easy to be attracted by the excitement of the danger. “When you come out of it, you’re on a terrible high. The girls are better, the booze is better, and the music’s better.”
However, this lust for adventure can distort a correspondent’s coverage. “You can become a kind of adrenalin freak. The ones who have gone for the danger, for the most part, have gotten killed. You’re not paid to get killed, you’re paid to shed some enlightenment on the subject.” He equates the war correspondent with the scholar. “It just happens that what you’re studying is taking place in front of you.” The best correspondents are thought-provoking and probing. “Governments and armies lie about what is really happening, and the correspondent feels an obligation to tell the truth.”
The life-threatening situations Cunningham has found himself in over the years have helped him to appreciate life .” more. “You don’t want to waste it, you’ve got to be much more spontaneous.” He jokes that it’s very easy for a correspondent to sit in a bar and talk bravely, but things change when you get out there on your own. “You lie in bed at night wondering if this will be your last night on earth.”
Cunningham left reporting on war to become chief news editor of the CBC, a change he describes as trading “one kind of excitement for another kind of intellectual excitement.” The world of life and death he describes seems far away from those flickering satellite pictures on the nightly news. But for him it is very real. “I can still see that pistol that guy had at my temple. And it still brings the hair up on the back of my neck.”