There’s something unusual about those who choose to work in foreign news. Often they go in to places of war and suffering just as everyone else is getting out. Friendships are forged, rivalries put aside in a group, for whom the best of times are often the worst of times.
Simon Cumbers was a member of that band of brothers (and sisters). A Navan native, Simon’s career took him from Dublin’s Capital Radio (now FM104) to the UK and ITN, Channel 4 and the BBC. He travelled from the Amazonian rain forests to the African deserts and the Arctic Circle, reporting, producing and filming.
One Sunday afternoon, in June 2004, at the age of just 36, Simon was murdered by terrorist gunmen while filming a report for BBC News in Saudi Arabia. The attackers opened fire on Simon and his colleague, Frank Gardner, in a suburb of Riyadh. Simon died at the scene and Frank was seriously injured.
That evening, back when I was the BBC's UK News Editor, I travelled to Simon’s home in West London to break the news to his wife, Louise. She wasn’t home when I arrived, and for 15 excruciating minutes, I sat in the car outside, waiting for her to return. Five minutes after she did so, I knocked on the door and delivered a message no-one should have to hear. The next morning we boarded a flight to Riyadh to identify Simon’s body, and bring him back to the UK.
"One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for journalists to bear witness to what’s happening in faraway places"
Simon and Frank had gone to Saudi Arabia to report on the aftermath of a terrorist attack at Al-Khobar, the hub of the Saudi oil industry. Twenty-two foreigners were taken hostage and killed by a faction of Al-Qaeda.
In the aftermath of Simon’s death, in consultation with Louise and his parents, Bob and Bronagh, Irish Aid established the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to honour his memory. The aim of the fund is to assist and promote more and better-quality media coverage of development issues in the Irish media.
In the past year, it has helped RTÉ News showcase the plight of those on trapped on the border between Mexico and the United States, reporting on the impact of Donald Trump’s presidency and his promise to build a wall between the two countries, while Jackie Fox travelled to Dominica to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as the island struggled to rebuild.
Now the fund has helped Jackie report from Saudi Arabia – the very place where Simon was murdered almost 15 years ago. Much has changed in the decade and half since. One thing that hasn’t is the need for journalists to bear witness to what’s happening in faraway places. There could be no finer tribute to a man Orla Guerin described as "courage personified", than to help others continue what he could not.