Critique & critic
BBC Breakfast Presenter Sian Williams hosted the first conference ‘What it is like to work in a hostile environment in 2013?’. Among the six insightful panellists were award winning war correspondents Caroline Wyatt and Jeremy Bowen. Researcher Richard Tait or Galvin Rees, from the DART Centre, presented the academic perspective.
Risks are inherent to the position of war correspondent. Embedded journalists are exposed to the same danger as soldiers, whereas independent journalists stand as privileged targets for kidnapping. Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle-East correspondent and editor, says the situation has deteriorated compared to 20 years ago. “Being a foreign correspondent is more dangerous now than before, but at least now, we have training. Before we had no idea. My first experience was with an experienced cameraman, he said to me, “in case of ambush do not run and wave a flight flag”.
Richard Tait, a researcher at Cardiff University, would put the blame on the expansion of the Internet, “Digital journalism is dangerous, people expect reporters to tweet or upload videos from the frontline”. With Twitter (244 million users) and YouTube (6 billion users), social networking is a mainstream medium journalists cannot ignore. While the smallest error on the ground can be fatal, reporters still have to meet the requirements of their editors and audience.
“Listen, this advice could be gold one day”
Keith Styles illuminated the workshop, “Battlefield first aid”. Styles recalled his experience in Syria and Iraq as a member of a private organization for safety and healthcare of reporters. Among the anecdotes, he illustrated different ways to apply a tourniquet and stop a haemorrhage. Tony, an ex British Forces soldier who lost his leg on a landmine in Iraq, played the injured but compliant victim.
Tony has recently moved into an acting career and, as he added, is “currently rehearsing for Brad Pitt’s next movie”. His cheerful mood contrasted with the gravity of the advice being given. Countless journalists are injured or killed in the course of their work. Considered as the most honourable position a journalist can hold, war reporters’ courage is regularly awarded, sometimes posthumously.
“What do you do if someone puts a gun on your neck and threatens your life if you don’t evacuate his injured companion? ”. Styles’ advice is simple: agreeing is the only possible response, and then pray not to be arrested at the next checkpoint. Helping one side or another is not the journalist’s duty, but impartiality is sometimes easier in theory than in practice.
Karen, 17 years in the British Forces and now BBC Deputy Head
Karen (who did not disclose her surname for reasons of personal safety) noted “Today, there are more than 30 journalists kept in hostage in Syria”, as she set the scene for “Preparing for a High Risk Assignment”. She spent 17 years as an officer in the British Forces and now as BBC Deputy of the High Risk team, she went, as she recalls herself “from training to kill people, to interview them”.
Karen broke a stereotype. Rates of murdered journalists are higher in political investigations than war – 62% against 42%. Equipment and safety measures could explain this ratio. As Karen recalled, journalists now have access to technologies to help them to reduce risks when on the ground. Bullet proof jackets, satellite phones and GPS can make the difference between life and death. What remains to define is if whether the environment is hostile or not.
Amongst gadgets and techniques useful on the ground, gathering information will always remain the smart option. “Get info from the foreign office, ask your network, meet people, they will tell you where threats are”. Paperwork and life insurance are also considered as highest priorities, as they can improve the reporter and his family’s life during and after a dangerous assignment.
Post traumatic disorders (PTSD), understand and react with Professor Neil Greenberg
Professor Neil Greenberg, a psychiatrist and researcher at King’s College London, emphasized the prevalence of PTSD cases among journalists. Like soldiers, reporters are exposed to traumatic events. The “most common PTSD is alcoholism, as 80% of subjects are addicted”, but irritation, alteration of reality, impairment of functions are also on the list.
Thankfully, cures do exist. Talking, sharing the traumatic experience with close friends can help to release the pressure. Staying active above all, doing sports or meeting people are highly recommended. As Greenberg summarized it, Common Sense Management of Traumatic Events program can be summarised in four letters: P (Proximity), I (Immediacy), E (Expectancy) and S (Simplicity). A Trauma and Risk Management training (TRiM) can help too.
As Greenberg recalls, legally the “Employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustment with PTSD”. Nowadays media organizations see it as a duty to invest more and more in social and shock care programmes.
Safety, who is responsible?
The last conference of the day was dedicated to “Responsibility for safety: Commissioners v Freelancers”, with six panellists including Sarah Whitehead, Caroline Wyatt and Garvin Rees.
“One of our priorities is to avoid the creation of a black market”, Sarah Whitehead answered when asked if she, as the Head of Sky newsroom, would buy material from inexperienced freelancers. “We treat each case on its own, but we always have a responsibility”, media organizations are accountable for the material they publish, but also towards their acquisition. On ethical grounds, producers do not to encourage volunteers to put themselves in danger. This notion is violently challenged when the audience appetite for news is high, like it is for the Syrian Conflict.
Every news organization follows an editorial line and is restricted by its own policies. In order to decide whether the material should be published or not, a calculation is made between the quality of the information and the danger experienced to get it. “There is a difference between media and their type of involvement in the news”, pointed out BBC Defence Correspondent Caroline Wyatt. The newsroom of Al Jazeera will not target the same substantive material as the BBC would. The news content and method of acquisition differs from one media to another.