Journalists in Conflict Areas Today & Tomorrow

Yesterday, I was in a very serious FB discussion with a group of well respected journalists and others from all around the world. The subject was “does the Geneva Convention apply to the dreadful situation of kidnapped British journalist John Cantile?”

At present, John is being held by ISIL and has been shown broadcasting a story on their behalf, shot from the ISIL side of the town of Kobane on the Syrian Turkish border. We all know that journalists are no longer seen by warring factions as impartial. That terrific ability unfortunately ended quite some time ago. I have no doubt that John is shooting this story under duress and simply doing what he must to stay alive. I’m also in no doubt that given the boots on the ground factions who are fighting each other, that the Geneva Convention will not come into play given that John is reporting from within the ISIL faction.

In my last 15 years in the war torn regions of the Greater Middle East, I’ve barely seen faction v faction give any respect whatsoever to each other or anyone else, including journalists. That’s why yesterday’s FB discussion compelled me to write this post about the safety of journalists in today’s conflict areas.

I began working with journalists during the Second Intifada in Palestine back in 2002. It was a huge wake up call for me, as I naturally thought that journalists in war zones and conflict areas were well trained and hand picked for their special skills. It came as a huge surprise to me that some were not only physically unfit, but had substance abuse problems and physical disabilities. There were times then and thereafter, that eyes in your arse and a 10 second time for the 100 metres would have been very advantageous, even though impossible. Somewhere close to a decent fitness level, no substance abuse problems and no physical disabilities would be a very good start though.

Having the label “seasoned journalist” just doesn’t cut it for me. I’ve watched a handful of seasoned journalists over the years do the equivalent of jumping off a cliff to be first to a news story. Some, thankfully got away with it. Sadly, some didn’t.

It can be a very fine line sometimes for an individual, or small team of journalists to make the right decision. That’s where help is required. There is a management system in the media, whether TV, radio, print or online. I would like to see this management, senior editors, bureau chiefs etc and even the journalist on the ground overseeing his/her team, collectively work together in the decision making process, and collectively be responsible for news gathering. When it goes right, everyone can take the plaudits…but when it goes wrong…EVERYONE can shoulder their responsibilities and be accountable.

I’d like to highlight what I see as one of many shocking examples of mismanagement, but on this occasion of a “seasoned journalist” in a conflict area. Back in early 2012, Marie Colvin, an American print journalist for a British newspaper, was killed along with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik by artillery fire brought down onto their “safe-house,” in the town of Homs, Syria. I’d known Marie since 2002 and last saw her back in 2008, when we had lunch together in central London. She was determined back then that she would continue to tell the stories around the world of men, women and children who needed the world to help them. There’s no doubt she made a difference over the years and I respected her immensely for that.
The problem that I have with her shocking death though, is accountability from her team and management and others, and here is why: Marie was mature, experienced and bright. She lost the sight of an eye back in 2001 covering the conflict in Sri Lanka. Most of the time she would wear an eye patch. She was also quite frail in physique. Remember what I said about eyes in your arse and the ability to shift very quickly! Whether Marie was a gallant volunteer or not, no manager should be sending a disabled individual to a conflict area.

Next, I have a massive problem with how she died. The town of Homs had been getting shelled for quite some time. Marie, her photojournalist and other co-located journalists had known that. If you’re going to go into a massively dangerous situation like that, then it’s a matter of go in, news gather and get out. Do not telegraph yourself whilst you’re in there. Marie went live by satphone on more than one occasion to a number of TV networks describing the situation, that quite frankly had already been described and shown by the same networks, only through social media.
Those network bosses in my view also had a duty of care to Marie whilst she was on the ground, as well as her own bosses. They all therefore share responsibility for compromising her location by allowing her to go live.

Had she got in, news gathered, and got out to safety, THEN gone on air and /or written up her pieces, she and the other journalist may still be alive today.

Marie’s tragic end is just one example from many, many in recent times. All journalists need each other and their management to be tough, critical, fair and accountable, in order that journalists on the ground are given every chance to news gather safely. As a security adviser to the media and others, I stopped going to these areas as my eyes and ears began to deteriorate even though I’m still physically fit.
Please, as managers in the media, take a good look at all your journalists before sending them on assignment, and when they’re there on the ground, be accountable for them.

I wish every journalist operating on the ground in conflict areas all the very best for the future. Stay safe.

British Generals Admit Afghan Failure

This important news story was number 10 on the BBC UK’s website earlier today; 7 stories below the death of Alvin Stardust.

Years after these “Generals” (of course there is no such thing as ex-Generals) made some extremely bad calls for the sake of British foreign policy in Afghanistan, they have come forward and admitted their failings on a BBC programme. Brigadier Ed Butler back in 2006 was put in a no win situation along with his officers and men who fought courageously down in Helmand Province, not gaining meaningful ground but just surviving. Like always, the Parachute Regiment and associated units showed the world what British troops can do under very extreme pressure. However, it is well documented in the press that a UK SF report suggested that British troops should not be deployed to Helmand Province for various very sensible reasons.

Back in 2004, when I took a road trip from Kabul to Helmand with a small media team, I could see that it would be madness to deploy NATO troops to a majority Pashtun, Taliban supported area, no matter what the scale of deployment. On my return, and on various occasions afterwards, I voiced my opinion to military people back in Kabul. How dare I, as I’m no longer in the Forces, therefore what the hell do I know?

I’ve spoken and blogged many times over the years about how we took one side of a simmering civil war back in 2001; the side of the non Pashtun northern tribes. The politicians and Generals expected British troops to deploy to Helmand, and win the hearts and minds of the people on the other side of the civil war…just plain crazy!

The MOD has since argued that they left Helmand in a better situation than when they found it. I would argue against that, as I could “sensibly” wander around Helmand back in 2004, visit farmers, small towns and markets, but today I wouldn’t dare step into the Province. Almost every year since 2006, I would go there in a military embed and watch the situation get harder and harder for troops to operate–while senior officers and media relations officers spun the situation to the British public. Millions of Pounds of tax payers money has been wasted on military and DIFID projects, as the farmers are all back to growing the poppy, and the men of Helmand are putting the women and girls “back in their place”. Men and women have fought bravely. Many died or suffered wounds (both physical and mental); their friends and family all impacted one way or another, whilst the MOD still spews its filthy spin.

It angers me to see these Generals continue to be awarded medals and titles, write their memoirs and make out to their readership that they were right and courageous to make the decisions that they did.

These people dropped their pants for our politicians and US foreign policy. They did not lead from the front.

I’ve been banging on for a while now about accountability from our top brass and political leaders. A wee while ago, a British officer was rightly stripped of his gallantry award for lying about his leadership under contact. How about stripping these Generals of their medals and titles–for playing political spin for years over the Helmand deployment, and letting down both the British public and the brave soldiers who were under their command

A Pilgrimage to Rogers Island

Whilst visiting up State New York for an Autumn break, I managed to fulfill a lifetime ambition. To go on a pilgrimage and pay homage to the great Robert Rogers.

When I was a young SAS student back in the mid 1970s in Hereford, those of us that passed the first phase of selection were handed out a copy of Rogers Rangers Rules. These rules were written in the late 1750s by the commander of the Rangers, Major Robert Rogers. The rules have been taken on by almost every Western Special Forces unit since.

Rogers was born in New Hampshire. His family were Scots/Irish. He had the skills of a woodsman and got on well with the native Indians. He fought in the French Indian War for the British, and he achieved some amazing operations out in the Wilderness. He and his Rangers dressed mainly in a mix of green or dark clothing, Indian attire, an array of British and Indian weaponry, and some wore blue Scots bonnets. The British red tunic wasn’t for them. They operated mainly ahead of the British troops and with minimal kit-much like today’s Long Range Patrol Groups and Special Forces.

In his ranks he had a mix of Native Americans, free slaves, Scots and Irish and local settlers. The great thing about this period is that he gave everyone an equal chance of promotion, and to lead operations. in other words, a man not in the least racist. What’s happened to America since?

Operating in the Rangers was tough. Going out into the wilderness in all seasons, fighting and surviving. There are stories recorded of Rangers turning into cannibals as a last resort whilst in survival mode.

Travelling through the Hudson Valley and up along Lake George to Ticonderoga, and further on to Lake Champlain to Crown Point, gave me an idea of what they must have gone through (even though I benefited from all the comforts of modern travel). The highlight for me though was setting foot on Rogers Island which sits across the bank from the small, sleepy community of Fort Edward.  This modest scrap of land is where Robert Rogers trained, lived, fought alongside his men and penned the enduring “Rogers Rules”. Walking through the grass I came upon a clearing where the monument to him stands.  It was simply breathtaking.

I’ve spent years reading up on Robert Rogers and his Rangers. For those of you who are interested, the best book by far is Journals of Robert Rogers by Timothy J Todish, with some fabulous illustrations by Gary S Zaboly. It’s a very well written account of Rogers’ life and absolutely pulls no punches.

My Answer to “Child Soldiers” in the British Military

Why Under 18s Should Continue To Serve In Britain’s Military

Well meaning Human Rights groups are trying to change the British military structure that has gone on successfully for decades. Here is what they don’t understand.

I was born in Lochee, a very deprived area of the city of Dundee, Scotland in the mid 1950s. I was brought up in a Victorian tenement building sharing an outside lavvy with four other families. My father drank heavily and constantly threw my mother around the tenement like a rag doll. When I was around 7 or 8, I would step in to help my mother and get battered myself. At the age of fourteen, having spent more time looking after my mother than going to school, I chose to run away.

After chasing a dream of becoming a professional footballer but not making the grade, I joined the military. I entered the RAF Regiment just after my 17th birthday, did my basic parachute jumps and was sent off to a small simmering war in Oman. I was given special dispensation to go as a minor as my unit was undermanned.

I was chuffed to bits.

At the age of 20 I passed SAS selection (naivety got me through, lol) and I never looked back!

Joining as a youngster was good for me and it probably saved my life. It certainly kept me out of jail, off the streets and off drugs. It didn’t eliminate my voice, creativity or character, as those of you who know me or have read my blog know, ha.

The military gave me a set of front teeth as I’d had mine smashed out in a gymnastics accident at the age of 16. It showed me how to do laundry, stay tidy and keep my bedspace, shower and toilet immaculate…with the use of a toothbrush. It showed me the importance of being a team player, how to listen to your elders and how to never prejudge others. It gave me a family environment, something that I never had before, but would cherish for the rest of my life.

Joining the military as an under 18 year-old (child soldier) is the best thing that happened to me- and thousands of lads and lassies before, during and after me I’m sure. I really hope that never changes.


Why are British Generals good at talking sense only after they leave the military?

General David Julian Richards, Baron of Herstmonceux GCB,CBE,DSO,DL,ADC Gen….I think that’s about it, spoke to the BBC the other day about the fact that the British Army should be much larger than it is, in order to meet today’s requirements!

Really? I left the military after 23yrs with the great title of Bob Shepherd, and I and all my ex military buddies knew that was the case years ago. Yet I’ve heard him and other “Generals” over the years in press conferences explaining why, due to the current climate, the military should be cut down and/or replaced by part timers.

Today’s Army is the smallest in it’s history. It’s due to people like him signing off and agreeing with politicians instead of standing up for his men and women in uniform and resigning, thereby keeping his integrity and his military in one piece.

But here we are today, British soldiers yet again proving time after time that they are the best in the world, simply by showing how well they can operate in survival mode in places like Basra, Iraq and in Helmand, Afghanistan. No other military could have operated so well. I know that as I’ve spent years in military embeds whilst working with the media studying other NATO units versus the Brits.

I am so proud of our soldiers in uniform, regulars and TA, but I am not proud of the serving and ex Generals who have failed them.

If you’re a General and you’re wearing the hat…make sure it’s the military hat and not the political one, even though the latter will guarantee you a place in the House of Lords. The former will guarantee you a place at the bar with my ex military mates and myself!

I took this photo the day before Basra fell to the British Army.
Basra Bridge, Iraq. 2003

The Farce of Training Afghan Troops (and a cautionary example for Syria)

Afghan National Army training.


Recruits being trained by US military mentors/trainers. 200 men to 1 instructor! On the US M16 assault rifle and not the AK47.

Mindblowing, watching the instructor in front of 200 men explain stripping and assembling to mainly illiterate soldiers, some of whom don’t even speak the language of the interpreter.
KMTC (Kabul Military Training Centre), Afghanistan. 2009