I first worked with journalists back in late 2001. It was during the Intifada, a conflict between Israel and Palestine.
It was a big wake up call for me, as I realised that at times it would be easier looking after a team of eight year olds. As their behaviour would be less threatening to themselves and others around them.
“War correspondents” I mistakenly thought, were hand picked for their skills set. Fitness, mental toughness, awareness and clean living. But no…here I am consulting individuals with many issues such as alcohol issues, drug issues, PTSD issues, basic fitness issues…and the list goes on.
The main failing of the media as an industry, is the simple fact that they don’t send managers from top to bottom on management courses. Therefore in my opinion, it’s not always the best decisions that are made when sending individuals into hostile environments to news gather. In a lot of circumstances, it’s the warm body volunteer that gets the task, no matter the known frailties of that individual.
So, having found this out fairly quickly, but sadly having to have found it out on the ground, and not been given the honest facts before going onto the ground…I decided that it would be best in the longer term to look around me, choose and almost hand pick who I’d feel most comfortable working with. The reason for this, was to ensure that I had the trust of the small team deployed. But as they were serious news gatherers in good overall mental and physical health, realizing that you have to be of a particular quality to not let one another down, they would know that they have my trust too.
I continued to work with a handful of like minded journalists successfully over the coming years.
In the last twenty years, far too many journalists have been killed, wounded or kidnapped. Many making bad decisions for themselves, perhaps by being driven to be first to the news story? But many too having been badly managed from their bureaus, or their big bosses back home. Some on too many occasions being sent on to the ground blindly, when they should never have been on the ground at that time at all.
There is no news without the local contribution. They are by far the most important individuals in the team. The local fixer/producer is the eyes and ears of the ability to news gather in that region. They know the conditions on the ground, the people, the factions and the story. The local drivers, just as important as the fixers…but all requiring a sound brief and debrief from the security adviser, whenever the need arises.
THE SECURITY ADVISER
Note that I say adviser!
Not bodyguard…as I’ve heard some individuals call themselves.
One individual is not a bodyguard and here is the reasons why: https://bobshepherdauthor.com/2018/10/07/the-fallacy-of-the-individual-bodyguard-ibg/
Media safety is all about being proactive. It’s to ensure that the media team news gathers safely, by finding a way and means without inhibiting their aim.
Therefore the individual requires certain proactive skills.
In the early days of the early noughties, it was British ex special forces soldiers who took up these tasks. They had the proactive skills set and maturity that gives the individual that heightened awareness. With a mix of third party aware surveillance, trackers awareness and an all round sixth sense honed from not only the skills learned, but the years of executing those skills on the ground during covert operations across the globe.
However, with more and more conflicts to cover over the coming years, advisers were having to be picked from other backgrounds. Many proving their worth every bit as much as the ex SF types.
In my time on the ground being co located with other teams, I’m well aware that just like the individuals from the media team, the adviser is all about who that individual really is. You require good skills in order to remain proactive. In addition, speaking the language even to a very basic colloquial level can be a huge asset in keeping on the right side of the locals. Having good medical skills, should you be unlucky enough for things to go awry. Something as simple as a road accident due to a tyre blow out, or to a stray mortar round whistling into your location unexpectedly. Conflict resolution skills, and remaining humble, but being able to take command in times of extreme stress, whether keeping a fractious media team together, or negotiating your way through a warlord’s manor.
The buck stops with you…always. Big broad shoulders are required when dealing with such things as location of secure accommodation, road moves, how the news gathering should be conducted before, during and after the event. And who should be represented on the ground for example. Remember, you want the least bodies on the ground each time as possible. So, if it’s only filming that’s required, then don’t take the whole team, even though they may want to go due to days and days of cabin fever. I’ve often gone with only the camera person and myself, with maybe the fixer. But I’ve left behind the correspondent and the producer with any others, to ensure minimum individuals facing any possible dangers. Many times the fixer and I have gone off to recce a location to see if it’s even feasible to take the team in.
Always travel with a minimum of two vehicles, no matter how many of you there are. If one is blown off the road or simply breaks down, then you have the other to immediately cross deck into…and away to safety. Have your vehicles blend in with the majority of vehicles seen on the road in the region, even if it’s an armoured vehicle. For example, the Toyota Hilux is extremely popular across Afghanistan. The more that you can blend in traffic, the better. Make sure it’s a vehicle that like the Hilux, can jump the pavement if needed, it requires that bit of clearance and weight to perhaps push other vehicles to one side in order to escape a bad situation too. Always make sure that your vehicles are well over half a tank full of fuel at all times. Ensure that the oils and liquids are at the correct levels, tyres in good order etc. Take responsibility for these small details that can be often overlooked by the local hires.
Ensure that each member of your team (including yourself) has a tourniquet placed in an easily accessible pocket. You just never know when you may have to self manage severe bleeding while being pinned down alone. Seconds can make all the difference. It’s no good if the tourniquet is in the security guy’s “go bag,” if the bag can’t be grabbed immediately. I once met a young lad who was only 8 years young who had used a piece of bicycle tyre tubing, after stepping on a landmine in rural Afghanistan. He lost his foot, but he saved his own life…no one else on hand to help him in those precious minutes. Improvisation at it’s finest.
So, that was just a tiny insight into working with journalists in hostile environments. For me…my time with them was an absolute blast…with the right individuals, deployed at the right times.
Journalists working in conflict areas require all the great help that they can get. If you’re looking seriously at a task as a security adviser to journalists, and you’ve already been operating on the security circuit in conflict areas, then I suggest start by seriously looking at yourself in the mirror first. Take note of your skills, and perhaps your lack of skills. Your fitness, both physical and mental. Your awareness and your ability as it stands today, not from five or ten years ago.
If it’s all good, then I wish you all the very best, as it’s an awesome task to undertake when carried out professionally with a good team. Be honest and up front at all times. Don’t be afraid to make the unwelcome calls. You’re there for a reason remember…to proactively keep everyone safe while news gathering. You’re a lone entity, no wing men, and no cavalry waiting just over the hill.
All the very best to all journalists and their security advisers (if you’re deployed with one)…safe news gathering to all.