On the Afghan/Pak border within a US Army embed as an adviser to an International news team. Paktika Province, Afghanistan.
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 soon realised that at times it would be easier looking after a team of six year olds. As their behaviour would be seen as 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, drugs, PTSD, basic health and 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 as to who they send 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 beforehand…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 then continued to work with a handful of like minded journalists successfully over the coming years in some extremely tough scenarios.
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 before 2000, it was mainly British ex special forces soldiers having achieved SNCO rank who took up these tasks. They had the proactive skills set, maturity and operational experience that gives the individual that heightened awareness. With a mix of third party aware surveillance, trackers skills 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 over the years every bit as much as the ex SF types.
In my time on the ground being co located with other teams around the area, 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 reactive. Something as simple as a road accident due to a tyre blow out, to a stray mortar round whistling into your location unexpectedly. Conflict resolution skills, and remaining humble from having good social skills, 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 on security issues…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. If the timing is right to go onto the ground in a particular region…or not! Also, who should be represented on the ground at any given time. Remember, you want the least bodies on the ground each time. So, if it’s only “B roll” filming that’s required, then don’t take the whole team. Even though they may want to come along due to days and days of cabin fever. I’ve often gone with only the camera person and maybe the fixer. But I’ve left behind the correspondent and the producer with any others, to ensure the minimum of 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 at all.
Always travel with a minimum of two vehicles, no matter how many of you there are. If one is blown off the road or even simply breaks down, then you have the other to immediately cross deck into…then onwards or back 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. I’ve seen some excellent armoured up B6/7 level Hilux’s, and other makes that blend in with their local soft skin neighbours on the roads around the Greater Middle East.
The more that you can blend in with the 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. And yes, even the extreme basics cannot be overlooked, as it could come back to bite you as a security issue later. Therefore, make sure that your vehicles contain well over half a tank of fuel at all times. Check that the oils and liquids are at the correct levels, tyres in good order etc. Take responsibility for these small details, it may sound obvious, but it can very often be overlooked by the local hires, as vehicle standards differ greatly from place to place.
Ensure that each member of your team (including yourself) has a tourniquet placed in an easily accessible pocket, and of course knows how to use it. You just never know when someone has to self manage severe bleeding while being pinned down alone. Seconds can make all the difference. It’s no good if the only tourniquet is in the security guy’s “go bag,” if that bag can’t be accessible immediately to the wounded individual pinned down alone.
I once met a young lad who at the age of only 8 years young, had used a piece of bicycle tyre tubing as an improvised tourniquet 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 seconds to minutes. He’d never been taught first aid, and had never gone to school…survival instincts kicking in immediately. Improvisation at it’s finest for one so young.
On the communications side, a local cell phone, and a satellite phone as a minimum should the networks be knocked out, and have them in a pocket and not in a bag. Sports radios are really handy, that way you can chat to one another while your small team may be split on differing sides of the road walking, or when split in 2 vehicles while driving. Check all comms prior to going on the ground, while on the ground and again when back to safety.
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 to the right places at the right times.
Journalists working in conflict areas require all the security help that they can get. If you’re looking seriously at a task as an 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 more importantly…your lack of skills. Your fitness, both physical and mental. Your awareness and overall 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 in a professional manner. 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. The job is complete when they’ve deployed onto the ground with you, news gathered, and returned from the theatre safely. Just one dead, wounded or kidnapped journalist from your team and you’ve failed them!
All the very best to all journalists and their security advisers…realistic and safe news gathering to all.