Minding the Media
Behind many of the news teams you see reporting from high risk environments can be found a ‘Safety Advisor’, anonymous, unseen and unacknowledged, just as they prefer it. These individuals are more than bodyguards: highly trained and experienced, skilled in field medicine, communications and logistics they also have a sound tactical awareness. It is always demanding, often dangerous and there is seldom any backup.
I was tucking in to a mammoth breakfast when I was rudely interrupted by the noise of an incoming 107 mm rocket slamming into the hotel reception. As my fellow diners fled the room to the underground shelter I eyed my plate. Experience told me that the residential security team would very soon be ushering us to safety and away from the story – possibly locking us in for hours. Hunger and danger are not great companions and the porridge won – I gulped it down and ignored frantic shouts to join the fleeing morass being herded to the underground ‘safe room’.
Instead I dodged and weaved my way back to our corridor and hammered on the cameraman’s door. We had had some very long days and he’d clearly slept through the entire event and probably wasn’t ready wake. Too bad. After 10 years with the media I knew that the rocket attack was an exclusive and the priority was the footage and not our personal safety – or sleep.
Stewart appeared, bleary and tousled at the door, wearing his boxers and body armour and already cradling his camera. Quickly aware of the situation he followed me as we ran towards the scene, swerving past the security guards, ignoring their flailing arms and screams.
When everyone else is moving out of danger the media move in. In our case, it allowed us to get that vital footage of the still smouldering remains of the reception and the arrival of the first security forces. That rocket may well have been the first in a salvo; it may have been followed up by a ground attack – suffered by the same hotel just a year earlier. Instinctively Stewart and the rest of the crew knew what to do, and their priority was to capture the moment for the rest of the world to see.
To many “old school” reporters, such a situation of imminent danger is part of the job – a role carried out in a pioneering spirit, a role jealously guarded within a tight knit industry. So taking on safety advisors is a contentious issue for some. But employing such experts is a policy that an increasing number of news networks are now following. With their operational experience Safety Advisors can help organise the strategy behind news gathering which ultimately helps news to be gathered and broadcasted quicker, and safer. With more news networks being established all the time, competition is fierce and they will employ anything that gives them an edge.
24-hour news and satellite channels are reaching an increasingly wider audience and potentially wield a massive influence. So journalists can find themselves manipulated, often restricted, sometimes detained, and even directly targeted. Technology has also enabled the ‘citizen journalist’ to capture broadcast quality imagery and young eager freelancers occasionally steal a march on the mainstream broadcasters.
The result of all this is that networks are now taking their responsibility to a duty of care very seriously and a safety advisor is now a vital addition to most crews deploying to ‘High Risk’ areas. Good safety advisors are much in demand when a story breaks in a high risk environment but there are few opportunities for a full career in the industry. Most consultants are freelance and rely on their reputation for employment. It is definitely a case of both what you know and who you know in order to keep in business.
There are no short cuts. Being a media safety advisor requires very specific and specialised skills – and that’s aside from getting to understand the quirkiness of newsgathering. Such skills come from past experience and training. Actively monitoring the local as well as the national security situation in any trouble spot is key. Being able to converse, liaise, beguile and befriend the multitude of culturally diverse peoples encountered are essential qualities that are honed through years of experience in a wide variety of countries. Excellent navigational skills, being able to provide first response medical support, managing back up and emergency communications, organising and keeping track and account for a multitude of equipment – this is just the start of the list.
Vitally, a Safety Advisor will be expected to know about weapons, tactics and even strategy. They will have to have a black book of contacts bulging with names of security companies, NGOs and Foreign Office officials – even the odd Defence Attaché or Ambassador.
Personality, too, comes into it. No good having someone on board for what could be long periods if they are difficult in any way. A Safety Advisor has to be a consummate diplomat – able to work with a small team in stressful situations and to keep a cool head when everything is going wrong and others are starting to panic.
And finally a little bit of old fashioned courage is required; a media safety advisor’s role is not for the faint hearted. Journalists regularly exposure themselves to real danger, they are shot at, shelled, arrested and taken hostage as they try to get their story, and where the media crew is then so will be their safety advisor. A journalist who has just returned from Syria commented that the ability of his safety advisor to reverse a car at high-speed around a corner while under fire was a pretty useful skill to have within the team!
And when there hasn’t been enough time for lunch and a new story breaks towards the end of the day, or that interview is delayed yet again or the “desk” decide on another “live” or an incident causes you to be stuck on the wrong side of a road block you’ll be very glad of that mammoth breakfast. With unpredictability every day it’s worth gulping down that last mouthful of porridge even as the ceiling plaster floats down around you.
by Chris Cobb-Smith
Chris Cobb-Smith started working as a media safety advisor during the conflict in Kosovo. In 2000 he formed Chiron Resources (Operations) Ltd which over the last twelve years has provided specialist safety advisors to media crews filming in nearly every conflict zone throughout the world.