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, and 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, what I found instead were individuals with many issues ranging from drug and alcohol problems to PTSD episodes to fundamental fitness concerns… the list goes on.
In my opinion, the main failing of the media, as an industry, is the simple fact that they don’t send managers on management courses. Therefore, not always are the best decisions being made when it comes to sending individuals into hostile environments to news gather. In a lot of cases, it’s the ‘warm body’ volunteer that gets the task, no matter the frailties of that individual.
So, having found this out fairly quickly, though not before being deployed out on the ground and with the actual facts, I decided that it would be best to, instead, look around me, choose and hand pick those who I’d feel most comfortable working with. This served two purposes. Firstly, to ensure that I had the trust of the small team deployed. But also, it left me with a select group of only serious news gatherers, in good mental and physical health, and, importantly, they now knew that they had my trust also.
I continued to work with a handful of like-minded journalists successfully over the coming years.
I have heard of far too many journalists have been killed, wounded or kidnapped over the last twenty years. Many making bad decisions for themselves, perhaps by being driven to be first to the news story? But many having been poorly managed from their bureaus, or their big bosses back home. On too many occasions reporters have been sent out on the ground blindly when they should never have been deployed at all.
I quickly learned that there is no news without the local contribution. Local Nationals are by far the most important individuals in the team, affording the eyes and ears to create the opportunity to news gather in that particular region. They know the conditions on the ground, the people, the factions, and the story. Just as important as the fixers are the local drivers, though all will require a sound brief and debrief from the security adviser, from time to time.
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 are the reasons why:
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 skill set and maturity that gives an individual a heightened awareness with a mix of third-party-aware surveillance and tracker awareness. They have developed an all-round sixth sense honed not only from the skills they’ve acquired but also from the years of executing those skills on the ground during covert operations across the globe.
However, with more and more conflicts being covered over recent years, advisers are now being selected from other backgrounds; many proving their worth equally 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 on the media team, the proficiency of an adviser can range dramatically. To be effective in this role you require a very specific skill set, including, but not limited to:
The ability to remain proactive in all conditions. The situation may change without warning, how quickly can you adapt?
Language skills – If you can speak the language, even to a very basic colloquial level, you will be a tremendous asset in keeping the team on the right side of the locals.
Good medical skills, should you be unfortunate enough for things to go awry. Something as simple as a road accident due to a tire blow out, or a stray mortar round whistling into your location could all be issues you may encounter.
Conflict resolution; can you remain humble, while being prepared to take command in times of extreme stress? Whether keeping a fractious media team together or negotiating your way through a warlord’s manor.
Ultimately, the buck stops with you…always. Big broad shoulders are required when dealing with things such as the location of secure accommodation, planning of road moves, how the news gathering should be conducted before, during, and after the event; who should be represented on the ground, for example. Remember, each time you deploy, you want the least amount of bodies on the ground 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 building up days of cabin fever. I’ve often gone with only the camera person and myself, and maybe the fixer. But I’ve left behind the correspondent and the producer with any others, who are unnecessary to the mission, to expose the minimum individuals to 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 there are of you. If one vehicle is blown off the road or breaks down, then you have the other to cross deck into immediately…and away to safety. Have your vehicles blend in with the majority of other transport seen on the road in that 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 with the local traffic, the better. Make sure it’s a vehicle that, like a Hilux, can jump the pavement if needed. Having a bit of clearance and weight to potentially push other vehicles to one side to escape a bad situation is useful also. Always ensure that your vehicles have well over half a tank full of fuel at all times; oils and liquids are at the correct levels and tires are 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 tire tubing, after stepping on a landmine in rural Afghanistan. He lost his foot, but he saved his own life when no one else was on hand to help him in those precious minutes. Improvisation at its finest.
In the end, this has been just a brief insight into what it’s like to be a hostile environment security adviser working with journalists. For me, my time with them was an absolute blast… when accompanying the right individuals and 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 you begin by taking a long, hard, look at yourself in the mirror. Be honest and consider your skills, and perhaps, the lack thereof. What’s the health of your fitness, both physical and mental? When you assess your awareness and overall ability, is it current and not from five or ten years ago?
If the answers to all these questions are positive, then I wish you all the very best in your new career, it’s an awesome task to undertake when carried out professionally and with a good team. Be honest and upfront at all times. Don’t be afraid to make unwelcome calls, you’re there for a reason remember… to proactively keep everyone safe during news gathering. You’re a lone entity, with no wingmen, 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.
So, you want to be a Hostile Environment Security Adviser?
Bestselling author Bob Shepherd has spent nearly forty years operating in conflict areas around the world. A twenty year veteran of Britain’s elite 22 SAS Regiment with nearly two decades of private security work to his credit, Bob has successfully negotiated some of the most dangerous places on earth as a special forces soldier and a private citizen. Bob comments regularly on security issues and has appeared on CNN International, BBC, SKY News, and BBC Radio. He has also authored numerous articles and books including the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller The Circuit. In addition to writing and lecturing, Bob continues to advise individuals operating in hostile environments. For more of his insights on security and geopolitics visit www.bobshepherdauthor.com