Facing the risk factor - Press Gazette

Facing the risk factor

Last week’s ghastly events in Beslan are a reminder that TV journalism can be a very perilous occupation.

The reporting of wars from Vietnam to Iraq has tragically claimed the lives of many TV professionals but the ‘war on terror’ has created a new dimension of risk to TV journalists in the field.

Several reporters showed great courage covering the appalling denouement of the siege at School Number One. Bravest of all were the camera operators who had to put their heads above the parapet in the middle of a fire-fight to get the shots. At least one Russian cameraman was badly wounded.

Teams from Sky, ITN, the BBC, CNN and APTN spent several hours reporting and filming in the middle of a fullscale gun battle.

Sacha Lomakis, the ITN camerman, working with correspondent Julian Manyon, not only showed bravery under fire, but also managed to break the news of mass casualties in the gym explosion – sadly the figures proved to be seriously underestimated.

Last month I argued there wasn’t enough enterprise journalism on TV.

It’s only fair to concede that when TV reporters and camera operators do show enterprise it’s often at huge personal risk.

One man who’s experienced more than his fair share of death and peril in the field is the BBC reporter and news anchor Michael Buerk. In last week’s Press Gazette he was interviewed about his memoirs – The Road Taken – which is an incredibly honest account of a lifetime in TV journalism.

It begins with a moment in 1991 when Michael was unfortunate enough to witness the death of one of his colleagues, and the serious wounding of another, while covering the 1991 coup in Addis Ababa.

He and a Visnews crew from Nairobi were filming a burning arms dump near the city centre when a massive explosion killed his soundman John Mathai and tore the arm off his cameraman Mohamed Amin.

Michael was knocked unconscious and covered in his colleagues’ blood.

He thought he was dead. It clearly had a profound effect on his attitude to risk and professional rivalry in TV journalism Recounting the seconds before disaster struck he writes: “We had been in plenty of these kinds of situations. We thought it was a calculated risk. We were complete fools.”

The truth is to get scoops you need to take risks. To beat the other guy to the story you sometimes need to take a bit more of a risk than the other guy is taking. No sensible TV professional would endorse the taking of unreasonable risk but, equally, most successful reporters I know have done so at some point in their careers.

Morally we can all argue that those who get killed or wounded while reporting the news did so serving a higher purpose – it’s much harder to justify a death or injury on the basis of professional competition and yet so often it is precisely that sense of competition which drives people to take the extra chance.

Even with flakjackets, bodyguards and hostile environment training, frontline reporting is a very dangerous occupation, and terrorism in Baghdad or Beslan is making it more so.

MICHAEL BUERK’S 30 years in television news leaves him well qualified to comment on the changing qualities of TV journalism. In order to write his memoirs he actually sat down and reviewed all of his BBC TV reports.

On reflection, he welcomes the modern emphasis on human experience and points out that none of his award-winning reports on the Ethiopian famine from 1984 contained a single interview with any of the victims. That, he concedes, would be unthinkable today.

Generally he is not enamoured with what he perceives as the shift towards “news lite”- an emphasis on emotion over analysis, and an agenda driven by relevance rather than significance.

Despite his own fame he decries the current cult of the personality reporter and what he calls the “attention to cosmetics.”

However, Michael is a realist. He accepts that it’s the consumer rather than the reporter or the news editor who will determine the future of TV News. The irresistible march of technology allows the viewer to watch the news that interests them, and decide their own news agenda rather than follow someone else’s.

IN THE UNITED STATES, the march of technology has produced the interesting phenomenon of ‘citizen journalists’ – self-appointed cyber-investigators who use the internet to challenge mainstream broadcast journalism.

Two of the biggest stories of the US Election campaign so far have been given extra life by the work of these ‘citizen journalists’. It was they who first raised serious questions about Kerry’s heroism in Vietnam and last week the ‘citizen journalists’ of Powerlineblog.com challenged a CBS 60 Minutes’ exposé of George Bush’s record in the National Guard, claiming the documents obtained by CBS were forgeries.

The internet offers unlimited and uncensored access to anyone with an axe to grind. For those with a particular political disposition these selfstyled ‘investigative bloggers’ offer a welcome alternative to mainstream news broadcasts.

At the moment it’s fairly easy to dismiss these ‘citizen journalists’ as conspiracy theorists mainly from the political right, but as more and more people discover they can effectively broadcast their own brand of journalism on the internet then the traditional news suppliers may have something to worry about.

Terrorists, of course, had cottoned on to this sometime ago. The ghastly pictures of shootings, beheadings and torture broadcast on an almost weekly basis by hostage-takers in Iraq are evidence of how the internet can be subverted for really evil ends.

Bloggers may talk passionately about the freedom of expression afforded by the internet, but the flip side is the freedom to broadcast terrorist snuff movies on the world wide web. 

Michael Buerk (inset) and Frank Gardner have been hurt reporting for front line TV news programmes






Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five

Next week: Janics Turner