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February 28, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:05am

Mark Austin of Sky’s Ukraine reporting diary: ‘We need to be here’

By Mark Austin

Sky News presenter Mark Austin is among dozens of UK broadcasters and newspaper journalists in Ukraine during the Russian invasion.

Austin provides an exclusive behind the scenes diary for Press Gazette of eight days in Ukraine where he went from covering a dancing competition to being on the frontline of a war.

Read 5 News chief correspondent Tessa Chapman’s dispatch for Press Gazette here, and hear from former Panorama journalist John Sweeney about the challenges of independent war reporting in Ukraine here.

UPDATE: See Mark Austin’s second Ukraine reporting diary for Press Gazette here, covering his retreat from Kyiv and reaction to Sky colleague Stuart Ramsay being shot.

Thursday 17 February

A few days broadcasting live in Kharkiv from the freezing terrace of the Palace hotel and I was even more convinced little was going to happen. This was a city – just 25 miles from the Russian border – going about its business as if nothing was afoot. We even filmed the Kharkiv heats of the Ukraine National Dance Championships. I wanted a slice of life. The belief was Putin was bluffing to win compromises from Ukraine and the US. My thoughts were still that a war in Europe in 2022 was unthinkable. I get a text from a well-briefed, senior foreign office friend: “You should take this seriously. Things are looking pretty hairy”.

Monday 21 February

Everything changes. On our freezing Kharkiv terrace, I am told in my ear that Putin is addressing his nation. We cut to his speech which in the event is more of an incoherent rant displaying a warped sense of history and, also, crucially, an angry conviction that Ukraine had no right to exist and was run by corrupt, neo- Nazis who must be neutralised. Producer Nick Stylianou says: “He’s going to do it, he’s actually going to do it.”

Mark Austin and team in Ukraine. Picture: Sky News

Tuesday 22 February

A 4.30am alarm call to get the first flight to Kyiv. If a full-scale invasion really is on the cards that would be the best place to be. I have a young team. Nick is in his early thirties and the brilliant cameraman/editor, Dean Massey is in his twenties. There is a poignancy about it. My on-the-road cameraman and companion for much of the nineties was Mick Deane. He taught me so much about foreign reporting. He was killed by a sniper in Egypt in 2013 just before his retirement. The Mick Deane Bursary was set up by Sky News in his memory and one of the first recipients… was Dean. The wheels of life. It was bittersweet.

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Mark Austin and team in Ukraine. Picture: Sky News

Thursday 24 February

After a late-night presenting Sky’s News at Ten and toasting Dean (remarkably he has won the RTS Camera Operator of the Year award), my phone rings at 5.30 am. Nick tells me the invasion had begun. After 30 years at ITN, 24-hour rolling news is still relatively new to me. But over the next few hours, I learnt a lot about it as, around me, across Ukraine and in London, Washington and Brussels, people who know exactly what they are doing guided me through an extraordinary day.

Mark Austin in Ukraine. Picture: Sky News

Friday 25- Saturday 26 February

Suddenly air raid sirens are the soundtrack of a city that is emptying fast. The crump of explosions, at first distant, are getting ever closer. We film a woman praying outside the Golden Domed Cathedral. We film troops running for cover with ammunition boxes as another siren sounds. We have decisions to make. Do we carry on broadcasting from the terrace of our hotel? Do we stay or go? My feeling is we need to be here. Bearing witness as best you can is important. As I write our minds are made up for us. A 36-hour curfew is imposed on Kyiv. Anyone on the streets will be considered a Russian infiltrator. A missile has hit a residential block near the airport and the Russian troops are close. The President is staying put. The people of this great city are petrified. I still cannot believe it is happening.

Picture: Sky News

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