Sky security head Mark Grant on how to keep reporters alive in Ukraine - Press Gazette

Sky security head Mark Grant on how to keep reporters alive in Ukraine

They are usually in the shadows – the security advisers who have a crucial role keeping frontline war reporters safe and alive.

Here Dr Mark Grant, who heads up the Sky News location security, takes us behind the veil in Ukraine in an extract from Reporting the War in Ukraine: The First Draft of History, edited by John Mair.

Getting journalists to the frontline while also trying to keep them safe is the job of professional security advisors who are rarely mentioned or even seen. But their job is considered by their companies as vitally important. The war in Ukraine has become one of the deadliest conflicts for journalists to report: two big countries in conflict is unusual in the modern era. So many of the lessons that have been learnt about safety in the past are having to be rewritten virtually hour by hour.

I was sitting in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kyiv on 28 February 2022 when my phone started ringing. The name Stuart Ramsay (pictured, top) appeared on my screen. It was just after 4pm. I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong because the team had checked in only minutes earlier saying they were “all good” and heading back to the city centre.

The person on the other end of the phone was Dominique Van Heerden, the team’s producer, and with the calmest of voices, she said “Mark, we’ve been ambushed…”

You know the rest of the story. 

This war is bloody dangerous. Prepare 

This, along with another two incidents with other teams all within the first five days of the war in Ukraine, in my mind, cemented this as the most dangerous, fast-paced, and challenging conflict I have ever covered.

Just two weeks earlier I’d returned to the UK from a four-week trip to Afghanistan. It was a quick turnaround for me because we were trying to get multiple Sky News teams into Ukraine to bolster our coverage, and do it safely.

Within 12 hours of arriving back from Kabul I was on the phone with our Head of International News working out how we’d deploy.

24 hours later I was checking in for an early morning Whizz Air flight from Gatwick Airport, with more than 250kg of ballistic vests, helmets, medical kits and other safety equipment.

As you might imagine this made for an interesting sight as I struggled with three luggage trolleys. All the porters were busy tending to the world’s media, all with the same idea, all trying to board the same flight, all with their own trolleys full of gear.

It was in that moment I realised that Ukraine would likely be the largest concentrated deployment of news crews for years. Not since Iraq and Syria in 2018 had I witnessed such a large grouping of journalists in one location, and it felt more like a reunion than a deployment.

[Read more: Stuart Ramsay on being shot by Russian forces and why Sky almost didn’t run the story]

Fluid frontlines 

Although our planning for the Ukraine conflict had started months before, and although Sky News already has robust risk management processes in place, some of the most competent journalists within the industry, and a well-resourced security and safety set-up, the early days of the conflict were changing every day, sometimes every hour.

There were so many variables to manage, almost all plans and assessments we conducted had to be reassessed daily. Without this set-up, support and understanding of risk, we would have likely had a very different outcome to the one we had for Stuart Ramsay’s team.

Of course, this is not specific to Sky News, and there are several anecdotal stories from others in similar security roles supporting news crews, especially those who had multiple teams, deployed across multiple locations in Ukraine.

In the days immediately after the start of the war, there were several critical changes, almost daily, often causing frustrations and creating ambiguity on the most effective way to operate. From the changing of laws in country for journalists, the rules around what could be gathered, and what could not be aired. The implementation of curfews on a city level, ongoing changes with press accreditation and overall nervousness by Ukrainians were just some of the issues that needed constant navigating in the early days.

Locals and media flee West to Lviv

The day the war started, many fixers and translators, local producers and drivers working with Western journalists decided to head west towards Lviv. Some were on “wanted” lists distributed online by the Russian authorities, others wanted to be with and protect their families, something most people would, understandably, do.

Although morally it was the right thing for them to do, it did leave a huge operational gap in resources, as we scrambled to confirm which of our local support staff would stay, who would go, and who would allow us to continue to use their vehicles.

I’ve covered many conflicts, but this was a first. I have never been in a position where local staff were not in a position to support our teams.

Some in Ukraine put family before money, and who can blame them.

Arming the population 

Another element that created an unexpected risk was the issuing of over 20,000 weapons by the Ukrainian government to a civilian population. They called it National Defence.

These weapons were frequently issued to people with no experience, in remote areas, and some could not tell the difference between a van marked ‘PRESS’, with all occupants with official accreditation, and that of Russian Forces vehicle with the letter ‘V’.

As much as the formation of the National Defence helped Ukrainians arm themselves against impending danger, it also created a tense atmosphere across the country. This resulted in many of our teams moving across Ukraine being harassed, and poorly treated, with one team being pulled from their vehicle at gunpoint and badly beaten.

The power that being armed brings, coupled with the fear and tensions of impending war, meant the presence of the National Defence increased the risk for our journalists, which in many ways is counter-productive because it reduced the coverage of the conflict.

The war in Ukraine is a conventional, and a relatively symmetric war with a huge amount of ordinance available to both sides, however unlike Afghanistan, Iraq or even Syria, the Russian Forces could easily hit locations our news teams extensively operate, including in the capital Kyiv, and they carried out these kinds of attacks regularly.

Indirect fire 

The other big risk in this conflict is indirect fire. This is a risk that exists in any conflict, but in Ukraine this risk somehow feels closer. Indirect fire is harder to avoid tactically, with many more “near misses” reported due to shrapnel fragmentation.

The concept risk versus reward sounds a little cliched, but it is an important discussion. Having frank, open and often difficult conversations early on with our journalists was the only way we could ensure we could allow teams to operate and gather freely, while also ensuring there was a commensurate level of risk mitigation applied across our coverage.

We are hardly alone in this.

All news organisations face the challenge of balancing the varying experience and expectation levels of our journalists, with the desire to report the story in the most impactful way possible.

Body armour saves lives 

Of course, the personal protective equipment they were wearing literally saved their lives.

So back to the phone call on 28 February.

Some would say that Stuart Ramsay and his team were lucky to be alive after their ambush, and while I would not disagree with that, I do believe that several factors played an active part in the somewhat positive outcomes, as much and if not more, than luck on that day.

The team’s competence and experience – like knowing how to take effective cover – and their ability to effectively communicate in a crisis were defining factors and played an active role in their own survival.

I’m aware that often there is a reluctance among journalists to wear and lug around heavy body armour, but in this case, their body armour was the difference between being alive and being dead. 

It also gave them confidence to operate effectively knowing they were protected as much as possible.

“This stuff is amazing,” said the fixer working with Ramsay’s team about the ballistic vest he had been wearing when they were ambushed. He couldn’t believe we had given him personal protective equipment.

In the weeks before he had worked with a news organisation who didn’t give him any. I find this appalling.

Anyone asked to take the same risks we journalists do should be given the same level of protection, no excuses.

[Read more: ‘Our gear and our training saved me 100%’: Sky News’ Stuart Ramsay on Ukraine attack and mental health]

The future is brutal 

This war in Ukraine is far from over. And the likelihood is there will be even more journalists injured and killed in the weeks and months ahead.

Although this is the brutal reality of covering war and bearing witness to the atrocities carried out, there are ways we can significantly reduce risks to news teams.

What security managers can and should do is provide handrails, not fences.

We can help teams improve on their medical and security competence through education and conversation, we can also help them dynamically assess their assignments, knowing they want to go towards risk… not away from it.

We all know journalists want to do their job. They wouldn’t have it any other way. We may as well try help them to do it safely.

Dr Mark Grant is the high risk, safety and security lead at Sky News. Grant has operated extensively in high-risk environments around the world and has previously supported and managed security for the BBC and CNN

He holds a master’s degree and a professional doctorate in Security Risk Management, with specific focus on Journalism Security. He is a co-founder, and non-executive of MiRiskMedia, an app based solution to providing news organisations and freelancers with direct access to vetted, qualified and experienced safety and security advisers.

Reporting the War In Ukraine: The First Draft of History is edited by John Mair and published by Abramis Academi. It is available on Amazon.

Picture: Sky News

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