FEATURE 

From the frontline. Upfront and very dangerous

Alex Thomson of Channel Four News is battle hardened and a doyen of British TV news war reporting. He is truly the ‘fireman’s fireman’ - twenty plus wars under his belt. Here on the Ukrainian war frontline, he clearly outlines his hopes and fears.

By Alex Thomson

From the frontline. Upfront and very dangerous
Photograph: Kevin Schmid on Unsplash.

27 April 2022 Ukraine

War reporting: 80% logistics, 10% luck and 10% journalism. And sometimes, indeed oftentimes, the journalism manufactures the luck. All the luck. After more than 30 years of it and more than 20-odd wars (some of them exceedingly odd) it still feels like this is the constant ratio or at least something along these lines.

First logistics … well for a start, you need a team so far as TV reporting goes. In our case, Ukrainian driver and fixer; the all-important producer; multi-skiller who shoots, edits, sound records, feeds cut packages to London then sets up the live shot then, maybe, eats food. Skilled work, multi-skilled work.

Local knowledge and language being essential, hence the need for the driver and fixer. The real crown jewel is to locate and hire a Ukrainian journalist and in Slava we were blessed indeed. Surly, chain-smoking, rarely moved to smile, but with lightening ability to sense and deflect incoming bullshit at a 1000-mile range and a never-ending stream of “why don’t we do this?” ideas.

He wrote recently saying our odyssey across his incredible country had been “the best trip of my career”. Given he spent much of the time (correctly) convinced he was dealing with a complete clown in my case, I am alarmed to ponder what his worst trip was.

A driver might seem a luxury but not given the state of Ukrainian roads and the sheer distances to cover in a place bigger than the UK and France put together. In a month, we drove the equivalent of London to Delhi.

That set-up in place - which is no mean feat - you then need transport: our trusty white van. Don’t stick massive TV letters in gaffer tape to ID you as media in Ukraine. The Russian battle symbol on their tanks and heavy armour is also V. It wouldn’t do to have any misunderstandings.

Accreditation: none - then no war for you

Then accreditation. Always, always accreditation, war in, war out. If people back home knew just how bloody difficult it really is even to get to where war is being fought they’d be astonished. Before the shooting comes accreditation and an army of Ukrainian soldiers ready to check your laminated military accreditation pass across the national road network dotted with sandbagged and concrete block checkpoints.

Lose that precious laminated military media ID and for you, my friend, the war is over. At these endless roadblocks, they don’t care so much about passports. Couldn’t care less about Russian visa stamps. But that pass is your door ticket to war: access all areas.

Which gives the Ukrainians brilliant control of the media. Foul up and they can and do confiscate your press pass: game over!

A Dutch reporter decided to live steam a Russian missile strike on an oil installation in Odesa before the Ukrainian authorities had confirmed it. Back to Holland he went with a ban on any return for some years. That news ran through the foreign press corps across Ukraine with lightning speed and deep penetration.

‘Ukrainian censorship?’ Subtle

It goes further. The aftermath of a missile strike in Kyiv some weeks back was filmed by a score of international TV crews - Channel 4 News included - and to date, this strategic hit by a Russian missile in the heart of the capital has never been mentioned. Still less reported. Or broadcast.

This is an astonishing feat of censorship in the age of the internet, of near instantaneous tweeting and so forth. It is not the only such example. A week or two later in Kharkiv much the same thing happened. Again. Zero reporting.

The Ukrainians have some profoundly effective controls over the media and message remarkably well stitched up. Why? Because everyone is paranoid about having their precious press passes confiscated if they mess up. Simple but stunningly effective.

Russia’s lumbering dictatorship has to go to the messy lengths of murdering journalists; shutting down publications and now passing a law making the telling of truth punishable by up to fifteen years in prison. The Ukrainians have much subtler but, in some ways, just as effective methods of media control. That said, unlike Russia, the Ukrainians here have a limited concern for the dissemination of strategic info helpful to their enemy.

‘Russian censorship’ Much less subtle

Russia, being a dictatorship, imposes total control of the message and media by force and violence. Broadly, the Russians want to do anything they can to suppress the truth that this is war and they have invaded. Ukraine naturally wants that truth beamed around the world incessantly.

Iron-fisted and ham-fisted by turns, like all dictatorships, Moscow ensured entirely one-sided coverage of this war of course. One sided in a way largely favouring Ukraine. Areas under Russian occupation are a virtual no-go for independent reportage. Of course, the usual motley crew of handpicked stooges prepared to parrot the dictatorship line for domestic consumption and online, do get access and military embeds across Donbas and Luhansk.

There have been some rare exceptions to this rule.

To their great credit, Al-Jazeera did somehow manage a carefully controlled foray into Mariupol briefly, under Russian supervision. That has proved impossible for ITN and the BBC. Even our attempt to cover the early days of war from Moscow foundered because although the Russian dictatorship will give you a visa (for £246), it won’t issue your press pass upon arrival. It is promised day after day, but it never actually comes. Therefore, you cannot work because sooner or later officials, police etc will ask for your press accreditation.

See - the old accreditation muscle being applied again as it always is.

Security advisor or controller?

The other logistic member of almost all journo teams is the security advisor. Almost always ex-military. There to advise on how most safely to go about the business of filming organised industrial-scale mass killing and destruction using high explosives and bullets. I use the verb “advise” carefully. They are there to help you get where you want for what you want. They are not there to decide where you go. That distinction can blur and be stressed, but it remains vital.

Journalists and journalism must decide what we do and where we do it.

Your security advisor - and in my case the producer - both have to send daily risk assessments back to London proposing what we would like to do over the next 24 hours. We cannot move anywhere without informing London. Nor without its agreement. London is also tracking us electronically into the bargain.

It should come as no surprise that different news organisations have different levels of what they will tolerate by way of risk. Moreover, how the war looks from London is rarely, no, is never, the way it looks from on the ground. There are positives in this fact. And there are negatives.

Decisions on how close to get to ‘bang-bang’

When you see some journalist getting right up among the shelling and the ‘bang bang’ this is invariably a combination of three factors.

First, the decision of the reporter (and surely to God I hope) their entire team - unanimously- wanting to go to such a location. Second, the permission of the Ukrainian Army or other official body to go to such a location. Third, the go-ahead from London / Paris / New York etc to do it.

In short, it doesn’t just happen.

That said, in this war, we have already lost colleagues and will lose more for sure. To some degree that is the nature of the work of course.

Sky’s close call with death

To come upon the shot-up car of the Sky News team south of Irpin was a salutary experience. We sent stills of the bullet-riddled hire car back to colleagues at Sky. It might be of some use, we thought.

The video of that car being raked by automatic fire and the completely miraculous escape without serious injury to anybody in it, sent a shockwave through this relatively small industry and tiny war-reporting wing of it.

I am unsure, but sense that incident has had a considerably chilling effect on the three factors listed above and thus the willingness of some UK newsrooms to sanction fishing trips up roads that look unpredictable or toward areas where shelling is known to happen daily. Over-cautious? Cavalier? It is an abiding debate in every war I have covered.

My close call with death

But all this can only do so much. South of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, the car in front of us hit an anti-tank mine one afternoon. The driver was killed instantly and his car was shredded. He’d driven on the verge for some reason that will never be known. Off the tarmac, in many areas, is absolutely no place to be in a vehicle.

Had we been a few seconds ahead the blast would have caught us too. No question.

Risk assessment will only get you so far in a place scattered with mines. In places where a missile can hit at any time. You can be as aware as you want about land mines. Those around you? That poor man just in front?

Drones can mean danger for journos

Moreover, technological advances in news gathering and war fighting have arrived dramatically in Ukraine. Ukraine has proved to be the war where the drone came of age on the battlefield. Turkish supplied attack drones in particular have made the tank look outdated, like a mobile reinforced steel coffin.

So too, drone journalism has arrived on the battlefield in a big way. To some, a sparingly used artifice in news gathering, to others, getting drone footage is a near obsession to get airborne and tell a truth that only birds recognise yet humans delight in.

The two do not mix in the war in Ukraine. Northwest of Kyiv, close to the frontlines of retreating Russian forces, I was astounded to see two journalists flying a drone. So much so that before I really knew it, I found myself wandering over to them and saying this was a very bad idea. As in really bad. As in ‘do you want to get us all killed here?’.

Just about three minutes after their precious tv airborne mission was complete, a shell duly smashed into the area, exploding a couple of hundred yards from where the droners had been. It was the only shell fired whilst we were there. Coincidence? Possibly, but drones are also weapons and it did absolutely not feel like coincidence that morning.

A few days later in Saltivka, a suburb of Kharkiv that is gutted by weeks of bombardment, another drone buzzed above us out of the blue. Because of the amount of shelling it was hard to hear. Military? Media? We did not wait around to find out. Nor did we bring a drone to Ukraine. On the whole, I’d say the drones are best left in their boxes in a modern war zone where they are weapons as well as news gathering devices, a marriage made in hell if our experience is anything to go by.

Clap for Ukraine in the UK

As I write this back in the UK, I continue to be amazed at how this whole, awful war cuts through with people. British towns and villages fly Ukrainian flags. Friends open their houses to refugees.

Names burn into global and British consciousness in a way few other wars have achieved: Bucha … Mariupol … We all know we are at proxy war with Russia. In that, the dictator Putin and his marionette Lavrov are correct. It touches us in a way the break-up of Yugoslavia in the heart of Europe never did. Nor the long and lost war in Afghanistan where British lives were smashed and lost. Nor the complex, mutating war in Syria.

Ukraine is us, in a startling and brutal new way so few of us ever thought possible.

Not least, that has dragged our journalism here into the position of first-draft evidence gathering for potential war crimes as never before. That is not necessarily the most comfortable place for a journalist to be. Not necessarily what journalism is in its first drafting of history. But like it or not, that is where we are.

Not a few reporters have felt perfectly comfortable going further and overtly accusing Russia outright of war crimes. In a rare reversal of this narrative, it was largely left to the New York Times to consider evidence of Ukrainian atrocities as well.

From these initial recollections hot from the frontline, the picture emerges then from Ukraine, of a startling blend of ageless, timeless dilemmas intrinsic to the craft of war reporting alongside startlingly new challenges to the simple / complex challenge of trying to tell it right.

This chapter was taken from the new book ‘Reporting the War in Ukraine: A first draft of history’, edited by John Mair and Andrew Beck. Published by Abramis Academic, it is also available to buy on Amazon.