Keeping journos safe: more than a code of practice

About a year ago a 16 point code aimed at keeping Australian journalists safe in war zones and other areas of trauma reporting was released at a war reporting conference in Sydney. Last week in Auckland several New Zealand journalists suggested it was about time a similar code was established here.

Award-winning freelancer and producer, Jon Stephenson said that he hadn’t seen any progress in New Zealand in the year since the first Red Cross-sponsored conference on war reporting in Wellington; which coincided with the 2009 Sydney event.

Stephenson made his comments during a panel discussion at a follow-up event held at AUT in Auckland on the 24th of May.

TV3’s experienced correspondent and news anchor, Mike McRoberts, agreed with Stephenson, as did TV1’s Campbell Bennett.

The keynote speaker at the AUT event was former ABC correspondent and now journalism educator Tony Maniaty. It was a great speech in which Maniaty talked about the outsourcing of danger now that most large news organisations in Australia and New Zealand no longer have fully staffed bureaux in many places and tend to only send reporters into hot spots when a story is breaking. He also noted that smaller, lighter digital cameras mean that the safety net of a larger, tightly-knit group no longer exists. Heavy gear and complex camera-audio set ups required three or four people to manage, creating camraderie and support networks:

Today, my students can – and some do – circumvent all that rigmarole by walking around the corner, buying a laptop and HD camera and a cheap air ticket to Kabul, and two days later be filming – alone, unsupported – on the frontline. And in this increasingly prevalent scenario are two more challenges facing us. One, we need to inject compulsory safety training modules into our media courses; and two, we need to address more carefully the vexed issue of freelancers, and what I call ‘the outsourcing of danger’. If networks are not prepared to send staff reporters into hot zones, do they have any right to send others there – for far lower pay, without training or insurance or training, without safety gear?

The idea of running safety training modules in J-schools is an interesting one, but what do we leave out in order to include them? We constantly come up against this “pint pot” problem; I might also add that the news industry needs to take some responsibility here (and shoulder the cost). Though I think that having some sort of safety code is not a bad idea.

The call for New Zealand to adopt a media safety code has been made now and the question is how will the news industry respond. With the high profile and senior trio (McRoberts, Steohenson and Bennett) supporting the development of a safety code for New Zealand foreign correspondents and war reporters, what’s the next step?

As Mike McRoberts pointed out, in New Zealand’s small media marketplace it would be as simple as a handful of phone calls linking up the major news executives to reach an agreement.

And, the hard work’s already been done. The Australian code is available as a model and with a little tweaking it could surely be made to fit New Zealand conditions.

  1. The preservation of life and the management of safety are paramount. News organisations should make clear to news personnel that unwarranted risks in the pursuit of a story are unacceptable and strongly discouraged. News organisations should consider safety first before competitive advantage.
  2. Assignments to war and other danger zones and hazardous assignments must be voluntary and news organisations should only assign experienced news gatherers or those under the direct supervision of experienced personnel.
  3. Either an editor at base or news personnel in the field may decide to terminate an assignment in a danger zone or other hazardous assignment.
  4. News organisations should monitor the safety and well-being of news personnel in the field, who in turn should keep editors informed of safety and security developments.
  5. News personnel should receive appropriate safety and risk awareness training before being assigned to a known danger zone or on other hazardous assignments.
  6. News organisations should ensure that news personnel being assigned to war and conflict zones are aware of the international rules of armed conflict as set out in the Geneva Convention and other relevant international humanitarian law.
  7. News organisations should ensure that news personnel familiarise themselves with the political, physical and social conditions in the areas where they are due to work.
  8. News organisations should ensure that news personnel familiarise themselves with relevant laws or regulations that restrict freedom of movement and the right to interview and take photographs or film during an assignment.
  9. News organsiations must provide safety equipment and medical and health safeguards appropriate to the threat to news personnel assigned to danger zones or on other hazardous assignments.
  10. News organisations should ensure that news personnel have appropriate financial cover (e.g. insurance) against personal injury and death while working in danger zones or on other hazardous assignments.
  11. News organisations should provide free access to confidential counselling for news personnel involved in coverage of traumatic events and for their immediate families. They should train personnel and managers in recognition of post traumatic stress.
  12. News organisations should ensure the immediate families of news personnel have access to appropriate and timely advice on the safety of their loved ones in danger zones or on other hazardous assignments.
  13. Journalists and other news personnel are neutral observers and the neutrality of news personnel is an essential safeguard. No member of the news media should carry a firearm in the course of their work.
  14. News organisations agree to work together to maintain common standards in safety training for news personnel and to share information and expertise to improve the overall level of safety throughout the industry.
  15. News organisations will actively participate in bodies such as the Australian News Safety Group, the International News Safety Institute (INSI) or other news industry bodies dedicated to improving safety and security.
  16. News organisations will co-operate in lobbying governments, the police, military forces, and other groups when necessary for the safety of news personnel and to safeguard their ability to gather and report news.

Most of the points in this code are commonsense and many media organisations would say that they arleady comply with most of it; but there are a couple of areas where there may well be controversy, or reluctance on the part of employers to stick to the letter of the code.

Inevitably, these are points where some financial cost is likely to be incurred. for example safety gear and survival training. This was taken very seriously during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, but to some extent, I would argue, this was also a propaganda exercise aimed at pacifying the news contingent and also ramping up the (less than credible) threat that Iraqi forces would use chemical and biological agents against the coalition forces.

You will remember, I’m sure, that no such weapons were there to be used or even found, but during the pre-war “hearts and minds” phase it was an important propaganda weapon skillfully used by the Pentagon to whip up anti-Saddam hysteria.

But now, how many news organisations are going to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive personnel training exercises “just in case”. There’s also the ongoing issue of “parachute journalism”.

In these scenarios reporters are flown in and out within a relatively short time-frame and there’s no opportunity for survival training. A crisis occurs, journos fly-in, get some “bang bang” pics to go with the local colour and then get out.

This is the cheap and cheerful form of foreign correspondence and war reporting that doesn’t tie up expensive human resources in far-flung locales waiting for something to happen. It’s related to the points I debated with TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt earlier this year about “parachute” journalism.

The question remains: Why send a local crew? If you look at the coverage of the Bangkok crackdown on TV3, how different is it really from the agency and international footage shown on TV1 or Prime?

It’s also relevant that during the discussion at lat week’s AUT forum the issue came up again and Cameron Bennett made an interesting observation.

He said sending one of your own to cover these events is not so much about a “Kiwi perspective” as it is about having someone on the ground who the audience can relate to. Sort of a “familiar face” argument.

But really, is this even necessary? We are already familiar with the faces of BBC and American ABC correspondents because they are pretty much a fixture on the evening bulletins anyway. Does it really add more context, or more authority to the story to see Mike McRoberts crouching behind a tank, than if it was an American reporter?

While the criticism of parachute journalism applies to all forms of foreign correspondence; for the reasons outlined at the Reporting Wars seminar, the situation is more dangerous and so a code more vital in war zones.

However, I must say I find the whole idea that somehow you can put in place “rules” for war fighting rather strange. War is barbaric under any circumstances and trying to find an Aristotelean “golden mean” in which wars can be fought “humanely” is an absurd sophistic argument.

It’s fine to say that shooting an un-armed reporter is a war crime (it should be), but in the heat of battle that does not stop it from happening. And when it does, the politics of the conflict count for a lot more than any principle about the sanctity of a reporter’s life.

Does anyone really expect the American Apache helicopter gunner who killed two Reuters’ staff in Baghdad to face a war crimes tribunal? Hell no; he’s never going to face justice for that little “accident”. Nor will the tank gunner who blew up the Al Jazeera bureau in the Palestine hotel in Bagdhad in 2003.

Reporting wars is dangerous, we know that and to some degree it’s necessary. But the shooting and the smoke and the shrapnel and the death are really only a small part of any good reporting about conflict and war.

What is equally important and tends to get overlooked in the elevated hype, adrenalin and glamour of the front lines is the politics of conflict.

What did we really learn from the embeds in the invasion of Iraq that helped us to put the conflict in perspective?

Actually, very little. The front line reporting tends to be exciting (or nauseating) but not very explanatory; the real story is in the decision-making that leads to war.

How quickly in March 2003 most of the world’s news media forgot that in the build up to the invasion of Iraq. The rush that comes in the newsroom from exciting images and loud explosions over-shadowed the analytical reporting of the important “why” of the Iraq story.

The “why” was reduced to the spin created in Washington and London, which to that point was being questioned. As soon as the invasion was immanent all that was forgotten in favour of safety training, atrazene injections, hard hats and ration packs.

I have no problem with the idea that journos should be on the front lines, if only to record the war crimes of their own murders, or those of civilians around them; but to pretend that this is the epitome of foreign correspondence is to be blinded by muzzle flash and deafened by the detonation of mortars.

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