ITIC Global conference opened in Athens on 23 October, celebrating its 30th anniversary. And the event got off to a perfect start, with a keynote speech by veteran journalist and security correspondent Frank Gardner.
He began with an exploration into the inherent dangers of his work, explaining that when sending a media crew to a high-risk country, local expertise is essential. You may face a potential attack by terrorists, enemy combatants or criminal cartels, who may not be immediately recognisable to outsiders.
“It’s not enough to just turn up as a foreign crew, parachute in there and expect everything to go smoothly, because it won’t,” he said. “It’s incredibly important to have local ‘fixers’ with you, who know the language, the terrain, and understand who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are.”
Local expertise is also essential when dealing with another ‘unexpected danger’ – landmines. The ‘frighteningly well hidden’ devices are frequently unmarked and unrecognisable without the assistance of local guides.
‘Calculated risks’ of international journalism
Gardner was rendered partially paralysed, following an attack by terrorists while filming in 2004: “I had 11 bulletholes in the end, and some of them just nicked the spinal nerves – hence the wheelchair. I spent seven months in hospital,” he explained.
Despite this, he has continued to be an active journalist for almost two decades since, travelling to a range of high-risk locales to report on-site. “I’ve been to Afghanistan four times, with the wheelchair,” he said.
While a drive to continue working might suggest a love of danger, he is aware of the dangers: “I have to be realistic about the risks I can take,” he said.
“It would be crazy for me to go to a frontline position, a forward operating base (FOB), because I would not only be putting myself at risk, but also the person whose job it is to get me out of there,” he continued.
“It’s calculated,” Gardner explained. “It’s OK to go to big bases like Kabul, because these are places the size of Heathrow Airport. Yes, there is the danger of rockets coming in occasionally, but the chances of being hit by one are very small. In a helicopter, you can be shot down, but that very rarely happens.”
Natural world threats
Alongside traditional war zones, journalists also cover everything from ‘public protests, arctic wastelands, or places that are dangerous due to the risk of earthquakes or landslides’. All of these environments offer potential concerns for news crews – with natural threats often outweighing the human ones.
In Svalbard, Gardner noted that while average winter temperatures can reach as low as -20°C – placing visitors at risk of frostbite if precautions are not taken – there is ‘another natural danger, which are polar bears’.
He explained that the island, an unincorporated territory of Norway, has ‘more polar bears than people’. While their main prey is seals, ‘the seals are canny’, so the bears may try to hunt down easier prey, such as humans.
He noted the 2011 case of Horatio Chapple, a schoolboy from Eton, killed by a polar bear while on an adventure holiday organised by the British Schools Exploring Society. The bear had managed to enter the group’s camp unnoticed, following the failure of their tripwire system.
Similarly, with his visit to Colombia, he noted that while the threat of the cartels was real, an arguably greater problem were sandflies – an insect native to the country, which is a vector species for the tropical disease Leishmaniasis.
Likewise, on a trip to Papua New Guinea, Gardner developed pressure sores – a potentially dangerous condition which exposed him to the risk of serious infection. The sores were exacerbated by the high levels of humidity, ultimately requiring him to be transported to a hospital in Brisbane.
Managing risks and injury
“Anyone who is likely to go into these situations, whether they’re a journalist, cameraman or producer, has to do something called a Hostile Environment & First Aid Training (HEFAT) course.
“There’s a huge emphasis on first aid,” he said. “The thing they really bang into you is something called DR CAB,” he continued. This is a system of checks designed to minimise risks for both the rescuer and injured party:
- Danger – check for potential dangers in the surrounding environment
- Response – check if they respond to sensory inputs
- Catastrophic bleeding – staunch any serious bleeds
- Airways – ensure that the injured person has unrestricted airways
- Breathing – check whether the person is breathing.
“We’ve all had this training,” he said. “Insurers will insist on it.”
Additionally, news crews will fill in a ‘high-risk assessment’, aiming to address questions of risk prior to departure, such as ‘who will you be travelling with, how do you rate the risk, who’s in charge, where’s the nearest hospital’.
Despite this, Gardner said: “We have to take into account when we’re going into a war zone that the danger may not be something that we can see. You have to have a very good medevac, [and] if you’re going on a slightly dodgy, risky assignment, you will also have with you a ‘high risk advisor’. They’re there to tell you exactly what the arrangement is to get somebody out if they’re injured.”