Like many journalists of my generation, my first glimpse of the glamour of life as a foreign correspondent came not through an assignment to Africa or the Middle East, but from a night in front of the telly watching the film Salvador. For those who haven’t seen it – and I recommend you do – it stars James Woods as an impossibly cool, witty and degenerate freelancer who covers the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. His was a dirty, dangerous trade, but to a young student slacker like me back in 1990, it seemed to have its benefits. From the moment Woods drove his car over the blood-spattered Salvadorean border checkpoint, cheap booze and marijuana were in abundance. So too were attractive female aid workers. And so too were the front line exclusives that helped make his name.
It wasn’t until 14 years later, as I was trying the follow in his footsteps in post-Saddam Iraq, that I realised that the Hollywood version of freelancing wasn’t quite like the real thing. Just as Woods always headed straight for the “bang-bang”, I found myself inexplicably drawn, for some reason, in the opposite direction. While he would schmooze productively by gatecrashing US diplomats’ parties, I couldn’t even get near the US embassy in Baghdad’s heavily-guarded Green Zone. And to add insult to injury, when I bought a khaki photographer’s utility vest like the one Woods wore so stylishly, I found myself looking like someone at a Young Farmers’ do. So much so that I have carefully deleted all of the various “selfies” of me posing in it.
Still, it could have been worse. At least I’m alive to tell the tale – unlike poor James Foley, the American freelancer beheaded by Isil militants in Syria. Once again, his fate did not fit the Salvador script. In Woods’s world, journalists got killed, for sure, but it was by bombs or bullets on the front line, or regime henchmen who wanted to keep war crimes uncovered. Not by nihilistic jihadis doing it merely because he was an American.
Foley’s murder has, however, rekindled the old debate about the ever-increasingly role that freelancers play in warzones, as the threats from groups like Isil make established media think twice about deploying their own staff.
In a thought-provoking piece in last week’s Observer, Peter Preston lamented how freelancers now provide much of the coverage in the world’s danger spots, while AP’s former stringer in the Congo, Anjan Sundaram, disclosed that many of those danger spots increasingly go unreported altogether. Mr Sundaram should know. AP’s “bureau” in Kinshasa used to be the shanty-town shack he lived in while he was their man out there, which was all he could afford on his no-contract, no expenses, no office, 15-cent a word deal. Since his departure a few years ago, even that has come to look like a golden age, as no one has been recruited to replace him.
As an ex-freelancer myself, who is now part of an “established media” group, I can see both sides of the argument here. However, I write this blog post not to explore the rights and wrongs of that particular debate, but to a give few heartfelt pieces of advice to any other would-be freelances thinking of doing the same thing.
On paper, I should admit, my own freelance excursion to Iraq in 2003 looked about as foolhardy as it could be. I had no contacts there, no insurance, and no experience of conflict zones, unless you counted my regular dressing downs from the newsdesk of the London Evening Standard, where I’d worked previously. My “hostile environment” training course consisted of a chat with a pal from the BBC, who had done such a course because he’d once worked in Northern Ireland. We did similated exercises in a park near his home in Streatham, pretending that dog turds were landmines and groups of local drunks were hostile militiamen. Looking back it was actually quite useful. At the time, it felt every bit as silly as it sounds.
Things weren’t much better once I got out to Iraq. For the first few months I struggled even to afford a translator, never mind find stories, as all my costs were financed from the $10,000 of my own savings that I had brought with me in a sock in my rucksack (you can’t stash that much in a moneybelt, it sticks out like a giant codpiece). Even when I did pick up someone willing to work for just $10 a day, I often spent weeks without work when things were relatively quiet.
Not that “quiet” in Iraq meant “safe”. Three months into my stint in Baghdad, one of the few other British freelancers who’d come to to try his luck, Richard Wild, was shot dead in the street by an unknown gunman. When the first headlines about his death broke back to Britain, friends feared that the “British freelancer killed in Baghdad” was me. For much of those first few months, I was half-expecting some more experienced hand to take me gently aside and say “Listen, son, this isn’t a place for amateurs, best go home now.”
Still, after a shaky start, I found my feet, and within six months or so had regular stringing work for both The Scotsman and The Sunday Telegraph, who I later joined full time. I even wrote a book about my time out there, and while it isn’t exactly as swashbuckling as Salvador, occasionally I’m contacted by people who have read it and have been inspired to try a spot of war zone freelancing themselves. What’s the best way to go about it, they ask?
My general advice is that as long as one is careful, it’s possible. Besides, it would be hypocritical of me to tell others not to take risks that I chose to take myself. But I include one important clause that many young freelancers seem keen to forget: namely, learn the basics of journalism first.
The reason I got by in Iraq was not down to extraordinary survival skills, but because I went there having spent a decade in newspapers in Britain, four of them in Fleet Street. So when stories eventually came my way in Iraq, I knew how to cover them, and how to pitch them to newsdesks back home. That, in turn, allowed me to keep paying the translators who watched my back as Iraq got steadily more dangerous, when the kind of people who killed James Foley began turning up in droves.
By contrast, I have lost count of the number of freelancers I have met who have been itching to go to war zones almost straight after leaving journalism college, before gaining any real feel for how their profession works. This is despite me telling them that just as they wouldn’t head abroad to learn how to become an accountant, lawyer or engineer, they shouldn’t do so to become journalists, least of all in a war zone.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this was the case with Jim Foley. I met him once en route into Syria in 2012, and while I wouldn’t claim to know him well, he came across as a careful and level-headed professional, an opinion that seems to be shared by colleagues who worked with him more closely. But during that particular trip, I did meet an alarming number of freelancers who were very new to the game indeed, to the point where they even asking my photographer for tips on how to take photographs.
Not surprisingly, some hadn’t sold a story or picture in weeks, and increasingly lacked the cash to even get to those places in Syria where they might find work. A few complained, perhaps with justification, that the news organisations they were pitching to offered hardly any money anyway. But an equal hard truth about the news business is that is indeed a business, not an aid mission. If you can’t earn a living in somewhere like Syria, you should perhaps be asking why you are there in the first place.
Fair enough, not everyone wants to spend years learning the news trade the way I did, starting on a local paper and writing about parish council reports and garden fetes. What relevance, they ask, does that have to covering wars?
The answer, as it happens, is quite a lot. For one thing, it trains your news sense: if you can get make a write-up of the Cleethorpes All-Breeds Dog Show sound interesting, you won’t have too many problems finding off-track stories on quiet days in Syria, when noone back in London wants yet another story of bloodshed on the front line. And for another, all news, be it here or in war zones, is about ordinary people and what makes them tick. If you don’t find human life that interesting in Cleethorpes, you may not be that sharp a chronicler of it elsewhere.
True, anyone who wants to do the kind of reporting that Jim Foley did has to take the plunge one day, and no amount of hostile environment courses back home can prepare one for the chaos of the real thing. I’ll also admit when it comes to professional satisfaction, nothing I’ve ever done in my reporting career comes close to my days as a freelance. The sense of excitement, freedom and adventure was better than any of the drugs that James Woods availed himself of in Salvador.
But there is a wealth of difference between learning how to report in a war zone, and learning how to report per se. It’s not just about the difference between making a living and simply having an adventure. It can also decide whether your own personal version of Salvador ends up in tragedy or not.