In 2015 I travelled twice round the world, reporting on some of the biggest news events of the year. BBC 5 live has asked me to look back at the places I’d been to and talk about the things I’d seen. Here’s the programme – you can download an MP3 version of it from the site or stream it.
I also wrote a couple of pieces leading up to the programme:
Here’s one for the BBC’s College of Journalism.
And here’s one for BBC 5 live’s In Short website which has some of the dozens of photos, films and reports I’ve filed.
In the broadcast programme I dealt with some of the technical issues I faced travelling around the world. The focus of the programme, originally, was going to concentrate far more on the mobile journalist in me, rather than the events I covered. But the truth is that what started out as one or two overseas assignments mushroomed. Eventually I was abroad for more than a quarter of the year… and the events I covered were all tragedies of one sort or another. I realised that the broadcast programme had to concentrate on the appalling things that had happened in 2015 rather than on the way I was getting on the air.
What I can do, however, is write more generally about logistical issues I faced but I’ll try to do it without mentioning, too much, which particular event I was covering.
So let’s start at the very beginning of an assignment.
The second phone call you get about being sent on an assignment abroad is the moment that your adrenalin hits a peak. The first call is the one to ask if you can go, the second is when it’s been decided. And that’s when the adrenalin spikes. It’s not because of what’s happened – there’s no glorification, no excitement – it’s purely because you are one step away from sheer panic as you try to start planning what equipment to take. You normally have an hour to get everything together and there are lots of decisions to be taken. I have tried, believe me, to have a full kit packed up and ready. It never works. Each event is different.
I live an hour from Manchester Airport. Flight times to Paris and Amsterdam are under an hour and you can fly on to, pretty much, anywhere in the world.
You never really know how long you’re going abroad for. Time and again I’ve been about to come home when things have developed, twists have happened that need covering. The phone call home follows to explain why you won’t be home tonight. Still, we’ve learnt, through experience, to book return flights. They’re almost always cheaper than one-ways unless you’re flying with the low-cost airlines. Just for the record, I don’t get flown in anything other than economy. Due to the unique way we’re funded I fly with my knees up near my chin with a baggage allowance measured in grams, not kilos. I’ve never once been ‘bumped up’ to club class.. or even economy plus.
One hour is not much time to pack but it’s preferable to having too much time. That’s happened a couple of times .. I’ve had an evening to pack before an early flight. I pack and repack and repack again. And then I can’t sleep as I’m worrying about getting up at 0300 to get to the airport. I always drive there – even with the exorbitant cost of airport parking – as it’s cheaper than getting a taxi there and back. There have been some trips overseas where I’ve known when I’m coming back for certain. If that’s the case I’ll book cheaper parking off-site but sometimes you have to bite the bullet and shove the car in the long stay car park. Next time you’re at a large airport have a look at how many cars are parked there and work out the per-week income the airports generate from the land around them.
When packing, the kit always gets prioritised – it’s got to be right – so I spend my time working on making sure I’ve got everything I need. Any old clothes will do.. until, of course, you are in the location you’re going to and you realise you’ve got completely the wrong outfits with you. Using the been-there-done-it experience of Christian Parkinson, whose book Camera Confidential is a must read for anyone interested in this line of work, I’ve now got a bag of clothes that will suit most occasions ready packed. Essentially it’s a week’s worth of clothes: t-shirts and shirts, a couple of jumpers, a pair of jeans and a pair of chinos, a pair of light weight summer walking trousers and a spare pair of shoes – as well as the ones I’m wearing. Depending on the specifics of the assignment I’ll also take a pair of steel toe-capped work boots with high up ankle support. I don’t tend to carry suits because they’re not very practical for the style of work I get involved in although, if there’s space I’ll take a tie. My wash bag contains the minimum of liquids in case I end up taking it on as hand luggage – a small traveller’s tube of toothpaste, a travel deodorant (in zipper style see through bags) but I never leave home without a med kit containing the usual stuff – aspirin (if it’s allowed to be carried on the route I’m taking), anti-diarrhoea tablets (lots of them.. you’ll find out why later), some loo roll, caffeine tablets (again: more detail later), my inoculation certificates, a toothbrush and a shaver. Depending on the assignment I’ll also take a full med kit with me that’s provided by work. It’s got some scary stuff in there which you hope you never have to use. There’s no room for hair gel or after shave – I know my bags are going to be too heavy without me adding to that weight with fripperies.
Airport security staff aren’t keen on wires. I’d go as far as to say they hate them. Which means they probably detest me. For non-European sends, you have to take all sorts of paperwork with you – carnets – to prove you went into a country with certain kit and you’re leaving with the same kit. Most countries seem more concerned with things being done with the correct process and as long as you abide by the rules they’re happy to help. In a world where “I’m a journalist” has stopped being something that opens doors and now just opens you to threat, airport security staff the world over are decent people and realise that, most of the time, your presence is an inevitable side effect of what has probably just happened in their country. In Europe it’s easier but the increase in security inevitably means you have a lot of explaining to do. I’m trying to learn what ‘satellite transmitter’ is in all sorts of different languages. The moment I dread most is when they ask if you have an iPad with you or any electrical equipment and I have to smile meekly. The kit gets taken apart and put into four or five of those trays that go into the scanner. Satellite transmitter, spare battery for satellite transmitter, two ethernet cables, an isdn codec – that my microphone plugs into and converts my voice into digits – batteries for it (huge D cells), two microphones, three pairs of headphones, extension cables, microphone cables, battery chargers, a Comrex – again, a codec that converts my voice into digits that can then be sent down a broadband internet connection, more power supplies, my smartphone and a second smartphone as well as a third phone which works in areas that my UK phones don’t, power chargers, power banks – to provide lots of charges to my phones during the day, external microphone adapters to allow me to plug ‘big’ microphones into a smartphone, head torch, DSLR camera for higher quality video and stills, tripod, batteries and chargers, spare SD cards, lenses, microphones, lights and adapters and, one of the most important things for me, noise cancelling in-ear headphones to make the plane journey as quiet as possible. Most of the time, however, I don’t take a traditional laptop with me. All my editing, all my mixing, all my file transfers, all my writing will be done on the phone. Is it any wonder that airport security don’t send me Christmas cards?
With that much kit there’s also another big thing to decide: what goes in the hold and what goes in hand luggage. I wish I knew the answer. I made a mistake on one assignment in 2015 and put the isdn codec – an essential part of my kit – loose in the hold luggage. It was wrapped in bubble wrap and clothes.. or at least it was until I arrived to find it had been unwrapped and then left next to another piece of kit (also unwrapped) and the two had spent a merry journey bashing against each other. I spent 24 hours sourcing a soldering iron (be honest, do you know the Arabic for ‘soldering iron’?) so I could repair it. Once bitten, twice shy – now my kit is packed in more padding than a children’s play gym. The rule about ‘hold vs hand’ seems to be to talk to people who’ve recently been there.. which can be tough to try and sort out with a couple of hours notice.. but is, obviously, worth it. If it’s not utterly essential – and isn’t going to cause problems with scanners – then it goes in the hold. A tripod, for instance, could be replaced in your destination country whereas another satellite transmitter would be more difficult to source. I’m always more cautious if it isn’t a direct flight, preferring to carry more, rather than less, in hand luggage.
I’ve discovered that reporters and crews overseas are united in one topic of conversation:
I have tried every style and every combination of bags. I’ve still not found the perfect one. Or anything like it. The problem is simple: it needs to be big enough to carry all the above mentioned kit (or at least most of it) and yet light enough to be able to lug around a city, a desert, a town without pavements and still not look out of place in an airport. Furthermore you don’t want it to attract attention. One of the things I’ve been taught by our safety advisers is to try and blend into the background. Tips I’ve been given include:
- Wear sunglasses when you’ve walked through customs and are just about to pop out in the public part of the airport. Nobody can see that you don’t know where you’re going.
- Be careful to always look for the official taxi rank.
- Look confident and learn a few phrases of the local language – such as “Shove it!” – useful when approached by the local dodgy fake taxi hustlers.
- Don’t carry your kit in bags plastered with your company’s logo. They simply don’t do you any good at all.
In the past I’ve had a large hard shelled black padded plastic case – a bit like a Pelicase. Rock solid. They’re amazingly strong.. much much stronger than the type of case you take on holiday with you. They have seals and airlocks and hasps for padlocks and wheels to trundle them along. You need the wheels because they weigh a ton. Most of your allowance on a low-cost airline is used up just by the bag itself. I was attracted to these cases after seeing the BBC’s Emily Unia using one but there are problems – apart from the weight. During the year I was in Austria when I got a call from the desk telling me to go to another country, direct from where I was. Flights had been changed and it would enable me to shift from one event to another. I had all my broadcast kit with me.. it fitted beautifully in my big rugged case. But it looked, very distinctly, like a load of hi-tech broadcast equipment. It would attract a lot of attention which wasn’t going to be useful where I was heading. So I had to leave my big, beautiful hard shell case in Austria with a car hire company who kept it safe for me until I was next passing through a few weeks later and I bought myself a new, more ‘holiday-style’ case to carry my gear.
I was going somewhere hot, leaving somewhere that had been quite cold. My clothes were a mash-up of jumpers and shirts and chinos. My coat was a waterproof one, my shoes leather brogues. So, as well as a new case, I had to dash to an outlet village on the way to the airport and stock up on summer clothing (luckily it was in the sales) … and a lot of it did look slightly Hawaiian and jaunty. A pair of trainers were bought as well and, a load of pants and socks and with two season’s worth of clothing I headed to the airport.
Most of the time, however, I’ll have more of an idea which country I’m heading for… and what I’ll need the bag to do. Usual questions I’ll ask myself include whether or not there are likely to be good pavements (for wheeled bags), what airline I’m flying with (so I know what size bag I can get away with as hand luggage) and, crucially, what the weight restrictions are. I’m using a pro camera backpack at the moment and a pro camera set of inserts that fit inside a wheeled bag that also has backpack straps (surely the jack-of-all-trades bag). I’m hoping one of these will become my default bag but I’m not sure which it will be and if it’ll be the perfect thing for every type of job. Even thinking about it now I know the bag I’m using is slightly too small.. so the search goes on.
So.. anti diarrhoea tablets… what are they for then? Apart from the obvious. I was speaking to a team of international rescue workers. When they get sent to a disaster location, the first thing they pack is their food and water – obviously alongside all their rescue gear. So, maybe it’s the second thing they pack… They NEVER ‘eat out’, never go to local restaurants or buy local food. They don’t drink local water. Everything they eat and drink they take with them. They don’t get caught short as a result of food intolerance or bugs. If you think about it, they’re going to an environment where something bad has happened – food hygiene is the last thing most people will be thinking about. So dodgy stomachs are more likely than normal. I can’t take my own food with me.. so I have to eat local food. End result? Yep. That’s why anti-d tablets are the first thing I make sure I’ve packed (ok, not, perhaps the first but one of the first). They’re not quite as essential in the centre of Paris or in Malta – it all depends on where you’re being sent.
Water is one of the most common ways of catching a tummy bug. So: some horror stories about the mistakes you can make with drink. Ice is an obvious one – how do you know if it’s been made with bottled mineral water? The next story is about cans of fizzy drink. I guarantee this will change your behaviour next time you buy a can from somewhere you’re not sure of. In hot countries, they’re often left outside a fridge and only placed in a fridge a few hours before sale. They’re warm at night and so become the sleeping place for rats.… which don’t have a great track record when it comes to hygiene. They have a tendency to go to the loo where they sleep. Then, the next day, you buy the can. I told you it would change you! The next horror story for you: Beer bottles with crimped tops – rats like to lick around the edge of the bottle at night to get the crystallised particles of drink that spilled over the sides when the bottle was being filled. Watch out for any inebriated rodents! And yet more stories (and I’m assured they’re all true): in restaurants , obviously, only drink mineral water that comes from your own freshly opened bottle. Always look for bottles that have a plastic hygiene seal around the top – you rip that off and then unscrew the top. And always, always, always, drink with a straw or pour the drink into a glass. Without ice.
There’s another reason why anti d tablets are useful.. and, forgive me if this is getting too graphic but there are times when you are working so long and in places without toilets that you would rather take away the chance that you will need the loo in the first place. I’m not condoning it. I know it’s not good for you but neither is the alternative.
A short digression: in December 2015 in the UK there was some flooding in parts of the North of the country. If it ever happens near you – run the bath and make sure the plug is watertight. I first saw this happen in Nepal and it’s really important. It doesn’t take much of a disruption for the water supplies to be affected. Water companies may think it’s safer to cut the water supplies rather than allowing them to become more infected with sewage. At that point you lose all the water available for hot (boiled) drinks and for using to fill the cistern to flush the toilet. So: fill the bath.
Back to my medical supplies. The length of the working day is the reason why I carry caffeine tablets although I’ve never been anywhere where a cup of coffee isn’t a better option. The only time I’ve taken caffeine tablets in anger was years ago when I’d flown to the States and then had an 18 hour day ahead of me. I think the adrenalin boost of flying, landing and then working on a huge international story was more of a boost than the caffeine tablets gave me.
Inevitably you end up eating a lot of junk when overseas, especially once you discount salads (come on, did you really think salads are washed in mineral water?) and the chicken dishes on the buffet table (how long has it been there?). It’s depressing but, quite frequently, I’ll end up eating in exactly the same sort of restaurants and sandwich bars you find back home. It’s just not worth the risk…
Speaking of which….
I get sent to places where bad things HAVE happened. I’m not Orla Guerin or Lyce Doucet who go where they ARE happening.… I’m very much a past-tense reporter. I’ve got my own PPE – personal protection equipment which includes body armour, a helmet and protective glasses – but I’ve only had to wear it on a training course in the English countryside. As soon as you put it on you’ll realise the weight and bulk of the equipment is enough to make you want to stay a safe distance from ‘the front line’. I’ve no desire to put myself at any great risk so it’s been upsetting this year when people have thought I was being brave.. there’s a massive amount of work going on in the background to make sure I DON’T have to be brave. The team back at base are constantly assessing the risks and making sure I don’t get sent anywhere that could be too dangerous. I’ve been in more danger in most British cities late at night than I have been in any of my overseas sends. Honestly – that’s not an exaggeration. There have been occasions where situations have developed while I’ve been on site – but, even then, things are managed to as much of a level as they can be and the BBC’s safety team are often on assignment with me – or are a phone call away – to offer advice. You’d be a fool not to take it as it’s been right every single time.
You might imagine the role of a safety adviser is to say “ooh.. no! You’re not going there!” – when their actual position is always ‘how can this be managed to make it safe enough for her or him to go?’. We go through a fair amount of training before we’re allowed to travel to (anything that could turn into) a high risk zone and, given the nature of the threat you could possibly face, it’s not the sort of training you forget when you leave. You take it everywhere you go. My wife and family often have to put up with what they might consider paranoia but I consider good practice and planning – I mentioned earlier about sunglasses at airports. You can add to that some of the following tips and tricks I’ve been taught:
- Always carry $100 and a spare credit card in a body belt,
- Sleep on the plane because you don’t know when you next will.
- Don’t drink alcohol on a plane as it affects you completely differently to how it would on the ground.
- Eat plain food… experiment when you’re back home and can afford to be ill for twenty four hours.
- I know some reporters who’ve told me they always work out where they would hide in their hotel room if need be .. although I think that’s possibly taking paranoia too far (especially if you’ve just gone away with your wife for a weekend in Whitby).
Reporting on an event that’s developing and happening in front of your eyes is, in one way, really straightforward – you just say what you see. As I always, always say: “It isn’t brain surgery”. On the other hand, it can, at times, involve your grey matter. It has to take in and process events at the same time as your mouth is describing them. You can’t store up images in your head and have those being processed in the background only to come out in beautiful and meaningful prose 30 seconds later. Trust me when I tell you that all those turns of phrases that reporters have come out with over the years are NOT off-the-cuff moments of clarity – they were written, practiced, rehearsed for hours before hand. And then written down on a notepad, ready to be uttered as if they were made up there and then.
I’m really keen on letting listeners hear what a place sounds like.. hardly anywhere is truly silent (and even if it is silent then that can often be important to hear). Trying to get yourself to shut up and let there be a little space is a hard discipline to teach yourself – there is a natural tendency to want to fill up every last gap of airtime (and a fear that if you don’t the presenter will jump in, thinking something’s gone wrong with your microphone or you’ve forgotten what to say!).
Things get a little more complicated when live guests are thrown into the mix. Especially when working overseas. Guests you are about to interview are usually brilliant – they’re kind to you, don’t mind if you only ask them one or two questions and will guide you, very carefully, through their opinions. But you do need to concentrate on what they’re saying – especially if English is their second language and you might have to jump in and summarise what they’re saying. That concentration can also mean you take your eye off the ball about what’s happening around you – I’ve heard reporters completely miss what’s happening 50 metres away because they’re concentrating, too much, on what’s happening just in front of them.
You have to put away any embarrassment – you are talking, at loud volume, into a phone.. people around you won’t realise you’re broadcasting – they’ll just think you’re weird. Get over it.
The pieces I do for 5 live tend to be three or four minutes long and have one or two live guests and some recorded material. I’ll record a piece earlier in the day on my phone, edit it and mix sounds, my scripted links, bits of interviews and, possibly some music. Altogether ill create an audio collage – we call them ‘packages’. It used to involve a recording studio – then it could be done on a laptop – now it can be done on a phone. Check out the rest of my site for details.
Once the package is finished it will be sent in to our central computers back in the UK over wifi or 4G. Then I’ll agree a set of words that I’ll use that is the cue for the studio directors in Salford or London to to press play on their computer and start running the audio. Once the live interview is underway you can’t change those words (although the studio directors are brilliant at spotting when you’re in trouble and have forgotten what to say.. which might have happened once or twice!) Then, once the audio is finished, I’ll interview the guests –
sometimes they’ll have headphones on as well, sometimes they won’t. If they do, it’s to allow the presenter back at base to ask them a question but it’s a lot more difficult for me to rig: I set up my own equipment – basically because I know where all the cables are in my bag – and if there are three pairs of headphones running at once it means three sets of wires. The potential for it being a right mare’s nest is huge.. and it often does get all tangled up but it’s something you just have to deal with. Guests often say that they can’t believe an interview has been and gone so quickly – they thought it would be longer (worth bearing in mind if you’re ever interviewed: get to your point quickly!). After the piece has gone out live it’s time to de-rig the gear, pack it away in the bag and then start looking for the next piece. In one day in Paris I did 18 rigs, lives and de-rigs.
Sometimes, when the phone network’s not good enough to broadcast on I’ll use my satellite transmitter.
The single biggest issue I have to deal with is tiredness. The first twenty four hours are spent in a state of heightened adrenalin. You’re almost on the ceiling with it. Sleeping is really difficult. Luckily the workload helps. Every programme of the day has a right to expect something from me if I’m sent overseas. From breakfast at 0600 till 2300 I’ll be on air at least every hour or two with recorded pieces running in the overnight sequences. Then you’ve got to get back to where you’re staying and try and wind down. Four or five hours off work is a regular thing when you’re working abroad. Your head hits the pillow and the alarm goes off and you start again. You can keep it up, fairly easily for two or three days. Then it gets hard work for a couple. Then, towards the end of a week you’ll get a second burst of wind and have enough energy again.
The tiredness hits you like a hammer at the end of the day. I find I have to prepare for my late night pieces far more than I do in the middle of the day when, to be honest, my brain is firing on all four cylinders. At night I have notes and mind-maps all over my notepad directing me to talk about one thing, reminding me to mention another, instructing me to use certain phrases and language in case I forget. At the end of the live broadcasts, I’ve got to de-rig. I’ve taught myself to be really regimented. Each cable gets wound and tied, each pair of headphones carefully folded and put away and I make sure I still do that at the end of the day, no matter how exhausted I am. Of course this is from bitter experience.. I still remember the day I opened the boot of my hire car to find what looked like a spider’s web of cables that had been knotted and tied together by a gaggle of unruly Scouts. Never again.
I’ve made a lot about travelling on my own to places – but it’s not always that way. When the shootings in Paris happened in January 2015 I travelled with producer, Sophie McDonnell.
As well as her fantastic French we worked well together because there were times when I was tired and times she was. They never coincided with one another – so when I was exhausted she’d push me on and it worked the other way too. Producers make things happen in a way that reporters can’t. Reporters often are worrying about the words they’re going to say, spending their time observing and noticing things to mention on air. Producers tend to just get on with the important things and make sure there’s enough ‘meat on the bones’ of the piece – new lines, new guests. In Malta I went on my own but met up with another producer, Stuart Hughes, and Gavin Lee who’s one of the BBC’s Europe Correspondents. Even though none of us were specifically working for the others we all managed to help each other out – and that’s a way of working that’s been mirrored in other countries. In Nepal, Richard Galpin and I were working together – feeding off each other, helping each other out. In Calais, during the strikes by French ferry workers which led to tensions between drivers heading for Britain and people trying to sneak into the Channel Tunnel, producer Henry Jones and I worked together (let’s be honest, Henry did all the running around grabbing interviews with people as they climbed in and out of lorries while I stayed on the bridge broadcasting for radio and TV via my phone).
And in November 2015 when the attacks in Paris happened, Sophie McDonnell and I were back together again, working as a team for a week and without her help I don’t think we’d have been able to be on air half as much as we were. I’m also extremely grateful for her telling me that I didn’t look my best one day when I was about to do a piece for TV. I’d been awake most of the night and had no idea how unshaved and, frankly, scruffy I looked. I can’t go into details but I can tell you that the jacket that I appeared in on camera may well have been someone else’s. That’s what producers are for…
How do you know when it’s time to go home? I guess it’s when you’ve provided all the material possible from where you are. When you’ve explained what’s happened, when you’ve ‘told the story’ and when, to be brutally honest, the audience has started to turn its attention to other things. Sometimes you can feel you’re leaving too early – I’ve never felt I’ve left too late. Some reporters try and stay a couple of days after their reporting work has finished but I’ve never done that – you can leave yourself more prone to getting in trouble (as you let your guard down) and, most of the time, the events you’ve covered taint your feelings towards a place. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to go back to Paris and not think of the terrible events there.