How do journalists stay safe while chasing a story? | Media Safety Specialist Colin Pereira
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|Welcome everybody to today’s Navigate podcast. Today, joining us, we have Colin Pereira. Colin is a specialist in media safety. When journalists are operating in high risk locations, Colin is behind the scenes, ensuring that nothing goes wrong. And if it does, he’s involved with fixing it. He’s a director of HP risk management, but previously head of high-risk security for ITN News and deputy head at the BBC High Risk Team. He’s also an Emmy Award winning journalist in his own right, having been a producer for BBC Newsnight, Radio Four and World TV. Hi, Colin. Thanks for joining us.|
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|Hi, Ben. Nice to be with you.|
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|Thanks. Tell us a bit about your role in the media organisations that you support and maybe a little bit about your background?|
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|Sure. So currently I’m, as you said, I’m a director for HP risk management and we are retained by, I think it’s by 14 different news organisations to provide them with security advice and assistance when they are deploying their people to high risk locations or on high risk assignments. So that could be anything from going to a war zone, to covering a hurricane, to carrying out a covert investigation domestically. And in more recent times, it’s been a lot to do with covering Covid and how to go into hospitals and morgues and get on a plane.|
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|Right? So it sounds like, you know, one of the more sophisticated and extreme versions of travel risk management at times. How did you get into this field?|
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Um, Well. Like a lot of people, I just kind of fell into it, to be honest with you. I graduated from university in 2000, and I had studied international relations and modern history. But I actually focused on terrorism, and in particular I had focused on Al-Qaeda.
I’d started up in St Andrews, where they had a school of study of terrorism and political violence, and when I graduated; my skill set was pretty useless to most people. I’d only studied it out of sheer interest, not because I had any prescience that something was gonna happen. And I spent the first, probably 18 months to two years of my career messing around in various different jobs. Financial PR. I worked for the National Lottery in the UK for a little bit. I was a bit lost like a lot of people are at the start of their career. But I knew I wanted to be a journalist, so I would apply every day to a job in the BBC or ITN, or any of the big players in the UK. Everything from dishwasher up to director general. I was applying for.
And after 9 11, the BBC was setting up a security team. They were recruiting for an analyst and I got job and I thought, I’ll do this this security gig for six months to a year, they’ll realise I’m a genius. They’ll put me on the evening news and, ah, you know here I am still, nearly 20 years later in security.
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|So actually, the security part came before the journalism part or sort of hand in hand?|
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|Yeah, definitely came before the journalism part. I, you know, I was part of the security team my entire time in the BBC and I got to moonlight off as a journalist for various departments, but I was always part of the security team, so very firmly in the security realm these days.|
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|And if we think about media organisations like the BBC, like CNN, like ITN news or ITN TV productions, I suppose there is the everyday business travel, the more benign TV production environments and then there is also, I suppose, a much, much bigger exposure to extreme environments than most other sectors. Oil and gas work in remote and high-risk environments sometimes. University academics might venture occasionally into high risk areas sometimes. But for you guys, journalism, documentary production, disproportionately, I suppose, puts your people genuinely in harm’s way. Would you say that’s right?|
0:04:40 – 0:05:54
Yes, I would say probably about 90% of content making a news gathering is benign for any news organisation. It’s, you know, covering domestic news, covering political events, covering the economy, covering the court cases, et cetera. Things like that. 10% of news organisations content is probably international foreign news, and probably about 5% is in hostile environments or covering risky assignments.
We specialise on those 5%. But for our clients, they are the award winning. Or, they’re generally the award winning segments. They are vitally important to news organisations and it’s what people tend to associate news organisations with.
So if you look at the average number of deployments, we probably work on very few of them for one news organisation in the year. Having said that, we will still work on hundreds of deployments in a year. But yeah, you know, we specialise in this sort of sharp end of the news.
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And I suppose you think back to that corporate environment you know, an oil and gas organisation or a mining company or any company. Their assessment of risk, I suppose, is driven by a commercial chain of thought. So an appetite for risk balanced against profit share price increase, possibly being the you know, it’s a leader in the field in some way, etcetera. But that’s it. It’s actually quite a predictable chain of thought in terms of how they how they will accept risk, how much risk they will accept.
How does it work in your organisation, where you’ve got journalism trying to happen on the front line? To tell the world what’s happening in Syria or somewhere else. It’s not a commercial decision, is it really? It’s not balanced against profit or loss or share prices. It’s an editorial decision is it? So does that sit on? How is that? How is that decision shared editorially? Does it sit within with an editor, or does it sit with a team of people who make that decision to go or not to go? How does that play out when it comes to the news?
0:06:59 – 0:08:59
Um, I mean let’s be blunt. Commerce does play a part in this. You know, we are very interested in what our audience want to watch and you know, we wouldn’t be in business if we if we just ignored the audience, which is if we went off and made whatever we wanted to make or films choice that we were interested in and they were not. So the stories that we cover when people are in war zones, covering natural disasters, you know the audience, they definitely resonate with the audience and as a result, advertising revenues or licence fees are paid on the back of that, so there is definitely a commercial aspect to what we do, and that’s on the journalism that side of things.
On the content making side of things, which is sort of, documentaries, game shows, for example. You know, those are very commercially driven. They are thinking about where, where they’re able to sell the projects and you know risk versus reward. Are we able to make this programme, or is this situation too risky on the ground?
So there is a lot of financial – there is a lot of financial thoughts about this going into a product before we begin it. But yes, the decision is made by editors whether we should be covering a story and the way it works is generally a correspondent or a reporter or a journalist of some sort will pitch an idea for a story, saying, ‘I think there was a great story in Yemen’, for example, or India wherever it is. And the editors will assess the merits of the story from an editorial perspective purely and then they will bring in the security team to say, ‘Can we do this?’ If there was any risk involved, that’s how it should work. Sometimes we are phoned up as people are getting on planes or arriving at the story and saying ‘I’m doing the story in Yemen’ They’re saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell us two weeks ago or last night before you got on the plane?’ But generally we are involved at the concept stage.
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And I suppose the time allowed for those two very different activities allows for a different kind of planning, doesn’t it? So if a story breaks in, you know, a high risk environment, news team wants to go, that’s an editorial decision being made within hours. And they might not be much time for preparation or planning the stories happening now.
So I suppose you guys are somewhat on the back foot versus “Let’s go and make this documentary in this high risk or complex environment here” and, it’s, as you say, it’s a pitch and there’s lots of time for planning in mitigation and decisions, etc. so they’re two very different kinds of activity, your side, I suppose?
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Absolutely! Breaking news is vitally important to any news organisation. Getting there first and getting the story accurately is crucial to a news organisation.
So if you take, for example, the massive explosion in Beirut about a month ago, we had news crews dispatched to Beirut almost immediately as the news was breaking. We had news crews on the ground already because Beirut is a major hub for the media, so almost instantaneously that became, we had to wipe everything else off our plates that day and concentrate solely on that.
0:10:26 – 0:11:26
I’m interested in smaller organisations, smaller television production companies that might do very adventurous documentary making, for example, or relatively benign documentary making but things can still go wrong.
So let’s say there’s a TV chef and it’s this TV chef’s tour of a certain part of Europe. If that TV chef is, you know, in a nasty car accident, or has their brain haemorrhage or whatever away from away from home, you’ve got a typical business in some ways, a typical business travel situation there, haven’t you in that very small TV production company would have to deal with that. Or if they are making something more adventurous. Possibly it’s a very complex situation they have to deal with. But when you think about a smaller TV production environment versus CNN or the BBC, et cetera, they obviously don’t have teams like yours building plans like that. How do they cope with it? Do you think?
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Well, most content makers these days will be commissioned by a bigger organisation to broadcast their programme. So as part of that commission, they should be demonstrating to the commissioner that they have the correct health and safety and risk mitigations in place for any project that they’re undergoing. Whether that means that they’re doing a game show, for example, or they’re going off to somewhere slightly dodgy.
A big part of that risk mitigation due diligence will show that they have the correct measures in place in terms of medical evacuations, but most importantly in terms of risk assessment. So risk assessment plays a huge part in any content making or journalism, and that’s where we really start.
So if a travel chef is going off on a tour to three or four countries, the first things that we will do when we sit down with the content makers is work through the risk assessment. Where you going? What are you doing? What are the risks entailed? What do we do if something goes wrong? And that is a conversation that we would have with any content makers, but, you know, content makers should be doing this by themselves.
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|So in the last few months, then since the global pandemic has been part of our lives. How have those two different activities coped with that? What level of breaking news travel has continued, obviously some? But has that been impacted? What level of that kind of activity is continuing? And then also, what about the content production? What about documentary making, TV production that involves international travel? Is any of that continuing possibly some or possibly not much? Be interesting to hear your answer to that.|
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Yeah, sure. So like in any industry, the media have been massively affected by Corona-virus. Advertising revenues are down and the commercials of the business are very much in flux, and we don’t know how that will pan out over the next 24 months.
So there is that impact, the financial impact on the industry. In terms of journalism, a number of news organisations grounded their, their international operations and focused purely on domestic. So our role pivoted from, you know, covering wars and natural disasters to covering to assisting news, news organisations and journalists cover Covid-19. So you’ve got a bear in mind also, that from the 19th of December 2019, we have been covering Covid-19 from Wuhan right through to this day. So we already knew a lot of the measures that had to go into place to protect people. Um, by the time sort of international operations were grinding to a halt.
But a lot of journalists on the domestic desk who had never had to deal with a disease of this nature never had to deal with a pandemic. We had to educate them to how to report safety from hospitals, from morgues from people’s homes. How to report safely when talking to doctors. And even when you’re carrying out a news conference with politicians how to report safely from those environments. So that was a massive educational piece and it was a huge change for the way the business operated and the way the managers manage their staff.
We also had to put in place a lot of mental health support for all sectors of the businesses because people were very anxious about what was going on.
So in terms of international travel, we still had teams travelling to northern Italy. We still had teams operating in Wuhan and across China, India everywhere the Coronavirus was. We still had teams either locally based or one that we would have moved in very carefully, but so there was still international travel going on, but it was very much reduced.
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|If you had an idea for a – breaking news is one thing. The story’s there now. How big’s this story? What are the risks? A quick but thorough discussion and decision. And then maybe off someone goes, if I’m a documentary maker right now, I suppose my case, to travel the globe and make a documentary would have to be pretty compelling, right? For the commissioning editors to say yeah, go on up you go, tackle this challenge and make your documentary.|
0:16:13 – 0:17:53
Well, oddly enough, people are sitting at home watching more TV than ever before, and the platforms are crying out for more content and desperate to get more content in so TV studios, content makers are desperate to get back on the road. They’re desperate to get back into studios and start making films. Start making game shows, start making all the things that you love to watch on TV, so it is difficult.
There is a lot of due diligence being done before anything is commissioned. A lot of measures have to go into place to make sure people are safe. There’s a lot of complaining and griping about those measures, often by the people making the product, making the films, the producing the shows. So it is much harder. It is much harder than it was, say, six or seven months ago but we’re doing it. We’re absolutely doing it and travel is back on board.
And I think you know, you’ve also got to bear in mind the importance of the story. So, for example, in America with Black Lives Matter breaking and all the protests that were occurring news organisations were still pushing people out to cover those protests. They were still covering them in full flow despite the pandemic being out of control in America to a certain degree because it was of vital importance to America and the globe. That story, that story, you know resonates with everyone around the world, I think and news organisations had to be there to capture what was going on.
0:17:54 – 0:18:46
How does it work? If I am a freelance journalist and we can assume that my decisions on my own so 20-30 years ago suppose it was very different. But now a very good GoPro camera and a good journalism head and some kind of budget to travel. You know, we could be off trying to be freelance journalists anywhere in the world in any kind of extreme risk environment. But that story might be something which finds its way back to major networks. Or what have you.
How does that relationship work both in terms of not encouraging irresponsible, high risk behaviour by freelance journalists, but actually possibly very much wanting the kind of story images um, content that they might capture.
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Okay, So pre Covid, I think it’s very important for the audience to know that a huge amount of journalism that you see in the evening news is produced by freelancers. I can’t tell you the exact percentage, but, you know, I would say about 25 to at least 40% on any show is produced by freelancers and they play a vital role in the news machine, particularly as budgets have shrunk because they’re able to react more nimbly and they are able to cover stories more cost effectively sometimes, but with that comes the risk as you’re pertaining, which is they’re pretty much on their own. They’re doing their own thing. They don’t have safety culture necessarily. And organisations are very cautious about how they manage freelancers quite frankly.
So news organisations are quite cautious about how they engage with freelancers when it comes to high risk stories because frequently or certainly often the, the big crises that a news organisation will go through in a year are in some way attached to freelance production. Not all but some of them are.
So managing how freelancers will engage with the news machine is of vital importance to the safety and security often news organisation and reputation of a news organisation. So what should happen is freelancers should pitch a story to an editor and an editor should weigh up the risks versus the reward, but sometimes a freelancer will be on the ground covering a story, a war or natural disaster or some sort of major breaking story of fire and they will just phone up the news desk and say, “I’ve got this great footage, Do you want it”? And most reputable news organisations are now looking at the footage and saying, “That might be amazing, but we can see you have gathered this in an unsafe way and therefore we can’t take that”.
That’s what they should be doing. They don’t always do that, but they definitely have rules and regulations about how they purchase product from freelancers, to, to prevent freelancers and individuals who are just thinking about potentially a pay check or potentially driven by ego, or potentially driven by you know, we just want to win an award so that we can get a bigger pay check.
They want to ensure that they aren’t taking undue risks that could get themselves killed and a number of freelancers are killed every year. You must bear that in mind. So news organisations have this paradox, which is they really want the content that freelancers are producing but they want it gathered in a safe way and they have to enforce their relationship with a freelancer to ensure that it is gathered in a safe way and that relationship is often fraught with difficulty.
Freelancers are not catered for from a safety perspective by the marketplace. News organisations and big media companies will extend a duty of care to them when they are working for them. But freelancers struggle to get insurance. They struggle to get loss of earnings cover, should they fall ill or become injured, they struggle to get a decent med evac plan put in place, all the things that staffers will get as benefits and just take as granted, that you know a news organisation will come and rescue them if there’s a problem. Freelancers have none of that safety blanket.
0:22:36 – 0:23:21
|Colin, I’d be really keen to understand perhaps an example from you about a trip that you personally would not sign off. Where is the line in the sand? You know, we talk a lot about the reasonably foreseeable risks and an appetite for risk and you know, in an environment like yours where those that appetite for risk and get pretty high warzones, et cetera, et cetera. But audiences don’t often get to hear somebody in your position say, “Well, you know what? Here’s an example of a trip where I would be in the ‘no’ camp or the ‘not right now camp’ or the ‘that can wait, camp’, et cetera. So is there an example of a trip that you can give me where you could say, “You know, here’s an example and I wouldn’t sign that trip off.”|
0:23:21 – 0:24:22
Well, I might give you a slightly tried answer then. I’m not in a game where I can say no. My job is to make the impossible happen for news organisations. So and you’ve got to bear in mind our client base, our journalists, when other people are running away from something, from a fire, from a natural disaster. We’re running into it, so we need to get the story no matter what, almost. However, having said that, we will not risk people’s lives unduly or without consideration and we’ll put in place the best mitigation we can, no matter how fast moving the story is or how difficult story is.
So my job is to inform a news organisation what the risks are, how far they can push the envelope and when the loss of life or injury becomes a really, really credible threat and when they have to pull back and they make the decision about whether they’re going to do something or not.
0:24:22 – 0:24:54
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When a disaster strikes, reporters don’t seek out safety – they run towards the danger zone instead. So, how do they chase a story while also avoiding risk? And how do news organisations manage travel safety to protect their staff?
Here, Colin Pereira – Emmy Award-winning journalist, security expert and now Director of HP Risk Management – explains the role media safety specialists play in keeping journalists out of harm’s way.
Whether they’re covering a natural disaster, military unrest – or more recently a global pandemic – war journalists, political journalists and even freelancers often find themselves in places of great turmoil.
Colin’s job is to make the impossible happen for the world’s biggest news organisations – in the safest way possible. Often that means balancing travel risk management with delivering a compelling, news-breaking story.
This gripping interview with World Travel Protection’s travel risk management expert Ben Cooper highlights the vitally important role of media and storytellers, who are still reporting from all corners of the globe throughout the worldwide pandemic.
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