High jumps and hand grenades
CNN has insisted that its sports reporters have 'hostile environment' training before covering the Olympics. What's going on?
By Ian Burrell
10 August 2004
The journalists have had the typical components of a terrorist bomb explained to them, as well as details of exactly what happens when such a device explodes, and how they should react.
They have been briefed in detail on how to make their work environment as secure as possible, and how to resist being taken hostage. Furthermore, these members of a trade that is traditionally reluctant to conceal its light in the shade of a bushel have been instructed on how to make their profiles as low as possible - and told how to diffuse anger and confrontation whenever they encounter them.
These are sports reporters we are talking about. Not Kevlar-jacketed war correspondents planning an expedition to Fallujah, but presenters, camera crews and producers covering such harmless-sounding events as the triple jump, the gymnastics and the dressage at the world's greatest sporting competition.
CNN has insisted that staff covering the Olympic Games in Athens this month undergo extensive courses in hostile-environment training before leaving the news organisation's headquarters in Atlanta. Chris Cramer, CNN International's British-born managing director, believes that such precautions are necessary and will become increasingly common as journalism of all disciplines becomes more dangerous. "We are sending sports correspondents on hostile-environment courses to school them in the things that might happen in something as previously relatively risk-free as a sporting occasion," he says.
The Olympics, historically, have not been entirely risk-free, of course. Terrorists targeted the Munich Games in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered, and CNN's home city of Atlanta was the scene of a terror bombing when it hosted the games in 1996.
Journalists can no longer take safe working conditions as a given, Cramer says. Particularly in times when anyone can claim to be a journalist, right down to the terrorists themselves, who film their deeds and put them on the internet.
"Anyone can news-gather. The value of news-gathering is the journalism that's attached to it," says Cramer. "But many people out there can do it a damn sight faster than some broadcasters. There's no alchemy, no black art any more."
Cramer worked for 25 years at the BBC, and for five years was the corporation's head of news-gathering. He knows more than a little about the safety of journalists, given that he was held hostage by Arab terrorists during the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege. He was seized while trying to collect a visa but was released after feigning a severe illness. The siege was eventually ended by the Special Air Service(SAS).
Cramer wrote up his experiences in a book, Hostage!, and is now the honorary president of the International News Safety Institute, a global organisation dedicated to protecting journalists and recognising that they can be victims of traumatic stress.
He says that the younger generation of journalists are less prepared to take unnecessary risks and more willing to admit fear than their predecessors, who were brought up to believe that the only way to win awards or peer recognition was to go to war. "There was a stigma attached to admitting you were scared, 10 or 20 years ago. It's not there now," he says. "The new generation takes their knocks, but they understand that they have choices."
CNN only sends volunteers to war zones, and the Atlanta organisation employs counsellors ("they are very busy at the moment") to talk in confidence to journalists before and after they go on dangerous assignments. "It's called doing your head laundry. It's better than drink and drugs, they tell me," he says.
Cramer was recently "appalled" to receive a telephone call from a media student (he thinks she was British, but she may have been American, it was a short conversation) who called him from Baghdad with the offer of sending stories. "She said: 'I'm a media student, I've got a camera. Can you tell me where I should go if I get any footage?'," he says. "I said: 'Straight to the airport and just get out of there because I won't be buying any of your footage and I don't know any network in Baghdad that will.'"
CNN itself is investing in smaller news-gathering equipment so that its journalists are less obvious, using mini-cameras, editing on laptops and transmitting via the net. "The exciting thing is that, at a stroke, you have reduced all those people running around the streets connected by wires and with big silver boxes, which might as well have had targets on the side."