School for Survival  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 1998

School for Survival   

A British program teaches journalists how to survive in the world’s war zones.

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

he scene is a country estate out of a Jane Austen novel in Hampshire, England, where seven journalists from the BBC amble down a wooded lane. Chirping birds and the soft trickle of a fountain lend bucolic notes to a warm summer day. Suddenly, a sniper's shots pierce the air--one round, then another. The journalists hit the ground; some dive for cover in nearby woods. When the shots stop, a man lies face down in a clearing.

The sniper moves erratically through the woods, waving his gun, strafing the trees and bushes. Two BBC journalists crouch behind a leafy bush, calling to the still man, gunshots sounding overhead. No response. After a few minutes, the two--a correspondent and a cameraman--jump out, grab the man by his feet and drag him to safety, his face bouncing up and down along the rutted ground.

"OUCH!! That hurt," mutters medic Leonard May, one of a team of former British military experts contracted by the BBC to train journalists bound for battlefields. May is watching an instant replay of the scene on video; he grimaces as the journalists drag the man--one of his colleagues--into the bushes, while the sniper--another colleague--continues firing blanks.

"They haven't located the sniper, and he's out in the open firing. They'd probably all be dead by now," May says, chuckling. Then he offers concrete suggestions on how the journalists would better survive a similar encounter should it happen while covering a real war in Serbia's Kosovo province or Afghanistan's Kabul--some of the most dangerous spots in the world for reporters.

May's exercise is part of a safety training program required of all BBC staff leaving for any country in conflict. A program prototype was stitched together in 1991 when the BBC, worried for its journalists' safety, worked with the British military to provide battlefield first-aid training for its employees and others.

Training became more sophisticated in 1993, when the BBC contracted with a British company, Centurion RiskAssessment Services Ltd., to teach journalists personal safety and first aid in war zones and areas of civil unrest. Since then, more than 6,000 media workers have benefited from the courses, taught by ex-Royal Marine commandos, says Centurion Director Paul Rees. "No story is worth a life," says BBC News risk control manager Peter Hunter. Participation in the program is spreading across the Atlantic. As soon as the BBC finished its course this summer, a crew from ABC's international news division arrived for an intensive one-day class in chemical warfare. Journalists from the Associated Press, New York Times, Reuters and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., along with a host of freelancers, have been through the program, which offers both one-day training and four-day residential courses.

Although the focus is on survival in a hostile environment, time is parceled out for relaxation. Journalists enrolled in the residential program stay at a stately Victorian manor called Heckfield Place. They eat gourmet meals served on linen tablecloths and spend most of their evenings in the pub or in mahogany-paneled sitting rooms decorated with paintings of 19th-century fox hunts.

The majority of participants come from television and radio, say BBC staffers. For the most part, correspondents, especially print reporters, receive little or no training before leaving for hot zones, Hunter says. He and others cite several reasons for the lack of training given print journalists: Newspapers can do more from a safe distance than the more visually oriented broadcast outlets; newspaper managers often send only those with battlefield experience into war zones, and they often fail to see the need for additional training.

But these days, with a dwindling pool of journalists trained in covering combat and civil unrest, the need for safety instruction continues to grow, Hunter says. From 1988 through 1997, 474 journalists were killed while on assignment, not all covering combat, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of these, 120 were killed while working in the Americas, including seven in the United States; 128 in Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union; 78 in Asia; 95 in the Middle East and North Africa; and 53 in the remainder of Africa.

For employers, the benefits of a safety program far outweigh its expense, proponents say. Costs of a four-day program range from as little as $280 for freelancers subsidized by CNN, the BBC and the Freedom Forum, to about $1,500 each for others, Rees says.

"It's really in [employers'] own self-interest to protect themselves," says James Mitchell, an ABC cameraman based in Johannesburg, South Africa, who attended the chemical warfare course. "If we get killed and they haven't given us any training, it's a bit of a problem for them, isn't it?"

So strict are British laws governing employers' responsibility for the safety of employees, British news organizations can be criminally prosecuted for failing to adequately prepare journalists for dangerous assignments, explains Tony Loughran, BBC newsgathering safety and security advisor. There is no comparable criminal statute in the United States, but civil suits against negligent employers would be possible under certain circumstances.

Thanks to Loughran's efforts, journalists who successfully complete the news safety training can receive a 35 percent discount on combat insurance, which provides medical, disability and death benefits.

Many of the BBC and ABC journalists attending training sessions this summer had covered fighting in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, Turkey, Rwanda, Somalia, Zaire, Bosnia, Beirut, the Persian Gulf, Chechnya and Northern Ireland. They told stories of their own injuries, and of seeing colleagues wounded and killed on assignment.

Just this year, a Frontline Television cameraman was shot at in Kosovo, and another cameraman from Britain's Channel 4 news was badly beaten.

In Sarajevo in 1992, ABC News producer David Kaplan was shot and killed by an unidentified sniper as Kaplan tried to enter the city by car. That same year in Sarajevo, CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth was shot in the face and severely wounded in cross-fire, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"You can never know too much," says one BBC producer on a bright summer morning, sipping tea and awaiting the day's training sessions. The journalists are in the middle of a four-day battlefield first-aid course, usually offered in conjunction with "hostile environments" training. In the latter course, participants may find themselves dragged out of a Land Rover and thrown face first onto the dirt, where a cloth sack is tied around their necks as rounds are fired overhead--a lesson in surviving hostage situations.

"It's not the same as knowing there are real bullets flying," says Jane Hartney, an ABC camerawoman based in Rome who took classes in Hampshire this summer. "But the more information you have, the better off you'll be."

IN THERE HASTE TO CARRY OUT THE DAY'S LESSONS, the journalists often forget what they learned just a few minutes before, creating wacky scenes reminiscent of "Hogan's Heroes" or "McHale's Navy"--stepping on minefields or body parts of injured people, forgetting the most basic first-aid lessons. In one training scenario, a wounded man, bloodied and lifeless, is busily bandaged by several eager journalists. Two minutes pass before anyone remembers to check his air passage. When they finally do, he vomits soup.

"He's dead," the instructor says with a shrug and gently reminds the journalists, for what seems the 100th time, to always check the air passages first.

When he started working with journalists, safety advisor Loughran, an ex-Royal Marine, was surprised by their naiveté. "Basically, the journalists were unaware of the risks and threats they faced. But we knew."

So Loughran assembled a cast of soldiers, put them in the field and ordered them to show the journalists what to expect. The experience, for many, is sobering.

"My hands were shaking after the second day," says Simon Phillips, a BBC producer with limited combat experience. The element of surprise is key to the training, so when the journalists venture out for a quiet walk on the tranquil grounds, they usually come under attack.

Staffers detonate car bombs, simulate sniper attacks and appear as gravely wounded casualties with oozing gunshot wounds, broken bones and bloody scalps, moaning for help. Instructors stand by, providing instant feedback on how well each journalist has performed.

In another scenario, the journalists, having been instructed on the correct procedure for safely passing through a guarded checkpoint, head toward the barrier in a Land Rover. They stop the vehicle a few hundred yards before the checkpoint--as instructed--approaching on foot. Unexpectedly, the guard begins to shoot wildly. A few journalists dive for cover in low-lying bush, but two crouch frozen by the Land Rover, ducking for cover behind the door.

"It's everyone's first response," says the instructor of the two who froze by the Rover door. But, he says, it's also one of the most dangerous places to hide. "This is a generation of journalists brainwashed by movies and television," explains the BBC's Hunter. "They're conditioned by what they see in 'Die Hard' or 'Starsky and Hutch,' where the bad guys shoot submachine guns and the good guys hide behind a desk or a car door, and nobody gets hurt."

Reality is quite different. Instructors shoot high-velocity rifle rounds straight through car doors, desks, even brick walls. To demonstrate what ammunition does to humans, they pepper plastic water drums with bullets and show graphic, unaired footage of wounded victims. Journalists are told their best bet would be to dive into a ditch, behind a lot of earth.

Using actors and realistic props (including bloodied bodies with spouting arteries), instructors show students how to bandage gunshot and shrapnel wounds well enough to keep victims alive until professional help arrives. "We're trying to make [journalists] self-sufficient. Our feeling is: 'How can you sit and watch while someone is bleeding to death?' Why not train them properly, so they're not ad-libbing it?" Hunter says. They do not, however, teach journalists to use weapons. "We'd worry that they'd shoot themselves or each other," he says.

Instructors also warn journalists against looking too much like actual soldiers, lest they become a target. Hence no camouflage is allowed, and the BBC issues body armor that looks more like a photographer's vest than a soldier's uniform. BBC management has invested in a wide array of safety gear. It procured over the years two custom-built bulletproof Land Rovers that travel with journalists to war zones and protective gear for news crews covering areas under threat of chemical warfare.

Nuclear, biological and chemical safety training begins ominously. "This is your worst nightmare," instructor Steve Newland tells the ABC News crew. Newland launches into a two-hour description of the various gases, chemicals and viruses available to take out huge portions of a population. To the ABC News crew, the discussion is deadly serious and, for some, eerily familiar.

Nasser Ibrahim, an ABC field manager based in Cairo, vividly remembers having to suit up during the Persian Gulf War against a chemical attack when, in February 1991, the first SCUD missile hit a military base next to a Dhahran hotel housing journalists.

"It was 3 a.m. We had virtually no training--a one-hour lecture, nothing like we're getting here. I put on my suit. I was sweating; I could not breathe. Only the crazy cameraman went out. You cannot imagine the feeling of not breathing, not being able to take off the suit. We stayed that way for one hour and 45 minutes."

For ABC cameraman James Mitchell, the safety course demystified a lot of hearsay about covering chemical warfare. "It's a lot less complicated than I thought. I was under the impression you take one little whiff and you're dead. I'm happy to know you have a little time."

Not much time, though. About 10 seconds.

YOU BETTER WORRY ABOUT NERVE AND BLOOD AGENTS," Newland says, filling overhead projector screens with information on them. Blood agents, designed to kill by preventing oxygen from circulating in the blood, can be delivered in any form "except a bullet," he explains. Though the agents are rarely used, he says, the most egregious example of their destructive capabilities occurred in March 1988 in the Kurdish town of Halabja.

Newland shows a graphic video of the aftermath. "People died while they were cleaning their teeth. They were found holding toothbrushes," he says.

As many as 5,000 civilians were left dead; others were severely disabled.

As the lecture wears on, the smells of garlic and rotten apples fill the room, causing a few participants to shift in their seats and sniff the air. This smell, or one like it, Newland warns, should have signaled to the people of Halabja they were under attack. "Why are we smelling it?" someone asks nervously.

"So you know what to expect," Newland says. "Don't worry. It's not real." He passes around several large gauze pads of smells--days-old fish, new-mown hay, geraniums, rotten apples. "You people in the media have a little problem," he jokes. "You don't have a commander telling you to suit up."

"So how do you know when to put the suit on?" asks a cameraman.

"If I were you, I'd sleep in it," Newland responds.

He's not kidding. It takes a minimum of 10 minutes to unpack the suit from its vacuum-sealed container. In most cases, when the gas starts wafting, you have 10 seconds before, as Newland says, "you become a casualty."

The suit should be worn over two layers of clothes with every millimeter of skin and hair covered, providing a seal separating you from the air. ("Try it when the temperature is 90 degrees outside in Iraq," Newland chuckles.) To be safe, you shouldn't eat or drink unless you've mastered the fine points of decontamination, a complicated process that leaves no room for mistakes.

He shows a video from the Persian Gulf War with journalists mishandling the protective clothing and equipment--and the skin burns that resulted. He jokes about how ill-equipped news organizations are when it comes to preparing employees for the hazards of the job; often, they have no idea that respirators come in four sizes or the clothing has to fit properly for it to work.

Newland orders his recruits outside, suits them up, then puts them through a series of drills, including marching them around the grounds. Then he pulls out a stopwatch and times them until they can get the respirator functioning in 10 seconds.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10!" he yells repeatedly. A chorus of "I'm dead" underscores the difficulty of the exercise: The suit and respirator won't properly seal if you have long hair, glasses or a beard, as did half the ABC crew.

"What do you do if you have to pee?" asks one.

"Hold it for six hours," Newland replies. He is gentle but emphatic, repeatedly chiding his pupils to commit this or that to memory.

"Commit to memory the difference between gas and vapor. What's the difference?" No response.

"Vapor is persistent! What's persistent?" No response. "It affects skin and breathing," Newland says.

"Do you feel all right?" he asks. Silence. "Do you?"

Someone mutters, "Yeah, OK."

"This afternoon, it'd better be right, or else you're going to choke. I'll have you put your respirator on, put you in a room, fill it full of shit and see if you know how to do the drills."

The afternoon gassing goes smoothly, unlike other sessions in which some participants, convinced that the smoke filling the shed is really poison, run choking and coughing into the nearby meadows, where bunnies nibble clover. But the ABC crew, hardy and experienced, marches out successful and only marginally worried.

"I feel like tomorrow I'm not going to feel too well," camerawoman Hartney confesses to Newland.

"Why?" he asks. "It's only smoke."

"Oh, you didn't gas us?" she asks jokingly.

"You think I'm going to gas you? What do you think that would do to all the rabbits around here?"

After a good laugh, Newland sums up the day's lesson: "You can't give a happy ending to this," he says soberly. "But look: If you can get this shit on in 10 seconds and get out in six hours, you'll be OK."

The benefits of safety training cannot be overstated, proponents say. This summer, a BBC World Service reporter traveling in southern Somalia was stopped by armed gunmen. Having recently completed the Centurion course, the reporter remembered to control her breathing, make eye contact, think positive thoughts, avoid asking questions. "The course," she says, "helped save my life." After being detained briefly, she was released by the gunmen.

In the months following his stint at Heckfield Place, ABC's cameraman Mitchell says he thankfully hasn't had to rely on his chemical warfare training for survival. But his lessons in first aid have come in handy, he says. While covering wildlife conservation in Africa, he "encountered a great white shark, was attacked by a wild cheetah and a charging elephant, all in one week."

He is now working on a story about the capacity of various countries to wage chemical and biological warfare, so the chemical training course gave him useful background, he says. "You never know what you'll be exposed to. Most of us don't have a fear of being nuked. But it's nice to have the knowledge so we're in better stead to deal with it, should it happen."