Here’s to the news agency journalists. Many of them are the unsung heroes of our time. They are often first in and last out on some of the world’s major news stories and regularly report from the frontlines. And although you may not know their names, you have definitely seen their reports, their photos and their TV news stories.
There was a time when I was a television news agency journalist. You wouldn’t have known my name, but you might have seen me. You might have seen running out of a partially demolished Sarajevo television building just moments after the missile struck. You might even have seen me dragging a colleague out of an angry Kosovar Serb mob as they tried to bust up his television camera – and his face. And you may well have seen me in the background at a fallen colleague’s funeral as family and friends gathered in church to pay their last respects.
If you had seen me, it would probably have been on television or in a photo in a national newspaper. Our agency might well have been mentioned in passing, but rarely our names – unless of course we were killed. Then the world’s media would pay attention and pay tribute – for a day or two anyway.
We almost always worked alongside local people who were sometimes Reuters staff and sometimes those who we hired on the spot. They were the real unsung heroes of whatever particular story we were working on – and the international news business as a whole.
And a business is precisely what it was. Reuters TV and the news agency’s competitors APTN and WTN were the wholesalers of international television news to the world’s television outlets. As such thousands of TV channels around the world subscribed – and continue to subscribe – to the news agencies’ services, and hundreds of agency cameramen, producers and journalists went running off around the world to cover the stories that provided the diet of foreign news that television stations required to fill their daily and nightly news bulletins.
By outsourcing to us – and APTV and WTN – the television channels hoped to reduce their costs while ensuring that they did not miss out on international news in the face of competition from other broadcasters. After all, theirs was – and still is – a competitive industry and they knew the need to have the big news stories on their news bulletins.
In providing the foreign news service, Reuters and its competitors provided the ‘meat and potatoes’ for almost all of the world’s international news segments. Images of death, destruction, calamity and chaos were the agency’s speciality. Such stories, video and pictures were often beamed the length and breadth of the globe to arrive in a TV station near you to be neatly voiced, packaged and presented by somebody you probably would know – like Christiane Amanpour or John Simpson or Martin Bell or Nic Robertson.
“This is great that you are here to provide us with pictures,” one world-famous correspondent told me in Sarajevo in 1994. “It gives me the chance to work on my’ lives’.”
As it happened, in the 1990s, I was convinced that it was the agency cameramen and producers who were collectively the most battle-hardened and bravest television operators in the world. Quite a few of them who worked with us at Reuters – like my South African friend and colleague Mark Chisholm – had cut their television teeth in Johannesburg during the days of apartheid. Others had learned on the job covering various wars and periods of civil strife across the globe. As for myself, I cut my teeth in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
As agency journalists, we were the silent minority. For us, there were rarely any ‘standuppers’, by-lines, live television or telephone interviews. There was also hardly ever any recognition. Accolades were few and far between and were usually out of sight – restricted to praises written up as log-notes typed into newsroom journals by office-bound colleagues who spoke with us on satellite phones, sent us bureau messages and coordinated our satellite feeds.
In ‘working the desk’ our colleagues kept us informed and grounded and provided reassurance to us that what we were doing and what we were covering was worthwhile. As such, our deskbound colleagues became a psychological lifeline to the world outside of where we were. They would turn what we did into something meaningful and useful by adding context and scripts and additional footage to take our story and make it part of the whole – to make it usable by broadcasters around the world. Theirs was also an anonymous but essential task.
Unlike others I had come across in the television news industry the agency cameramen, producers and journalists were rarely driven by fame, fortune and egotistical recognition. Instead, they were there for the ‘kick’ of it – and of course the noble art of journalism. They loved the adventure and the competition and the camaraderie. They were almost always team players who formed a tightly-knit unit who supported one another when the chips were down, as they often were – or in the face of intense competition with the other agencies, as there usually was. They often endured extreme hardship, discomfort and danger to get the story – and, of course, the footage.
Despite their anonymity, their dispatches spoke volumes. Some of what they did showed wars and forced governments to act. Some of what they covered helped change international policies and agendas. Some of what they witnessed and filmed brought international war criminals to justice.
Some, like my dear departed friend APTN cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno, stayed behind when many of his colleagues departed because it was considered simply too dangerous. Miguel, however, insisted on staying back in Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed the Serbs because, in his humble opinion, it was just a story that was just too important to miss. And …what would have happened to the Kosovar Albanians if there hadn’t been an international observer there to bear witness to what was happening?
Others traipsed across snow-clad mountains in the dead of winter to get into Chechnya during the height of the war or slipped across borders into African countries to make sure that the news and the footage of whatever was happening there would get out. In doing so, they would help the ‘powers that be’ to decide how to act.
And when things did get hot, it was often the cameramen, producers and journalists who chose whether to stay or go. No one made us do what we did – even though our newsroom’s and management were often happy that we did it anyway.
“No one will think any less of you if you decide to go,” our Reuters ‘de facto bureau chief Kurt Schork once told our group of Reuters journalists, photographers, producers and cameramen at a meeting on the top floor of the Park Hotel in Pristina.
It was October 1997, and the international community had threatened Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic with NATO airstrikes if the Yugoslav army did not pull back their heavy weapons and halt their heavy-handed attacks against Kosovar Albanians.
As it happened the airstrikes never materialized – on that occasion anyway. Milosevic complied with the international community’s wishes. Nevertheless, even in the face of what we thought were imminent airstrikes all of us had elected to stay put and continue our coverage.
“One thing’s for sure. No matter what happens, it’ll be one helluva a ride,” Kurt had said as he closed the meeting. He summed up our sentiment and our attitude in one sentence. After all, many of us were there for the excitement, adventure and the possibility of witnessing history for ourselves. As it happened, it was the first such meeting I had ever attended, but it wouldn’t be the last.
“Think about this carefully,” Reuters TV’s Editor of the Day Julian Tarrant once started his conversation with me before asking me to go to Chechnya.
On that occasion, I didn’t go. I was stood down because the story had died down and didn’t warrant my presence. However, I would have gone. After all, as a journalist, that was just what I did – what we did. In fact, for me it was an honour to be asked and to be given the responsibility to report to the world what was actually happening – no matter how far from home or how dangerous that particular story was.
“We really are the foot-soldiers of the television news industry,” was how one of my agency colleagues described us.
And he was absolutely right. After all, while some of the broadcasters parachuted into a breaking news story clutching sheaves of the latest agency news wires to help them to produce two days of reports and live transmissions, as agencies, we would be there day in and day out while the story simmered and bubbled and then finally boiled over.
To ensure that we, as Reuters, got it right, we had bureaux and stringers and contacts where others hadn’t. When war broke out in a far-flung capital in Africa, we would invariably have someone there.
In Freetown, we had Allieu Kamara (who sadly passed away in 2000). He would file for text and would get us footage from local freelancers when the story broke. And then, when we arrived on base to work alongside him, he would be our eyes and ears and make the necessary introductions to his invaluable contacts that paved the way for our coverage and reports.
In Sarajevo, we had Hare, Cenga and Nino who covered the bulk of the Bosnian war for us and whose footage was used by almost all the world’s TV channels at one time or another. They lived and breathed the story day-in and day-out and were always on hand when mortars landed, and snipers fired and Bosnians were killed. As a result, most of the most memorable footage of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war came from them.
And in those places where we didn’t have someone like Hare, Cenga and Nino or when a bigger, ongoing story broke, we would send someone in – someone like my colleagues and me.
In my time with Reuters during the 1990s I had been part of an agency team that had covered the Bosnian war; been the first news crew to get to Freetown in Sierra Leone following the 1997 coup; and one of a number who, as agencies, stayed put to cover the initial stages of the Albanian pyramid scheme collapse in 1996. I was part of teams that covered wars in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and, just for a change of pace, I also conducted interviews and broke news stories at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. In short, as a Reuters Television news producer, I covered almost every kind of story imaginable and performed nearly every TV task asked of me – from filming to editing to interviewing and scripting. Many of my colleagues did the same.
It seems a long time since I was one of those dedicated men and women who populated the much-overlooked segment of the television news business. It seems a long time since I worked for Reuters TV. However, I continue to look back on those days with pride and always remember those who fell. Here’s to them…one and all.