Richard Pendry on war reporting: ‘You know when you’re being shot at’ – interview

I spoke to Richard Pendry, who has reported from conflicts in Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria as a freelance journalist and was a member of Frontline Television News in the 90s, to take a look at the world of war reporting in recognition of Remembrance Day.

After graduating from a degree in Russian, you worked as a freelancer in Russia during the 90s. What made you decide to cover the war?

The point where I realised that I really wanted to cover the war in Chechnya was when we found a story about some Russian paratroopers who had been dropped in the mountains during the early stages of the First Chechen War. They’d been told that they were looking for Jihadi fighters … and they eventually came across some Chechen shepherds who they captured quite easily. But then the relatives of the shepherds came and they captured this group of supposedly elite Russian troops… We were talking to these Russian soldiers, who were 18/19 years old; they’d been sent off to fight this war they didn’t understand and when they’d radioed their base and said they were coming under fire, the response from their superiors was not to send helicopters to get them out, but to send some bombers over, and they bombed the position that the Russian soldiers had radioed from. I really understood at that point something very important about the absolute lack of regard that the Russian military had for their own troops, let alone all the civilians that were being killed in their hundreds in the middle of Grozny.

More recently, you spent some time on the Syrian border over the summer, can you tell us a bit about that?

I ended up going to a town on the border [between Turkey and Syria], which normally is full of freelancers staying in one particular hotel called the Hotel Istanbul. I turned up and it became apparent that there was no one around because there were so many people being kidnapped on the other side of the border that people had stopped staying in the hotel, and they’d stopped going through that town. I spent two days trying to work out what the hell I was going to do and [thinking]: “Should I even be there in the first place?”

I ended up talking to the fixers that were suspected of being involved in the kidnapping gangs. One had a story about two French journalists who had been kidnapped when he was with them, and they were still missing. He was actually implicated in another kidnap case, so that was two sets of journalists that had gone missing that he was looking after. It may or may not have just been coincidence [but] it was difficult for people to trust him.

Do you think war reporting attracts a certain type of journalist?

There are an awful lot of people who are quite attracted to the ‘living on the edge’ kind of thing, I suppose. I remember coming back from one trip in Chechnya and I went straight from the airport to a nightclub because I realised I’d get the last six hours of Trade [an after hours club]. That was the life that I was living at the particular point, and I wouldn’t be the only one.

It attracts a particular kind of person… You might feel like you’re some kind of specialised tourist, and it’s really interesting. Foreign reporting is not regulated like covering Westminster or covering British stories. You’ve got much more freedom.

Covering wars, you must see a large number of people in need of help. How do you approach those situations?

In Chechnya, we were hurrying to get out of the city centre before dark and so was everybody else. We practically stepped on one old lady who’d just fallen over. Peter [Jouvenal, fellow Frontline journalist] helped her up and insisted that we helped them [the woman and her sister] back to their apartment. We found their other sister who was in the cupboard, hiding.

When we went back the next day they were still in the cupboard. We did a story about these three women in their apartment and you could hear all the munitions exploding outside, and their story made it onto the 6 ‘o clock and 9 o’clock news, and Newsnight. Not only was it the right thing to do to help these women but we also got a story out of it. But it also felt a bit odd: “Should we help these women at the time or should we get out and save our skins and not stick around in this very dangerous area?”

A number of journalists working for Frontline died while reporting from conflicts. What is it like to lose a peer while doing your job?

Martin Adler’s death was a shock. I’d filmed him for one of the Rory Peck awards, which he won [and] I ended up teaching him yoga in London. He wanted something positive to do when he was in war zones and there was nothing happening, because lots of people just end up drinking far too much. I was on a plane coming back from filming Ross Kemp On Gangs and Richard Parry told me that Martin had been killed. It was a shock, but not really a surprise unfortunately. To be grown up about it, the more time you spend in these places, the more chance there is that you’ll be killed or injured and that’s just part of it, I’m afraid.

Do you think that the changing nature of war will deter people from reporting conflicts in the future?

War reporting is really confusing, by its nature. There are a lot of very stressed people who are in a very difficult situation, particularly if they’re under fire or if there are people being killed or injured. It’s very hard to know what’s going on. That’s one reason why it’s good to be with people that you know and trust. People who are reporting wars need to be on-the-ball and really switched on in a way that they didn’t have to be 20 years ago. You can’t go to Syria and not have your wits about you. You need to think about digital security, staying off Skype and Facebook, and not tweeting. You need to have proper contingency plans for if you get into trouble.

I would never discourage people from wanting to be a war reporter. It sounds flippant, but the only problems are being blown to bits by artillery or a missile or being shot by a sniper. But those are quantifiable risks. You know when you’re being shot at. But more recently, access to rebel-controlled areas has been very limited because so many people are being kidnapped… Staff people haven’t been covering Syria as much as previous conflicts. People spend weeks planning trips to go into Syria, only to find that their security precautions suddenly don’t work and then people get kidnapped… So it’s been easier to let freelancers get on and take the burden on themselves. But on the other hand, news organisations are making it more difficult for freelancers to sell their work because there’s a real worry that a news organisation that commissions a freelancer, even just fleetingly, is going to be responsible for the freelancer when they get kidnapped… It’s a paradox.

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.


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