Reporting from the Front Line: the embedded v freelance experience

Previous entries in this series…1st and 2nd posts

FOR the first operation, three of us were to be freelance journalists who voiced the concerns of local civvies (civilians – in fact, squaddies from the nearby army barracks) to the troops stationed at their base.

As we approached the barbed-wire fences a soldier shouted down from his lookout position. We stopped, conscious several automatic weapons were pointing in our direction, and shouted we were British journalists and wanted to talk to their commander.

After a few minutes, we were beckoned towards the green shelter (pictured) and told to raise our clothing to show we did not have any explosives attached to our bodies. Satisfied we were not going to pose a threat we were allowed onto the FOB (forward operating base). Patted down, and declining to answer any of our questions, we were ushered into the building, passed lines of ammunition and guns, and marines preparing to head out, and into a far corner where we were told wait.

Before long the sound of automatic weapons could be heard and marines quickly ran passed us prepped and ready to engage the enemy (again, army squaddies). “Can you tell us what’s going on?”, we asked. “Get back”, we were told. A soldier being stretchered in by four marines was brought in. “How is he? What are the extent of his injuries?”, we asked.”Just stay there please, and we’ll talk to you once this is over.”

We quickly realised we would not receive any information from the marines of while the attack continued. We knew of course their priority was to stop the enemy and attend to their injured comrade; not to deal with questions from freelancers who they had pulled in to the safety of the base.  But we were craving information and would persist with our questions until we got it.

When the firing ceased, and the base had been secured, we had our chance to ask questions and get the facts. Three casualties, who sustained injuries as a result of small arms fire from eight to ten enemy firing on the base. Marines are now clearing an area for the injured men to be helicoptered out. Story secured.

Our involvement in this operation revealed to us that journalists can not presume to have the trust and co-operation of the troops. A relationship needs to be built between the journalist and soldier. Major Andrew Ferguson said:

“Troops are generally a bit suspicious of journalists. [Journalists] need to work with the military because they are looking after you.”

Debriefing the marines from Charlie Commando afterward, Major Ferguson said it was necessary for them to know how to deal with the media, who will increasingly be a presence on the ground in war zones. He said:

“Working with journalists is here to stay in liberal democracies, but there needs to be give and take on each side.”

Many of the marines I spoke to later in the day revealed they had experienced having journalists embedded with them. They said it was an extra responsibility they could do without, but strikingly pragmatic said they just get on with the job.

When reports from the front line in Afghanistan continually reveal the dangers our soldiers face, I could not help but think, is it worth burdening our troops with the added responsibility of having to protect journalists while engaging the enemy?

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