This could save your life

THE KILLING of a British freelance videographer in Baghdad on 5 July brings home how dangerous parts of our profession are. Initial reports suggest that Richard Wild was shot in the back of the head in a crowd outside the Iraqi National Museum.

There may not be much anyone can do to stop attacks like that - but there is a lot that journalists can do to make ourselves safer in general. And it's not just about war, as Guy Smallman's experience painfully shows (front page). Paul Clements reports.

The best defences journalists have in these situations is their own awareness and an understanding of the mind-set of the combatants in a war zone. By judging this and the potential of the weapons being used journalists can reduce their risk of getting injured or killed. Journalists working in conflict areas take risks - but these risks have to be calculated, assessing the least bad option and following it. A journalist who is constantly aware of the dangers involved and thinking ahead has a better chance of staying alive.

Many courses encourage this philosophy. The "Working in Hostile Environments" one that I recently attended is run by AKE Ltd near Hereford - and costs £1590 + VAT. However, freelances can get a bursary from the Rory Peck Trust, which leaves you only £200 to pay. Some freelances may begrudge even that, and the loss of five days' earnings - but this course is designed to improve your life expectancy, and doing it can reduce the cost of insurance cover by 40 per cent.

The instructors are ex-Special Forces. In their military career they worked within small groups, and they relate this to the way journalists tend to - or should - work in conflict areas. The course is not some gung-ho testosterone-driven male-bonding experience. We were mostly in a classroom from 8.30am to 5.00pm, learning the rudiments of first aid, casualty assessment, controlling bleeding, target awareness and booby-trap spotting, mines, weapons and their effects.

All these skills are then put into effect in five scenario exercises at the end of the week which are very, very realistic. How do you evacuate casualties after their car has hit a mine and they have open chest wounds, head injuries and complicated fractures? How do you recover a wounded colleague who has just stepped on a mine? How do you negotiate a temporary checkpoint set up by armed drunken militia?

I was amazed at the level of knowledge gained. It was, however, little things - those "little dark secrets" as the ex-special forces instructors called them, that contribute towards risk assessment and in the end can help save your life. I could tell you those of course, but then I would have to kill you...

I suppose you could say I am already experienced - I have often worked in Palestine - but I learned a lot from this course. It will not make you bulletproof but it will improve your odds.

Remember, too, to get insurance! If you get cover for a year rather than a specific trip - and tell the insurance company what you will be doing - it may well be affordable.

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