For many ABC staff it’s an ambition to become an overseas correspondent or cameraperson. It’s a rare opportunity to travel to extraordinary locations and cover major events. Yet the work of the foreign correspondent often means dealing with dangerous and life-threatening situations whether it be war, terrorists attacks, natural disasters or terrible tragedies. John Tulloh spent nearly 20 years assigning ABC correspondents and crew around the world. Their safety and security have been forefront in his commissioning.
DANGEROUS AND WORRYING TIMES
By John Tulloh / 11 February 2022
It was a Saturday night in March 2003. The bedside clock at home said 2345. The US-led invasion of Iraq had just begun. The phone rang. It was reporter Eric Campbell in northern Iraq. ‘I have terrible news’, he said. ‘Paul Moran is dead’. Cameraman Paul was one of the early media casualties of the Iraq war, killed by a suicide bomber.
It was a shocking reminder of the risks the media face in bringing home the news. Paul was one of 42 media representatives killed in 2003 while doing their work, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
While no amount of training would have protected him against the suicidal stranger, it has been to the ABC’s credit that it has led the way in protecting its staff assigned to trouble spots in the past 30-odd years. As it was, Paul’s body was recovered with great difficulty from northern Iraq and brought home via Iran for burial in suburban Adelaide.
CHEMICAL WARFARE AND PROTECTIVE SUITS
While I had spent much of my 19 years at the ABC assigning reporters and cameramen to trouble spots, there was always the risk this would happen, leading to many an uneasy night.
It was the Gulf War in 1991 which prompted the media to pay greater attention to the well-being of their staff. Iraq threatened Israel with chemical warfare, having used it three years earlier to massacre at least 3000 Kurds. Coping with chemical warfare was something totally alien to the media accustomed to little more than tear gas by way of noxious fumes.
Such was our innocence that we initially consulted the Sydney Fire Brigade for advice on how to deal with anything chemical. They were very helpful but their Hazchem suits were insufficient.
In the end, probably prompted by the BBC example, we opted for NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) suits to protect staff assigned to Israel against the fallout from Scud missiles if they had chemical warheads. The suits came with masks with a charcoal filter and a needle to inject an antidote if necessary. While the ABC staff donned the suits as a precaution after missile raid warnings, they were never needed for the ultimate purpose.
SNIPERS AND THE ‘HOG’
Later that year, the Balkans civil wars broke out. This was no place for the faint-hearted where hair-trigger rivalries and longstanding enmity prevailed in the remote hills. The ABC in partnership with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) shared an armour-plated Land Rover to cover the fighting and numerous atrocities. It became known as the ‘Hog’.
The Land Rover was surplus British Army equipment which had done service in Northern Ireland. It was stored in Trieste, Italy, and then driven south along the Adriatic coastline and into the mountains of Bosnia. Datelines like Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Mostar became familiar to ABC viewers.
Reporter Max Uechtritz did much of the early Balkans coverage featuring the Hog. Cameraman Mick Fanning and sound recordist David Fraser alternated with a CBC crew.
Max recalls hearing a ping as a sniper’s bullet hit the Land Rover. On one occasion, the vehicle was left in Sarajevo. ‘Our international colleagues cannibalized it,’ said Max. ‘It had different sized tyres on each of the four wheels – it drove like a bitch as a result – and the heating system had been purloined. We had a very cold winter down there!’
SAFETY TRAINING AND THE CHALLENGE OF TERRORISM
As this type of warfare became the norm, the ABC set the example in Australia in establishing survival courses for all personnel posted overseas, just as it does today with personnel assigned to cover bushfires and their sometimes-terrifying unpredictability.
Originally, we relied on AKE, the British survival course run by a former SAS veteran, Andrew Kane. But as sending everyone posted overseas to do a course in England was expensive, we looked at doing it locally.
This began in 1998 at St Marys, an outer western Sydney suburb, and later moved east to Terrey Hills. It was run by Henning Liljeqvist, known to everyone as Gosta, a former troop commander in the Swedish Army and an intensive care paramedic for the NSW ambulance service. These HET (Hostile Environment Training) programs were typically run over five days and covered everything from risk assessment and stress awareness to dealing with roadblocks, hostage and kidnap awareness, and how to deal with injuries and medical emergencies.
At left: CBR (chemical, biological, radiological) training; and at right: Tear gas training, 1998
This period coincided with the era of rampant terrorism, particularly in Israel and Iraq. Everything changed with suicide terrorists. One correspondent in Israel always insisted on a table close to the entrance when eating out, for a quick getaway. On top of this were missiles placed beyond the horizon and remote-controlled mines. The media had no idea they were being watched and even targeted from miles away. For ISIS, captured Western media personnel became prized hostages, several being beheaded.
Working in Afghanistan meant travelling on roads where improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were common. Elsewhere were gruesome calamities, such as the Indonesia tsunami, the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and the genocide in Rwanda where an illness put reporter Mark Colvin within an inch of his life.
THE PTSD FACTOR
It was understandable when some colleagues returned home suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and desperately in need of a change of scenery.
Philip Williams, an outstanding correspondent for all seasons was one such victim. It was prompted by covering the Beslan school massacre in Russia in 2004 when Chechen rebels mindlessly killed more than 300 people, including 186 children.
On his return, his family noticed unusual behaviour for such a normally equable person. He said it was them rather than trauma psychologists who helped him through the two-year ordeal.
The ABC signed up originally to Corpsych, an international organization of psychologists where troubled staff could get advice in total confidence and without their names being revealed to the ABC as if it were a stigma. But ‘the more it is discussed and “normalized” the better and less likely people will suffer alone’, says Philip. In retrospect, he wished he had reached out.1
DANGERS AT HOME
Reporting in Australia, of course, is not without its dangers too. Bushfires, floods and other natural disasters can be unpredictable, as can a range of other highly charged events.
One unusual and different frontline challenge for the ABC was the storm-lashed Sydney-Hobart yacht race in December 1998 when six yachtsmen perished, five vessels sank and more than half of those which started had to retire.
ABC Sydney helicopter pilot, the late Gary Ticehurst, and cameraman Peter Sinclair brought home the news in challenging conditions. Sinclair, harnessed in and his legs dangling from the chopper door and saturated by the ocean spray just below, ventured far out into the Bass Strait tempest. It was not only to cover what yachts were left in the race, but also to keep a reassuring eye on those in distress, provide comfort by staying in touch and report back their positions. The duo had one inflatable raft between them and agreed they would sacrifice it if they encountered a yachtsman overboard.
Alister Nicolson, an ABC sports reporter, recalled Ticehurst ‘coming in low over the top of masts, twirling around them, sometimes in high seas and even hovering the helicopter beneath the crest of a wave and then revealing the yacht behind it when the wave went down’.
It was just as well that Ticehurst was good at mental calculations. He timed his watching brief to perfection, peeling away to make it back to Mallacoota in eastern Victoria with just a few minutes of fuel left.2
Australia once awarded a medal to every news person who had worked in Vietnam during the Australian presence. I am not suggesting all those who’ve been assigned to trouble spots should get a medal, but no one should under-estimate the dangers involved in bringing home some of the news we take for granted.
1In 2006 the ABC with the assistance of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma established a Trauma Awareness Program specifically for journalists, producers, video editors and camera staff. The ABC was the first media organization in the world to have such a program for its frontline staff. The program was initially managed by the News Division and has been highly successful. It continues today.
2Sadly, Gary Ticehurst was killed in a helicopter accident at Lake Eyre in 2011, along with reporter Paul Lockyer and cameraman John Bean. In nearly 40 years of flying, he’d logged more than 16,000 hours at the controls. For those who worked with him at the ABC, he is remembered as a meticulous pilot and skilled newsman.
John Tulloh was International Editor for ABC TV News and Current Affairs from 1985 to 2000 and Head of International Operations for radio and television from 2000 to 2004. Before that, he had worked in London, Zurich, Saigon, Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.
The Alumni thanks Max Uechtritz, Henning Liljeqvist and Peter Sinclair for providing photos and footage used in this story.