On the front line of news

Only one broadcaster has a full-time bureau in the hazardous Afghan province of Helmand. Ian Burrell reports on the unsung heroes of the BFBS
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The Independent Online

Jenny Packham’s recent birthday was, by her own emailed admission, a “sober affair” which, like every other day of late, she spent “in the sand”. For three months Packham is staffing the only British media bureau in the perilous environs of Helmand province.

Her broadcasting studio is a surprisingly well-equipped white metal container in the British military base at Camp Bastion, from where she presents a daily four-hour live radio show to the 11,000 British troops in Afghanistan and to an audience around the world. The studio is also used to film live reports for a nightly television show. Packham, 25, who is in her first full-time job, is one of a ten-strong team of reporters, presenters and technicians in the Helmand bureau of the British Forces Broadcasting Service, which is undergoing a transformation as a global news operation.

More than 3,000 miles away, amid woods and farmland, Chalfont Grove in Buckinghamshire is an unlikely location in which to headquarter such an enterprise, but behind the trees is a forest of more than 30 satellite bowls, some of them big enough to stage major league American Football.

Nick Pollard jokes about his “leafy” new surroundings. The man who ran Sky News for a decade and former executive producer of News At Ten for ITN, arrived at Chalfont Grove nine months ago with a plan to modernise the 67-year-old service. On the wall behind his desk is a photograph of British troops outside Anzio in Italy in 1944, clustered around a radio and listening to an early BFBS broadcast.

The credibility of forces broadcasting is critically important at a time when the mainstream media outlets are reporting that soldiers are dying in Afghanistan because of failings in training and equipment, and access to the front line is reportedly going to be restricted in the weeks ahead of a general election. Although the BBC maintains a bureau in the Afghan capital, Kabul, most British journalists only reach forward positions by embedding themselves with military units. Pollard says it is imperative for the BFBS that it has full-time reporters in Helmand. “It seemed quite difficult to say we had any credibility without that presence.”

Claire Sadler, who has worked for the BBC and Sky, and Kaija Larke, the service’s two reporters currently on assignment in Helmand, are both capable of interchanging between camerawork and “stand-upper” pieces to camera. They are expected to cover stories on “strategy and front line action” as well as “welfare issues” affecting the lives of the troops stationed in Helmand. “I think the important thing is our journalism has credibility with the people who listen to our radio and watch our bulletins,” says Pollard.

On the BFBS website, troops stationed in Afghanistan (codename Operation Herrick) are advised to tune in from their bedspaces, either via television screens or their laptops. “If you’ve deployed on Op Herrick without the right kit you need to watch TV – help is now at hand,” says the site.

The television service includes up to 10 channels offering mainstream British shows such as EastEnders and The X Factor and specialist offerings such as Sky Sports and Q music channel. But BFBS’s own content is intended to be a platform for debate within the military community.

“Our news and information can be the strategic and the geo-political. Should we have four Trident submarines, should there be new aircraft carriers and what’s the strategy in Afghanistan? Right the way down to news of a coffee morning at a base in Germany raising money for a new crèche,” says Pollard. “We report on new equipment and how it’s being used in theatre and this is not just a subject that we pick up and put down when it becomes a political issue.”

The broadcasts play an important part in maintaining morale and, during the World Cup, the Camp Bastion station will screen England matches on two giant screens each designed for an audience of 500. Beyond the wire at Bastion, the BFBS technicians have installed dishes at forward operating bases, where small units of British troops can watch the broadcasts. Reporters have been able to go out and report on stories such as Charlotte Cross’s item on the opening of a new school in Helmand, an issue below the radar of more mainstream media.

The death in Afghanistan of Sunday Mirror journalist Rupert Hamer, killed in January by a roadside bomb, highlighted the risks faced by media workers in Helmand. Pollard said that, wherever possible, BFBS staff travel by air. “It doesn’t remove the danger but it reduces it.”The programming doesn’t only go out in Afghanistan but also to Germany, where some 50,000 British military personnel and their families are still based, Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Belize, Canada and Brunei. Every Royal Navy ship is equipped to receive at least one channel of content and BFBS operates a Gurkha Radio service in Nepali.

Pollard says that when he first looked at the BFBS flagship news programme he realised it “needed some love and attention and needed updating”. He brought in the former Five News and Newsround presenter Kate Gerbau to host the show, which was relaunched last month and runs for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, scheduled between popular British programmes including Coronation Street and Top Gear. Pollard appointed Alan Rook, who formerly ran ITV News in the Midlands, as his head of news. The main broadcasting studio at Chalfont Grove was given a makeover by Red Bee, the London media management company, which has re-branded the show as British Forces News, transforming the graphics with a circular logo coloured with the red of the Army, the dark blue of the Royal Navy and the light blue of the RAF. A pre-recorded Sunday afternoon programme from Helmand is called Week in Afghanistan.

The radio content, which for the past year has become available to British audiences on DAB radio and Sky satellite, is mostly produced by BFBS but, for overseas listeners, includes BBC content such as Radio 4’s Today programme and 5 Live’s sports commentary.

“The radio is very much an intimate connection with home. A lot of messages between servicemen and women and their families,” says Pollard, right. “It’s not like any other radio audience and we get tremendous feedback from the military community.” One of the service’s best-known broadcasters, Dusty Miller, a veteran of 35 years, was chosen as a launch presenter for the Camp Bastion radio station. Such a role was featured in the film Good Morning Vietnam, where Robin Williams took a more unorthodox approach as a DJ for US Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam. Comedians, musicians and dancers are also taken out to the forward bases and to military hospitals in Britain.

The service has war correspondent Kate Adie and former BBC senior executive Will Wyatt among its trustees and Pollard’s next target is to relaunch the website to give a longer lifespan to its film and audio content. It deserves a wider audience. As Packham said in her birthday email from Camp Bastion: “I’m incredibly humbled to be here and I really believe that many people outside the military loop just have no idea what these boys and girls go through.”