“I’m going to Libya,” I proudly announced to my family and friends in October 2011.
Those who knew more about me than they did the situation in North Africa were
nonplussed. Those who cared about me asked if it is was safe. Those who shared
my ambition to become a foreign correspondent were impressed. And those whose
papers I desperately wanted to write for were responsive.
After three years of wavering between freelancing and scavenging for full-time employment, I jumped at the opportunity to go to the highly restive post-Gaddafi country. The “job” was with a Tunisian production company to make documentaries, but I knew I would have time to write on the side.
I contacted the foreign editors of most of the major British newspapers to see if they would be interested in stories from the country and try and establish a working relationship. I hadn't written for any of the papers before, nor did I know anyone there, but for the large part the reaction was immediate and positive.
As a young journalist trying to make it in the crowded, illustrious world of foreign correspondency, this was an irrefutable sign that being in a war zone/hostile environment would instantly get the precious attention of editors. Suddenly the abyss into which I had fired so many emails while previously abroad was receding. I sensed that my career could hinge on the next few months.
This is a fact of which young freelancers are increasingly aware.
I find it unfair - although I understand the concerns - that older journalists who have secure, regularly salaried jobs or else enjoy already-established reputations see fit to lay into us. It's really, really hard to get into journalism these days, and even harder to make a living from it. You simply can't expect people to turn down opportunities that instantly put them on a foreign editor's radar.
A BBC journalist who had told me about the job with the Tunisian company pushed me into going on a hostile environment training course with the help of a bursary from the fantastic Rory Peck Trust. The course was absolutely invaluable, but even with financial assistance, it still cost £750, an expense I convinced my Tunisian employer to pay.
This is not an affordable base requirement to insist on from freelancers. Much of the most useful advice - the first aid training, being taught how to recognize various weapons and munitions, deciphering which direction shooting is coming from, survival basics - could be done very cheaply over the course of a day. Training could surely be organized by the various papers and conducted in house.
During my meetings with various editors about what kind of stories they were looking for from the country, only one pushed me on exactly what kind of hostile environment training I had. Another asked vaguely about taking security precautions, and yet another didn’t ask at all. Every single one asked me if I had been abroad before, but at the time if felt as if they were assessing my ability to work in a foreign country rather than my ability to look after myself.
I think editors should be spelling out what freelancers need to be doing to make sure they are prepared. It would take very little time to put together some sort of freelancers kit to detail the available resources out there. The Rory Peck Trust, Medecin Sans Frontiers’ freelancer insurance, the Vulture Club facebook group, etc. Knowing about all of these things in advance would not only be incredibly useful, it might also prompt people to think harder about what they’re getting into. It's difficult to assess the risks when you don't know what to expect - and making those risks clear is down to the editors.
Peer support is another crucial factor.
I am not suggesting it is every journalists’ responsibility to take every young whippersnapper they come across under their wing and risk their own neck, but if they’re already out there, then some solid advice and an honest chat can help people make better decisions. We don’t have a huge network of contacts to tap into, that comes with time. Being part of a community, whether online or on the ground, is a completely free way to provide a safety net for people, where they can ask questions, find trustworthy fixers and club together for transport and accommodation.
All of that said, it also comes down to the individual. Sunil Patel’s jaunt into Syria has been widely derided, and I’m inclined to agree with his critics. His behaviour was reckless, and he did risk endangering himself and those he came across. People like this will always slip through the net.
I never went to Libya in the end - the job fell through and I opted to
freelance in Tunisia rather than go it alone, largely due to safety concerns.
But I know people my age with a similar level of experience who did go and
whose careers were made off the back of it.
You're never going to be able to stop young, aspiring foreign journalists from going into dangerous places. Yes, we’re impatient. Yes, we want to run before we can walk. It's been the same for decades. The solution, in my eyes, is more support, and less sneering.