Calls to support fledgling freelancers as more flock to war zones

Shrinking budgets, mounting pressure and increased accessibility to war torn areas were hot topics at On the Media: Unprepared, Inexperienced and in a War Zone debate at the Frontline Club on 27 February, an institution which itself was founded on a cooperative of freelance cameramen who specialised in frontline reporting for television. According to Vaughan Smith, the founder of the club, half of the cooperative were killed in the 1990s.

Journalists, news executives and media support groups attended. Over the course of the evening, the failings of the news industry to support fledgling freelancers were laid bare.

“The pressure comes from people in the industry… who say, ‘we need more action, otherwise we can’t buy it’” said Aris Roussinos, a freelance filmmaker who had just returned from covering the conflict in Mali.

“So on the one hand you’ll have articles in the BBC College of Journalism [website] saying look at these people taking wild reckless risks, look at these crazy freelancers… when perhaps there will be others in the organisation saying there’s not enough bang bang, go back and get some.”

He said that some combat footage he had recently shot in Gao had earned him more than all of his other projects in the past year combined.

Julia Macfarlane, a journalist who recently worked on an independent documentary in Beirut, said that she was also told when her previous pitches weren’t action packed enough.

“I tried hard to pitch stories in Indonesia…. and it wasn’t sexy enough. It’s not our fault [that we take risks] as freelancers,” she said.

With increasingly cheap equipment and flights, and expanding social media, more inexperienced journalists are able to reach hotspots to try to cut their teeth in the industry. But these freelancers are competing with journalists working for large media organisations in already saturated war zones.

The discussion quickly moved on to preparedness and support, the lack of which some freelancers face in comparison to larger news organisations puts them at a disadvantage.

“We want to take risks but we won’t do it unless it’s calculated,” said Colin Pereira, head of safety and security at ITN.

“The machines the broadcasters have in place take over when there are problems.”

“The freelance community does not have that machine – that machine costs a lot of money. They have to work together to get that machine. But [currently] it’s not coherent and it’s not enough.”

Hannah Storm, director of the International News Safety Institute, said that more emphasis needed to be put on planning and preparation before heading to a war zone. She said that this support could be brought by NGOs who could prepare journalists for the realities of war.

“You wouldn’t go out to a war zone without a camera, so why would you go without a flak jacket?” she said.

“It’s great if we can get more of the footage out there, of the good stuff, without taking too much risk and putting lives at risk.”

“There is a need for mentoring. There is a massive amount of stuff out there, information, organisations, insurance possibilities.”

A chartered association of freelancers was one of the suggestions to consolidate freelancers and the increasingly competitive news industry. It would work, Roussinos said, when big organisations pay to train freelancers and provide insurance and equipment, and in return the freelancers could provide content.

“Both sides get something out of the bargain – freelancers get a degree of security, and the news organisations don’t get the moral qualms. I think that would be the most efficient way of mentoring,” he said. “It’s not a new thing that young freelance journalists go off and push themselves further… that’s the economic imperative of being a freelance.”

“No one asks freelancers to do this. We do it because we want to do it.”