Reflections with Alex Thomson

May 30, 2013

By Caroline Schmitt

Reflections’ at the Frontline Club brings well known journalists to the stage to look back on their careers. Incorporating video clips, still images and articles selected by them, the host Vin Ray describes it as “a cross between Desert Island Discs and This is your Life”.  It is held in association with the BBC Academy College of Journalism.

On 29th May Alex Thomson, chief correspondant for Channel 4 News and the recent winner of the prestigious RTS Television Journalist of the Year joined Vin Ray.

Alex Thomson with Vin Ray. Photo credit: Caroline Schmitt

Alex Thomson with Vin Ray. Photo credit: Caroline Schmitt


The first to be shown were two black and white still images showing the famous albino boy in Biafra by Don McCullin and Eddie Adam’s man being shot in Vietnam, the Saigon Execution.

“There is something peculiarly arresting about these photos; something that makes you stop and look about a photograph, different from television. I can visualise still images from Syria more easily than some of the moving images.”

When asked about what safety measures the Channel 4 News team take in conflict zones, Thomson shared an anecdote about one of his early experiences:

“When we started doing the Croatian War, we had a white diesel W2 Golf and wrote TV on it with black gaffa tape because that’s what they do in war movies. . . We just didn’t know what we were doing.”

When Ray asked what draws the correspondent to conflict zones, he stated:

“I do it because I like doing it. I do it because I don’t want to stand outside the House of Commons or in the City. That would drive me into a very early state of unhappiness.”

Thomson then read to the packed audience the report ‘Massacre in Sanctuary’ about the Qana Massacre in southern Lebanon. Written by Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent for The Independent in April 1996,  according to Thomson it was an example of “first-class, unencumbered and passionate eye-witness reporting.”:

“When you just look at that, when you take that apart as a piece of writing, there’s so much going on, there’s so much conveyed. . . . I just think that something like that just stands and there will always be a place – online or in the newspaper – there will always be a place for that kind of writing – direct, passionate reportage.”

Another issue raised by Thomson was the underreported issue of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) amongst soldiers operating remote drones in the US, which he elaborated on after presenting the infamous helicopter gunship footage leaked to WikiLeaks:

“They [USAF drone operators in Nevada] do a shift, they operate a drone and go back to see the assessment, so they see what the drone has done. They see the people  and the bits of people lying there . . . and switch off their computers. . . . Half an hour later they are in the shopping mall with their kids. That’s incredibly difficult for a human brain to link up. . . . Post-traumatic stress isn’t just found on the battlefield, it’s found on the virtual, real battlefield amongst drone operators as well.”

He finished with his well known foot-in-the-door interview with Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, to inquire about the newspapers infamous editorial take on the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster:

“Nasty. Vindictive. Pointless. Unpleasant. Personal. Tawdry. Cheap…theatrical. It’s all of that. Every time I see it, I feel more sorry for him actually. . . I started laughing, that was the problem . . . I couldn’t believe the way he mishandled it.”

Watch the full video or listen to the podcast below:


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