By Graham Phillips
A little less than 10 months ago, I came out of Ukrainian captivity, and among all the other things waiting for me, was the article written on me for Buzzfeed, by Max Seddon – How A British Blogger Became An Unlikely Star Of The Ukraine Conflict — And Russia Today
10 months on, it still gets brought up somewhat more than from time to time. However, this is the first time I’ve told the story behind it…
I’d been following Max on Twitter since Euromaidan, had even done a bit of reading up on him, Buzzfeed’s first foreign correspondent, from the US, a former Oxford student. My journey to Donetsk to begin reporting with RT had been with a friend of Max’s, David Patrikarakos, with whom I’d chatted about Max, even been present at phone calls to.
I had the distinct feeling, it must be said, that Max didn’t like me, that being he knew who I was by this stage, but didn’t follow back on Twitter (how you measure these things). This feeling was confirmed when we met at the hotel journalists were staying at in Slavyansk, and Max more or less cold-shouldered.
I had a good idea why too. I knew Max was good friends with Kyiv Post, at that time, journalist Chris Miller. I had, it must be said, gone for Chris during the time of Euromaidan, incensed by his support of something I saw as leading to catastrophe.
At the time, let’s be clear, I was pretty much a no one in terms of status, under 100 Twitter followers (how you measure these things). I’d had only negative experiences of, with Chris, back in Kiev as we worked for ‘rival’ publications – myself for What’s On, his for the Kyiv Post, but now, I watched on from Odessa, where I was living, at him making it big off the back of something I saw as entirely wrong. More, I saw Chris, and others, fuelling it along with coverage designed to foment rather than report.
The lack of voice I had against Chris at that time manifest in such voice as I had being as loud as I could, I took to ‘trolling’ Chris, writing blogs against his actions, his support of Euromaidan, what I took as egotism, preening, blatant careerism. I followed Max’s articles at this time too, not agreeing with much of what he wrote, but never getting into any Twitter contretemps.
I met Chris Miller in person in Kramatorsk in early May 2014, an offline encounter as acrid as online, albeit one which ended in my proposing to Chris that we bury the hatchet, something agreed to only with mutual bitterness, a clear enmity cutting through all exchanges.
So, when Max followed, then started writing to me on Twitter in April, I expected the very worst. I was working for RT at that time, hit jobs on RT employees were already stock-in-trade for the western press, despite its ‘trendy’ stylings, in terms of Ukraine coverage, Buzzfeed, founded in 2006, had fairly faithfully towed the conventional western party line – support of Maidan, anti Crimean referendum, anti Donbass uprising, very much anti-RT.
Added this to whatever personal rancour Max held towards me, emanating from wherever else, surely in part from my own spats with his friend Miller, and I was pleased when Max seemed to lose interest in the article after our first messages mid-April. But then, early May, suddenly Max was back on it, big time. Messages, request for phone number followed by immediate phone call, entreaty to accompany me on an assignment.
That didn’t happen in the end, but in early May, we spoke for at least a couple of hours on the phone. I knew Max had also been speaking to friends and acquaintances of mine at that time. I decided to be completely open with Max, lay it all out to him, and in goodfaith, hope for the best. I like to be as open as possible in any given situation, and in Max, I had an intelligent, attentive audience as I laid out everything from my early years right up to the events of that day.
We then spoke again in mid-May, after one of the hardest days of my journalistic career, May 16th. The day I shot a video from Kramatorsk airfield, titled it as ‘Ukrainian
Soldier Shoots at Me‘, only for what felt like the entire world to tell me I’d stood on a tripwire. Most hurtful at that time, along with Interpreter Magazine, a pro-Ukraine propaganda outlet, going for my blood, trying to get me fired, was my own channel, RT, actually changing their article to match the story I stood on a tripwire.
My actually standing on a tripwire to cause the effect in that video is impossible. I was shooting with an 18-135mm lens, pointing towards the ground, which starts picking up only a couple of metres in front of me. What landed, a signal flare, landed in front of me, less than a metre, making smoke visible to the camera. More, no tripwire was visible in the video, there was none there. I never claimed the flare was the shot. But none of that seemed to matter at the time.
My claim that Ukrainian soldiers shot at me was based on a simple thing – that’s exactly what I’d seen. There were two soldiers ahead of me, when they saw me, and I identified myself, one picked up his gun, pointed in my direction, the other went behind a wall. Next I knew, I’d heard a shot crack, and a flare go up by my feet.
The night I spoke to Max, in the aftermath of that, was the toughest of my career. I stuck by my story of having been shot at, under immense online onslaught of attack from the pro-Ukraine side who already took me as an enemy at that time due to my RT work. But no one from my side came to bat for me, no one came to support me. Max was himself actually the most supportive of all, by listening, letting me tell my story.
Looking back on that day, as tough as it was, it was the best, the hardest lesson of my journalistic career. Since then, I’ve never reported anything I haven’t actually captured on camera, never had a similar situation. As a rookie correspondent, there was a key lesson to learn – you don’t say you were shot at, you let other people watch your video and say that. Hard as it may be, if you didn’t capture it on film, then reporting it puts yourself right in the firing line, so to speak.
On the day, I just remember feeling incredibly bruised, abandoned. And I spoke to Max that night, the next, in that vein, opened my soul to him. I knew it would be in the article, I knew that however nice he was being, Max wouldn’t take my side on this, actually of course I knew all along at some level the entire article was going to be a ‘hatchet job’, it was just a case of how much hatchet Max would wield.
The Interpreter Magazine liked the ‘tripwire’ story so much they ran, along with numerous tweets, not just 1, but 2 stories, delighting in pronouncing my downfall. Actually I remember being shocked at the time at just how many people came for my blood, and how few really stood up for me. I was new as a correspondent, had been working in Donbass for RT for just a month, and in the equation of many it seemed easier to throw me under the bus than get my back. Everyone it seemed wanted me just to ‘admit’ the tripwire, but I wouldn’t, and didn’t.
The whole situation, I confess, got my back up. The best weapon your opposite number can have against you, the most damaging for you as a journalist, is to make you a figure of ridicule. And more, I’d been flying high at that point, this to my opponents was my big comeuppance, my crashing comedown. To fight back from that, as a correspondent, was I knew going to be tough. But, I was fired by anger. Anger that my ‘opposition’ wanted to bury me, indignation that my those on my side would let them. I made the decision to carry on, push on to new levels, knowing that everything I tweeted at that time would come back with a tripwire reference, a #tripwire event. It duly did.
The next day, I was in the trenches, got the strongest footage I’d done yet, warfare, live fire. Then, it was to Mariupol to continue my investigation into events of the recent tragedy on May 9th. Leaving here on May 20th, the Ukrainian military detained me, keeping me in captivity for 36 hours before freeing me in Kiev, with the demand I leave the country.
I came out to a flood of messages, mostly supportive (and I must say RT really got my back when I was in captivity), interview requests and Max’s article. So, to that article, and starting with the title, I felt it predictably undermining of Max to call me a ‘Blogger’ when I’d told him of my time prior employed as senior magazine journalist in Kiev, working for a tv news channel.
As for this, relating to Mariupol, ‘In Phillips’ version of events, Ukraine’s army was eager to cover up the massacre and so it bypassed morgues and hospitals and hid the bodies in the woods. Relatives of the dead were too terrified of reprisals to claim them missing, he said. Phillips’ interlocutors, whom he described as “well-informed local sources,” provided no evidence for these claims. He has yet to corroborate them. Nonetheless, Phillips soon appeared on Russian television promoting the unverified figure of 100 dead’ – written in the fairly standard Buzzfeed sarcasm, I felt Max was pretty much bandwagon jumping something I’d been given a hard time for – recording a video with a local man who said 100 had been killed on May 9th, a claim I heard from several other sources, but never ‘promoted’, simply reported.
As for the rest, Max’s description of me, my style of journalism etc – micro-celebrity on the streets of Ukraine….. marginal character like Phillips, 35, to become the unlikeliest of stars stringing regularly for RT….. kamikaze nose for danger and vocal support for the rebel cause, wide-eyed delivery and prolificness, seems unaware — either through gleeful disregard or rookie ignorance — of basic journalistic ethics, objectivity, or production values. He acts as if he has no concerns for his own personal safety, running across fields toward Ukrainian army installations, interviewing rebels as bullets fly overhead, and baiting militia manning rebel checkpoints …unconventional approach to journalism…
Well, fair enough, much of that not exactly complimentary, but I can handle criticism, adverse opinion of myself, and actually Max was rather nice in parts. The next part was, I felt, driven by a desire on Max’s part to push an agenda rather than facts – Keen, at 30, to give his life a fresh start and struck by the country’s “different and otherworldly” women, Phillips moved to Kiev the following year, finding work as an English teacher, then, later, on a television network and as a nightlife writer for an English-language entertainment magazine.
I’d mentioned the ‘women’ in a fairly long list of things which had attracted me to Ukraine, far from a standalone. As for being a ‘nightlife writer’, as I’d explained to Max, writing a column on nightlife was a small part of my retinue at What’s On magazine – which also included a weekly column, interviews, reviews, historical, political articles.
Similarly – Entries about prostitutes, students who moonlight as escorts, foreign-bride hunters, and other “sexpats” suggest he enjoyed a second adolescence common among Western expats in Ukraine. – entries on these subjects, of a carnal nature, accounted for less than 10% of content on my former blog, Brit in Ukraine.
As for – By the time mass protests in Kiev against then-President Viktor Yanukovych broke out last December, however, Phillips’ time in Ukraine had, by his own admission, “completely flopped.” He was unemployed. – there is a kernel of truth in that, but it’s a tough way to put it, not how I put it. I was living down in Odessa, not unemployed, employed as an English teacher, a freelance journalist. Yet true to say that my journalism career had ‘flopped’ pretty much, I pitched articles from down there, with little success. But in general life, I was happy, enjoyed my English teaching career, successful, enjoyed studying Russian, travelling the area, the writing of my blog.
When Euromaidan started, I opposed it and watched on as the careers of supportive journalists flew on the back of it. I figured my stance against Euromaidan rendered me pretty much unemployable, but kept on writing articles (‘online diatribes’ as Max calls them), for my blog, on the subject that I felt got across the truth of the situation, from one who had lived in Kiev, from one who knew what was behind Maidan. RT’s offer of me to appear on-air, initially as an interviewee, came completely unexpectedly, and things went from there (my first time on RT here).
As for ‘When pressed on how exactly he developed his political beliefs, Phillips is evasive,’ well, that may be Max’s impression, I felt I was candid, open, expansive with him on every point. Then we come to the inevitable ‘tripwire’, and Max duly didn’t defend me, but didn’t completely put the boot in either, and the sign off which leaves with myself in captivity. Something Max reported factually, as opposed to The Interpreter, and other pro-Ukraine sources, that I’d somehow ‘staged’ the incident.
In my messages upon release, were messages from Max saying he hoped I was ok, sending me the link to his article. Now, I fairly often get it sent to me as proxy ‘abuse’ by my opponents, those looking to tear a strip off. But, the thing is, for all it is, I don’t mind Max’s article. Actually I respect Max for it, as evinced by the comments there are many who would have liked to see him go much harder on me. I do believe Max’s instruction was to tear me apart, but while even my staunchest supporter, and I have more, stronger supporters now after my 10 months since covering Donbass, would never call it flattering, Max could have done far worse if he’d wanted.
Max ‘did a number’ on me, but he was fairer than I had expected in doing so. The day a positive article on Buzzfeed appears about an RT correspondent is the day said RT correspondent has ‘quit the channel and spoken out against‘ etc etc. So, Max did what he had to do, but invested some decency into the doing of it.
How do I feel about Max, I think goes back to that hardest night of my career when, in his own way, he was the one who supported me most. I still don’t, can’t, won’t agree with much of his journalism, but as a person, well, I like him. We met in person in November in Donetsk, were on different sides of a press conference, in every sense, Max even in the ‘western press pack’ with Chris Miller, but our own exchanges were pleasant, I felt well-disposed towards him. Certainly, no hard feelings for the piece.
Max made some cultural references in it, so here’s my own, that our dynamic has some similarities to the Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino characters in ‘Heat’. On ‘different sides’, with a job to do that often puts, pits, us against each other. But despite all that should preclude, an underpinning affinity, on a personal level.
In short, I’m cool about the time Max Seddon Buzzfed me, I’d do it all over again.