In my life in London, I would go to see the musical Les Miserables at least once a year. I loved it, love it, could fill-in for any cast member should they be indisposed.
One of the moments which always gets me, is where Jean Valjean is caught stealing silver from a vicar who’d offered him shelter, the shame forcing him to do an entire revaluation of what he’s become versus who he is. He determines, upon the behest of the priest, to redefine himself, his whole life, based on an the experience, strip away what he’s become and begin again from who he really is.
I had my own epiphany on a field in Kramatorsk, Donbass, exactly 18 months ago. I’d gone there to have a crack at filming Ukrainian positions at the airfield they used as a base, just as I’d done before.
Going over the field, I saw two figures, discernibly soldiers, ahead of me, and shouted to them in my Russian (of the time) ‘hello, I’m press‘. One figure picked up his rifle, the other went behind a red-brick enclave next to him. Next I knew, there was a crack, something landed by my feet, something went off in a plume of smoke.
I beat a retreat, looking behind, one figure was still visible, his rifle still in position, with further cracks, and whizzes, as I swiftly exited the way I’d come just a minute before. My emotions were flying, I’d just witnessed what I was sure was a soldier shooting at me. Something had landed at my feet, gone off at my feet. There was no question something had been fired at me.
Making a rushed retreat by car, my local driving having waited for me, I immediately tweeted out –
Working for RT at the time, I instantly had them on the phone to me asking what had happened. I confirmed what I’d seen – I’d been filming in a field, seen Ukrainian soldiers, they’d fired at me. RT held the proverbial front page, asked that I get the video uploaded as soon as possible, and they’d be going big on it. A couple of minutes later, I was at a Kramatorsk restaurant uploading the video I was sure would show it all, on the phone to RT giving a live interview at the time, flurry of retweets, a fervour already whipped up.
A couple of minutes later, the video was up. And from there, things took a different turn. Initially, the pro-Ukrainian outlet ‘Interpreter’ wrote that there was indeed something which ‘sounded like a shot’. But then they quickly changed their minds, and changed their story. Next, James Miller of pro-Ukrainian propaganda outlet The Interpreter, who had been increasingly on my case as my status rose, posted a screenshot of its being ‘a tripwire’ (never mind that it could be anything from a spark to a blade of grass in the screenshot) –
Next, RT were on the phone saying they’d cancelled my coming ‘live on air’ slot. Then, as a new fervour rose on Twitter – ‘it was a tripwire‘ – without consulting me at all, they amended the story they’d posted of my having been shot at, to match the tripwire version.
I was left shocked, stunned even. The tweets, abuse, mocking of me mounted on Twitter and elsewhere. I remember the short drive back to Slavyansk where I was staying at the time, stony silence, with suddenly everyone a munitions expert knowing exactly what it was, taking me apart, not one single person standing up for me. The evening just sitting there frozen to my laptop as every refresh on Twitter and the video threw up entire new screens of the biggest onslaught of abuse I’d ever heard against myself – and by that time having been covering events for over a month for RT, I’d heard quite a bit.
RT, what to say about RT? They have a reputation as the bastion, bulwark of ‘Russian propaganda’. In reality, they are a channel flaky to the point of paranoia. The amount of times I watched them bang up a story with the gusto of a four-year-old let loose at the crayons, then find their story challenged on Twitter, immediately cave in and edit, re-edit the story into submission, or even go further and just delete the whole show – such as here.
RT had crumbled, thrown me under the bus, my reputation was in shreds. I realised myself, I’d made a huge mistake. It was a long night of the soul looking at the options open to me. I pretty much figured my career with RT was over. I could have gone back to my apartment in Odessa at that time, could have gone back to England.
I chose to continue reporting in Donbass. I figured it would just be recording for my own channel in any case, but something had to change. In a near sleepless night, poring over everything I’d done since my April 8th arrival on a weeks’ freelance contract to report for RT I determined – pretty much everything had to change.
My reporting from April 8th, the start of my time with RT in Donbass, to May 16th had been that of an absolute rookie. I’d started off trying to be like Louis Theroux, my favourite journalist. Then, piece by piece, started to find my own style. I had no formal training whatsoever, my main experience of interviewing people had been in one of my duties working for Kiev magazine What’s On in 2012 – speaking to people in nightclubs to ask if they were indeed having the proverbial good time.
As I’d recorded more pieces, my style had evolved from aping Louis Theroux to being more myself. But it was a ‘myself’ showing all the ‘pent-up’ of a man waiting all his life to do something meaningful suddenly given the chance to. And charging around like a man determined to seize the moment by not missing any single moment.
Coming with that, as events unfolded, a growing profile through my work for RT, contract extended on into May, and a daily barrage of online abuse for working for RT, my becoming the de facto ‘face’ of RT, despite only ever being a stringer for them. And the truth, behind the scenes, I liked RT and I think that was mutual, but it was always a bit of a tense relationship between us. They were always calling me, usually trying to get me to go to the satellite camera situated in the centre of Slavyansk. I never wanted to do that, always wanted to be charging about, so had taken to just telling them ‘I’m busy’, and hanging up –
Anyway in my ‘long night of the soul’, I looked back over my work thus far. A lot I still feel is good work, and stands up whatever. But there were rookie errors scattered throughout, borne of excitement spilling into over-excitement. A desire to get every single thing out there, whether I’d recorded it on camera or not. Notably, Mariupol on May 9th, when I tweeted this –
I now regard that as an absolute error, to tweet out something I’d overheard, but hadn’t recorded on camera. And I view my handling of events on May 16th, one week later, as all of the errors of my reporting of that time rolled into one, coming home to roost. Before tweeting anything, I should have calmed down, looked at the video I’d filmed. The video I’d filmed did not show what I said at the time. It shows me going across a field, no soldiers visible, something going off at my feet. If it happened now, I’dve tweeted just that ‘going across a field, something went off at my feet’. It’s a hard thing not to say something you’ve seen, but I know after the ‘tripwire’ experience – the alternative is worse!
What was it that went off at my feet? A tripwire-detonated signal mine is a possibility – see one going off here – however I neither saw any sign of a tripwire, nor felt any pull of one. A smoke bomb – is also possible, or a proximity device. I figured at the time it was understandable that when I was talking about being shot at, I wasn’t talking about the device which had gone off at my feet. Yet it clearly wasn’t understandable. I was talking about being shot at, what my video had actually captured was a warning mine, be it placed or fire, going up.
I set myself up for an absolute caning. And I got it – attacked from every single angle, hammered for supposedly running away scared on one side, yet also take a caning for supposedly not being scared enough, keeping the camera ‘suspiciously’ rolling in the ‘right direction‘ as I exited. I’m mocked for responding in Russian when the device went off, yet that’s also seized on to show I wasn’t really scared, or I’dve reacted in my native English. I’m simply called every term of abuse imaginable. Even now, it can be a bit bracing.
There was a mass desire to have me done with, push me into a career coffin. Support – precious little, as my previous champions either kept silent or made mollifying noises ‘confused in heat of moment etc’, apologising for me. Despite enormous pressure to cave, I kept to my original version. But it was the original ‘no-win’ situation – I couldn’t agree to a ‘tripwire’ I’d neither seen, nor seen any evidence of, yet I was maintaining a story not supported by my own video.
(A photo of myself, filming by Kramatorsk airfield, April 2014)
I’d made it difficult indeed to support me indeed. I’m not sure, looking back now, I could even support myself at that time. It felt like all the good work I’d done before that was wiped away, and all those who’d been waiting to get me, had been given a blank cheque, taking to calling me ‘tripwire’ on Twitter. And the only person to blame for it all was myself.
My mind raced throughout the night, ultimately leading to the unavoidable question – do I call it a day here, or go on? And if the latter, then how? I’d been set back to below zero. I decided on the latter, and decided to do it this way… the jumpiness I’d shown in that video was of a person not experienced in covering war, now covering war. But looking at it – I didn’t like how I’d reacted at all. It was time to man up, stay cool in war situations.
It was time to set a rule – always check the video you’ve recorded, whatever you’ve seen – only report what you’ve recorded on camera. And, strip away sensationalism – report the facts, what I’d seen was Ukrainian soldiers shooting not ‘at me‘, but in my direction. The only way I could report they’d shot ‘at me‘, was if they’d actually hit me. When I was wounded by a mortar in November of 2014 while filming on the frontline, there were some pressing me to say that Ukrainian forces had targeted me intentionally – there was no evidence of that, so I didn’t say it.
I woke up on May 17th determined to show who I really was as a journalist, and the correspondent I’d wanted to, and knew I could be – cool in conflict situations, only report what you’ve recorded, never sensationalise.
Of course, the ‘tripwire’ changed everything – damaged my relationship with RT – we continued working together until my 2nd deportation in July of 2014, but I felt they’d totally sold me out, and the relationship probably never really recovered. It gave those against me easy and immediate ammunition. It even still comes up sometimes, but I feel comfortable about it these days.
What seemed like the worst thing ever to happen to me in my career, has turned out to be by far the best. It allowed me to hit the reboot button, when I’d needed to do that. It set the tone for all my work since then, and whatever my critics can say against me, and they do, they have never once been able to pull me up for reporting something I’ve not recorded. It set a no-nonsense style in my work – don’t sensationalise, report the facts. It’s been the basis for everything I’ve achieved since then, and while of course I don’t like to trumpet any achievements, there’s not been a western journalist who’s even come close to breaking as many stories from Donbass.
As for RT, it certainly changed my relationship with them, showed me what the channel were really about – happy to use you when it suits, but as soon as the going gets tough the hands press to your back in the vicinity of the first bus.
18 months ago today, I viewed it as a catastrophe, today, I view it as where my freshman time ended, the apprenticeship was over, and the time that things got serious. The time I rebooted all the errors of the journalist I’d become, and set on the road to becoming the journalist I wanted to be.