⚡ Exclusive Interview with Mike Barson from Madness! Russia, Skripal, Putin, Donbass, More!

Those who know me, or knew me growing up would tell you one thing – I was Madness‘ number 1 fan, going to every concert I could, buying every Madness record I could – even if the cost of one, if a rarity, could be most of what I earned in a month on my paper round.

(Myself in a Madness t-shirt, right, 1994)

In 2014, while working in Donbass, I began receiving messages, on Twitter from a ‘Mike Barson’, saying how much he supported my work, and on (read all the messages here). 2014, 2015 was an extremely busy, intense, stressful time – I remember just running the whole time trying to either film something in Donbass, usually the scene of shelling, or the frontlines, or the MH17 site, and more.

(Mike Barson, in an early incarnation of Madness, the Invaders).

I remember briefly having a look at his Twitter page, but did I believe that one of my childhood heroes was really writing to me, supporting my work? Not for a moment, I thought someone who knew what a Madness fan I was, was having some fun at my expense. I wasn’t biting, hardly replied to his messages.

In 2016, I had a bit more time, and decided to look into it. And, well, it turned out really to be Mike Barson. And this here really is his Twitter account. Mike graciously agreed to forgive my reticence of 2014, and give me an interview. Here it is.

GP: I have to ask on a personal level, when you first started supporting my work, and even wrote to me, you are aware that I couldn’t believe it was the real Mike Barson. Does this happen to you a lot, and how do you respond to that?

MB: With great patience 🙂

GP: On Twitter, you have your own account, and seem to chat with all your fans. In the 90s, I recall sending off quite a few letters to fan club addresses, perhaps you never got them. How do you feel about this new accessibility?

MB: Yeah we got a lot more ways to keep in touch these days! I try to answer a few things when I have time tho it’s not always possible.

GP: When fans and so find you on Twitter, they may be surprised that your views are not what we may expect of a celebrity, I say this in my own sphere of Donbass, and Russia. How would you define your views, broadly if so, and how do fans, and others respond to them?

MB: Well I’m not a fan of injustice and hypocrisy and not sure if I’m a celebrity (whatever that is?) but whatever one is in this day and age I feel its one’s duty to speak out as Einstein apparently said…

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing”

It seems now more than ever this is a pertinent statement.

What happened in Ukraine was anything but democratic – a violent coup (my picture from Maidan, left) such as took place in Kiev would never in a month of Sundays have been allowed in a European or American city and yet it was cheered on by the so called ‘international community’ and in particular by many American government officials. It lead to a dangerous schism throughout the country.

This illegal undertaking has been the cause of much suffering for the people of Ukraine and many many innocent people being killed (many of which you yourself have documented) the tragic shooting down of a civilian aircraft above Donbass (why was air traffic not stopped above a war zone??? – obviously because it was a war they were pretending wasn’t happening) and then finally having voted Crimea was returned to the Russian federation.

(My photos from MH17, above, and Crimea in March 2014, below)

It’s difficult to argue that this was not other than Russia’s responsibility-duty to protect the historic Russian people of Crimea and the naval base from the danger arising in the aftermath of the coup which was made vividly apparent by the military attacking their own people – a scandal of grotesque proportions that was hardly reported in western mainstream news. One cannot but notice how the coup in particular is very rarely mentioned which skews the whole question of the situation there.

So seeing this injustice, seeing the results the shelling/killing of –
old ladies in their apartments/houses, going about their ordinary business, shopping etc, and young kids playing football etc and seeing it all ignored in the west is shocking and makes one wonder.

When looking into these affairs also those such as the ghastly Odessa Massacre (picture, right) it’s apparent how these ‘far off places’ are treated very differently in the western press. I could only conclude a kind of racism was taking place against the people in Donbass.

They didn’t matter and yet we destroyed Libya because Gaddafi we were told ‘threatened’ his own people – in Donbass we didn’t seem to have the slightest interest they were being killed by their own army.

So my views are that these events expose an enormous hypocrisy in the western press that is very concerning leaving aside the fact it is totally lacking in any kind of morality. When people are dying as a result of this hypocrisy I feel it is ones duty to call it out if one has the opportunity.

To say nothing of the fact there seems to be a program of demonisation against Russia (Newsweek cover, December 2017) in play that has been repeated many times in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya & Syria even leaving aside the ugly immorality of such subversive propaganda exercises the danger that the world is being pushed into and for the benefit of whom should be of great concern to all rational people.

Do we need WW3? For whose benefit? I’ll be happy when Tony Blair, Bush (pictured) and Cheney are in the dock for previous war crimes committed and country’s work together for their own people and abide by international law.

I don’t know what people expect of a ‘celebrity’ but concerning people who ‘look the other way’ and neither say anything nor engage their brains I guess Mr Einstein spoke on that subject already.

GP: Do you chat about political matters with the band members? If so, how do they respond to this.

(recent promo photo of Madness)

MB: Yeah sometimes, but when the press is giving blanket wall to wall coverage that Putin & Russia is to blame for everything its difficult for people not to be effected as Goebbels said “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”.

GP: Madness are a British institution now, but early on in your career, you got a rough ride from the press. There’s even a scathing Madness song about journalists ‘Don’t Quote Me on That’, which slams into the lies, and lack of ethics of the trade.

Has journalism changed much in the almost 40 years since this song was written? And what made you start following, supporting my work?

MB: Yeah that was an example of where the press used to have a very unfair advantage, they can say what they like and you have no means to respond, these days it seems one has the possibility to respond within social media which is possibly why the mainstream press is going thru hard times?

These days newspapers seem to be rather removed from ordinary people and their concerns though its encouraging that people are reporting independently I guess like yourself.

(Madness in the early days)

Well that’s quite a point actually what I think has changed is that in that time if someone wrote something that wasn’t true in a newspaper…. (the infamous ‘fake news’) you had very little means to respond, its like someone slapping you in the face and you can’t do anything back.

But now with social media people are able to respond to things that are said that are not true and there is suddenly an accountability for journalists and some of them don’t seem to come out in such a great light.

(recent photo of Mike Barson)

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out a while back, in the political world many of them are simply stenographers repeating what they’ve been told – not really journalism. Also it seems that the variety of news stories and opinions have been very diminished where they now act like one big echo chamber.

For example when MH17 was tragically shot down (I used to live in Amsterdam) it was astonishing how all the western press blamed Putin almost before the aeroplane hit the ground – and they blamed him personally.

(The Week, UK magazine, right)

To me this was not logical or rational – (unless you suffer from a deep bias) – Most people were not following the news from East Ukraine so didn’t know there was a war going on and that many military planes were shot down in the preceding weeks. It was clearly not safe.

The worst case rational scenario is that MH17 was mistaken for a military aircraft ie they were defending themselves in a war and mistakenly shot down the jet? There is no sensible rational reason to blame Putin yet that’s exactly what all the press did. Again avoiding the bigger picture of who was actually attacking who.

(Infamous Sun headline, pictured)

All these newspapers were all carrying the exact same illogical argument which makes you question how, why? Either they are full of bias.. or else there is a less savoury reason there was an intention to blame it on Russia for other reasons.

I became interested and started following your work after the overthrow of the government in Kiev. When the troops and tanks started heading east how western governments backed it all when it was so obviously wrong.

(One of my early videos, Slavyansk, April 2014, a local militia blockpost attacked by Ukrainian forces)

I was pretty shocked to see how the EU who were supposed to be guarantors of the agreement between Yanukovych (pictured) and the opposition simply ignored the agreement signed… European values? That incident really put me off the EU. They actually supported a coup – just look how they treat Catalonia now for a taste of hypocrisy.

You were one of the few people reporting on the situation so I started watching your videos. When the Crimea stuff started happening and everyone started talking about the infamous little green men “were they or were they not Russian soldiers” thing was it didn’t really have any relevance to what was happening, a coup had taken place in Kiev! Why was that ok?

(My video from Kiev, January 19th, 2014)

The lack of any greater unbiased perspective in the news (BBC speciality?) shows the narrowness of the debates in MSM these days.

Slowly it became apparent that the US was involved in the overthrow with things like the release of the Pyatt/Nuland tape (below) in which American diplomats were heard discussing who would be allowed in the new Ukrainian government! These facts was totally excluded from the western press not even recognised let alone discussed.

This injustice was racism, not for black people but for poor East Ukrainians. Such a bias in the press and with such disastrous results. Women going shopping killed in their own flats, kids playing football hit my mortar shells, dropping bombs on town halls blowing up innocent women and all these people were simply dropped by western press like Untermenschen. It was reprehensible and no one seemed to care.

So you were one of the few who was recording these events, I consider you did some kind of service to those poor people who died so unjustly in registering what happened to them. One had to cry seeing some of that shit.

(My video, Donetsk, January 2015)

GP: Your music has been an ever-present in my life for about 30 years. During some of the tougher times in Donbass, I remember listening to the song ‘I’ll Compete’.

It’s maybe one of Madness’ lesser-known numbers. Do you have any personal favourites among the perhaps not so well-known Madness canon? And, btw, Michael Caine, the subject of a classic Madness song is also noted for views differing from his contemporaries, do you ever chat with him?

MB: No I never heard Mr Caine was not following the status quo! Unfortunately never got to meet him. We recorded him at an airport for the track Michael Caine – “I think we got it there don’t you” and that was that!

Strange you were playing ‘I’ll Compete’ in that difficult time!

Personal favourites… not so well known songs… “Never Ask Twice” I guess which we played recently at our House of Fun weekender in Butlins in Minehead, and also I like “Around and Around” which is a number that kept its head down thru the years, a sardonic look at ’success’ which I wrote with Mr Lee J Thompson lyricist supreme, that was a b-side from ‘Lovestruck’. There was an old track called ‘Crying Shame’ I have fond memories of –

I remember playing it in Belfast back the 80’s when life was still… full of promise! 🙂

Also Mr Speaker was not bad.

GP: Many have written to me from Russia saying what massive Madness fans they are. Can you tell the story behind your Red Square gig in 1992.

Last year, notably, Robbie Williams pulled all his Russia gigs – would Madness gig there? How do you feel about your Russian fans?

MB: That’s nice to hear we have some fans out there! Red Square 1992, we did a gig that was to be streamed live to Top of the Pops. We stayed in the Rossiya Hotel, biggest hotel in Russia so they said where we stayed had seen its best days.

We had a stage set up right in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral that was pretty cool. Unfortunately there was no audience and it was bloody cold! We did a radio show or two as well while we were there, It was just after the disintegration of the Soviet Union a very historic period but when Yeltsin was implementing western economic shock therapy they were difficult times.

We also played at the Kubana Festival in 2014 a stones throw from Crimea which I invited you too but unfortunately you gave me a blank at the time (as explained above, and again, sorry – Graham). We flew along the border close to East Ukraine over the clouds on the way back which was very close to where MH17 was shot down and only a month later which was weird and very sad.

GP: I think it was Suggs who said that he couldn’t imagine doing it all when you’re 30. Now, you’re almost 60 yourself Mike (actually, Mike is 60 today, April 21st!), and on a creative high – Can’t Touch Us Now is an incredible piece of work. When some bands come and go in a year, how have Madness stayed going for 40 years? What’s next?

MB: Yeah indeed who would guess all that time ago. I remember seeing a teacher at school who was 40 years old back in the 70’s, i was about 11 thinking what an old git! verging on the end of the road! who could have guessed life begins at… 59! 🙂

I suppose we lasted as we were mates before we formed a band and always got on – even to this day it remains a congenial bunch! ha ha.

(Single from ‘Can’t Touch us Now’, Mr Apples)

We don’t work as full on as we did in the early days (which drives you round the bend). We just finished a tour of Scandinavia and had a most enjoyable time.

Thanks for the kind words regarding the latest album, I think as long as one doesn’t lose touch with ones inspiration and love of music then all those years only improve ones talent like a good wine 🙂 !

We gained a lot of experience over the years so I think were in a good place at the moment.

GP: Apologies if this is indulgent, but I attach a photo of my collection of Madness singles. How would you rate it? (We can do albums another time 🙂


MB:
10 out of 10 for the single collection!

GP: I’m sure people will read this, and come away with things they didn’t know about Mike Barson. They may not also know that you can tell jokes in Dutch.

Is there anything else to know? 🙂

MB: Without a doubt.

As a post-note, I asked Mike his opinion about the Skripal situation: 

I think its horrible what happened to the Skripals, especially his daughter and I hope they will both fully recover.

Regarding the government handling of what happened I find it painful to see British MP’s failing so completely to apply the basics of law in this country – That one is Innocent until proven guilty. Its ugly seeing people baying for revenge without any proof – and then attacking Jeremy Corbyn for posing a rational civilised question simply asking for proof first. Are MP’s barbarians these days? – rather more like clowns!

In a fast-moving situation, Mike has been vocal with his opinion on the Skirpals, Syria, and other themes, find him on Twitter here – https://twitter.com/MikeBarson108

A Channel’s Correspondent to a Crowdfunded Correspondent

Graham Phillips

Sometimes the question comes up ‘how did you go from working for tv channels, to working through crowdfunding?’ So, here we go. In the past few days, I’ve got a few things off my chest, particularly in relation to the channel RT, for whom I started working as a tv correspondent, over 2 years ago, in Donbass.

Why did I, from Great Britain, go to work for Russian media? Well, Euromaidan (pictured) Euromaidansaw the shattering of all my, what turned out to be, illusions about media. When you’ve stood on a street and witnessed chaos, mess, terrorism, yet see it on BBC, CNN, depicted as a ‘revolution of dignity’ etc, masks slip pretty quickly.

There are no objective news channels at all. Every channel has an angle, agenda.

It so happened, that on Euromaidan, Crimea, and Donbass, the angle, agenda of the Russian channels was much more truthful than that of the western media. Not completely objective, no, but no media is. We live in an age where every channel or newspaper is owned, either overtly or not, by corporations, businesses, states. BBC, for example, governed by a BBC Trust comprising several members with connections to big business, including Roger Carr, chairman of defence contractor BAE systems, with lucrative arms contracts across the
world. 
 The famously ‘independent’ Guardian, owned by the Guardian Media Graham RTGroup, with its famously secret ‘externally managed investment fund’. 

RT, famously owned by the Russian state. So, what’s it like working for them, what are the terms? They offered me $300 a day to to a week’s work reporting in Donetsk back when things were kicking off there in April 2014. That may sound like a reasonable amount, but you have to stay somewhere, it was hotels back then, and, when it got to Slavyansk, my agreement with RT extending beyond a week, but not every day, it was necessary to get a fixer too. I had to take care of all of this, and getting expenses back was always a struggle, on not one occasion finding myself questioned about receipts for taxi fares for a few pounds.

Also, it’s hard work. When you are on a day’s shift, you are ‘on call’, and RT called, all the time. There would be several producers on shift at any time, and it seemed to be the thing to do to regularly call correspondents. I found this initially frustrating going up to really pretty irritating, as here –

– as I was always running about trying to film things, the phone would frequently be going off during this. But then, new to it all, perhaps I’d simply misread the role of correspondent for a channel. I wanted, in an erupting war situation as it was, with things flaring up all over the place, literally all the time, to be chasing
all the stories, filming all the action. RT mostly wanted me to be in the quiet centre of Slavyansk doing link ups to satellite camera. I didn’t see the point of this, standing in a calm street while things were flaring up all around.

Then, RT would want to send me places, having ‘hot tips’ of action somewhere. Sometimes they were hot tips, other times stone cold. They were a bit obsessed at Graham Phillips Luganskthe time with all sorts of things supposedly going on in Izyum, so kept sending me there, to no real result, but in fairness got it bang on with the Lugansk uprisings of the end of April (pictured).

Now, I’ve written about not wanting anything to do with RT, not liking working for the channel, and that’s true. But I don’t echo the sentiments of other former RT correspondents out of terms with the channel in respect of being told what to say, report etc. I had a free reign, would record and report what I saw. There would be times when RT wouldn’t use all the material I’d send them, or may select parts for edit, but in any case I’d upload all the material onto my YouTube channel, they knew I did that, there were no restrictions on that. RT did, on occasion, tell me about preferred terminology, but I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to that, and it was never an issue.

I would say this – it was hard work. When RT knew you were on a working day, they knew you were on a working day. There were times I’d get back to the hotel after being on my feet filming the whole day, shattered. Then there’d be a call ‘we
Fullscreen capture 09062016 100803.bmpneed you to do a Skype interview’. I’d do the Skype interview, be preparing to hit the hay, another call, another, and so on. Other times, called out on the street late at night for a satellite link up. But again, this isn’t a beef, being a correspondent on the ground when the ground is as active as it was in Donbass back then, is always going to be hard work, and there’s an adrenalin which powers you through.

The reason for my discord with RT is simply, when I’d do a story which got some heat, it was all ‘RT’s Graham Phillips’ and so, but when I was ever in a position of needing RT’s support, on the field, they would as a first option, throw me under the bus.

My employment with RT ended after my 2nd deportation from Ukraine, in July of 2014. Now, I fully accept they’d told me not to go to Donetsk airport during battle, but I went, got taken captive, many of my possessions, including car, stolen by Graham Phillips deportedUkrainian forces. I got released, deported into Poland, called by as it seemed everyone at RT, congratulating me on release, saying they’d fly me to Moscow etc, they went huge about it on air, booking me into a studio in Warsaw for a special feature. And after that, literally, dumped me there. There was a meeting, where it was decided I’d ‘reached the end of my useful life‘, and that was that. No Moscow, no visa support, nothing. They’d gone so big on my having had my car and money stolen, huge features about it on air, but no compensation for that. They knew I couldn’t return to the home I’d left to report for them, in Graham Phillips WarsawOdessa, now banned from Ukraine. Again, nothing. I’m pictured here in Warsaw, just, taking it all in, wondering what to do next. And more, I didn’t at all feel at the ‘end of my useful life’, felt I was just starting.

In my return to Donbass, after doing some work for RT during the World Cup 2014, I’d negotiated a higher rate of pay, $500 a day, but only got 3 days of that in the end. So, all told, taking into account the loss of my car, equipment etc, my RT career ended with my actually having perhaps broken even, if you don’t take into account the apartment I’d effectively lost. If you do, well, I’d certainly have been much better off materially just staying at home!

But I’d never been about money. The big money was always in western media. I knew guys who’d sit in Kiev, crack out columns on Donbass for Newsweek, New Statesman etc at a couple of thousand dollars a pop. Russian media simply doesn’t offer that. I’d gone with that option because it gave me the chance to report things as I saw them.

Anyway, deported by Ukraine, dumped by RT, I saw in Warsaw in early August of 2014 wondering what to do, sure neither what, nor how to do it. The idea of doing a crowdfunder to continue reportage from Donbass just didn’t occur to me at that time – crowdfunding was still fairly new. I figured just get back there, to Donbass, and take it from there. I decided on Lugansk, and needed to hurry, with Luganskthe city further under siege each day and access nigh-on impossible. I returned from Poland, rushed to the visa embassy in London, got a tourist visa for Russia, took off for Moscow, headed down to Rostov, and found someone who got me in to the city of Lugansk, at that time cut off, under relentless Ukrainian shelling, no power, water, phone signal and the one internet connection in the city provided by the other Russian channel there, Life News. There were no other western journalists, in fact hardly any journalists, and I spent the next month filming as much as possible and, without a channel, submitting my videos to agency.

Working as a video journalist is just about as precarious a profession as it gets. There, there is – as is the nature of the trade – absolutely no loyalty, it’s simply who’s got the hottest video. So to make a living, you have to be in the hottest place a lot of times and your competition is anyone with a cameraphone! So, it’s tough, but at that time in Lugansk there was (sadly) enough action to mean that my work was taken up almost every day.

(August 22nd 2014)

However, I’ve never seen myself purely as a video journalist, enjoying filming but also being an ‘on camera’ correspondent, so was looking for offers from a channel. In September 2014, the Russian channel Zvezda approached me to work
for them. Now, I knew they reported into the Russian Military of Defence, but, was assured all my work would be presented as it was, no directives etc.

So it was, I started work for Zvezda, filming my reports on YouTube, sending them to the channel. And I have to say, working for them was actually far smoother than RT – almost no calls, or Skypes. I’d just film my report, send it off, Fullscreen capture 08062016 232532.bmpand if they took it, I’d negotiated 500 Euros, an excellent rate (although I needed to pay a camerman to film my stand-ups from that), but there would sometimes be a couple of weeks and more when they wouldn’t take anything.

Did I like the Zvezda edit of my pieces? Well, I spoke English, and they dubbed it into Russian. I wasn’t always totally enamoured with how the pieces came out, but then anyone who makes material, and hands it over for edit, will feel the same. The Russian angle, agenda in the Zvezda pieces was a bit more overt, as is the nature of the channel, and ultimately that resulted in my decision to cut ties with the channel, in February of 2015.

And, after that, I found myself at an impasse of a crossroads. I’d now become known for my work in Donbass as working with Russian media, and had seen the impact that had in the west. The result was the west immediately discounting my Fullscreen capture 08062016 233115.bmpwork ‘don’t listen to Graham, he works for Russian media‘, ‘Russian propagandist etc. When you put your life on the line, and I got wounded while working in November of 2014, to deliver the truth, it’s of course far from gratifying when there’s a palpable barrier put up to that getting over to a wider audience. Of course there are a lot of people who want it that way, have made up any number of nonsense stories and claims about me in attempts to discredit my work – I’m a Russian agent, British agent, sex tourist, gay’... it goes on.

Anyway, post Zvezda, I made the call to go it alone. I had offers to work with Vice News, but couldn’t associate myself with a channel who I felt had been entirely dishonest in their coverage of Crimea, Donbass. The BBC contacted me several times, but, after their coverage of Euromaidan, Crimea, Donbass, BBC News exists to me only as a propaganda agency I want nothing to do with.

So, I got by last year on earnings from Zvezda, my YouTube channel, and sponsors. As for the latter, people see a lot of hits, my channel is near 50 million now, and equate that with serious coin. But it’s not quite like that. A thousand hits in much of Europe, the US, can bring in about $4, quite reasonable. If those are in Russia, where rates are far lower for advertising, it’s only 0.40 cents, if Ukraine 0.20 cents. So, in the early days, when the eyes of the west were on droneUkraine, and Donbass, it did generate a decent amount. But since late 2014, the audience has been mainly Russian, from Donbass, or Ukraine so, the hits may still be high, but the sum can be a few dollars.

I did my first crowdfunder, in April of 2015, to fund a drone, it seemed to capture people’s imaginations, went very well. And in September of the year I set up a Patreon account, donations on that, a little less than $200 a month, significant to my work. That, along with donations to my Paypal account, and fairly modest expenses while working in Donbass, Crimea have allowed me to get by.

Coming back to the UK a couple of weeks ago has been a shock in a lot of ways. When I last returned in 2015, Donbass did have some resonance here, but, sadly, that’s entirely gone now, it seems like a different world. Then there’s London, it Graham Phillips UKchanges so much every time that it’s not just buildings which are different, it’s entire streets. New trends, atmosphere, it’s coming back to a city which moved so quickly it didn’t miss a beat when you left, reintegrating. And realising, this is the real world – for me, my world. You can go away and be a ‘big man’ somewhere else, taking a position against your own country’s government as I have, with my work having resonated in Donbass, and Russia (though I’d like to think not just because of that, but due to the quality of reportage, my having worked very hard – over 4000 videos on my channel), but if you’re unknown in your own backyard, there’s a discord.

Of course, being known personally is not what it’s about. I’d like people to see the reportage, know the truth. It’s hard to have friends back in Donbass, suffering under a war situation ongoing because, in large part, the west has switched off allowing the predicament there to perpetuate. But of course, as a correspondent, there are a lot of things interesting to me, which I want to report on. And there’s a bonus in doing so, that if I can win a new audience through work which resonates in the west, I can hopefully take them to know the truth about Donbass.

But how to do it, when both roads are closed, for the above reasons, to Russian, and to western channels? Well, I have go it myself, via crowdfunding.

Set up a project, find people to support it, finance it, make it happen. This is my new project, UK referendum reportage – currently at 25% of the funding target –

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/uk-referendum-reportage/x/12236308#/

So how does this compare to being a channel’s correspondent? Well, there are extra stresses – having to raise finance, of course, is stressful. Despite the perception with crowdfunding that you put a project up, and that’s it, it flies, crowdfunding is actually, usually, a fight to get financing. After my first, lucky, Fullscreen capture 09062016 015443.bmpdrone project, I did a Baltics one which ended up well under target. And this latest one similarly, tough. There are no incredibly wealthy benefactors who with the click of a moneyed finger, make the whole project happen. There are normal people, pledging mostly 10 and 20 pounds. And, in the real world, to make a project even with minimal costs happen, you need a lot of that.

However, on the other side, if it happens, the result can be, simply, the ultimate correspondent’s dream. Freedom to report everything, exactly as it is, not beholden to any one or organisation. Knowing that people support you, support your work, it’s a wonderful feeling. The potential to make a unique project happen because of that.

It’s still new though, the idea of a crowdfunded correspondent. I sometimes ask myself how it came to this, because in some ways, you are alone, everything stands or falls on you. But in another way, it’s the best thing of all, no one calling Graham Phillips journalistyou, telling you what to do, where to go. I hope to build a career on the unique opportunity that crowdfunding gives. Of course, I can only do that if people support me, and people will only support me if the work deserves it. There’s no safety net, it’s live or die.

Be sure, I’ll give it my all to realise this incredible opportunity. People pledging to me now are fairly low in number, but huge in significance. To make it happen long-term, I’ll need more people to see the worth in true, independent reportage. That could even be you, reading this. If so, be sure, from my side, your pledge to me will be met with a pledge from me to turn your support into reportage which can change the world.

Aramis the Film, by Graham Phillips – Press Release

 

1AramisI’m very pleased to announce the upcoming premiere, in St Petersburg, of my first film, Aramis, and when I return to London I’ll be arranging a special viewing in my home city.

In August of 2014, I met a remarkable man, while I was filming in Lugansk at the time of the Lugansk blockade. A member of the people’s militia. A parachutist, a furniture maker turned frontline fighter, 34-year-old Denis Somov (call-sign Aramis) was really quite remarkable.

More, he decided not only to be a fighter, joining up with his brother after Ukraine’s bombardment of his home city compelled him to take arms, he also took about filming as much of his experience as possible. War was all new to Aramis filmingDenis, and with his basic, compact camera, he captured a daily record both of how it was to be a fighter in the people’s militia, as the Ukrainian blockade was broken, and a wave of new territory taken, and a period in history otherwise hardly chronicled – a dearth of, at least western, journalists covering this period has meant its realities remain largely unknown to the wider world.

Aramis was killed in action in the operation to take Debaltsevo, sustaining life-ending wounds in open conflict on February 11th, 2015. He left a great deal behind him – a vast archive of video material, his daughters, wife, brother, comrades-in-arms.

The film Aramis – Donbass Musketeer‘ is the story of Aramis. It’s also the story of how the blockade of Lugansk in 2014 was beaten. It’s the story of an amazing Aramis Parentsman, of many amazing individuals, the story of how an unexpected war made a man take arms against what had been his country, and of how life has gone on in the aftermath of the death of Aramis.

I will look forward to meeting you at the film’s showing in London, details to be confirmed.

Effects and production on the film by Aramis’ brother, Oleg Somov.

18 Months on from the ‘Tripwire’ which Changed Everything I’ve Done Since

Graham Phillips

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 Fullscreen capture 15112015 024059.bmpsoldiers, 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 –

Fullscreen capture 15112015 024538.bmp

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) –

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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 Fullscreen capture 15112015 030354.bmp Fullscreen capture 15112015 030843.bmp Fullscreen capture 15112015 030925.bmpexpert 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. Screenshot (37)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 Graham Kiev Clubbersstarted 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

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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, Fullscreen capture 15112015 093247.bmpnor 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 Graham reportingoriginal ‘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.

(A photo from frontline reporting today)Fullscreen capture 16112015 121558.bmp

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.

Drones in a War Zone – Some Do’s and Don’ts

Graham Phillips

The world of drone-flying is still new, unchartered territory – affordable domestic Graham drone1drones have only really appeared in the last year, now there are hundreds of thousands all over the world.  They’ve quickly become more powerful too, capable of flying kilometres in range, vertically.

Effective mini-helicopters, free of legislation which has failed to keep up with them. So many ‘who knows?’ about drones – can you fly them in cities? Could you fly one in central London say? Will the future, as they proliferate, be drones buzzing and wizzing about all our skies? There are signs of the law starting to reign in the era of the drone ‘free for all’ –

graham phillips droneI was very pleased to see my drone footage featured recently in the Huffington Post. However, it’s not always been plain flying operating a drone in the war zone.

Back in April, I crowdfunded my first drone, a Phantom 2. It’s actually a fairly basic drone, but there are few feelings quite like your first drone – actually operating what’s in effect a mini helicopter. Putting something up in the sky, more something which shows a live feed of what it can see. You can hardly avoid comparisons to a kid at Christmas and so forth.

I returned to Donbass in May so enamoured with my new gadget, I wanted to fly it over everything, everywhere, all the time. Which I did in my previous stint reporting in Donbass, learning a few important lessons in the process.

Do’s – 

A drone can show destruction in a way just not possible for ground-based cameras. It can show more information than ground-based cameras can, instantly, more effectively. Here we can see, by use of drone, clear demonstration that shelling was hitting entirely residential areas, of Donbass –

A drone is incredible at capturing objects hit by shelling, burning, once again conveying the key visual information much quicker than a ground camera, adding more information. So do it carefully, but do it if you can –

It can make event footage absolutely stunning –

Or just really cool –

So these are all Do’s – now to – 

Don’ts

I was so keen to fly my drone everywhere, I flew it everywhere – including over Ukrainian positions, from DPR positions were I was –

There is a fact of flying a drone on the frontline of battle, that you can’t do it without a commander, or soldier looking over you either from curiosity or supervision. This leaves you incredibly open to allegations of ‘spying’ –

Fullscreen capture 21102015 210858.bmpAnd another fact is you have to show drone footage to the commander of the positions from which you’re filming, as protocol. As in the case of the below drone footage, i showed it, got approval for for. But was still accused of ‘revealing’ positions of the side I was filming from – see comments here –

graham drone2So, it’s tempting to want to film from the frontlines, but for all sorts of reasons, one best to resist. So not to drone on (sorry), to wrap up on a (kind of) positive. A drone puts the power in your hands to show something which can change the world.

This recent footage, from Pervomaisk, was featured in the Huffington Post, and, judging from the messages and feedback to myself, to many, it ‘put Pervomaisk on the map’, making people aware of the dire situation there. It was also one of the key reasons for my signing a contract with Broadband TV to more widely distribute my work –

In a war zone, as a journalist, your drone can be your most powerful weapon. Follow the tips above, don’t turn it up yourself, and it take you, and your viewers, to places you’d never imagined possible.

My Return to Work in Donbass

Graham W Phillips

Graham and dadI’ve spent the last 2 months in London, and had a truly wonderful time in this city in which I lived and worked for 10 years. I’ve spent time with family (that’s my dad, btw), friends, been to Wembley – twice, been around London, watched a lot of favourite shows Come Dine with Me, Dinner Date, Grand Designs, and more.

For some time, I have been ready, and preparing to return to work in Donbass, where, from August 2014 to February 2015 I spent a continuous 6 1/2 months, before my return to London in March.

To this end, I applied for a visa for the Russian federation. My plan is to be in Moscow on May 9th, to commemorate, photograph and film, Victory Day there, and then Graham at workproceed directly to Donbass, and Donetsk – my helmet, bulletproof jacket, and working equipment are there, and I’ll immediately return to work.

I’ll be travelling by my car, a Rover 75, full of humanitarian aid for Donbass donated in London. I’ve driven to Ukraine, and through Ukraine 3 times before. However, this time, as above, I’ll be driving through Russia to my destination of Donbass. I was deported from Ukraine twice in 2014, for no reason other than reporting news inconvenient to the Kiev government. I was banned from Ukraine for three years, in July of 2014, for the same reason.

I don’t consider this ban valid – I was given neither official documentation, nor any kind of ‘black mark’ in my passport. The reasons given by the Kiev authorities for my ban changed several times – they were consistent only in all being nonsense.

However, I am aware of the current situation in Ukraine. A lawless state where Oles Buzinaperceived opposition figures are hunted and killed, most recently, anti-war journalist Oles Buzina (pictured). There is no question that, given the degree of sentiment against me in Ukraine due to my reporting events in Donbass not agreeable to the Kiev government, any trip into Ukraine would be a suicide mission.

Yet I don’t agree in letting the Kiev government tactics of repression, tantamount to state terrorism, win. I’m committed to working in Donbass. No other western correspondent has reported there either earlier, or longer, than myself. I’m very excited Graham at work1about returning to work there next week!

Despite what the pro-Euromaidan/Ukraine side would perpetuate, my relationship with the Russian state, consulate, is that of a normal British citizen with the Russian state. I apply for a visa, with the relevant documentation, passport photos, and hope that application is approved, as this one has been. My experiences of the Russian embassy and consulate have always been positive – professional, efficient, however there is no ‘special treatment’. I submit the same documentation as anyone else, pay the same visa fee.

True to say, some in the Russian consulate know me, and on a personal level have been friendly to me, and supportive of my work in bringing the truth out of Donbass. They are simply nice people. Of course I’ve been vilified by a Ukraine which has seen Graham Londonmy work do much to shatter their falsehoods and lies which support, and purport, the Ukrainian position. And I’ve been appreciated in a Russia (one of many nice things sent to me from Russia, left) which has seen in me an independent western correspondent who has reported the truth, in a world of western correspondents who long since sacrificed that concept that to blanket attack Russia, either to further their career, or serve their state.

I am not really bothered about the relentless attacks on me by ‘pro-Ukraine’ supporters. And I’m very grateful for the support, kindness, from Russian people, people across the Graham Donbassworld in fact. However neither animosity nor affinity give me any affiliation. I’m a completely objective, neutral correspondent.

In my last time in Donbass, I was most often referred to as a ‘war correspondent’, but do not read in my return any indication that I will be returning in that capacity. I would be much happier to be a ‘peace’ correspondent.

So, I get back to work as a correspondent. On top of this, I am delighted to have over £3400 raised at my Donbass event in London, more from online fundraising and the Support Donbass shop, and still more to help a shelling victim, amputee, Lilya.

I absolutely believe in the capacity of a journalist both to report, and to do good. I’ll be P1230109reporting news in Donbass, and distributing, filming distribution of, the humanitarian aid so generously given by so many to help the civilians of Donbass.

Before leaving, early morning on May 7th, I’ll be doing something I consider enormously important – voting in the UK election. I love the United Kingdom, and I urge all who can to vote, have their say in the future of our great nation.

Then, Moscow on May 9th, Victory Day, something I’m hugely looking forward to – as well as getting back to work in Donbass!

So, that’s that, and we crack on!