Pressure on YouTube RT, and My First Reportage outside of Donbass, to pass a Million hits – Germany, 2016

Just a few hours ago, I read an article on the liberal website, basically trying to ply pressure on YouTube to do something about RT’s popularity on the site. I was interested to see myself in this context, as supposedly some sort of YouTube hotshot RT had brought in to boost their presence on the platform.

Actually when I began with RT I was right at the start of doing videos, and in many of my early videos from 2014, there was an all-over-the-shop quality due to my trying to do videos, photos all at the same time.

Anway, it does also note my channel has more than 60 million views, and actually that would have been more still had I not had to remove all my 18+ content recently. 

Anyway, more than 60 million it is, and I’m happy to say that also includes, as of yesterday, my first video outside of Donbass, to gain more than a million views! Here it is, Germany, August 2016 – 

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
 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 –

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.

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) –

Fullscreen capture 15112015 025622.bmp

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

Fullscreen capture 15112015 092612.bmp

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.