Who would trust a journalist?
The temptation after the last few months of ongoing revelations about widespread phone hacking is to say no one. And yet my limited experience is to do otherwise. I have encountered, and indeed confided in, more than my fair share. And my experience overall has been positive.
The relevance of Her Majesty’s Press – the Fourth Estate – came to the forefront of my mind again last week when I saw that the Channel 4 documentary maker Sean Langan was making an appearance on the BBC, both in dramatic form – his kidnapping by the Taliban in 2008 had been turned into an hour-long feature – and confessional when he reprised his life and work in an interview with Mark Lawson.
I have nothing but admiration for Sean.
I first came across him in 2006 as we set about trying to retake the Taliban held town of Garmsir in southern Helmand. Denied access by the military, Sean hitched a ride with the Afghan security forces working along side us who had no qualms about letting a reporter seeing the reality of our squalid little war.
For the next seven days Sean was on hand to capture the horror and terror of a mission which quickly got out of hand and risked turning into a military disaster. But he did not just impassively stand back and capture events. He also became part of them, lending a hand – for example – to treat the steady stream of casualties, from both sides, who were brought into our makeshift base in the centre of the town.
I must make it clear that he was completely impartial to the various aspects of the conflict. He did not take sides and he did not help us militarily. But neither was he immune to human suffering and when necessary he mucked in to try and help alleviate it.
Most of all, he was great company. Straightforward, funny, inquisitive, Sean was everything a journalist should be.
Sean’s footage was turned into a film called Fighting the Taliban (watch on Sean’s website). It shone a bright spotlight on our military involvement in Afghanistan at a time when the MOD was doing almost everything in their power to keep activities shrouded in darkness.
Not long after getting back from Garmsir, I met another journalist, called Philip Gomm. Phil was working for ITV and we got talking at the airstrip in Bastion while we were both waiting for a flight back to Kandahar. He shared Sean’s inquisitive, straightforward nature. Still shocked by my time in Gamsir I spouted on about events there and also told him a little of my past. Patiently he listened. There and then he said that should I ever want to write a book about my experiences then I should let him know. Six months later, back at home, I started to write down my feelings about Afghanistan. I wasn’t doing it with any literary intention, but as a way of communicating what I had seen and done to my wife Margaret. It was she – having read my missives – who suggested I get in touch with Phil and see if his comments back in Helmand had been anything more than politeness. Apparently they were and some 18 months later on An Ordinary Soldier was published. I went on to work with Phil on Task Force Helmand.
Since then I have spoken to scores of journalists without trouble. It seems too that the MOD has softened its view on reporters and authors, recognising that journalists are going to run their stories anyway and that having some input offers the best chance of a balanced report while the knee-jerk “no comment” sounds defensive and suggests there is something to hide, plus risks getting the media’s backs up. Allowing journalists access to soldiers allows them to experience the hardships we face and is more likely to create empathy and understanding. The MOD also now understands that books like mine – Sniper One, Bravo Two Zero, Junior Officers’ Reading Club etc. – can be good recruiting tools.
It might be going too far to say journalists are noble people, but I have come away with a sense that as individuals they are interested in telling the truth. Of course the demands of big business and unscrupulous management means a mere reporter’s integrity is always under threat. And clearly, as within any profession, there are inherently bad apples. But I have time for journalists. Theirs can be a dirty job but someone has to do it. Just like soldiering.