Ten years ago, on 9 August 1995, my friend and colleague, John Schofield, was killed in Croatia. He was 29 years old.
John was reporting from the Balkans for The World Tonight. He had joined us from Channel 4 News and was one of the best and the brightest of a new generation of BBC reporters. He was meticulous in his approach to his work, with a real talent for story-telling. No one would have described him as a reckless risk-taker. Yet he was killed.
John's death marked something of a watershed for both the BBC and for other broadcasters. If a careful young reporter, travelling in an armoured vehicle and wearing a flak jacket, could be killed, it was obviously time for some serious rethinking about how we go about the business of war reporting. The BBC set in train a detailed and lengthy inquiry into exactly why John was killed: an experienced ex-military safety adviser examined the terrain, walked the road along which John and his colleagues had been driving, and looked at the location from the point of view of the Croatian soldiers who had fired the fatal shots.
It seems as clear as these things can be that John and his colleagues were mistaken for Serb forces. They had stopped to take a look at some burning buildings; the Croatians observed them from a distance and opened fire. John was hit in the neck and died instantly.
A lot has changed over the past decade. Broadcasters now acknowledge that they have a duty to their staff, that they need to offer proper training, protection and back-up if they intend to send their employees (and freelances, of course, who now, it is recognised, have every right to the same protections as staffers) into what we have learned to call euphemistically a "hostile environment". (I remember one occasion in the early days when the question arose of whether a particularly wellbred young reporter should be sent on a hostile environment training course, and the response from an unkind colleague was: "Huh, his only experience of a hostile environment is likely to be a boring dinner party.")n But amid the undoubted improvements that have been put in place for those of us privileged enough to work for well-resourced, western news organisations, let us not forget that the vast majority of the 250 journalists who have been murdered over the past decade were working in their own countries: in Algeria, Colombia, and Iraq, for example. It's estimated that more than 80 per cent of the journalists who are murdered are on their home turf, reporting on corruption, drug trafficking or organised crime. Only very rarely are their killers brought to justice.
When I reported from Beirut 20 years ago, at the height of the Lebanese civil war, I did so (not on behalf of the BBC, I should add) untrained, unbriefed and unprepared. I survived by sticking close to the most experienced correspondents I could find and going where they went, doing what they did, and, crucially, turning back when they did.
In contrast, on my most recent foray into a hostile environment – Baghdad, in March of last year – I arrived having just been on a refresher training course, including battlefield first aid, with flak jacket at the ready and a personal safety adviser-cum-bodyguard who never left my side. We had two-way radios, satellite telephones, and the BBC bureau was kept scrupulously informed of where we were at any given time, whom we were meeting, and when we expected to be back.
I often thought of John on that trip, because much of the protection which we broadcasters are already taking for granted is due to the lessons so painfully learnt after his death. But the truth remains that you can never entirely eliminate risk from war reporting: however meticulous the precautions, however cautious the procedures, it remains.
The Brussels-based International News Safety Institute (INSI) puts it well in its statement of aims: "While recognising that some conditions under which journalists and media staff work never can be completely safe and secure, INSI will strive for the elimination of unnecessary risk, in peace and in war."
Reporting is a competitive business, and realtime, 24-hours-a-day news broadcasting is especially competitive. That's why the agreement between the main western news providers to put safety considerations ahead of competition is so significant. The biggest organisations – the BBC, CNN, ITN, Reuters and APTN – founded a Broadcast News Security Group; it has since been joined by other members and it has drawn up a charter of best practice. Much of it springs directly from John's death in Croatia and the deaths five years later, in an ambush in Sierra Leone, of Kurt Schork of Reuters and Miguel Gil Marino of APTN.
Broadcasters now share information about risk; they undertake not to seek competitive advantage when lives are at stake; and they guarantee that they will send no one into a war zone who has not been on a professional hostile environment training course.
The BBC now insists that all teams in war zones are answerable to a single, senior news executive in the field. Programme teams liaise with – and, if necessary, abide by the decisions of – newsgathering personnel. (We sometimes don't like it, but we recognise the need.)n Numbers of people at risk are kept to the minimum compatible with covering the story. For every correspondent in the war zone, there may be another half a dozen chafing back in London having been told they can't go.
It is inexpressibly sad that it took the death of a talented young reporter to bring about these changes. But in the 10 years since John died, we have seen a new, even more dangerous phenomenon: the deliberate targeting and killing of journalists because of who they are and whathe_lesson_learntt they do. In Afghanistan, in Pakistan (Daniel Pearl) and in Iraq, journalists have been kidnapped and killed because, and only because, they were journalists.
So now there is a new series of questions we have to ask ourselves.
Should we still plaster the letters "TV" on our armoured vehicles and on the back of our flak jackets? Should we shout "press" as we always used to, whenever a man with a gun approaches? And most controversially, should our "safety advisers"
be armed, so that if we do run into trouble, there's at least a chance of being able to shoot our way out of it?
Paragraph 8 of the INSI Safety Code states: "Journalists are neutral observers. No member of the media should carry a firearm in the course of their work." But it has nothing to say about the people we hire to look after us. These are hugely difficult areas, which have kept countless correspondents arguing in countless bars over countless late-night beers.
War reporters will never be entirely safe. They know that, their employers know that, and so do their families. But if they are just a bit safer now than they were 10 years ago – and if their employers are much more conscious now of where their responsibilities lie, then I think we all owe John Schofield our thanks for that. He is not forgotten.
Robin Lustig presents The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4