Working Week: Richard Cookson

20.07.06

 

Awake thousands of feet in the air, somewhere over Siberia.

I'm mid-way through a long journey back home from the far east of Russia, where I've been working for The Independent.

I've spent six days reporting on a new project to extract huge gas and oil reserves off Sakhalin Island that threaten to wipe out one of the world's rarest whales. There are only around 120 western North Pacific grey whales left on the planet, but their feeding ground lies directly above oil and gas fields that some of the biggest companies in the world — including Shell — are determined to exploit. A small patch of water off Sakhalin has become a battleground between environmentalists, determined to save these whales from extinction, and oil men equally determined to push ahead with what one of them calls "the mother of all projects".

What's more, what happens here is expected to set precedents for other gas and oil projects in other wilderness areas — Shell is known to be looking at other projects in the Arctic region, including the Barents, Beaufort and Berings Seas, where it will face similar difficulties to the Sakhalin project, in terms of ice conditions, endangered wildlife and unhappy locals.

For the last three days, I've been in an unbelievably remote camp — the nearest village is 50km away — run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare at Piltun Lagoon, where I've watched both the whales feeding and some of the largest ships in the world working on the construction project.

The journey home crosses 10 time zones, and involves six hours by truck, 15 hours by train and about 14 hours' flying.

Baffled by the in-flight entertainment — a gothic Russian musical, as far as I can make out — I try to go back to sleep.

21.07.06

Get home at 2.30am — more than 50 hours after I left Piltun — and manage four hours sleep before I'm wide awake. I've got stories to file for BBC Wildlife magazine and an oil industry website based in the US, so I get up and start work. As 400 emails arrive, I promise to get a better spam filter.

One of the benefits of freelancing is the variety of work I get to do, and in the afternoon I go from the expanses of Sakhalin Island to the confines of a prison cell. I've been looking into the death in custody of a police and prison informant — one of those stories that takes months to put together — and have just been promised access to thousands more pages of paperwork from his solicitors and the Prison Service. There are already masses of documents to read through, so I settle down to that. A friend rings to say that his producer is interested in talking to me about this, so we agree to talk next week. I call the prisoner's family and have a long chat with his mother to find out what's happened while I've been away.

24.07.06

My feature about Sakhalin has been published in The Independent this morning and been given a good showing: five pages in features. A couple of people call to say that they've seen it. I thought I'd avoided jetlag, but it's finally hit me today, so I dose myself up on coffee.

The editor of an Environment Agency magazine calls and commissions me to write a feature at short notice. I put in some calls, but get answerphones. I've got till Friday to do it, so no great worries.

I get round to reading several responses to Freedom of Information Act requests that arrived while I had been away.

Some of my best stories this year have come through the FoIA, so it's well worth the effort, but it can be excruciatingly slow.

Downing Street is (not unsurprisingly) refusing to release letters between Tony Blair and Prince Charles, while the Foreign Office says it needs more time to consider my request for files about a former British army officer accused of human rights abuses in Bahrain. The Prison Service — which, in my experience, will do almost anything to avoid releasing information — says it needs yet more time to work on a request that I submitted in January. Worse, the MoD says it will update me at the end of August about a request I made last September.

At lunchtime, I give in to jetlag and stop for the day.

25.07.06

Over the last couple of years, I've done a lot of work for MediaWise, a media ethics organisation based at the University of the West of England in Bristol. The director, Mike Jempson, is going to be out of the country for a couple of weeks and rings me to let me know about a couple of things he'd like me to keep an eye on. MediaWise runs a confidential helpline for people who have complaints about the media. While Mike is away, I'm one of the people who will deal with callers, so he briefs me about a couple of cases. It's interesting work that ranges from helping people with serious grievances, to persuading others that the article they want to complain about was entirely justified and appropriate.

I crack on the with the Environment Agency feature for the rest of the day.

26.07.06

Wake up to emails about an oil spill on Sakhalin. Exxon Mobil says a faulty meter may have caused 60 barrels to leak out of a pipeline. Some interesting documents about the financing of Shell's Sakhalin project have also arrived from Russia this morning, so I get to work on them. They describe how local people were promised huge economic benefits from the project, but will now receive next to nothing. The British Government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are considering providing loans for the project, so it's got to be worth looking into.

Go back to the death in custody case after lunch. Only 500 more pages to get through…

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