Julia Barron, head of current affairs at London’s October Films, examines the price journalists pay in order to keep the powerful honest.
Questioning the ‘official version’ is the raison d’etre of the journalist, and there are few more powerful places to do it than on national TV. So when those in power make the substantial claim that we are winning the ‘War on Terror,’ it’s not likely to be accepted without question by journalists. Unfortunately, those making such claims often go to some lengths to protect them from close examination.
In the summer of 2006, the UK Ministry of Defence decided the best way to avoid too much scrutiny was to ban all TV crews from going to the front line in Afghanistan. The ban was nimbly circumvented by filmmaker Sean Langan, who found an unofficial, hazardous route of his own. Commissioned through October Films to make a film about the war, he caught a lift with some Afghani soldiers ‘accompanied’ by British troops. The resulting film showed the extraordinary professionalism of our soldiers, but also the futility of their mission – as they wrested control of a key strategic town from the Taliban only to be ordered out by HQ. Two multi-award winning films would follow – Meeting the Taliban and Fighting the Taliban. The second film revealed how quickly the nato strategy unraveled and it helped to undermine the MOD’s efforts to keep the war out of sight and out of mind.
Langan’s latest Afghan project, made with a different prodco, resulted in him being kidnapped for three months. Happily, he got out alive, but it was a reminder that examining the official version of truth in conflict zones is a dangerous business. Last year, 170 journalists were killed or murdered, the second highest tally on record.
At least in the ‘War on Terror’ you pretty much know the line of fire. One of the hardest films we’ve made since I joined October Films wasn’t about a war at all, but rather a superpower.
Last year, Murdering the Truth for C4 investigated the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The producer, Paul Jenkins, was following leads that a rogue Chechen hit squad was responsible; but also – more alarmingly – that the FSB, the Russian State Security Service, was involved. Politkovskaya worked for Novaya Gazeta, an investigative newspaper which had long been a thorn in the side of President (now Prime Minister) Putin, himself a former KGB officer. She wasn’t the first of Novaya Gazeta‘s journalists to be killed and we were aware that our own investigations were probing into a shadowy and dangerous world. We had to put a set of safety protocols in place every bit as rigorous as those for Langan in Afghanistan.
Late one night, a few weeks after Politkovskaya’s murder, I got a call from our producer in Moscow. He’d found something curious on an obscure Chechen website; could I follow it up? A London-based Russian dissident, a supporter of the Chechen cause, was claiming he’d been poisoned.
The next day I spoke to a very poorly sounding Alexander Litvinenko and arranged an interview. We had recently exchanged numbers at a public event protesting Politkovskaya’s murder, where he had publicly accused Putin of being behind it. He never made our meeting. A few hours after we spoke, he was rushed to an isolation unit. He later died there of what has been described as an ‘internal Chernobyl,’ a dose of radiation probably fed to him in a cup of tea. Litvinenko, himself a former FSB agent, is alleged to have been murdered by two former FSB agents, both of whom remain at large in Russia, despite an official British extradition request. One is now an MP in Russia’s parliament. To date, no one has been convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder.
Sometimes even the fog of war isn’t enough to be a patch on state cover-ups. We should salute the journalists who risk their lives to show us the truth as they find it, not as the powerful would like us to see it.