000 Chris Cramer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Whatâs been going through your mind
about what front-line journalists are facing now?
Mr.Â CHRIS CRAMER (Global Editor of Multimedia, Reuters; President,
International News Safety Institute): Well, I think weâve seen a trend
in the last maybe five, 10, 15 years, where more of your colleagues and
my colleagues are potentially in harmâs way than ever before. And I
include indigenous journalists, those who report on the countries they
live in, and those who travel in from the U.S. or Europe, and I put them
all in one category.
You know, somethingâs going on out there at the moment. Our industry is
in peril. You know, some dreadful statistics in the last 10, 12 years,
something like well in excess of 1,000 media workers, and by that I mean
people who report on the stories and those who support them, whether
itâs translators or interpreters or drivers or producers or cameramen,
you know, they are very much in harmâs way.
Itâs not possible any longer, to, if you like, behave as though youâre
in a bubble. It accrues from one side to another in a hostile zone. You
know, weâre being targeted, weâre being imprisoned, weâre being
harassed, weâre being assaulted, and sometimes and all too frequently,
weâre being murdered.
GROSS: Now let me back up before we talk more about what youâve been
trying to do to help journalists in war zones. Let me back up to the I
think precipitating story in your life that got you headed in that
direction, and this goes back to 1980, when you were briefly held
hostage. Would you tell us that story?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Yes. I was a producer - television producer for the BBC
based in London. And at the end of April, 1980, I was asked by the BBC
to get a visa to go and cover the hostage crisis, the American hostage
crisis, in Tehran, where if you recall, a large number of U.S. diplomats
and other folk had been taken hostage by the Republican Guards. And the
only way I was able to get a visa, because I couldnât do it on the phone
or in writing and in correspondence, was to take myself to the Iranian
embassy in London.
I was actually only in the embassy for about 10 or 15 minutes when it
was stormed by a number of gunmen, who I subsequently discovered were
Iranian dissidents, and they took both myself and 25 other people
hostage for a period of six days before Margaret Thatcher, the prime
minister in Britain, sent in the special forces, the SAS, to break the
I actually only lasted, if you like, for a day and a half before it was
pretty clear to me that â I had a horrible instinct that it was going to
end very unpleasantly. My journalistic instincts, in fact, really sort
of died on me in the first 12 hours.
I did Telex some information to the outside world and then set up an
interview for â between the leader of the terrorists and the BBC, but
during the night, the first night, my kind of journalistic instincts
sort of quietly went to sleep, really, and my own personal instincts
kicked in, and I had this horrible foreboding that it was going to end
extremely unpleasantly, and particularly for me.
So you know, the mind is a great vehicle, and overnight, something
happened to me. I became, to myself, extremely unwell, very, very
quickly, and by the noon of the next day, I had, if you like, begun to
shut down physically.
So the gunmen were convinced that I was having a heart attack or
something worse than that or something slightly this side of that. So
was rather unceremoniously dumped onto the sidewalk outside the embassy
and for the next few days actually was able to work with the
authorities. In fact, I didnât realize it was the special forces, I just
thought it was the police, who â you know, towards the siege being
concluded, I guess, about four days later.
Iâm telling you all of that for the following reason, you know, not
because I have a victim syndrome here, but because I was very tempted to
leave the profession after that.
It was very clear to me that if I couldnât, if you like, continue to go
to war, there was nothing else for me. I turned down psychiatric
counseling. The BBC were kind enough to offer it twice. I didnât want to
admit to myself, and I didnât want to admit to my managers, that if
youâd like, Iâd lost my nerve. And it was onlyâ¦
GROSS: Let me just stop you here. I just want to back up a second. You
said your journalistic instincts died after you were taken hostage, that
they remained for a few hours, and then they just kind of died. If they
were functioning properly, in your mind, what would you have been doing
compared to what happened?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Terry, I think some people listening to this broadcast would
automatically assume, as I did, that this was the scoop of a lifetime.
You know, I found myself inside a horrible hostage situation, you know,
with the appalling irony that I was there to go and cover something
equally unpleasant happening in Tehran.
So this was my golden opportunity to shine. I couldâve done a variety of
things, and Iâve rehearsed it in my mind 1,000 times since. You know, I
could have secured the release of 26 hostages. I could have â anything
from the range of single-handedly overpowering the gunmen to, you know,
getting a Pulitzer Prize of whatever the British equivalent, what would
But thatâs not what I did. Itâs not what I wanted to do after a very
short period of time. It is almost impossible to explain to someone what
it feels like to have, you know, a young person, many years younger than
yourself, pointing a gun directly at your head and in his left hand
having a hand grenade, which he ostentatiously takes a pin out, in, out,
in, out over a period of 15 or 20 minutes. That is almost impossible to
Many people react in a completely different way to it. To me it was the
most single, terrifying thing of my entire life, and I never want to
repeat it or come close to repeating it.
So when I talk about my journalistic instincts closing down, you know,
very good friends of mine have said well, didnât you realize that you
had the capacity to own the scoop of the century here? And I said yes,
but frankly, survival was much more important to me. So I have
absolutely no regrets about that at all.
GROSS: So you say your body shut down. Was your body shutting down out
of fear? Do you have any idea what was going on in your body?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Yes, it was shutting down because of panic. It was shutting
down because of fear. It was shutting down â my systems, I believe, were
closing down because I had just â I was determined that flight should
kick in, and you know what? I mean, I still have mixed emotions as to
whether or not I really was ill or wasnât, although the moment I got â
was put into an ambulance outside the embassy, and they tried to put an
oxygen mask over my face and tried to inject me with something or other,
I tore the mask of my face and said stop the ambulance now.
If youâre going to storm the embassy, I need to tell you things. For
example, I need to tell you there are six gunmen in there. And they said
no, no, no, no, there are two. I said no, no, take it from me. Iâve
counted them. There are six.
They are extremely heavily armed, and they have explosives, and they are
going to kill hostages, and the person in the back of the ambulance, who
as it turns out was a member of the special forces, and I thought he was
an ambulance worker, screamed to the driver to stop the ambulance, and
he burst out of the back door and left me in the ambulance â back at the
ambulance by myself because he went off to tell them, you know, that
piece of information, which I happened to think was crucial because I do
believe they were going to storm the embassy.
729 GROSS: Were there people in the embassy who were killed?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Yes. About three days after I was released, so day five, I
guess, or maybe into day six of the siege, they had threatened to kill a
hostage every hour unless their demands - which are rather vague at this
distance, but they certainly wanted a number of their, you know,
colleagues back in part of Iran released, and they wanted the usual
plane to the airport and all of that stuff - and threatened to kill a
hostage, one every hour, if their demands were not met, and they
executed one hostage, threatened to execute a second one, and at that
point, Margaret Thatcher deployed the SAS into the building, you know,
around lunchtime on the sixth day.
813 GROSS: And were people killed during that part?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Yes. The gunmen sprayed the room where most of the hostages
were kept, and they killed one. They seriously injured two or three
others. The SAS killed five of the six terrorists, and one of the
terrorists actually, you know, infiltrated himself into the hostages and
managed to get out of the building, and I suspect if he had not done
that, he would have been the sixth one killed. And he was subsequently
tried, and I gave evidence at his trial at the Old Bailey, and he was
jailed for life and I think released last year actually.
849 GROSS: So did you ever write this up as a story?
Mr.Â CRAMER: No, not for me. I mean, I did with a BBC sound recordist,
who was there until the end. He and I co-wrote a book, which frankly,
was not a journalistic exercise, and you know, I know now what a
cathartic exercise is.
It was a downloading, for me, of a number of anxieties, you know, and
feelings of guilt and all of that stuff, and it was more about that than
wanting to document it. And the book was published about a year later
and was a resounding failure as a book, but it was a useful exercise for
me, and Iâm not sure what his motives were, but no, Iâd never wrote it
up as a story. I did â you know, I was interviewed.
Clearly I had a duty to my employers, the BBC, so obviously I made
myself available for interviews immediately after the siege ended and
subsequently after that. But I donât regard that as a journalistic part
of my life. I regard it as a crossroads of my life because it convinced
me that covering wars was not for me, and if I wanted to stay in the
business, I had to, you know, choose another path, which as it turned
out was, you know, worked out fairly well for me because I, you know,
went into middle management and then senior management.
1000 GROSS: How did you feel when you went into management, sending journalists into war zones - because that was part of job - handling international news,
knowing that you felt you couldnât handle that yourself, that you felt
you had failed when, you know, the grenade was in front of your face,
and the gun was pointed to your head.
Mr.Â CRAMER: If I had known then what I know now, I would have realized
that the most intelligent thing I could have done was to instantly go
off and see a psychiatrist because, you know, I know now that I had a
form of post-traumatic stress disorder, which lasted for many years and
manifested â I mean, it didnât have a fancy label in those days, but it
went down the traditional path of stress that we know about these days,
which is, you know, nightmares, claustrophobia, not being able to fly,
not being able to actually go in elevators or even escalators, not being
comfortable sitting in a room unless I had my back to the door, not
going to theaters or restaurants for a very long period of time, all now
I know to be classic, if you like, signs of a form of PTSD.
So my early few years in middle management, I had the utmost respect
and, indeed, was in awe of people that I assigned to war zones, but I
was still processing this stuff myself. It made me much more protective
of my staff, and as I, you know, if you like, went up the, you know,
greasy pole of management, I did find myself in a position of being able
to influence the way in which people were sent into war zones and, you
know, I think was able to, if you like, do a little bit of intellectual
payback and to make sure that on my watch, people would get the very
best of care and would get the very best of attention, whether it was
the best training or the best equipment or the best vehicles to drive.
And you know, in the mid-â80s, late â80s, this was pretty unconventional
stuff, even at a big, well-funded, mature organization like the BBC. I
mean, I think many of my staff thought I was pretty weird.
1208 GROSS: But the advice you were giving was for their safety. So what was
some of the advice you were giving, and what were some of the systems
you were setting up early on with the intention of protecting the
journalists you were sending into war zones?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Well, I guess â I mean, I can focus on, I think, the siege
of Dubrovnik, which I think it was in 1991, when if you remember,
Dubrovnik was under siege.
The BBC crew there made the very intelligent assessment that if they
were going to stay, they could well get killed. So they informed me as
the whatever I was then, you know, foreign editor or assistant foreign
editor, that they were pulling out. And my first response was sort of
anger, really, that you know, how could they do this because that would
undoubtedly mean that we would not be able to, you know, get those
wonderful awards that you get at journalistic â you know, annual
journalistic awards, but that passed very quickly, and I was disgusted
by that emotion, and I said how dare you, how dare, I behave like this?
So really, myself and a number of colleagues took it upon ourselves to
draw up some pretty simple guidelines about â safety guidelines, you
know, with the opening headline that no story is worth a life. No
picture sequence or audio sequence is worth a serious injury. Thereâs
always another day to do this story.
Now that simple, bold, declarative sentence that no story is worth a
life was unbelievably controversial at the BBCâ¦
1340 GROSS: Why?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Because there were many people, not just in the BBC but in
the industry in Britain, who thought that somehow undermined and
belittled the job of a journalist. You know, my own view then and even
more forcefully now, is Iâm not belittling what you do, what Iâm saying
to you is thereâs always another â you know, you can drive down that
road tomorrow or the next day.
You donât have to go in headlong pursuit of a story and disregard your
own life or those of the colleagues youâre working with. And I think
itâs sort of ironic that the phrase no story is worth a life is â I
actually frequently hear it played back to myself by other people in
other contexts. And itâs not that Iâm proud of the phrase, but Iâm just
â what makes me smile is, you know, nearly 20 years ago now, it was
considered heresy to say that.
My view is it was part of a process of the media industry growing up.
People who fight fires, you know, donât go off to fight fires without
the most profound training and equipment and guidance and support
before, during and after that particular incident.
Members of the armed forces, both here in the U.S. and overseas, now
regard all of this stuff as par for the course. You donât go and do this
until youâre â unless youâre well-trained and well-rehearsed and well-
prepped on what you might â you know, what you might confront when you
do what you do.
And yet the media profession, until fairly recently, and pockets of the
media profession still, seem to think that they can drift in and out of
war zones, you know, without any harm coming to them. Lifeâs not like
that. It certainly isnât like that anymore.
1524 GROSS: What kind of training do you try to provide journalists now
before sending them into a war zone?
Mr.Â CRAMER: We worked with a security company, and thereâs an odd number
of these security companies now around the place, and designed I think
to begin with a three-day course, not a four-day course, and itâs now
mostly a weekâs course.
And itâs standard fare for the industry, you know, CNN, BBC, Reuters,
Associated Press, you know, many distinguished U.S. newspapers, NPR, for
journalists or those who work with them to go off on these, what they
call hostile-environment courses. And theyâre mostly residential, and
they cover a variety of pieces of road craft, if you like, all the way
through from, you know, the grisly part of, you know, what weapons do to
bodies all the way through to how to evade and avoid being taken
hostage, how to behave if you are taken hostage, all the way through,
crucially, to very, very, very advanced first aid, battlefield first
aid, and many of my colleagues around the world have actually had cause
to use that.
Alan Johnston, the distinguished BBC correspondent taken hostage in
Gaza, he went on one of these hostile-environment courses, and there is,
you know, a pretty unpleasant experience where they put a black bag over
your head, and heâd heard this was going to happen, and in other words,
he was braced for it, and the instructor said to him Alan, the next time
this happens, itâs going to be for real. You know, fast forward a few
months, and thatâs exactly what happened to him in Gaza.
So thereâs role-playing. Itâs, of course, all an exercise, itâs not
real, but it prepares you for a variety of things that might happen to
you when youâre, you know, covering something overseas or even in your
1707 GROSS: Now you know, you came up with that phrase no story is worth a
life, but in your position, you have sent many journalists into war
zones, and of course, the way to make sure that a journalist isnât
killed in war is to not go into the war zone in the first place. So Iâm
sure that there have been times for you when itâs been difficult to
decide whether the situation was too risky to even send a journalist
there, and Iâm wondering if you could give us an example of a situation
like that, or was it a very difficult judgment call for you?
Mr.Â CRAMER: Well, I mean, I think there have been tricky judgment calls
down the years, and you know, I have in a variety of different forms, if
you like, been assigning people to potentially unpleasant or known
unpleasant parts of the world, you know, both at the BBC and CNN and now
at Reuters. And I think there are some parts of the world where Iâm, you
know, profoundly uncomfortable about sending people ever, and you know,
Somalia is one that comes to mind.
You know, Somalia is a killing zone for journalists, plenty of examples
of that. At various times down the years, I have had a prevailing view
that we should not go. And you know what? What I donât believe in, and
what tends to make me very irritated, is the notion that oh, well, donât
you understand the journalist on the spot should really make that
judgment for him or herself? And I donât accept that.
I think, you know, I think this is a partnership. I think journalists
and those who work with them around the world frequently have most of
the data, but at the end of the day, itâs a management call. Itâs about
the safety of our staff. If we say that our most valuable resource are
our staff, then we need to behave as though thatâs true, which means on
occasions, we will not go to certain parts of the world, which is
unfortunate, but you know, it does not mean we never go there.
It means that circumstances might change, and we can go there maybe
later, or we can send fewer people there, but I think this has been the
healthy part of the debate, that itâs not at all unusual now for, you
know, very sophisticated safety plans to go in front of management, you
know, middle management or senior management and be assessed against the
following equation: Whatâs the risk versus the reward here? Whatâs the
journalistic reward? You know, can we maybe do it next week or next year
as opposed to tomorrow?
??? 1932 GROSS: How did you do the risk versus reward equation when the United States invaded Baghdad, and you had to decide who was going to be in Baghdad,
where were they going to be?
Mr. CHRIS CRAMER (President, International News Safety Institute): Well
I think at the time actually the decision was sort of taken out of my
hands, really, because the Iraqis threw the CNN correspondent and the
staff out of Baghdad, you know, before - just, I mean they had been
there for a very long time and then they were, if you like, sort of
thrown out. But I mean, to your general point, I mean, obviously both in
Gulf War I and Gulf War II it was obvious that a large number of
journalists were going to be in harmâs way and so very sophisticated
training or in fact, retraining in many cases was put in place. And then
in my last few years at CNN, you know, I worked on the basic principle
that - and this is going to sound like Catch-22 and so you know, it is a
Catch-22, I would work on the principle that no one from CNN would be
assigned to Iraq if they hadn't been to Iraq before. And what I was
saying is that it was not a kindergarten for enthusiastic journalists.
That unless they had worked in that country and knew, you know, some of
the risks or indeed all of the risks that they were taking, it wasn't
fair on the rest of the staff in Iraq. And clearly CNN, you know, then
had I guess 60 or 70 people there, maybe rather few or maybe fewer these
days. But my view was that it wasn't a place for, you know, newbies.
That when things got a little safer as they have done in recent months
and years maybe it's a time for newbies to get there, if you like, to go
off and do their thing. But, so that was pretty controversial at CNN.
And the view that people couldn't go unless theyâd been there before.
But I have no, no regrets about that at all. It was the right call at
that particular time.
2125 GROSS: Have you lost journalists at war?
Mr. CRAMER: Yes. And rather more than I care to remind myself, though I
can tell you it's seven journalists and those who work with them
certainly on my watch, both the BCC and at CNN. Seven, you know,
colleagues of mine, some of whom I knew well, some of whom I didnât,
have died in a variety of war zones. And that's - that tears a part of
my soul away.
2153 GROSS: I'm sure it does. Would you tell us the story of one of those
deaths and perhaps a lesson that you learned from it that changed your
personal guidelines of how to deal with journalists in combat zones?
Mr. CRAMER: Yes. I mean, I guess, as weâre talking 2006 now, a CNN crew
in fact in two vehicles was driving in Iraq. And CNN has for some
considerable time had you know a - has had a policy of having armed
protection, that's pretty controversial for some people. But there were
two vehicles and there was a correspondent and cameramen with a driver
and a security assistant who was armed and two local staff in a vehicle
behind. And the vehicle behind, well, the convoy of the two vehicles was
attacked by a couple of vehicles. The first vehicle with the
correspondent, correspondent in fact was called - was Michael Holmes,
whoâs still working at CNN, they came under attack. The armed escort
fired back and they, you know, they very, very, very narrowly escaped
death. Got to, you know, somewhere safe and then realized that the
second vehicle was not following them, so it had transpired that the two
CNN employees who were in the second vehicle had been murdered.
2321 GROSS: And what impact did that have on how you send journalists into
Mr. CRAMER: Well, in that particular case, I mean itâs, you know, there
has been a, you know, I guess debate for a few years now that has the
industry crossed the line by, you know, having hired guns to look after
us? My view is, and this is going to sound callus, and so be it. I will
do anything to protect the people who work with me and for me, short of
insisting that they carry weapons themselves, which I - the entire -
that notion of that I abhor. I don't think there's any occasion where a
journalist should be armed unless possibly if he or she is called upon
to protect themselves in some situation and it's, you know, pointless to
speculate about. But I will do anything to protect staff and that has
meant, you know, authorizing extremely large budgets for armed
protection in Iraq, and you know Somalia and other parts of world,
Afghanistan. I think that particular incident I've recounted reinforced
my notion that the line in the sand is moving the whole time.
The situation has changed down the years now. I mean someone you know
very dear to me at CNN said it reminded him of the story of the frog in
the boiling water and that, you know, the water is gently turned up the
whole time. At what point does the frog realize that if he doesnât jump
he's going to be boiled to death? That I think perfectly describes many
situations around the world where, you know, journalistic colleagues of
yours or mine are covering stories where they are not the best judge of
the risks that's going on around them. That means the managers have to
have the responsibility to, you know, close an operation down and
instruct their staff out and shut off the line of communication and the
information flow, which is awful but doesnât need to be permanent.
2514 GROSS: Have you ever pulled a journalist out of a war zone because you
felt that he or she was having problems that they might not even have
recognized themselves because they're so committed to doing their job
and continuing to report on the story?
Mr. CRAMER: It's a really tricky territory. The answer is yes, but not
quite as abruptly as you phrased it. I mean, I'm passionate in the view
that journalists and their colleagues don't need to prove themselves
time after time after time. And I have on several occasions said to them
quietly and privately, you know what Harry, Harriet? You can sit out the
next one. You don't have to go and do it. And certainly, I've had
conversations with people in the field in recent years where I've said,
you know what? I think it time maybe for you to take a bit of a rest.
How I ever instructed someone to drive to the airport? No, because it
hasnât come to that, because I think most people sort of get these days
and the stubborn ones down the years, you know, have enough friends who
care for them to, you know, make it pretty clear to them that it's time
to take a rest. This is a really tricky balancing act between caring
management as opposed to just management and passionate journalists who
are determined to continue to cover the story because they care, because
they want to make a difference, not because they want the next
promotion. Most of the people that I'm talking about, you know, were at
the top of their profession.
2646 GROSS: It sounds like you were providing the best support that you can
to the journalists you're sending out. And youâve tried doing that at
the BBC, at CNN, and now at Reuters, and through your work as the
president of the International News Safety Institute. At the same time,
as news organizations shut down foreign bureaus, it seems to me weâre
relying more and more on our freelance correspondents to go to those war
zones and bring back the stories. And freelance journalists don't have
that kind of support network that CNN or Reuters or the BBC or The New
York Times or NPR can provide. And I wonder if you agree that there are
more freelancers out their now and what your concerns are for them?
Mr. CRAMER: No, it is a fact that, you know, because of this economic
turndown that much of the frontline, you know, news reporting for many
organizations is now being, you know, being done by freelancers,
certainly by indigenous journalists who live in country. But I'm, you
know, pretty dogmatic about this and, you know, have expressed this view
at all the organizations that I've worked for and have expressed this
view. You know, certainly on behalf of the International News Safety
Institute, I draw no distinction, Terry, between staff and freelancers.
And I draw no distinction when it comes to training, when it comes to
proper equipment, and when it comes to counseling and emotional support,
you know, before, during, and after a story.
And, you know, frankly, I have little patience for those news managers
who think that somehow we can get our international news reportage done
on the cheap, you know, by freelancers. I can't accept that. Clearly
it's more difficult logistically to ensure that freelancers get trained
and crucially insured. You know, once again, I'm very dogmatic on this.
There has to be insurance scheme for freelancers. Reputable news
organizations do that. The...
2843 GROSS: You're talking about health insurance or is there insurance even
Mr. CRAMER: I'm talking about should they be harmed. I'm talking about
GROSS: Life insurance.
Mr. CRAMER: I'm saying that we should not as a profession be asking, you
know, people to go off in our name and provide reporting for us unless
we can afford them the same level of protection that we afford our
staff. And that certainly, you know, it was the case at CNN, is the case
at Reuters, and I know to be the case at the BBC. And I think that's the
right attitude. You know, the horrible statistic is and you put your
finger on it, that 90 percent of all journalists who are dying around
the world at the moment doing their jobs are local journalists, are not
ones who fly in and fly out again. They're people who live there, speak
the language, were brought up there. And you know, nine out of 10 of
every one of you or my colleagues who die actually are dying in their
2935 GROSS: Now you said after you were taken hostage at the Iranian Embassy
in London that when you managed to get out you were offered counseling,
which you declined to accept, but that you later came to regret that
because you realized that for quite a long time you suffered with some
of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which wasn't named
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So is counseling one of the things you offer journalists in the
field or when they come out of a war zone?
Mr. CRAMER: Yes. I mean, certainly the three organizations that I've
worked for down the years and many, many more now have a variety of
support systems for staff all the way through, you know, say to training
ahead of an assignment to, you know, appropriate equipment to wear and
all of that stuff. And also the ability should they wish to, you know,
take it up to contact or meet, you know, a counselor. And for me itâs no
more a matter of routine than, you come back from an overseas assignment
and you do your laundry. Well I regard this as doing your head laundry.
You know, many of my colleagues, you know, tend to rely on extremely
close relationships with partners or family or friends or colleagues.
And some choose to go off and talk or pick up the phone to a
professional counselor. And certainly I, you know, I have experience of,
you know, close friends at CNN and the BBC who have volunteered to me
because it's nothing to do with me as their manager that it's just
routine stuff for them now. They pick up the phone, they go and see
someone. It's as obvious as - and as automatic as just, you know,
putting their laundry in the Laundromat.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CRAMER: All right, Terry. I thoroughly enjoyed this and it's a
pleasure to hear your voice.