Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Schooled in the Art of Survival Survival

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Schooled in the Art of Survival Survival

Article excerpt

"This course won't save your life," says Dave Smith flatly, with a deadpan coolness. Smith is brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle, and behind him rests a 5.56 mm light machine gun and a mass of land and anti-personnel mines. He gestures with his rifle to the small arsenal on the wood-paneled floor, saying, "You're never going to take away all the risk. Our aim here is to even the odds."

It's 9:00 a.m. Monday, Feb. 11, and I'm sitting in a small conference room in a tranquil rural inn in the Welsh countryside, three hours outside London. Smith's comment opens a five-day media training course like few in the world: It's designed to help reporters survive assignments in hostile environments.

For the past decade, European news agencies, unlike their American counterparts, have been sending their foreign correspondents to courses located in the United Kingdom, the vast majority run by either AKE Ltd. or Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd., which both are staffed by combat veterans. Smith, 42, who brings to mind Russell Crowe's character in Proof of Life, spent 22 years with the Special Air Service (SAS), an equivalent to the U.S. Delta Force. The companies have trained an estimated 2,000 journalists worldwide -- but few from American newspapers.

In this Welsh village, I am joined by a dozen other journalists from Canadian and Norwegian news agencies and a leading U.S. cable news network, plus an American-born reporter for the Financial Times. A third of them are women. Nearly all have experience in dangerous regions. The Swedes have two TV cameramen here. Since one of their colleagues was killed in November in Afghanistan, no Swedish TV journalist gets an assignment today in a hostile country without getting hostile- environment training. A similar standard applies to the British Broadcasting Corp.

In fact, throughout the five-day training, it's clear the Europeans generally have a deeper commitment to this training than American newspaper publishers. U.S. papers are sending reporters abroad with a noted lack of mentoring and increased dangers of kidnapping and other threats. No wonder AKE is in the process of opening an office in Washington.

But I am not here to ponder the state of the industry. I am anxious to learn. Within hours, I discover that a cinder-block wall may protect me from a single gunshot, but will disintegrate in seconds before machine-gun fire. I learn if your car runs over a land mine, and you're alive, don't get out. (Land mines typically are ringed by anti-personnel mines.) Instead, climb over the car and retrace your steps in the tire tracks. …

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