Stay safe, stay together

To help prepare members planning to cover the G8 meeting in Scotland in July, NUJ Training held a day course in Headland HOuse on "Safety Awareness: working in crowds". Originally taught to BBC broadcast crews, it was now more aimed at print media. The six-hour trial course looked at how to operate safely at the sharp end of "public order situations". It included presentations on the police and on the G8 events - but, for cost reasons, not the usual "practical" exercises.

The trainer was Mal Greer, director of Prime Training Solutions, who comes from an Army special forces background. Mal did Euro 2004 football and a lot of Maydays. He admitted there's a grey area between Public Order training and Hostile Environment training, which tends to focus on more warlike events, kidnap, hostage-taking, military roadblocks and so on.

As Mal admitted, most of the tips on the course can be found online in alternative protest newsletter SchNews.

I was sent along by London Freelance Branch. Most other delegates on the course were going to the G8, and for some it would be their first time in a "public order" situation. One had been under fire during demonstrations in Lebanon; one was from Dublin, and one runs a risk assessment consultancy and did extreme sports (including extreme ironing) in her spare time.

"Nothing I tell you is going to make you safe," our trainer told us: "It's about awareness." The safest advice on scary public (dis)order situations is not to be there at all. We are all aware of the editorial pressure to deliver maximum drama, and there was discussion of the tension between the editorial drive and the safety angle. Safety awareness is about "considering something and still doing it."

As a activist and protester turned "respectable", I found little new in the presentations on tactics of police and protest groups at the G8. The differences discussed between the cultures of the Scottish police forces and the Met were interesting.

Mal emphasised that macho journalists who tell you they were teargassed and it "wasn't too bad" must be bullshitting: "It's truly awful and always will be."

The most useful tips were: team up, find a buddy. This common sense is particularly important for unsupported freelancers working alone, and trainees related how they had managed to pair up with other freelancers - or even protesters' "affinity groups" to watch each other's backs.

Mal led us through the practical side of "spotting" for camera crew - that is, holding their belt or shoulder from behind to allow them to walk backwards while filming in safety. I was able to put this into practice at the G8, forming a "media gaggle" affinity group of myself, a camerawoman and phtographer who were all freelances "embedded" with the Clown Army. As we were in Clown uniform, safety was particularly an issue for us.

The other obvious point that was restated (it needed to be) was the need to scout out the location if possible: look at maps and arrange Emergency Rendezvous points (ERVs) and escape routes.

The course provided sound advice and a wake up call to get sorted ahead of G8. My notes ended up as a shopping and "things to do" list. Many delegates weren't up to speed on their Press Card PIN numbers and bust cards, so I made sure they had a chance to update then and there.

Some felt, though, that it was poor value for money. One delegate commented: "I feel a little pissed of that I took a day's leave and spent "95 on that course. It would probably have been completely different if the practcial side had been included."

And many of us (especially the delegate from Ireland) were uneasy about Mel's background. It included "eight years with the special forces in Hereford". That'll be well-known as the base for one notoriously "political" special forces regiment in particular, the same regiment which - according to the Daily Herald of 2 March 2005 - had a "counter-revolutionary warfare squadron" on duty at Gleaeagles.

Mal said he was thinking of going as a protester, though, and pointed out that "a lot of mainsteam media are in a dilemma" as more and more of them find themselves sympathising with protesters. Mal also predicted that - just as the government is standardising the training for bouncers and doormen - the security personnel that go along with film crews may soon be subject to standardised training.

A lot of equally useful tips, though, were shared at the London Freelance branch meeting on the G8. In the pub after the training, the delegates wondered if an experienced journalist who'd been through scary public order situations and was "one of us" couldn't deliver training just as good as someone from a military culture.

  • The NUJ's training department has noted criticisms of the course and its value and, the Freelance understands, is offering refunds or credit against future courses.
Last modified: 29 July 2005 - © 2005 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org