More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 43

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

‘TV Alley’ was a long, winding road next to the British base, so-called because of its population by the great names of broadcasting who rented virtually all the houses there. The firmly secured satellite dishes pointed skywards to all corners of the globe: to the headquarters of RTL, ABC, CBS, BBC and Reuters in faraway New York, Washington, London and Luxembourg.

Sitting one Sunday morning in the BBC house in TV Alley, the Inspector was asked by yours truly who he suspected of the latest crime. “To me, everyone is a suspect,” he declared and his icy gaze swept the roomful of heavily hungover TV persons. “Perhaps it is an ‘inside job’,” he mused Poirot-like and disappeared into the garden to examine some mysterious footprints.

Meantime, ITN put up a reward of DM 1000 (about $600) in an attempt to flush out the miscreant. That might not sound an awful lot for a $50,000 camera. But it was the equivalent of about 20 years’ salary around central Bosnia at that time.

You would hear some very odd stuff on local radio around Vitez. The British army kept up its urgent appeals for farmers not to till their fields in mined No Man’s Land. The news advised that the Mayor of Busovaca has relinquished his position – to become the head of the Bureau of Tourism and Forestry in central Bosnia. The rumour among the journos was that he was to launch woodland adventure holidays. And now Inspector Slavko was harnessing the power of radio. He was advertising, under an assumed name, of course. “Enthusiast seeks TV camera …”.

The main base for British troops in Bosnia was established in Vitez in the autumn of 1992 by Lt Col Bob Stewart and the officers and men of The Cheshire Regiment. The Bosnian conflict had broken out earlier in the year. The first widespread violence started on February 28 around Bosanski Brod and by mid-April ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Serb paramilitaries was well under way all along the banks of the Sava River.

Bob came into Vitez in the late summer of that year with an untried mandate – to get the aid through to those most in need in an ethnically-divided region – and very little in the way of guidance as to how to achieve it. He set about it with dogged determination and those of us who met him in the field could not fail to be impressed by his sense of fairness in an impossibly complex quagmire. What he made particularly clear was his spontaneous and heartfelt outrage as a professional soldier seeing attacks on helpless, innocent civilians.

He was remarkably frank about this with the journalists reporting the war. We all felt much the same as him and he got extensive coverage in the UK media. We respected him as a commander but his cordial relations with press and television did not endear him to the Ministry of Defence at home. This would be turned against him later when officialdom got the chance to get the knife into him.