More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 47

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com 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.

It was an extraordinarily simple and moving epistle. It talked of his despair at his son’s suffering in Bosnia and his deep distress at the allegations of cowardice published in the press. It talked in very personal terms of his son and their relationship and his own sense of isolation at the hurtful press reports. “I know my own son.”

But then he went on to aver that my story had unexpectedly come along and corrected the balance: alone, Scotland on Sunday had told the real story, and he was grateful for that.

“I think another press award is in order,” commented Andrew. I didn’t get one for that story but I had, in fact, just picked up a British Press Award at a glittering ceremony in London’s Grosvenor House Hotel for my reporting from the Bosnia-Croatia border in the spring of 1992.

In the Second War, they put the warcos into a military uniform bearing the large letter ‘C’. The original intention had been the letters ‘WC’. This ignominy was escaped only at the last minute. In the Gulf War, correspondents were put into uniform and either adopted studied sloppiness or went ‘army barmy’. John Fullerton, the Reuters man, who I was to encounter in central Bosnia, was, according to my friend and foreign editor, Trevor Royle, the best turned-out chap in uniform in the whole war, military or civilian.

Anything went in the Yugo war zones. Enterprising Guardian Journalist of the Year, Maggie O’ Kane, got some of her best stories dressed as a refugee travelling on buses. I got a rocket from The Housemaster on account of my own gear. “I say, this is an awfully bad show. You were seen crossing the lines this morning in a blue helmet. Are you trying to pass yourself off as a member of the UN or what?” Got it in one, James. Shorts, jeans and sweatshirts tended to be favoured by most of The Regulars but then they only ventured out in their heavily armoured vehicles.

My problems with the army in the summer of 1994 led to the suggestion at the P/Info office in Vitez that they were going to have my UN press accreditation withdrawn. This would have been a disaster because it would have not only meant that I would not have access to UN personnel or facilities, but other bodies, like the Bosnian and Croatian authorities, tended to accredit on the basis of the ‘pre-screening’ afforded by one having got a UN pass. When this threat was announced, I pre-empted it rather quickly.

What they didn’t know in Vitez, because I chose not to tell them, was that I was a member of the Strategic and Combat Studies Institute in Surrey, England, and that I went down to Camberley regularly, where I advised and lectured senior officers of the British army on public information strategy. A quick call to the right people and Vitez was effectively isolated on the issue.