More thrills than skills – A half-life in journalism, part 76

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, edited 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.

WORKING as a journalist in a war zone, it is, of course, one’s job to gather information. Early in the Croatian war, the HV (Croatian Army) realised this.

Lots of young Croatian men returned to their homeland from places like Canada and Australia. Some had journalistic training. So, instead of putting them in uniform, it sent them out into the field posing as journalists to gather intelligence.

Similarly, the British set up a so-called Public Information Centre next to its base in Vitez in central Bosnia.

The PIF was a cross between a social club for visiting journalists and a communications centre where they could also use telephone and fax facilities provided by the Ministry of Defence.

This was not an altruistic endeavour on the MOD’s part. Journalists came in from all over Bosnia regaling each other and the military with tales of their discoveries. These were duly noted.

It is a very fine line between information and militarily-sensitive material and that always presented me, working for a magazine like Jane’s Intelligence Review, with particular dilemmas.

It was, indeed, my job to both gather information of a military nature and then to analyse it.

Most journalists collected information of a more everyday nature: human interest stories, stories relevant to the national interest and dramatic tales of derring-do which would read well in the paper.

On the battlefield, all information is important. Indeed, the tiniest detail can complete an otherwise confusing jigsaw. However, most journalists are not over-concerned with the military significance of their everyday filing.

For me, it was a little different. Not only was I collecting, very often, highly-sensitive material but I was directly charged with assessing its importance and effects.

I really was only interested in sensitive material.