INTERVIEW: Stuart Ramsay, Sky News, on chaos, Colvin and shaping history

Chief News Correspondent at Sky News, Stuart Ramsay, spoke to Brunel students recently about what it means to be a “hostile environment” journalist and how journalism influences history. He is currently reporting in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.

Stuart Ramsay: Sky News Press Office
Stuart Ramsay: Sky News Press Office

Continually pursuing the “stories that matter”, Ramsay is a truth-seeking force with which to be reckoned. Ramsay, who has worked for Sky News for over 17 years, believes “journalists have the unique opportunity of being able to shape history”. Journalists have the opportunity to make events into compelling and objective stories that become part of “a global historical narrative”.

It is clear Ramsay will go down in history. His humble beginnings at a local Welsh newspaper have led him to winning countless awards for his reporting of the refugee crisis in Sudan, the Shankill Road bomb in Ireland and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in Washington. He has covered 15 wars from Chechnya through Africa, and the Middle East to Afghanistan and Iraq. He only recently returned from Syria before flying off to report from Cebu in The Philippines.

Ramsay insisted there is no such thing as a war correspondent. “There are only hostile environment journalists”.

“The same qualities are needed in the middle of Syria as in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake or hurricane”. Of course, each individual circumstance carries its “own set of burdens”. However, in all these situations, whether they are natural disasters or human conflicts, “you have to be able to work in chaos”.

“You need to be resourceful; you need to be meticulous about security, food and accommodation.”

Of course hostile environment journalists have a responsibility that goes beyond presenting information to the public.

“You are responsible not only for delivering the news but for your life and the lives of your colleagues. Above all, you need to be able to plan for the worst so that you are ready.”

There should be no romanticized preconceptions about what such work entails.

“The time you have for actual reporting can be extremely limited,” he said. “Mostly, you will be moving from place to place, sleeping, eating or meeting with people.”

In Darfur, Ramsay needed to spend a minimum of six hours a day simply pumping enough water to survive.

“Only 20% of your time will be spent doing journalistic activities because the other 80% is dedicated to staying safe, healthy and alive”.

Ramsay elaborated briefly on a particular experience involving a close colleague. The day after he left his ‘safe’ house in Homs, Syria, the building was fired upon and his “good friend” Marie Colvin was killed together with another award-winning French photographer, Rémi Ochlik.

Like Ramsay, Colvin covered conflicts from all over the world. Ramsay said she “did not want to be in a city where buildings are being destroyed by indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire; where snipers pick off survivors; where food, water and electricity supplies have been cut off – but she knew she had to be.”

The absolute necessity to show people the truth, despite the danger, is something with which Ramsay strongly identifies. He was taken hostage in Chechnya but says he would not have done anything differently.

“We were taken down to a cellar and I turned to my producer and told her ‘this is it’. You don’t forget an experience like that but is hasn’t stopped me doing my job.”

Given the challenges, it is especially important for journalists to emotionally cope with the trauma that they witness in such chaotic situations.

“I have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at different times during my career,” he said. “But the most important thing to me is not my emotional difficulty or stress. What matters is that I report the stories of those who are suffering”.

It is clear Ramsay is exceptionally dedicated to his work. “I want make a change by voicing peoples’ experiences and giving them a place in history. I do this job because when done right, it’s one of the most important jobs in the world.”

(This article was published on Wannabe Hacks on 18th November 2013)

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