Chiron Resources Operations is a company that offers a rather niche service, in that it provides TV producers with experienced risk consultants who offer support to media teams working in challenging settings. At a time when violence against journalists and media personnel is on the rise, demand for these services is only likely to increase.
Before he decided to establish Chiron as a company to provide such services, director and founder Chris Cobb-Smith first conceived the concept while working for the OSCE in Kosovo. While there, he witnessed first-hand the struggles media teams faced coping in a conflict zone.
Recalling the idea which culminated in Chiron’s establishment, Cobb-Smith told The Parliamentary Review: “As a former Royal Artillery officer and UN weapons inspector, I identified that news teams were more than fully engaged with the editorial side of newsgathering, so would benefit from assistance from someone with military experience to manage the security and logistics. It was a Sunday Times journalist who could see that this might work and asked me to deploy to Kosovo on assignment with them as the war escalated.
“Coincidentally, the BBC was examining their duty of care obligations at the time. Realising that, unlike health and safety concerns, risk cannot be eliminated but only mitigated, they saw me as a possible solution. I was soon engaged to join Jeremy Bowen in Kosovo.
“After the war, I worked as a freelance consultant but soon had too much work, so to provide more operators, I established Chiron. An initial task included the investigation into the killing of James Miller in Gaza and supporting news crews covering the conflict in Afghanistan. As the safety culture at the BBC developed, I was employed to provide safety advice based in the White City newsroom during the Iraq war, becoming one of the primary news planners on the foreign desk.”
In the first instance, it did take time for journalists to accept the concept. Cobb-Smith found that some journalists felt that insisting on a consultant’s presence indicated a lack of faith from management, while others suspected an additional person could be a hindrance to their work.
Fortunately, this view has changed over the years, as a string of incidents emerged where consultants saved journalists from harm or even prevented the damage or theft of equipment. Cobb-Smith keenly highlighted one such instance in 2014, where a back-watcher intervened to prevent a journalist from being glassed by an assailant in Birmingham.
The acceptance of the concept by journalists is significant today, in rather unfortunate circumstances. This is because attacks on journalists are only going up, and therefore the services of Chiron and other market operators are likely to encounter growing demand as a result to help keep media teams safe.
Indeed, in the US, 2021 has already brought about more attacks on journalists than the annual totals of such incidents for 2017, 2018 and 2019. Press Gazette reports that in the first four months of the year, there were at least 100 cases of US journalists being arrested or attacked.
Earlier in July 2021, a planned LGBTQ+ Pride march in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi was cancelled after far-right assailants stormed activist headquarters and attacked journalists who were present and covering the protests.
The incident saw 37-year-old cameraman Alexander Lashkarava from independent station TV Pirveli receive facial fractures, before he later died in hospital. Lashkarava was the one confirmed fatality among more than 50 journalists who were attacked by the protestors.
Also in July, Reporters Without Borders [RSF] were forced to release a statement condemning targeted violence against journalists by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. The journalists on the scene in the Middle East were covering recent protests against the murder of a well-known critic of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President.
At least 35 journalists covering the demonstrations, which were regularly marred by clashes between the protesters and security forces, claimed to have been attacked, threatened or chased off the scene, as well as subject to stone-throwing, teargas and having their equipment destroyed. In most cases, their assailants were men in civilian dress. Meanwhile, uniformed security forces watched without taking any action, or in some cases joined in with the violence.
RSF’s Middle East desk lead, Sabrina Bennoui, said: “The authorities must not tolerate any violation of the freedom to inform.
“We strongly condemn acts of violent repression against journalists that have very clearly been systematic in nature,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “Detailed accounts show that a ‘no-holds-barred’ approach has been used to prevent journalists from working. It is unacceptable for media workers to be deliberately targeted and assailed from all directions as these have been.”
The situation became so severe that 50 journalists issued a joint appeal to the United Nations on June 28 to “take necessary and immediate measures to protect them”, and their message is one that will be echoed by journalists to governments and international bodies worldwide.
In what will come as a major wake-up call to many, it is to be acknowledged that this issue does not solely exist outside of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Within our own borders, 2021 saw the UK government’s hand forced into publishing the nation’s first national action plan aimed at protecting journalists from abuse and harassment, which has since been backed by police and union bosses.
The strategy was published following numerous accounts of reporters suffering abuse and harassment, including being punched, threatened with knives, forcibly detained, and being subjected to rape and death threats.
It may seem shocking to some that this can be allowed to happen in the Western World, but for Cobb-Smith, it is very much par for the course.
He admitted: “A growing area of our work is providing consultants and back-watch security advice to media crews here in the UK. Cameras can get targeted, especially if an offence has been filmed. Live broadcasts can be disrupted by either the disgruntled, who want to get their views aired, or just by overexuberant sports fans.”
It is perhaps by virtue of their role in holding the powerful and those in authority to account, that journalists attract such strong and often hostile reactions. However, it is a disturbing reality that this escalates to threats against journalists and their families. The onus is not just on security experts like Chiron to help protect them, but also on world leaders and international institutions to put the necessary mechanisms in place to crackdown on violence against media personnel.