Reporting from a disaster scene is harder than tweeting a critique about it.
British Sky News television reporter Colin Brazier caught flak from the Internet the other day for something he acknowledges was a serious error of judgment.
A veteran of war zone reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya, Brazier apologized in “The Guardian” newspaper today for picking up objects from a child’s suitcase at the crash scene in Ukraine.
At the weekend I got things wrong. If there was someone to apologise to in person, I would. While presenting Sky’s lunchtime coverage of the flight MH17 disaster, I stooped down to look at a piece of debris. It was a child’s suitcase. I put my hand inside and lifted up a water bottle and a set of keys. As I did so my mental circuit-breaker finally engaged and I apologised instantly on-air for what I was doing.
Brazier goes on to put the event in context.
I have covered aviation disaster stories before too. In 2004, I reported from Lake Constance after a DHL cargo plane collided with a jet carrying a school party from Kazakhstan. Within hours police had sealed-off a sterile area and no journalists were allowed in, while forensic investigators and recovery teams went in.
The Ukraine situation could not be more different. There are no police to unspool tape and cordon-off sensitive areas. There are roadblocks manned by sullen-looking teenagers cradling AK-47s, but no meaningful law and order. It is a warzone and the men in charge carry guns and grudges.
So I, and many others, were allowed to walk around the crash site at will.
The sights were shocking. I could not comprehend what we (were) seeing. Bodies and body parts everywhere. I phoned my wife. “It’s a butcher’s yard”, I said.
And so during that lunchtime broadcast I stood above a pile of belongings, pointing to items strewn across the ground. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a pink drinking flask. It looked familiar. My six-year-old daughter, Kitty, has one just like it.
I bent down and, what my Twitter critics cannot hear — because of the sound quality of Internet replays of the broadcast — is that I had lost it. It is a cardinal sin of broadcasting, in my book anyway, to start blubbing on-air. I fought for some self-control, not thinking all that clearly as I did so.
Too late, I realised that I was crossing a line.
A genuine apology then — rare today in public life — and a glimpse of horror from a lawless place.
All of this flashed instantaneously around the world on technology invented by the same species that invented surface-to-air missiles, those high-tech instruments of war.