More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 46

Over the next few weeks, 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.

The Major was looking particularly crestfallen one day, a typical sort of day at The Schoolhouse.

An Italian journalist, Luigi Caligaris, who has just left, hadn’t exactly been given the ‘red carpet treatment’. As he bade farewell to the hard-pressed P/Info supremo, he blithely announced: “I would like to be able to thank you for all your co-operation. But I cannot find it in my heart to do so. I think you should know I am a brigadier in the Italian army and special advisor to Minister of Defence.” Collapse of stout party.

Luigi became a good friend of mine and my photograph of him would appear on the back cover of his book, Paura di Vincere, the following year. He would then be appointed Defence Minister of Italy by PM, Silvio Berlusconi.

To cap it all, today, Allan Little, the radio reporter for the BBC World Service, has been a Very Bad Boy, indeed, by spreading the word abroad about the British Army’s refusal to admit inconveniently bleeding and mortared refugees into the camp. It’s the first item at the top of the news after Lilliburlero (the stirring march which presages the BBC World Service news).

A disgusted young P/INFO Captain with his ear pressed to the crackly 5pm World Service News wails: “And they’re supposed to be on our fucking side.” In the middle of a war, you can’t trust anybody – least of all The Bloody Press.

My own personal fallout with the chaps from P/Info occurred over the tortured issue of The Official War Artist. In its wisdom, the British government decided to send out an official war artist to record the horrors and suffering of the war in Bosnia. He was a young chap called Peter Howson, who emanated from one of the posher parts of Glasgow but who was a dab hand at portraying gang life, street violence and general criminality.

‘Eminently suitable’ for a posting to Bosnia, where he should have been very much at home.

Like most artists, however, Peter was, at heart, a very sensitive chap and when I met him in Glasgow ahead of the assignment, he was clearly nervous about it. I flew to Croatia ahead of him and met him at Split airport as he stepped off a military transport ‘plane.

It was arranged that I should accompany him on his mission. He was also trailed by a BBC film crew. He was in the hands of the military; they barely tolerated my presence, which had been officially cleared and would ‘dump’ me as soon as possible, but, from the outset, they resented the presence on the battlefield of “the bloody war artist”.

One evening, a young Captain with a far back English accent announced triumphantly to all and sundry in the P/Info office: “We got the war artist shit-scared this afternoon.” They had taken him to the scene of some really ‘hot’ action in nearby Travnik, the scene of particularly ferocious inter-community fighting.

The next morning, Peter sought me out and asked to speak to me. He was frightened, deeply unhappy and felt isolated. He wanted to leave immediately. In my view, his ‘hosts’ were deliberately treating him badly and I felt it was extremely unfair and gratuitously unpleasant.

I took him to the office of the Regimental Sergeant Major, introduced him and left him to make his own pitch.

I stayed around long enough to ascertain that Howson would be removed from the theatre of war, and I flew home. By now, the story was out in all the press that he was a coward leaving the battlefield.

I thought this was scandalous and I went to the editor of Scotland on Sunday in Edinburgh, Andrew Jaspan. Andrew didn’t take so much a moral view. As a seasoned editor, he knew it was a bloody good story and, the Saturday the paper was to go to press, he sat me down in the office, asked for a front page story and a two-page spread for the inside of the paper.

I wrote 6000 words in a few hours, using my detailed notes.

The article was deeply critical of the army, and particularly the P/Info people. It did not reflect well on the British regiment holding the fort in central Bosnia. I was, frankly, pleased to get the opportunity to tell the truth as I had seen it. It was the only time in my journalistic career that I was openly critical of the British army for which I have and have always had the greatest respect. On this occasion, I felt obliged to set the record straight for Peter.

A few days later, Andrew called me to his office. “There’s been a lot of flak from the MOD (Ministry of Defence). I told them to get lost.” He didn’t use that phrase. “This is rather more important, I think.” He handed me a neatly typewritten letter. It was from Peter’s father.

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