BBC OKs hiring of armed guards for journalists

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

LONDON -- The British Broadcasting Corp. has decided to hire armed guards from Western countries in "exceptional circumstances" to protect its journalists working in hostile areas, the broadcaster said Tuesday. The shift in policy was announced after an attack by gunmen on a BBC television crew Sunday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. An Irish cameraman, Simon Cumbers, 36, was killed in the shooting, and a British reporter, Frank Gardner, 42, was critically injured.

A BBC spokeswoman denied, however, that the new policy had arisen as a result of the attack on Cumbers and Gardner and said it was the outcome of six months of discussions.

The BBC would employ guards only "in certain exceptional circumstances," the spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This would really be a last resort to enhance the safety and security of our staff."

Until now, the BBC has employed guards only to protect its facilities. In some dangerous locations, BBC news teams have traveled under the protection of local armed militias but have never hired local gunmen as escorts, the spokeswoman said.

The change in the corporation's policy seemed likely to add to a debate about whether journalists themselves should carry weapons for self-protection in hostile situations.

The BBC already employs unarmed Western security advisers for its news crews in places such as Iraq. Under its new policy, it would allow these advisers to carry concealed weapons.

The BBC would decide whether to use armed guards for its staff on a case-by-case basis. It envisions possibly using them in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Chechnya, Somalia and other volatile places, the spokeswoman said.

"What we have never done is use Western armed teams to protect journalists in situations like Iraq," said Adrian van Klaveren, the BBC's head of news gathering.

"The BBC is still not doing this in Iraq at this stage, but we can conceive of a situation where we could do that. It is an enabling piece of policy, not a change in policy, because we are not actually doing it now," he said.

Some BBC journalists were understood to have opposed the use of private security for fear it could impair their neutrality in hostile situations. The BBC said it hasn't yet approved any private security firms from which it might hire armed guards.

Britain's Independent Television News said it had no plans to use such security for its journalists.

"Following recent events in Saudi Arabia, we are, of course, keeping a very close eye on developments but there are no plans at this stage to hire armed guards to accompany ITN crews on assignment," an ITN company spokeswoman said.

Cumbers and Gardner, the BBC journalists shot on Sunday, were attacked in a low-income Riyadh neighborhood that has been the scene of numerous confrontations between Saudi government forces and militants. Gardner was in a hospital Tuesday in critical but stable condition.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: