Authors: Craig Summers
MY LIFE ON THE FRONT LINE
CRAIG SUMMERS WITH TONY HORNE
t goes without saying that there are so many people to thank that I could never do it justice. In my book alone, there are hundreds of characters who passed through my life, without whom there would be no story.
From inside the BBC, huge gratitude goes to Jon Williams, Paul Greeves, Stuart Hughes, John Glendinning, Colin Pereira, Fred Scott, Richard Stacey, Nick Woolley, Tony Fallshaw, Sam Bagnall, Tom Giles, Paul Simpson and John Simpson.
I have to mention the High Risk Team, too. You know who you are – it’s been brilliant. Chris Cobb-Smith, Ian White and Dylan in the Baghdad Bureau – you are masters in your field.
At Sky, a special mention for Sarah Whitehead – it’s great to be back working with you again, and to my old buddy Chas Staines – you made it into the book! And John Iley – brilliant website!
To Iain Dale, and James, Sam, Katy and Ella – only you believed in this adventure so thank you, and to Tony Horne, my brilliant ghost writer – what skill, speed and sense you made of my ramblings. An incredible job, and friends for life.
Finally, to Mum, Kate, Charlotte, Nicole, Sam and Ella. Of course, this book would not have been possible without the love and support from my darling wife Sue; you can finally read what I was up to on all those trips. Lots of love always.
And, to you, for buying my book. Let the rollercoaster begin…
here was a time when journalists, like businessmen, diplomats, contract workers and the other strange characters who work in dangerous places for a living, had to look after their own safety. No bodyguards, no body armour, no nothing. But those were the days before we became natural targets for the world’s terrorists – and before the habit caught on of suing one’s employers if something went wrong. The journalists who covered the first Gulf War in 1991 had no security advisors and scarcely any body armour. My team in Baghdad had two flak jackets between six of us; dishing them out wasn’t an easy task.
Twelve years later, in the second Gulf War, even the journalists who covered the situation in Doha, far away from any possible threat, were given full nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits, and had excellent ex-special forces characters working with them. Some elderly hacks did a lot of harrumphing about all these changes; it was better in the old days, they said. Not me – but then I had the enormous benefit of working with Craig Summers.
Craig was, it’s fair to say, a mildly rough diamond in those early stages. A veteran of the Falklands War, he was tough and imposing; when he and I walked down the street in Northern Iraq in the run-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, I never had the slightest fear of being attacked. When the critical moment of danger came, and an American navy plane managed to drop a 1,000 lb bomb
on the wrong people (as American planes have traditionally done in war after war), Craig’s training kicked in superbly. He did what he could for our dying translator, and he salvaged all our television gear and even our personal bags from our burning car, with explosives and live ammunition going off all round him. If ever there was a moment when close protection showed its value, it was then.
In the years that followed, Craig and I worked together in various parts of the globe, as he describes in this excellent and very accurate account. I always knew I’d be fine as long as Craig was there. And although he became smoother, and learned to adopt the ways of the BBC executive, people still didn’t mess with us when we wandered round the streets of Baghdad or Kabul together.
Now Craig has gone on to grander things, and I don’t have the advantage of working with him any more. I miss his company, and I miss the sense of security he exuded. No one was better at finding good places to sleep, good vehicles to drive, decent food, a cup of tea when there was nothing else. I used to try to give the impression he was my personal bodyguard, though he was always a great deal more than that. But he was not simply superb to work with, he was great company; even if I sometimes had to ask him not to tell any more of his ripest stories.
This book is a great account of his career so far, and an accurate if generous one, too. I count myself extremely lucky to have worked alongside him so often over the years.
Not really an office-based person, strong aversion to paperwork … rarely seen at a desk – unless it’s doing his expenses. If not, he was at other people’s desks doing what Craig really does in the office, which is generating his next trip out of the office. Often on the most
of security or safety reasons, Craig was always ready to leap on a plane – somehow always at least Upper Class if not Business Class. It’s been a colourful and action-packed ten years.
hat’s how Paul Greeves, Head of BBC Safety, summed me up at my leaving do on 19 August 2011. It’s also why I was leaving. After a decade travelling the world, filming undercover at football tournaments and all but snorting coke with gangsters in the name of News, I had taken redundancy. With cuts being made to our High Risk Team of six, the Beeb wanted me more desk-bound and less on the road. The man had said it himself: Craig Summers didn’t work like that.
At first I thought I had been forced out by Paul Easter. He had arrived as my boss in February and we had a blazing row
. With me in Iraq for the elections, he had taken one look at the calendar and rung me in Baghdad. ‘I’ve cancelled your trip to America,’ he’d said. ‘You can do it on videophone or over the phone.’
I was livid. ‘That’s a
250,000 project agreed by
. You can’t just do that. You don’t just buy armoured cars over the phone.’
I knew what people at the BBC wanted. None of my journalists wanted to read a 25-page-long Health and Safety form – and you couldn’t run an op from thousands of miles away in London. When it came to security, those reporters cared about three things: can we get new kit, have we got the right vehicles and will we do it better next time? That was the kind of work I was into but this was the new politics.
Over the past decade, like everyone else, the BBC had gone Health and Safety mad.
But I left with mixed emotions. I’d had some great times and worked with some brilliant people. Many of those whom I had come to know over the years weren’t there to hear Paul speak because of the Libyan coverage – my last job had been organising the crews for the London riots that summer, ironically where my work had begun all those years ago.
Paul Easter had asked me what would stop me leaving. ‘£5,000 and let me do my job,’ I’d replied, but I only felt it was a token
. It had never been about the money – I could have earned more cash as a freelance. I loved the BBC. I had only had two proper jobs in my life and gradually over the years the two jobs had intertwined. First I was military, and then I was risk assessment-cum-journo. On both jobs, I was often undercover.
As a soldier in Bosnia I had watched the way Colonel Bob Stewart operated with Kate Adie in tow. That excited me. It was the first inkling I had about making the transition from army to media, and from that moment all I did was watch the BBC. A decade on, that great generation of classic reporters was beginning to fade and the Corporation was swamped with middle managers pulling purse strings. Everything from 9/11 to the Freedom of Information Act had changed the landscape. I didn’t know where the next golden era of journos would be coming from, nor that once common
determination to get the story that I had so admired. In Alex Crawford and Stuart Ramsay at Sky, I could see that the dream was still alive.
I still adored the BBC and would always watch the Ten but I was done, and there would never now be another Craig Summers in the Beeb. Over a period of six months, Sky had been courting me to become their Broadcast Security Operations Manager; an
incident in Afghanistan had set their alarm bells ringing, and they were looking to recruit somebody with my skill set. They were working in really tough terrain out there.
Head of News Fran Unsworth took me out to lunch to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant to tell me she couldn’t believe I was going. One of the assignment editors, Jonathan Paterson, told me it was crazy that they wanted me desk-bound, and my former producer Peter Leng told me he was devastated not to be going on the road again with John Simpson and me. As the alcohol flowed that night, I reminded myself not to put my foot in it as I so often had in the past. Don’t be bitter, I told myself. Be polite, and walk out of there with your head held high.
It took me back to Gibraltar in 1984 when I had been on a mini exercise in the army stripping down vehicles. ‘That fucking wanker put the radio in the back of the vehicle when we need it in the front,’ I shouted entering the training room.
‘So I am the wanker, am I?’ said the officer from behind the desk.
‘Yes, you are Sir,’ I continued.
I got bollocked and was reminded of protocol!
I didn’t want to leave with a ruined reputation. Anything could happen and I might be back here in the future but the truth remained that since Easter had arrived, I was no longer the first of the High Risk Team out of the door, preparing the ground for a global network of reporters in wildly varying scenarios. Four had left since he had arrived. Forty years of experience in this field down the drain.
It was a far cry from where it had all begun.
was born in Woolwich Military Hospital in 1960. My dad was in the army and my childhood took me to Malaya, Germany and back home to the UK. Predictably, I hated school and was out by sixteen. I became an apprentice sprayer at the local garage on my way to becoming the real deal Phil Mitchell – their speciality was cuts ’n’ shuts, which wasn’t illegal at the time. I had no qualifications: basketball at county standard was as good as it got. Of course, I had also been in trouble with the law.
Bored, like so many teenagers, and apathetic to education, my mates and I used to pass a café with Whitbread lorries outside of it – your classic truck stop fry-up gaff. We were thrill-seekers. Well, the uncovered cases in the back of the vehicles were too much to resist – and we didn’t try to, until the day we got caught. My dad had me straight home from school that night and the police let us off with a warning.
Stupid arrogant me learned nothing. A week later, it was more of the same. At the age of fifteen, I was pinching cars with my mates in Bow, East London.
This time, when the police rang home, Dad said: ‘I’m not coming to collect him, leave him in jail overnight.’
The next morning he came to court with me and bullshitted the judge. ‘I’ll make it sure it doesn’t happen again,’ he said. ‘I’ve got him something lined up in the army.’
I was fined thirty quid – a lot of money back then – and from court I went straight to the Careers Office. My father had already been on the phone to some old contacts. But I was a Jack the Lad from East London. I didn’t want the discipline.
My first port of call was Nuneaton in 1977. I hated it instantly. I had joined the Boys Service Junior Leaders Royal Artillery. Like the
that I was, I turned up on the train with four cans of lager to use as bargaining tools! It was only an ex-Hells Angel, Lieutenant Dickey, who brought me to my senses, telling me I could make a good soldier and I should stick with it. He would put me down for Commando training, and that would enable me to fly around the world. I owe my twenty-three years in the army to my dad and Dickey.
From there, I joined 29 Commando in Plymouth, deployed to the Falklands during the war, before going to Belize, and next spent five years alongside the Special Boat Forces in Poole, Dorset. I went undercover for two years in Northern Ireland, toured Bosnia and did a UN tour of Cyprus. I had been there, done that and bought the t-shirt. When I was twenty-one, in 1982, the Falklands War was unbelievable; in 1991 I was itching to get to the Gulf. It was in my blood. I had to get to the heart of the action.
In Bosnia, the worst moment was witnessing the ethnic cleansing of Kiseljak, about thirty miles west of Sarajevo. The Mujahideen were rampant and told us to fuck off. Villagers were screaming, buildings were burning, and we just had to drive past. Afterwards, nobody believed that our soft-skinned vehicles had been down that road, where only armoured cars were supposed to go. It was horrific, not so much for the blood and guts and appalling racial slaughter, but for our helplessness at being unable to intervene.
For my last eighteen months, I returned to London to train the Territorial Army. I had also had a brief dalliance with the Foreign Legion but was turned away for being too pissed, which left me broke and abandoned on French soil.
In the process, my first marriage came and went – collateral damage in a typical military lifestyle of combat, booze and birds. Anita and I fell apart in 1990. Five years later, I got together with Sue, who would become my rock. I have two daughters from my first marriage.
After twenty-three years in the army, I’d had enough and the TA unit was being disbanded. At forty, I thought I was heading for the knacker’s yard. I’d sweep the streets, drive a bus or deliver the mail – whatever it took. Even then a desk job was never going to be for me. On 8 October 2000, with nearly a quarter of a century of service and a lifetime of travel and adrenalin behind me, I left the army, feeling lucky but uncertain. I didn’t have a clue what to do.
I was on eighteen months’ notice to close the TA unit and clear the books at the office in East Ham. They still needed someone to turn up, but I was on my own. For six months, I went through the motions, paid, but walking in dead men’s shoes.
The game was up. I knew what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to get there. I would advise current affairs producers on their investigative programmes on a freelance basis, and I would take on any other work between jobs. The problem, as I soon found out, was that I was always between jobs.
In the summer of 2000 I had formed KCM Security with Mike Basson and Kev Sweeney as my partners. I told Sue we would give it until April 2001 to see if it could work. Part of the problem was that Mike and Kev already had other jobs: I was the only person on it full-time.
It had been a call from an ex-regiment mate, Chris Cobb-Smith, at the end of April 2000 while I was still going through the motions with the TA, that had planted this seed.
Chris was safety and security advisor at the BBC. ‘Would you like to work as a back-watcher for the BBC at the May Day Riots?’ he asked.
‘How much wedge?’ I replied.
I didn’t hesitate to agree, even though I didn’t yet know what a
was. This was too good to be true. It was a brilliant opportunity to do something different. My job was to protect the camera crews from the anti-capitalist rioters, known bizarrely as The Wombles.
Early the next day, I met Chris and Tony Loughran at the BBC building on the Embankment. (Little did I know that Tony would end up being my boss.) I was assigned to a camera crew whose brief was to follow the parades. Wherever there was trouble, we had to get in among it. Nicholas Witchell was the reporter, and this was his first experience in all his years as a journalist of having a back-watcher. My God did it show.
‘We’ll be guided by you,’ they said to me, ‘as long as you understand we have got to get pictures.’
‘I’m happy to take you in there,’ I explained. ‘I’m public-order trained and I’ll take you in as far as you can go.’
Their preparation was a joke, but I hadn’t been part of the planning. Had there even been any planning – given that I only got the call the night before? They passed me a small rucksack. Inside was a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and a couple of baseball caps. This was the BBC’s riot kit, and there wasn’t even enough for our team of four. If anything, it would identify us as undercover police.
I later found out that this all came from a store room at the bottom of the BBC building, which was run by Health and Safety – you got what you could, and you wrote it down in the BBC book. The Beeb were sending people to war zones around the world with a
kit that looked like it had been bought at a jumble sale. Poorly managed, under-resourced and with no accountability, it had disaster written all over it.
But I was buzzing. It was fantastic to be working for the mighty BBC. Me, Craig Summers, with zero education, standing next to Nick Witchell, TV legend. Admittedly, he was your classic
public schoolboy, who looked like he would jump a mile if you shouted at him, but he was still the business.
I wanted to go looking for trouble. I was desperate for a call saying it had all kicked off nearby. The truth was that bar a few empty beer cans chucked, it was relatively peaceful.
My military head told me not to switch off. You were always on your guard – we call it sleeping with one eye open. I would check side streets, mentally prepare escape routes, talking through in my mind where we might get blocked in, always listening out for the alarm bell of the slightly intoxicated hitting the streets. I had the same drive and awareness I’d had in Northern Ireland but now it was different. I had to protect not just Witchell but also the cameraman, Tony Dolce. The reporter could voice anything but without the shots, his story had no legs. I recognised that the cameraman was key and bombarded him with questions.
‘How do you want to play this?’ I asked Tony.
‘I will only have one eye on the lens,’ he explained. ‘But I won’t be able to see what’s around me.’
‘I’ll grab hold of you if I have to and pull you back if needs be,’ I reassured him.
He told me that was fine and I loved it. Just like Nick, he’d never had a back-watcher before. This is what I was trained for. Now though, I could see a whole new world of job opportunities unfolding before me. I knew I’d love to do this full-time.
For years, there hadn’t been any support: the risk they ran was part and parcel of the job. The new duty of care BBC, the Health and Safety culture, and the death of journalist John Schofield in Kosovo in 1995 had clearly begun to define a new era. You couldn’t just wander into a war zone any more with the letters B-B-C on the side of your vehicle. The rules of engagement had changed, both in terms of the enemy and of the necessary paperwork dictated by the modern era. I hoped this would be the beginning of something where I would finally get to show my value.
Passing the entrance of 10 Downing Street, we were forced against the railings by the police cordon repelling the demonstrators. They
were said to be targeting McDonald’s, Gap and Starbucks. The line held firm, which surprised me, pushing the protesters further up the road towards Trafalgar Square. Being penned in really pissed me off. I’d thought that as news crew we could just wander across the line, and I told the cops so. Just as the police baton-charged the rioters, I grabbed Tony’s jacket and yanked him close to me.
‘We’re getting through,’ I shouted at one of them.
Somehow, we got pushed against the wall which Tony was filming. I noticed demonstrators climbing onto the roof of McDonald’s and pointed them out to him. A Sky cameraman with no back-watcher was knocked to the floor, but we got right into the entrance of the restaurant. And I’d just happened to have looked in that direction, as I tried to either stay one step ahead of the police or move away up the side of the road.
I was on a massive adrenalin rush, and loving the abuse of the great unwashed – mostly students lobbing burgers and beer at us with the odd punch. It was comedy violence, and using a burger as their weapon of choice defined their stupidity. I could more than handle this and I knew it would only go so far. It was nothing to some of the stuff I had seen at war. My military undercover training had taught me that nine times out of ten there was always a way out of a situation and that you should restrain yourself as long as possible. These louts were no threat to us, and within five or six minutes the police were on to them.
‘Enough?’ I turned to ask Tony.
‘Yep, we’ve got enough,’ he replied, and we retreated.
But I felt great. I had kept them safe but, more importantly, I had given them the story, and that gave me the buzz. My soldier’s instinct seemed to be exactly in synch with what the journos wanted – where there was danger I would protect them, and where that danger took us was probably the story.
‘That was brilliant.’ Tony was over the moon, thanking me for
him free without knocking his arm holding the camera, which was still running. Nick Witchell thanked me too.
By 21.00, my feet were killing me and the story was dead. A few protesters were out of it and there was still the odd sporadic incident but we were done. I knew I had earned my
150 as we trudged back through Parliament Square, and I really felt part of something as I carried Tony’s tripod back to the BBC. When I got home at 02.00, Sue was in bed and I was still buzzing. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and would call Chris Cobb-Smith in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get up.
I rang and rang and nobody answered. Nor did anybody from the Beeb call me to say well done. Nothing. I hadn’t realised that was how it worked. I was all up for the next job, desperate to know when it was happening, but there was no next job. It was back to the TA and pretending to check the paperwork, playing caretaker. I mostly sat at home, twiddling my thumbs.
Then it happened, out of the blue, nearly a month later. ‘I’ve got something here which I think will be right up your street.’ Chris was back on.
‘Count me in,’ I said without knowing what the job was.
There was no ‘you did a really good job last time’. The conversation was short and blunt, typically military on both sides. I needed to get to White City to meet the
team immediately. They wanted me to go undercover at Euro 2000 looking for hooligans.
This was what I’d been waiting for. I was a massive football fan and had been involved in a scrap or two myself. My only concern was that I didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew. The next day I was straight into town to meet the producer, Tom Giles. On this occasion the brief was simple.
‘Can you film undercover?’ he asked.
‘Yeah,’ I replied.
I knew how to work a small DV camera – but even if I didn’t, I would have bullshitted. I had to get on the plane and show them what I could do. With just a conversation as short as that it was
already a done deal, but I didn’t know that. I was heading for the Euros on the BBC. I couldn’t believe my luck.
I was assigned to work with Tom Giles. We were an unlikely couple – he was your classic BBC type, well educated and from the John Simpson school of journalism. Then there was me, a schoolboy drop-out who’d spent his life in the army. First things first, on any undercover job – what was our cover story?
Before heading out to Holland and Belgium, we decided that we had been at school together and both had military parents based in Germany. I could play that part easily and Tom would just follow suit. I knew from the old days that the key to the other you is
it simple. Try to over-complicate who you are, and you’re in the shit. We stuck to Craig and Tom – that made sense. I didn’t want to start calling him ‘Paul’ and then shout ‘Tom’ across a crowded bar. Our real names would do. He knew his football, too, so I wasn’t concerned on that front – even though with his bouffant hair he didn’t really look like an England fan!