I want to add my voice to those paying tribute to Chris Cramer. He died on January 16th after a long illness. Chris was 73.
His long-time BBC colleague, Richard Sambrook, wrote a splendid, heart-felt obituary for the BBC website, Richard considered Chris a mentor as well as a close friend. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55698131
Chris, better known to those inside and outside the BBC by his last name was a legendary character, a one-off who was radically different from the grey men in suits who held most of the senior editorial and administrative positions in the BBC and other news organisations including my old CBC.
Most importantly, as Sambrook details, it was Chris Cramer who was the driving force behind making safety training a requirement for all BBC newsgathering teams assigned to cover conflicts or posted to potentially dangerous places. He also instituted trauma counselling for those who’d witnessed soul-scarring events and disasters. Cramer liked to say that upon returning home from troubling assignments, journalists and crews needed to ” do their head laundry” as part of their return to normalcy and routines.
In its obituary, the Times of London focuses on Cramer’s near death experience when he was held as a hostage at the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980 when he and another BBC journalist were trying to get visas to travel to Iran. 36 hours later, he collapsed, thinking that he was having a heart attack. The Iranian hostage takers decided to release him. Cramer then gave security forces detailed information that helped them stage their assault and rescue operation. But for Chris, it was a traumatic experience that, according to the Times, he described in a later NPR interview as “ the single most terrifying thing in my entire life.” He suffered all of the symptoms that we now associate with PTSD. It was understanding his own fearful reaction to a crisis and its lasting impact that gave him a great sensitivity to what BBC news teams experienced when exposed to the horror of war. He worked closely with Dr. Anthony Feinstein at the University of Toronto Sunnybrook in his ground-breaking studies to try and determine how many journalists and news teams did suffer from PTSD; to shape counselling programs to assist their recovery.
He wrote a chapter about training to be capable of taking the right risks to get to stories that the world needed to know about in my book that I helped write and co-edit with Heather Purdey: “International News Reporting: Frontlines and Deadliness.” Here’s part of what I wrote in the introduction to his chapter: ” For tough guy Cramer to champion safety training as well as trauma counselling gave these initiatives legitimacy inside the BBC and credibility with other news organisations just waking up to their responsibilities to protect and train their own staffs.”
Cramer didn’t just advocate safety training inside the BBC. If you worked for the BBC and hadn’t completed what was normally a five day course, you would be passed over, excluded from career-making assignments to cover wars and natural disasters. Cramer’s outspoken leadership on safety most certainly helped me in my role as CBC’s Chief of Foreign Bureaux persuade my colleagues in senior editorial positions back in Toronto that we had an essential duty of care to find money, however scarce, to do what Cramer had done for his news teams at BBC. To their credit, my CBC colleagues did just that.
Cramer also didn’t hesitate to criticise his fellow news executives in print and broadcasting who failed to support safety training and protection. He rejected out of hand the argument, as he put it: “real news gatherers knew how to look after themselves; that safety in dangerous areas cannot be taught, only learned at the sharp end. And that it’s all a waste of money.”
He found an international bully pulpit in the International News Safety Institute (INSI), an organisation that he was instrumental in creating along with Aidan White, the then general-secretary of the International Federation of Journalists. Under Cramer’s leadership (he served as chairman), INSI published alarming statistics about the number of journalists (international and local) killed on assignment, some of whom might have survived had they benefited from taking part in so- called Hostile Environment Training Courses. These courses included battlefield first- aid instruction and scenarios for learning how to assess what risks were worth taking to cover dangerous stories.
Cramer was also well ahead of his time in recognising that news groups who often hired freelancers to replace their staffs in the field or because the assignment required special freelance knowledge and skill ( like the Frontline News Agency headed by Vaughan Smith) also had a responsibility to pay for their safety training. He said so back in 1997 as the keynote speaker at what may have been one of the first forums staged to discuss journalism safety. By this time Cramer had moved on to CNN as its managing director for CNN International. “The BBC- like other broadcasters like CNN- quite properly included freelancers in that programme. Neither organisation makes a distinction between staff and freelancers when it comes to safety training. Nor should they. No newsgatherer wants to work alongside a gung-ho, untrained cowboy freelancer, someone with no regard for his or anyone else’s safety.”
What is less known about Cramer is how he masterminded the realignment of all of the traditional news relationships and alliances related to international news agencies and their broadcaster clients, an arcane world that few outside of the news business would know anything about. Before Cramer blew up the existing world of news agencies and their favoured relationships with broadcasters, it worked something like this: BBC, the world’s largest newsgathering organisation, was contractually linked to Visnews owned by Reuters. Its American network partner was NBC News. Less powerful but important international news players such as my CBC Canada and ABC Australia also were part of this coalition; it meant we could get access to each other’s news coverage before and after our reports were aired. The rival coalition included Britain’s highly regarded private network ITN that worked closely with WTN, the London-based rival news agency to Reuters/Visnews. Its American network partner was ABC News. It has its own relationships with the private networks in Canada and Australia.
In the highly competitive and ratings-driven world of television news, what mattered to hard-charging news executives like Chris Cramer was organising and generating the fastest, most comprehensive coverage of big, breaking news stories and relying on your partners to do the same. That meant being able to promote your major newscasts that led with the latest pictures from war zones or natural disasters. When in Cramer’s view, the BBC was badly beaten competitively in coverage of the first Gulf War, he was furious and decided to upend its newsgathering alliance. He jettisoned NBC News and signed on with ABC News. I remember when he called to tell me what he’d done. He was savouring his machinations. And he did indeed cause havoc in the news industry; all of us, including my CBC, were having to rethink our own news agreements and try to work out how we could maintain our access to BBC News material.
Wherever and however Chris Cramer’s old colleagues and friends are gathering during the Pandemic, likely on Zoom hook-ups, they will be trading anecdotes and stories about the most colourful news executive they ever worked with.