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O Extravaganza! The Great Extrav Reunion Weekend & Capping Revue Revival [1993]

Kiwi Goes to War for TV

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Kiwi Goes to War for TV

As a television producer for the UN, Steve Whitehouse has been to more than his share of the world's hot spots, writes Jane Clayton

Steve Whitehouse . . . risks growing by the day

Steve Whitehouse . . . risks growing by the day

Photo Don Roy

When trouble happens in Mogadishu and Sarajevo it generally happens out of the blue, says former Wellingtonian Steve Whitehouse, whose coverage of events involving the UN frequently ends up on our televisions screens, including recent reports from Somalia on the New Zealand troops based there.

Whitehouse is based in New York, working for the United Nations television arm.

He was back in the city last week, visiting family and taking part in a Victoria University student reunion.

Six weeks ago he was in Somalia, leaving just before the renewed fighting which saw the ambush of UN Pakistani troops and recent deaths of several journalists.

"Nothing very hair-raising has happened to me so far, touch wood," he said. However, his account of his arrival at Mogadishu airport would seem to defy that claim.

"To get to Somalia, you have to fly from Nairobi on a military flight, and the airport itself is a huge armed camp.

"When I arrived at the airport I was picked up in car by a guy who said we should really get a military escort, but we won't bother this time.

"When we drove out to the front of the airport a mob of youths descended on the car, dragged the doors open and tried to steal equipment. The driver put his foot right down and we shot off in a cloud of sand.

"You can't go anywhere without armed guards, either locals with AK47s or with troop escorts. You never know what is going to happen because you are in the middle of this very complex internal fighting among the clans. And sometimes the UN becomes a target as it has in the last few months."

To an outsider, working in such conditions seems intolerable, even impossible. But Whitehouse insists that being so busy and involved in the work means that there is no room for worry.

"The danger in these situations is a bit like of a bolt of lightning. It's something that is just going to happen out of the blue. As long as you take sensible precautions, and you are generally with people who have been around and know where the risks are, you just have to be sensible and trust them.

"There's really not much you can do if something very dangerous is going to happen, and somebody takes a pop at you from behind a wall or something."

Exposing himself to such dangers is something Whitehouse does for several months each year, but he plays down the risks. He says others, particularly camera men and women, face greater risks.

"I take my hat off to journalists who do it on a virtual 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year, basis.

The risk of working for the United Nations is growing as the nature of its activities changes dramatically.

Whitehouse, who has worked for the UN since 1971, said the traditional role of the United Nations had been to go in once the war had ended and set up peace-keeping operations.

Classic examples were United Nations operations in Cyprus and Iran-Iraq. "But now we seem to go in the middle of civil wars," he said.

"Now we are looking at a new type of operation which often isn't so much a question of two governments being in dispute.

"It may well be a civil war, dealing with fighting units that aren't under control of a central government. This is much more dangerous because you don't know who is fighting whom, and the classic examples of that are Yugoslavia and Somalia."

Working under the badge of the United Nations has enabled him to access areas denied to mainstream news organisations.

"As the UN has become much more involved in these very controversial high profile operations we try to go and video them, partly for news purposes and partly as a matter of record so that we have material for documentaries and for other people to use."

"The first of those really dramatic shoots was the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. We were at the front, and we ended up in the marshes on the front line filming UN military observers going around in motor boats, and smashed oil refineries."

Whitehouse visited Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war and filmed Iraq's superguns, chemical facilities, and scud missiles. The film was turned into a documentary, "The Hunt for Saddam's Super-weapons".

When going into a war zone, he says, the strategy is take the least possible gear, travelling as light as possible.

"I'll go in as a producer-reporter and hire a local cameraman because they know the risks, their way around, and the contacts. It's kept as simple as possible, just me and the cameraman — you don't want a lot of people hanging round your neck.

"Our main aim is to get as much on air as possible."

The former Yugoslavia was particularly dangerous for photographers and camera operators, who have to stick their necks out.

"They can't hang around in a bar and write their story.

"It's become a high-risk occupation but there are a group of people who do this and are addicted to it. You keep on running into the same people, the same camera teams, the same correspondents."

"While it was obviously dangerous in Sarajevo and other places where the fighting is, in the rest of the country it is fairly calm.

"You can stay in a hotel and go to a cafe in the evening."

"In a place like Somalia you can't go anywhere, as there are no hotels and you can't go anywhere without armed guards."

Does he see himself continuing?

"I only do that kind of video two or three months a year," he says.

"I have to go and digest material. After I've done it I am generally exhausted and think I don't want to do it again. Then three or four months later, I start to think maybe it might be a good idea."

Dominion July 1993