A DAY OUT WITH VICE NEWS
‘These men are pornographers?’ says Abdi, one of the President’s comms team.
‘No, it’s just an attention grabbing name. It’s like Virgin. People used to think that was risqué.’
‘I don’t know… In fact, no, the President won’t see these people. As you say, it is risky.’ I know better than to try to clarify the homophone.
Moving down the feudal pyramid from the President in search of someone who is willing to speak to the Vice News crew, it gets no easier.
‘Vice did those great videos on the Islamic State.’
‘They make the videos of the beheadings, the burning of that pilot alive?’
‘No, I mean –‘ More rejection.
But we get there in the end – after completely re-organising the programme. The Minister for Planning, Abdi Aynte, is a former Jazeera journalist and also happens to have written his Masters thesis on the origins of al-Shabaab, so the pornographers/IS horror video producers get a decent insight into where the organisation came from, where it is now and where it might be going. And the government gets an input. Which is important.
Because Vice News, to those who are familiar with them, are neither pornographers or the PR team for Da’esh but are instead the spearhead of a kind of digital gonzo movement that is making news interesting again. (That’s ‘gonzo’ as in Hunter S Thompson, not as in porn.) Their material on the fighting in Ukraine was outstanding: their inside account of life under IS as alarming as it was riveting (their journalist had to take a break after filming, having got ‘a bit too close’.) And they will make this documentary whether the government cooperates or not.
A UN chum improvises a trip to a Defector Rehabilitation Camp in Baidoa, out in the hinterland of Somalia towards the Ethiopian border, and the trip coalesces into something. Vice News are happy.
It’s important that they are happy because the devil will find work for idle meeja to do if their ‘handlers’ don’t keep them occupied. They might end up filing a different story entirely. Like a story about all the boozing and shagging that goes on in the Mogadishu airport compound, where the UN and various embassies are hubbed, a story that came about because a journalist wasn’t kept occupied.
Or it might be a revenge story, as happened to an erstwhile colleague of mine back in Iraq in 2005 in the aftermath of two British SF soldiers being lifted by the shady Iraqi cops they were meant to be spying on, plunging the city into days of rioting. His opening gambit to the assembled ladies and gentlemen of Her Majesty’s Press: ‘You’ve been foisted upon us so don’t expect us to happy that you’re here.’ His reward: a feature on him and how shit he was.
* * *
In the back of the armour we chat about the interview with Aynte.
‘Some of his comments were obviously party line,’ says Suroosh Alvi, the host of the programme that is being filmed (‘TERROR’: a major documentary series on TERROR), who also happens to be one of the founders of Vice. ‘But very good, you can tell he was a journalist.’
Which is interesting, as the Vice crew (or should it be ‘VICE’, because that’s the way it’s cast on Suroosh’s trademark signet ring) pride themselves on not being trained journalists.
And that makes for a very different media visit from what I am used to (it’s been a while since I did any media handling) and also from what the private security company that is driving us around is used to as well. The mainstream media have become so bureaucratised, with all their disclaimers and risk assessments and their entourage of security advisors that their trips have become a breeze, since their masters are so risk averse and they have been brought up with the pernicious ‘embed’ as the norm.
But Vice are different. They have to be restrained from dashing to the Jazeera Palace Hotel when an al-Shabaab truck bomb peels the frontage off, killing 15. (But they get there later.) They are nearly in tears when we have to board the plane back to Mogadishu, a plane we cannot miss (unless we fancy a 5 day layover in Baidoa): the commander of the Ethiopian garrison offers to let them go up in an attack helicopter to see some action. But they got to meet some real, live al-Shabaab defectors, so the disappointment quickly passes.
The conversation in the armour drifts to the realities of the campaign against al-Shabaab. I nearly have an unguarded moment, but something from years ago, maybe the Defence Media Operations course, kicks in.
‘Are you filming?’ I ask the cameraman, Chris, who is squashed into the boot of the armour so Suroosh and I can sprawl on the back seat (and so Suroosh can do a piece to camera if need be).
‘We’re always filming,’ they reply, in unison.