Shannon Sedgwick – An Invisible Light
While the battle for freedom of the press was once perceived as a third world casualty, we are now seeing western democracies openly challenge what has traditionally been viewed as a one of the cornerstones of democratic principles. We spent an afternoon chatting with a devastatingly gorgeous and introspective Global Media Risk CEO Shannon Sedgwick who reminded us that, if there ever was time when the world needed a light shone in dark places, it is now.
Growing up on an ostrich farm in a little town with a population of 200 called Boree Creek NSW, whose neighbour happened to be the former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, founder and CEO of Global Media Risk Shannon Sedgwick, 31, joined the army at 19, to see what the world had to offer. Trained as a paratrooper (an infantry soldier whose method of insertion is jumping out of planes rather than walking or driving into a conflict), Sedgwick was posted to Holsworthy barracks in Sydney and served six years, with two deployments to East Timor in 2006 and 2007.
“Both were peace enforcing missions. The first deployment, we did some good there but we were a little jaded because we knew we were there to protect oil and natural gas reserves off the coast,” says Sedgwick.
Ironically, once Sedgwick left the army, he found himself in nearly every war conflict and natural disaster zone in the world since 2010 including the Fukushima and Nepal earthquakes, Southern Turkey, Northern Iraq and Syria, Rwanda and Congo and West African conflicts as a well as protests in Pakistan, the US and Thailand. Since founding Global Media Risk (GMR) in Nevada US in 2013, GMR has grown rapidly, expanding bases in Australia and Singapore, providing risk consultancy, logistics and protection services in high threat situations – either in the physical or cyber spaces. After being offered a contract to provide protection services to a convey of journalists covering the ISIS conflict in Northern Iraq in 2013, GMR quickly established itself as a differentiator among existing private security agencies serving the media industry.
“Most media crews are used to just having bodyguards but our guys are trained in basic media production, so we understand the roles of producer, sound engineer, the cameraman’s job…we know how to set up live view satellites, fly aways, SNG trucks. We understand the media’s need for access and can balance security with their needs. We tend to go in as the Producer on the ground and secure media credentials and the contacts they need for every one of our clients,” says Sedgwick. “We keep the same consultants with the same clients each time. This helps build rapport. We provide international hostile environments awareness training, and our trainers who train the clients are also deployed with them, so there is a good deal of trust built already…Most media don’t like security, because security will try to remove all risk and keep them in the hotel room. We balance the risk with the access media needs to do their job. If we are asked to do something that is very high risk, we don’t say no, we see how we can compromise to lower the risk”.
According to Sedgwick, the success of his work is centred on planning, training, trust and good old fashioned diplomacy.
“In the army it was called winning hearts and minds – it’s now called ‘consent winning’. Good security is centred on thorough reconnaissance and planning. People think of bodyguards as big tough guys ready for a fight, but if you’ve got to a stage when you’re in a fight, then you haven’t done your job properly. You avoid conflict at all costs. You’re not there to be the tough guy, you’re there to be the grey man – the just in case guy. When we land on the ground, we’ll officially act as producer. We handle security and logistics. A large part of logistics is providing secure accommodation and transport, and the Fixer,” says Sedgwick.
A Fixer is a local who acts as the local agent on the ground. They provide translation services and access to basic resources such as finding a safe place to eat, clean water, or help set up meetings between the media and a particular person or group. Sedgwick says that finding a reliable Fixer is not just critical to safely securing talent to get the story, it can be the difference between life and death.
“We have one of the largest databases of vetted Fixers in the world. Because of our networks, we often act as a Fixer ourselves…we set up the logistics and as the local Fixer works directly for us, he has already been through extensive vetting. Your Fixer is your lifeline. Especially if you’re a freelance journalist and cannot afford security like us; what happened to the US journalist Stephen Sotloff…there is an unverified industry rumour that his Fixer unknowingly betrayed him across the border to ISIS in 2014. [Sotloff] hired a Fixer advertised on a public internet chat room for Southern Turkey and Northern Syria. A few months later he was beheaded…We cannot emphasis enough how having a vetted Fixer is extremely important for media agencies,” says Sedgwick.
According to Sedgwick, a good way to tell if a Fixer is legitimate is to see if they have worked with media for a number of years and are already known to established media agencies. Often times, Fixers are a local journalist or producer themselves.
“We pay our Fixers very well, what they would earn in three months, we pay for on week’s work. So it’s a big incentive for loyalty. Fixers who unknowingly betray their clients…it never ends well,” says Sedgwick.
To-date, Sedgwick says thankfully, not a single GMR client has been scratched and while he concedes that there can never be a zero-risk scenario, there are proven methods to best to mitigate risk. Another key factor in reducing risk is GMR’s hiring policy –
“I’ll never hire someone straight out of the military. I prefer they have civilian experience first to temper the level of aggression that a lot of military guys have straight out of the army. Ex-army guys may have done six tours to Afghanistan and Iraq but may not be suitable personality-wise with our clients or have the wherewithal to make correct decisions on the ground. GMR acts as a neutral party as our clients do on the ground – and it’s very important to maintain this position. The only place we can’t act as a neutral party is Iraq because we have to act as a Protective Security Detail (PSD) – an armoured vehicle security escort. Myself and most of the crew are PSD qualified and experienced so we act as the PSD team leader as well as on the ground security consultant. This means we get to control the security convoy too. This is the only time when we are armed,” says Sedgwick.
What started as a business that had one deployment every 2-3 months, has now grown to 1-2 deployments per week, around the world. Being a company that is entirely dependent on natural disasters or the socio-political climate of countries, more conflict means generally, more work. At first, Sedgwick astutely understood that there was a niche gap in the marketplace in his sector, but it quickly evolved into a role that went beyond commercial drivers; it become more about protecting the actual work of what journalists and NFPs do. For Sedgwick, his work is not just business as usual, it’s a deeply personal mission – to share stories that help others understand what is going on a human level, not just chase the next headline.
“At first, we saw a niche gap in the market that we were capable of filling but it has evolved rapidly into a job that is about protecting what journalists do. If they do their job, and stick to objective values, they shine a light into the dark places of the world. We need this light and it’s a point of great pride for me and my organisation that we can facilitate and protect that need around the world. Primarily this is our main aim. To protect that light, no matter what. We don’t play the tough guys. The mind is a much more powerful weapon. We are invested emotionally in our work. We do not disengage. We think it’s important to distinguish and act upon our responsibilities as human-beings towards each other. It’s unfortunate that there is a lot of anti-muslim sentiment at the moment. Some of my closest friends are Muslim. My time in Iraq has taught me that people can endure horrific hardship and still prevail in their human decency. I’ve witnessed first-hand the depravity of ISIS and on the other side of the scale, I’ve seen Iraqis starving, but refusing to steal a loaf of bread to feed their family. Selfless, courageous people that I’ve met… In 2015, families had just come down from a mountain in northern Iraq, and they had been completely surrounded by ISIS and trapped for weeks without food and water. The mothers, to stop their children from dying, had cuts all over their arms; the children drank their blood so they would not die of thirst. It was one of the most heartbreaking things that I’d ever seen. What people do for love. It’s something that will always stay with me. Many children were buried on that mountain,” says Sedgwick.
Aside from helping journalists cover stories in war zones, GMR is often on the ground helping journalists cover protests around the world. With the recent US election, Sedgwick says protests can quickly turn into riots and can be a very difficult space for journalists to do their work safely.
“While I’m ex-military, I also understand the need to have peaceful protest. I have seen the injustice of certain Governments so I know how important it is to protect freedom of the press and expression. We worked with clients covering the US protests in the recent US election. Part of the training we provide to journalists in hostile environs also cover domestic safety which includes riots, demonstrations and how to remain safe. We also go into the science behind crowd dynamics. As a bystander, you can feel the ebb and flow of collective emotion in a demonstration; it’s like a flock of birds flying together. It’s very strange how people affect each other’s behaviour. Police will often try to target the ringleader who is usually the most vocal. If the ringleader is targeted, the crowd will normally quieten down and the situation is deescalated,” says Sedgwick.
Aside from media clients, GMR also works with NGOs and NFPs. The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, presented by George and Amal Clooney, saw Sedgwick’s team help protect the 2016 prize finalist Syeda Ghulam Fatima, who dedicated her life saving poor families from debt bondage – modern-day slave labour by Brick Kiln owners in Pakistan. Forced to work at gunpoint from dawn to dusk, children, elders, men, women—had been tortured, raped and left to suffer debt bondage without food or clothing. Living in constant danger, Fatima has been electrocuted, shot at, threatened and beaten by Brick kiln owners, but she remains defiant. Through her NFP organisation the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, Fatima has freed 80,000 people from slavery.
During the protest against slavery in Lahore, GMR acted as Fatima’s protection convoy.
“The protest walk was difficult. There were thousands of people protesting slavery. Syeda has had multiple threats to her life, and her brother who drove her car a few years ago was shot at while driving – the brick owners thought it was Syeda. He had bullets in his legs and spine and can’t walk properly now… The demonstration was a very tense situation,” recalls Sedgwick.
For Sedgwick, emotional intelligence, trusting instinct and being hyper-aware of body language are all tools to help keep clients safe.
“Controlled aggression is necessary for my work, if used correctly. We communicate silently with our body that we are not a threat and in other cases, that we are a threat. You need emotional intelligence to discern when to switch. Acting the tough guy in my line of work gets you nowhere. It’s important to remember that wherever we are, it’s not our country, and we don’t have a right to be there and act like a dickhead. Respect for custom and rule is paramount. I’ve always approached things softly, softly. Honey catches more fly than vinegar. If you’re respectful and pleasant, it will always open doors. If you act like the tough guy, your clients will get sick of you and you’ll get closed doors. So diplomacy, managing personalities and gauging peoples’ emotional needs rapidly is critical to achieving your aims. A part of this is relying on instinct. The term for it is ‘key combat indicators’ when you feel that something is not quite right, and the hair stands on the back of your neck. Also, everything will go silent for a second. You don’t hear people, or birds or vehicles. It’s this strange space where there is no noise and you can feel something is about to happen. Usually at that stage, we grab our clients and leave the area immediately. Sometimes nothing happens, but other times… we had a recent trip to Northern Iraq, where we stopped on the outskirts of Mosul and the Fixer and I got out of the vehicle to run across the road to grab bread as the film crew hadn’t eaten all day. There was a strange silence in the air. I didn’t like the feeling so we left. We received a report later in the day, less than twenty minutes after we’d left the bakery that a suicide bomber went into the shop and killed 15 people inside,” says Sedgwick.
While Sedgwick’s work is dangerous, and requires him to live a nomadic existence, where he is often away for months at a time, there is a romanticism about his character and when asked about whether he felt he was living a romantic life, Sedgwick was shy to use the term, but candid about his feelings on the job.
“This work feeds my soul. I need it to be able to live with myself. I feel most alive when I’m on the ground. I did start this as a business at first, but I am now emotionally and personal invested in what we do. We are the grey men in the background who enable courageous people to tell the stories that need to be told”.