SolPix Interviews
   An Interview with Ron McCullagh
   by Don Thompson

Before founding Insight News Television in 1991, Ron McCullagh worked as a reporter for the BBC for 10 years. He started his career as a local radio reporter for Radio Lancashire in 1980. From 1984 to 1989 he worked as a reporter for BBC Radio 4's 'Today Programme' covering national and international stories. He then worked for a year on BBC Television's Morning News as a reporter and was one of the first journalists to do his own filming on a Hi8 camera. He is a freelance contributor to BBC Radio 4's 'From Our Own Correspondent' and has written for numerous publications including The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph. In 1989 Ron McCullagh was nominated by the BBC for the Sony 'Radio Journalist of the Year' awards, in 1998 at the One World Broadcasting Trust Media Awards he won the UNICEF UK Award for the Advancement of Children's Rights for the report on child workers in Bangladesh which he reported, filmed, produced and edited. In 2000, the documentary Cry Freetown with Sorious Samura which he directed has so far won 14 major awards -- including an Emmy and a BAFTA, and in 2002 his documentary Exodus won an Emmy for best documentary direction.

Thompson: My first question for you -- and it's a burning one -- is what made you decide to leave the BBC to start Insight News Television?

McCullagh: For whatever reason I have always been driven to discover and communicate the context of stories. Daily news is about the 'what' but what about the 'why'?

In 1986 I was a reporter for the BBC's Today programme in Britain, a national radio news and current affairs programme broadcast daily between 6 and 9 am. A particular piece of kit grabbed my imagination, a new type of tape recorder that got closer to the 'why'.

At the time the BBC reporter's basic tape recorder was a brick of technology called the Uher but then the Sony Walkman cassette recorder arrived. It was much lighter and less bulky but, better still it allowed for two tiny 'tie mikes' instead of the more bulky and traditional handheld single mike. Using the smaller mikes the quality of the interviews changed. The interviewee, no longer intimidated with a large microphone in their face, became more intimate and revealing, both of the subject of the interview and of themselves.

At about the same time a friend of mine showed me a Video 8 camera also made by Sony with which he shot a documentary in Africa. The technical quality was way below normal broadcast standards but the film had something normal broadcast films did not often have; that same "Walkman" intimacy.

In 1990 I left the BBC to see where all this new technology might lead.

Thompson: The mission of Insight News is to "make the important interesting." What do you mean by that? What's an example of how you've been able to make the important interesting?

McCullagh: Barely a day goes by without someone complaining about broadcasters: "No one's interested in serious news and current affairs anymore. They're dumbing down. If it isn't going to get massive ratings, they don't want to know."

Thompson: So what do we do about it?

McCullagh: We have to become better storytellers -- better at doing our job. We have to tell our stories in more and more engaging ways so that we keep the audience's attention; i.e. we must make the important interesting.

That means up our skills, our imagination, our ambitions, so we can get back in the game.

A classic story in international news and current affairs is the constant horror of child labour, children whose childhoods are burnt out so that they can eke out an existence. So if you were going to make a film about child labour what would you put in it? A few years back NBC's Dateline made such a film. It was predictable; all about the child textile workers in Bangladesh, massed ranks of twelve year olds in hanger like factories, slaving away at their sowing machines making garments for our kids in the west. Interviews with children and parents, the rich boss etc. It was strong stuff.

So strong that an American politician Democrat Senator Tom Harkin proposed the banning of the import of all products produced by children into the U.S.

Bangladesh's main export to the U.S. is garments and in response to the Harkin Bill factories throughout the country sacked their child workers. Tens of thousands of children (no one knows for sure how many but some say 50,000) lost their jobs.

When we arrived to make a film about child labour some of these children asked us "how are you helping me by getting me sacked?" It turned out that of all the employment available to children in Bangladesh, the garment industry offered better pay and conditions than most other work. So we made a film that explained why absolute poverty mitigated by the income of children is often better than absolute poverty.

It was counter intuitive, character driven, provocative stuff. It was shown all over the world and probably broadened people's understanding, if only a little, on the complexities of this world we live in. I hope it did as much good as Dateline did bad, but I doubt it.

Here, story choice, powerful story telling with the children telling their own stories and the admission of such organisations as Unicef that, on this occasion they may have got it wrong, made the important interesting.

Thompson: Your documentary with Sorious Samura "Cry Freetown" has won just about every award a documentary can achieve (including Emmy, Bafta and Peabody awards). How did you meet Sorious and how did that project evolve?

McCullagh: Every year in London there's a prize giving ceremony for the most outstanding freelance news and news and current affairs cameraman or woman of the year gone by. It's called the Rory Peck Award and in November 1999 I was in the audience along with 300 of the great and the good in the television news industry. There were three finalists. We saw examples of their work. As soon as Samura's gruesome footage of what happened in Freetown, Sierra Leone the previous January was shown, we knew there was no contest.

What we saw were war crimes -- peacekeeping troops torturing and killing civilians who they suspected of collaborating with the equally brutal rebel forces who were trying to capture the capital.

If his footage was explosive, his speech was nuclear. Without notes he took the stage as the overall winner and (excuse my language) bollocked the assembled big cheeses from CNN, BBC, ABC, NBC etc. "Where were you…" he said ".. when my country was on its knees?" "You see this award" he said holding it up "you can keep it if it means that you will start to tell the story of Africa properly". He continued on this theme for a couple more minutes and walked off the stage to silence.

Then it began. Like a Mexican wave the audience rose to their feet and applauded long and loud.

I was there with my partner, in business and in love, Elizabeth Ground and some of our colleagues. Elizabeth and I knew at once that we wanted to make a documentary with this man and we knew at once that with such a voice he should present it.

In an industry of giants, Insight News is a dwarf so when I met Sorious later that evening I told him what we thought and said that we would love to meet and talk, but only after he'd seen everyone else and was still looking for something different.

One evening a week later Sorious came to our office and the partnership began. "Cry Freetown" was made in 7 weeks. The chief commissioner was Channel Four (UK) and their commissioning team of David Lloyd and Caroline Haydon, with extra funding from CNN, 2 Vandaag in the Netherlands, CBC (Canada) and ARTE.

Thompson: Your most recent project, Exodus from Africa was nominated for three Emmys and won the Emmy for best documentary direction. How did that project evolve?

McCullagh: How do you follow Cry Freetown? ... we began a development meeting in March 2000 at our offices beside Clapham Common in London. There were several ideas thrown around, three rose to the surface. One of them nearly got us killed [see next question] and one Exodus from Africa went on to be nominated for three Emmys.

Sorious and I were the two strongest supporters for Exodus. In Sorious's case because it was part of the story of his life, a west African leaving war and poverty behind in search of a better life and in my case because I'd seen a drama made in the eighties called The March about a desperate journey of tens of thousands of Africans who were determined to enter Europe at any cost

And that's the story we told, but this time about the real people. We met some great people and their stories made a lot of people think again about what the term "illegal immigrants" actually means.

Thompson: Your work sometimes puts you and your fellow filmmakers in harm's way. Have you at any time felt you might not make it out of an assignment alive?

McCullagh: If you're interested enough you can look up the details on how in 2000 four of our people ended up charged with a capital offence in Liberia. Truthfully I can't bare going through the details again. Too painful.

Making the decision to risk you own life is one thing but managing others who must take similar risks is worse. In preference I would rather take the risks myself.

Zoran was the hero of a story I filmed in 1991 during the Croatian/Serbian conflict in the former Yugoslavia. A newly qualified doctor, he had been conscripted into the hastily formed Croatian national army and posted to the village of Snojia in southern Croatia. He was the unit medic to a rag tag group of fighters whose front line was the railway line that ran through the center of the village.

I became very attached to Zoran. We shared a lot of the same ideas. He was a normal decent 23-year-old European who had found himself in the middle of a war. It could have happened to anyone, but now it was happening to him. He handled his responsibility with insightful courage and for this and many other attributes I found him an impressive guy. Then one day I confused our friendship with my job.

For armoured transport the unit used two bread vans with ¼ inch steel welded to the bodywork. One Sunday morning a van had moved eight soldiers to the east of the town. There was a fierce firefight, small arms first and then the "whump" of mortars. Zoran, my producer, Gareth, and I listened to the battle unfold from under a table in the railway station. There were two brick walls between the Serbs and the US. We felt safe.

Over Zoran's military radio came news. The van's been hit -- one wounded -- required now, the remaining bread van, Zoran a driver and three soldiers to rendezvous with retreating unit on frontline.

Zoran picked up his first aid kit and I picked up the camera but Gareth, a wise and gentle Welshman, blocked my exit from beneath the table. "No Ron".

But I'd already crossed a line. I had become inseparable from Zoran. To my sense of values, abandoning Zoran was betrayal and risking my life was a price I was prepared to pay.

It all worked out. I stayed with Zoran and both of us survived that Sunday morning and indeed the war but I was wrong; there is a line and it serves no great purpose to cross it.

Thompson: What are the qualities you think make for a good documentary filmmaker?

McCullagh: Tell the truth.

Like a successful entrepreneur who spots a gap in the market and sets up a business to fill it, a good documentary maker spots a gap in the audience's knowledge that needs to be filled.


Thompson: What in your mind is wrong with the way news is presented today -- particularly in the US?

McCullagh: In most cases U.S. television news continues to be very simplistic. It's a systemic problem. The commercial powers behind the big US broadcasters get very insecure about truths which threaten their paradigm of what America is. The attitude pervades the corridors. Staff make choices -- to spin the truth and keep their heads down or be brave and have short careers.

Thompson: Since news is often given "out of context" and doesn't "connect the dots" how do you provide context and insight without slanting the piece with a distinct bias? Or is bias just inherent in the process and we just have to admit that "objective" journalism is an impossibility?

McCullagh: Give the audience enough information and let them decide.

In story telling subjectivity is impossible to avoid. The solution is to be upfront with the audience about where your film is coming from.

A directional microphone is a bit like what we expect an objective reporter or filmmaker to be.

The microphone works by using two microphones; one at the front and another along the barrel. In order to pick up clean or "objective" sound from the source the microphone is pointing at, the signal from the barrel microphone is subtracted from the signal from the microphone at the front. The directional mike obeys scientific rules and can normally be trusted to provide an objective result.

No human I know does this, though we appear to expect reporters and filmmakers to do this every day; to subtract their prejudices, pre-concepts and stereotypes from the story they are covering.

So present the whole package to the audience, what the filmmaker/reporter has uncovered together with who the filmmaker/reporter is that has done the uncovering. Then let the audience decide.

Thompson: How do you think the Internet can be used to improve film distribution -- what is your vision and hope for broadband vis-à-vis your company?

McCullagh: When will we be able to turn the computer into a instant receiver of television quality films? When that happens the world changes. School kids will no longer write essays for their teachers, they'll make video essays from rushes they've downloaded from the internet. We will all become video literate.

Mainstream broadcasters will drown as their traditional audiences, already fragmented by the draw of hundreds of satellite and cable channels, desert their traditional brands for sector specific programming. You want to watch the latest from Hollywood, pay now and here it is and likewise across the board. So too with documentary.

The traditional power of the media will be diluted. A good thing? I don't know, but inevitable.

Thompson: Who are some of the documentary filmmakers today that you consider to be doing important work?

McCullagh: Mike Kirsch out of CBS Miami is one of my heroes. He's not afraid to put himself in his films. And of course Michael Moore for the same reason, although I think the money issue is affecting him.

Thompson: Can a documentary filmmaker submit an idea to you for consideration? If yes, then how can they do this?

McCullagh: Be gentle with us, we're very small. But if you have a well thought out original idea then send it to, but only if you trust us not to rip you off. If you don't get a reply it's because we're inundated.

Thompson: What's next for you and your company?

McCullagh: More meetings with more commissioning editors, a 2 x 1 hour series with Sorious Samura called 21st Century War and a giant project about Aids in Africa.

Copyright Web del Sol, 2002

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