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Hugh Levinson Hugh Levinson 13:15, Friday, 27 November 2009

Karakoram highway

The message on my voicemail was garbled. Not surprising perhaps, as the producer was speaking over a dodgy satellite phone connection and was not in the calmest of moods. Something about the Taleban, risky flights, the Pakistani intelligence services and an 18-hour road trip through the notorious Northwest Frontier Province.

It's this kind of thing that makes the job of editing Crossing Continents interesting. Interesting in the sense of alarming, worrying, nerve-wracking and guilt-inducing. I spend rather a lot of my time sitting in a glass box (not quite an office, more like a goldfish bowl) in White City where nothing very dangerous is likely to happen. Although I suppose you could get a nasty scald from a cup of tea.

Meanwhile I send some of the world's best radio documentary journalists off to some very nasty places indeed. Places where nasty things happen to people, including journalists and their contacts. Earlier this year, presenter Lucy Ash and producer Nick Sturdee went to Chechnya and interviewed a human rights worker, Natalya Estimirova. She took them to a field and showed them where the bodies of some young women had been found. The women had been bundled into cars and then murdered. A few days after the interview, Natalya herself was bundled into a car and murdered. Natalia's colleagues believe she was murdered in retaliation for her many years investigating human rights abuses.

Now I had a producer in one of the remotest bits of Pakistan on the trail of a story that had turned very weird. Nothing had gone according to plan. Promised permits had not turned up. An institution they wanted to visit had been blown up by the Pakistani military. Helpful associates proved to have dubious connections. Intelligence agents wanted to take away the recordings. And here I was in my glass box, trying to make sure that my producer got back safely.

Luckily I had a security blanket. A detailed risk assessment - a score of pages long - which the producer had compiled with help from the BBC's high risk team (an amazing bunch), the Islamabad Bureau, the head of the World Service's Urdu service and some streetwise BBC contacts on the ground. I carried the risk assessment with me everywhere in my backpack. The official reason was to keep the emergency numbers in case I needed to ring them. The real reason is that it's a talisman.

And I reminded myself that the producer had wanted to go. She'd found the story she was pursuing and she knew that she was under no pressure from me. If she wanted to ditch the project and bail out at any time, she had carte blanche to do so. And we had procedures in place for the producer to call and text both me and the Islamabad office. I thought back to our series of detailed conversations over several months about the practicality and safety of the project - and how we'd talked it over forwards and backwards here in the goldfish bowl.

So despite the garbled message I calmed down. And I'm happy to say the producer is now back in the UK. Now another team is on location in another potentially dangerous part of the world. And I'm carrying their risk assessment around with me in my backpack again.

Hugh Levinson is producer of Crossing Continents


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