'It’s an immense privilege to have a front row seat in history unfolding,' foreign correspondent Roland Oliphant told an audience of Falmouth journalism students and academics while discussing a reporting career which has taken him to conflict zones around the world from Ukraine to Syria and more.
His wife, film-maker and TV news journalist Albina Kovalyova joined him on a visit to the university before lockdown at the end of February.
The couple shared their experiences of ‘Filming on the Frontline’ in a newsroom masterclass and seminar, telling students what it was like to be in east Ukraine during the height of the war between Russian-backed separatists and Kyiv government troops.
Albina described how being a woman in a war zone meant she was able to bring calm into tense situations when her western TV team were stopped at checkpoints.
“War is mostly fought by men and we were going in and out of checkpoints where you have these half-crazed guys with huge machine guns, but the fact I was a woman meant I was able to tone down the aggression,” she explained.
She told Falmouth students how she combines being a mother and working as a filmmaker; Albina’s recent work includes Russian Women Fight Back, a documentary on domestic violence in Russia made for BBC’s Our World series in 2019.
Hearing Albina talk about her experience gave those like third-year Journalism student Kira Taylor valuable insight into life as a woman journalist.
“For me it was great because it was the first time I heard a woman talk about the issues and advantages of being a woman in war reporting,” said Kira.
Albina and Roland worked in Ukraine at the same time, sometimes on different sides of the front line, sometimes on the same story, but for different outlets.
Roland was on the ground in east Ukraine when passenger flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014.
It was a shock to see the crash debris strewn across farmland and to witness the loss of life. In these situations, where “it’s a matter of life or death”, Oliphant said he focused on reporting the truth, not chasing scoops.
“There is literally a chemical change in your brain,” said Roland. As a new parent himself, he found the multiple witness accounts of rape and murder of Rohyinga villagers and children very disturbing.
We did some good journalism but it was a nasty one. When I got home I was very upset.”
Third year Journalism student Ellen O’ Rourke said she found the seminar inspirational and informative in a very practical sense.
But he was the first western journalist to track down the field in separatist territory from where the missile which downed the plane was fired.
Since then Roland has reported for the Daily Telegraph on a series of top foreign news stories.
He recalled how becoming a father in 2017 changed the way he reacted to the horrific stories told by Rohyinga Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh, after a deadly crackdown by the Myanmar military.
“As students, we spend a lot of time learning and theorising within a safety net,” said Ellen, “ but to spend time with professionals who have such a great deal of experience under their belts helps to put our degree into perspective - we too, could one day be able to tell the kinds of stories that they can. It was incredibly motivational to hear from the best of the best.”
Both Roland and Albina take their journalistic mission seriously. Albina suggested the presence of neutral, western journalists in Ukraine, whose reports countered the propaganda on both sides, “was a problem for them, it meant they had to be more careful”.
Roland quoted war reporter Martha Gellhorn: “She said: ‘All of my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple.’ But you still do it,” he concluded.
He said his philosophy is to “keep focused on telling the truth and getting the job done”.