Eurasia Future’s Adam Garrie recently conducted a lengthy interview with independent journalist Graham Phillips about his many travels from war zones to the World Cup and everywhere in-between. To learn more about Graham, please visit his official website and his Youtube channel.
AG: I’d like to start by asking you about the literal vehicle for your reportage, your trusty Rover. Could you tell us a bit about your car, its origins, how you keep it in good repair throughout multiple nations? Also how did you first come to embrace the Rover brand as I believe you’ve had more than one over the years?
GP: I’ve had 4 Rover 75s now, and still have 1. There are a few reasons – firstly it’s a fantastic car, truly a classic. Secondly, there’s kind of a sadness about the demise of Rover, and Rovers really are not going to be roadworthy for much longer, given that it was in 2005 when they ceased production. So it’s a case of get them while you can. Also, they are inexpensive, and over here are taken for a classy motor, which they are, they just didn’t get the respect they deserved back home! Also, I love Alan Partridge, and find joking about them quite funny. I could go on…
However, the current Rover, which I’ve had since 2015, and has been to every frontline in Donbass, all over Crimea, I’m sad to say that it will have to be my last. I already bought a Jaguar X type, which will take over when the Rover roars its last. I must add that I got the Jag for a fine price, on ebay, lest anyone starts. I buy British, of course, would have to be in there too. Although in the Rover’s case, a bit late to make a difference!
AG: Sticking with the driving theme, a lot of your reportage is filled with the music that you listen to while travelling to various destinations where you conduct your reportage. What are your favourite artists, albums and songs that get you through the long and winding roads?
GP: Well I recently completed a 12-hour journey, pretty much non-stop drive from Volgograd to Moscow. That’s because I got a bit obsessed with a Russian musician, pop star I guess, Burito. So in the end I couldn’t resist asking him for an interview. But it could only take place bang in the middle of the World Cup, just the busiest time of my life, with it being in Russia, considerable distances too. But, it had to be done, so loading up on energy drinks, tooled up the trusty Rover and hit the road, listening all the way to Burito. I got to Moscow, did the interview then pretty much just collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.
After that rather intense experience, it may be back to Chris de Burgh for the next leg (smiles).
AG: While you’re best known for your reportage from Donbass and throughout Russia, I believe one of your earlier jobs was reporting from pre-junta Ukraine. What were your memories of Ukraine then and do you think that in some shape or form the country can ever return to normalcy?
GP: I had a great time in Ukraine before everything kicked off. I mean, you know, I enjoyed it there. It was a fun country to live in, friendly. I’ve always been quite open about finding Ukrainian ladies attractive, which has then come back at me in the form of my being called a ‘sex tourist’ by those looking to discredit. Well, I always like to be open and honest about everything. In any case when I lived in Kiev, working at the magazine What’s On, it was a hard-working life. It was a weekly print magazine, and I remember every week putting my heart and soul into that magazine so each edition came out as something special. I would carry it around with me all the time, checking, thinking of new articles. Did I also make some time for the ladies? Well, it can’t all be work.
There were also serious themes to cover in Ukraine, I remember covering horrific situations – killing of Oksana Makar, murder of Barry Pring. No question, the country had problems, but it was actually, generally, moving in the right direction. However that wasn’t enough for some who wanted to just take it all apart.
And what now? No, of course Ukraine will never be the same again. And I understand their pain, I lived in Kiev for 2 years, I know well how much my (former, for the most part) friends there loved Crimea. But then most of them went and supported Maidan. I understood from the start that only bad would come of Maidan, remember even being on Maidan telling people there. But, no one wanted to listen. And now look…
As for Donbass, actually that was always a favourite place in Ukraine to trash talk ‘it’s dirty, polluted there’, etc. And now how many Ukrainians have been killed fighting for it. Well, I say ‘fighting’, mostly the Ukrainian military sit smacked up at their positions and launch shelling into civilian areas of Donbass.
There’s no way Ukraine will ever be like it was. But in any case I try to be positive, and hope for the best for them, for Ukraine. I try to remember that there are still good people there, it’s just that a lot of them are lost to propaganda, and western manipulation.
In any case, they need to accept that Maidan was an ignominious failure, they’ve lost their best tourist area, and industrial heartland. And they’ve only got themselves to blame. But what’s done is done, and It would be better that now they would focus their energies on creating a new Ukraine, rather than continue with pointless provocations about Crimea, and shelling civilians of Donbass. Neither are ever returning to Ukraine, and if Ukraine continues on their current path, they’re only likely to lose more, in every way.
AG: Backing up even further, what were your early experiences in journalism and did you come to know the western mainstream media the hard way even prior to the events of 2014 when a new so-called cold war resumed?
GP: Well my first experiences in journalism go back some 20 years to the time when I was at university in Dundee where I wrote articles on spec for the Scotsman, Herald, and so on. I’d email them, then rush excitedly to the newsagent in the morning to see if they’d used them, and if so, I would then fax off an invoice for £50, or £75, usually, and that was that. I remember well the thrill of picking up a paper and seeing my article there in print. It was never that I got a kick from seeing my name there, but I used to put heart and soul even into those little articles, then the thought of people reading them – of course that was a huge high! It was all naturally intangible back in those days, you wrote something, then it went off out into the ether, no likes or so on. These days it’s a different thrill, as you know Adam, something you write – likes, shares, etc. But there was a particular something about it being in print, back when print really was print as opposed to how it feels today – just a waste of paper.
Anyway, I wrote for the New Statesman while I was living in Ukraine in 2012 – and other western publications. I didn’t see anything wrong with that. In fact I couldn’t see anything other. I’d imagined my career, the ultimate if you will, as working for the BBC. And actually that came true in March of 2014 when I was the only English person they could find in Odessa as it kicked off there, so they got me on air. I told the facts from there which the BBC clearly didn’t like, and that was my last time on the BBC!
In any case, by that time I’d long figured out what the deal was with western media. I’d taken a clear position on Maidan, based on what I knew was right, from the start. Because of this, apart from when the BBC later got desperate in Odessa, I hadn’t been contacted by any western media outlets. Meanwhile all my former colleagues in Kiev took that route, and saw careers rocket. Chris Miller, for example, I remember him in Kiev as just some hipster kind of poser about town. At the time I’d already written some articles for the Kyiv Post, and he started to work there, during Maidan, threw his lot in, and became Mr Maidan. I remember watching his Twitter followers rocket by thousands each day. Meanwhile I sat down in Odessa watching on, writing blogs about the Maidan I knew to be the case, with much less attention. Then, one day, RT came calling. Totally out the blue, just a message on Facebook, and it went from there. I started doing interviews over Skype with them, then eventually, when they couldn’t get their correspondents in, they called me to Donbass. Meanwhile I’d also been doing my own filming, deciding to focus on my own YouTube channel, from all over Ukraine, including Maidan, which turned out to be worse than I could have even imagined. Maidan was where I became a video journalist – before that I’d seen myself as a print, photo journalist, but on Maidan a friend of mine, Bryan said ‘look, you just have to do video’ –
…so I did, and we went from there. I went to Crimea, all over, capturing the moment, filming for my own channel (you can find it all there), doing some interviews for RT, etc, and then, Donbass, while I’m working as a freelance correspondent for RT. Of course I always knew what the score was with them, their position, but they allowed me to say and report things no western channel would ever have. And needless to say, I’ve not had anything to do with any western channel since that time, and with RT since mid-2014 even.
AG: What are your top three positive memories throughout your career as an independent journalist thus far?
GP: There have been a lot! It would be hard to list! Reporting from Crimea has always been a lot of fun, and not only that, but being able to get such exclusives from there, almost surreal. Doing the first report of any western correspondent, from on that bridge as it was being built, last October, was awesome –
Reporting from the World Cup just there was fantastic, really amazing – again you can find all the videos on my channel. Gosh, there have been so many, hard to narrow it down to 3! Meeting and interviewing one of my heroes, Mike Barson of Madness, the other day was epic!
AG: Inversely, what are your three most frightening or worst memories throughout your career as an independent journalist thus far?
GP: Well again, there have been a lot. Seeing people just killed, maimed, especially children, is harrowing, and is something you can never forget.
AG: As someone who knows Russia better than most non-Russian journalists, what are your three favourite things about the country and what are three things that you think ought to be improved?
GP: Well, you know speaking about Russia isn’t like speaking about the UK, or other countries. It’s so vast. So I can say I know Russia more than most – I’ve been from St Petersburg in the north to Sochi right in the south, as far east as Ekaterinburg, to Rostov, Volgograd, Samara, Moscow of course, and more. But that’s still only the European part of Russia, only just over 20% of the area of Russia. So it’s hard for me to say that I ‘know’ Russia. But in any case, like any country, there’s room for improvement. There has been in some cases a rush to capitalism, which has seen corners cut by some, we had the tragedy in Kemerovo in March of this year – a mall constructed from cheap materials, proper procedure not adhered to, and a tragedy the actual scope of which was just heartcrushing. So you hope lessons are learned. Driving around, you do see a lot of car crashes, then you also see people using their phone in all sorts of ways while at the wheel… so, Russia is a vast, vast country, and so more than any country has a unique set of challenges. But, there are so many favourite things of mine about Russia I couldn’t even begin to list them – the people, the beauty, the culture, the food, the ladies, the adventure, the unexpected, finding things you would never have expected in places you knew almost nothing about. I went to Samara for the first time during the World Cup – that embankment, oh my gosh, they told me it was one of the longest in the world. The beauty of it!! And not only that – Volgograd, the Motherland Calls, climbing up to that, seeing one of the symbols of Russia for the first time and Sochi where one is able to swim and see snow in the same day, gosh I could go on and on and on. Sitting here in London, I’m getting all sentimental-nostalgic now!
AG: How many countries have your reported from thus far?
GP: I’ve reported from UK, Germany, Luxembourg, Serbia, Ukraine, DPR, LPR, Russia. Not that many really, but I don’t aspire to report from a large quantity of countries. I used to travel around, film where I would be, and in fact some of those videos turned out to be huge hits, sometimes too big almost – this one from Germany coming up for 1.5 million views and I literally filmed that as a little opportunity to practice my German. Then people come to it as a million-plus video expecting big things and I feel a bit guilty because I know I’ve got much better quality work. But YouTube is YouTube, people watch videos which have lots of views. I’ve moved away from that kind of ‘hit and run’ style anyhow, if I’m going to do a report from somewhere, I need to stay there for a while, really know the place, otherwise it can be a hit, but also a bit superficial. There’s more to what I want to do than just making hit videos, they have to have a real meaning, resonance too. But it’s good when there are hits – I went to Luxembourg and made a documentary from there. Almost no one has watched it. Pretty much did it for myself (smiles)…
AG: Which countries or regions that you haven’t yet been to would you like to visit and report from?
GP: The USA, for sure, it’s normal to aspire to there in any case, and for what I want to do, it really inspires and excites me. But, patience as for now, it’s all about the UK, the USA will have its day. Also, South America – where to start there! Poland, Czech Republic, back to Latvia after my ban is up there. Serbia again. Lots, but I have to be sure it’s necessary, and I can do something of real worth there, which can also attract an audience.
AG:This year saw the release of your feature length documentary A Brit In Crimea On His Holidays. It was clearly an epic endeavour and all financed exclusively through crowdfunding. What gave you the idea to make such a film and were you ever worried that such a colossal endeavour might not get finished?
GP: Brit in Crimea was one of these projects that luckily I only knew what a massive project, and how complex, demanding it would be after it was already too late. Of course you worry, the logistics are there and there are just so, so many files – thousands and thousands. So you need to save them all, double save, sort them, then start to whittle down the material and choose the one film to make, out of the thousands of variants which could be. Immerse yourself in the material, feel it. But yeah, that was really a lot of work, really. And I remember some of the trolls being like ‘ah, Graham’s raising money to go on holiday’. To call it a busman’s holiday is to say nothing at all.
AG: You have reported from war zones and reported on society, sport and culture in peaceful places. Which style of reporting do you enjoy most?
Well, all sorts, of course a big event like the World Cup in Russia was hugely exciting. I hardly slept that entire month, I was driving or filming all the time. But then I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that had to be seized, an opportunity realized. There’ll be other World Cups, but not like in Russia where it was truly magical. And now, the UK, a different situation, a country with real problems, a country where you really feel that something is going very wrong – that also inspires me, as a British person of course part of it is like a patriotic duty. It’s bracing to see the country in such a state. But, you have to believe in your work – I’ve always believe that reporting the truth, showing people the truth, can change the world for the better. So, that’s the current mission here in the UK.
But of course, I’m a person like any other and I like it when things are good and positive. Reporting on construction in Crimea, is far far more enjoyable than reporting on destruction in Donbass, which is painful for the soul. I stayed reporting there for years and by the end no one was really watching, I lost the feeling my reporting was making a difference there, and it was time to move on. One always has to know when it’s time to move on, it is better to leave when people say they’ll miss you than when they’re sick of you. One has to know when to mix it up a bit, do something a bit different – it can be a different style, a different place, a different mood even.
AG: While I personally can’t recall you ever talking about party politics in Russia, many of your detractors try to box you into a political position. What message do you have to these detractors?
GP: Russian politics is primarily a matter for Russian people. I was interested in 2016 about how popular president Putin was, I did some interviews about this. But, since then, the world has changed – if I were to do anything concerning Russian politics, people would immediately cry ‘interference’, and so on, my being a British citizen. That’s fine, because I really do feel that Russian politics is a matter for their own people. I cover it only tangentially as it comes into contact with what I’m doing, rather than specifically.
AG: You have quite a large following that you’ve gained over the years. Are you ever stopped by strangers in the street who are fans of your work?
GP: In Donbass it always happens and in Russia it happens fairly often. In the UK it almost never happens. I am fine with all scenarios. The important thing isn’t people knowing me, to want a photo on the street or so on, but that my work reaches a wide audience, hits home. The rest is just incidentals. But, for sure in Russia and Donbass it’s a pleasure when people stop me, say how much my work has meant to them. I of course believe I’ll reach a much wider audience in the UK, but for sure I’ll never have an audience as appreciative as Donbass, and Russia.
AG: Now that you’re back in the UK how would you contrast Britain in 2018 and Russia in 2018?
GP: Gosh, where to start. Making comparisons is always difficult, especially when the countries are intrinsically so different in any case. Also having come from Russia after a triumphant, incredible World Cup – it has definitely been a culture shock getting back to the UK. I realised I had gotten used to living in Russia, felt comfortable there. So, two weeks on and I’m still in the process of reintegration. There have been a few surprises along the way, the UK feels in more of a mess than when I left it. There’s an atmosphere of underlying potential for danger, at least in London, where people aren’t really being friendly to each other.
I went to Salisbury to do some reportage and that was a shock after Russia where I’d just gotten used to pitching up and speaking to people all over the place. People weren’t nearly as friendly, or approachable. But then, maybe I’m also in a different mood. I don’t feel as positive and upbeat as I did in Russia during World Cup time. Instead I feel a kind of gnawing, burning sense of ongoing anger about the way things are in the UK, the way things are going, which inspires reportage in and of itself, but of a very different vibe to Russia. And in any case I certainly don’t want to come at things from a kind of ‘Russia’s all great, UK is shit’.
Britain is my country, it hurts to see things as they are at the moment. But I feel this is my time here, to give full energy, commitment, as I did in Russia, Donbass, and do as much as I can, in my capacity as one who reports information, to make a meaningful difference to the situation here. Of course, I’d rather be over in Crimea, Samara, in the sun, on the beaches – in this extreme heatwave, naturally. If it were a choice of where I feel more comfortable living, then that would probably still be Russia. But, I need to focus as there’s a lot to do in the UK and I’m determined, in a determined mood, to do it all. Russia, I love, miss, and will look forward to returning in the future. But for now, it’s all this troubled, sceptered isle.
AG: Where do you feel safer?
GP: Well, I feel pretty safe in the UK, and in Russia. But then, one can never feel complacent. I remember coming out the warzone in Donbass in 2016 thinking I was invincible. I almost got killed filming in the jungle in Calais (there’s a video of that easily findable too). So, one always has to keep one’s wits about one. But in general, I feel safe, in good health, and in the mood to make things happen here in the UK.
AG: Lastly, for a young kid of lets say 12, watching your video reportage and thinking they want to be the next Graham Phillips, what advice would you have for such a person?
GP: Well kids these days are media savvy in a way which I guess shouldn’t even be surprising given that even a person of say, 30, has known nothing but the internet all their lives. Myself, almost 40, the internet only came into my sphere of consciousness at the age of 20 or so and it was this incredibly exciting amazing gateway of possibility. I remember getting connected for the first time, just spending hours and hours in Yahoo chatrooms and so on, it was just all so exciting.
Firstly, to be realistic. If you’re a journalist, you’ll have to choose which channel to work with. All of them have their own agenda, and position, so be sure you find one as close to yours as possible. If you’re going to do your own channel on YouTube, which you should in any case, develop your own social media portals and so on – you can change channels many times in a career, but there is always one you.
As for monetising your YouTube channel though, something I’m often asked about, that’s a different story. The reality is that it’s hard to generate real revenue – you need a lot of views, and views from the west. Getting big views on any YouTube video is tough, there are so many and it’s hard to get yourself into the mainframe, into the algorithm, there are so many videos out there. So you need to have a clear focus of what you want to do, and your audience. The key thing is monitoring their feedback, reading comments, feedback on your videos. You have to walk that line between doing something you believe in, but that which also has wide audience appeal. Not as easy as it sounds, if it sounds easy even. Not an easy profession, journalism, on any level. But, someone has to do it. Engaging with your audience is a big deal, and I say that not just as per ‘engagement’ that kind of buzzwording, but really. I really enjoy chatting, interacting with my audience, I am always myself watching the videos of others, seeing how I could do things better, getting ideas, gaps in the market. There’s always a way, always a gap in the market, but you have to be in the right position to see it.