Charlotta Buxton Posts

Alberta Tar Sands by Edward Burtynsky
Alberta Tar Sands by Edward Burtynsky

First a little introduction: Three autumns ago I went on my second date with Gerry. At the table next to us sat a group of quite tipsy teachers. Their students had just had their last exams and – like most people in the UK – they celebrated by going to the pub and drinking heavily. They were also overly interested in us and our date and kept asking us about what we do and who we are. They were slightly overwhelming, especially when they found out I was a journalist and that my next assignment was going down to Blackheath to cover the climate camp.

Everyone seemed to be talking about the climate camp that autumn. It was 2009 and the seeds of the Occupy movement were being sown. These were the innocent days before a year of demonstrations and conflict. The G20 protests and Ian Tomlinson were still on people’s minds and on twitter activists were wondering what kind of policing the climate camp might face.

It was a hot day in August. Blackheath is a little village-like suburb south of the river, too far outside the normal rail routes in London for oyster-cards to work there. There were small vegan cafés on the high street and in the distance you could make out the big grassy plain were the camp had been set up. The air smelled of hay. There was noise and life coming out of a makeshift campsite in the middle of the heath. Hay bales were stacked around the site. At the entrance a large media hub welcomed visitors. Like most organised campaign groups the climate campers had their own newspaper, a media workshop and someone to liaise with the press. I got a tour around the site and talked about what was going on during the camp. I have the interview on an old computer, hidden away in Gerry’s studio. If I rescue it at some point I will post the interviews here.

There was a buzz going around the site, something exciting was happening. A couple of representatives from the Canadian Indigenous Tar Sands campaign had arrived and were setting up their tents. I wanted to interview them, theirs was and is a story worth telling. I knew that the oil excavation in Canada was producing millions of barrels of oil every day, but at a very high price. A 100 000 square kilometre area was being turned into a blackened wasteland, animals in old native American hunting grounds were showing disturbing signs of disease and mutation and extracting the oil out of the sand was almost costing as much energy as it was producing. The tar sands are bringing jobs to areas where there might have been none, but at the same time the countryside is being ruined for a fuel that is becoming increasingly expensive and will at some point run out. The high price of oil means that it is financially viable to extract oil from the tar sands. It might be working at the moment, it’s good for the oil companies, but perhaps not for the state of Alberta. What happens when the oil runs out? Or when it isn’t cost-effective to work on the tar sands? Will the communities that have sprung up around the excavation sites be left high and dry like villages in Wales and Scotland when the mines were closed down?

At Blackheath I interviewed a few of the Canadian representatives, tired looking, but defiant men and women who had told the same story many times before. Their interviews are also in deep freeze on a hard-drive in the studio, but one day I will dig them out. Their story is one about communities breaking up, friends and family dying of rare types of cancer, people opting to work on the oil fields because that’s the only option they have left. What they have seen and what they feel about the industrial project on their lands can’t be placated by financial gain. Theirs is a story I would love to revisit.

* The brilliant picture at the top of this post is taken by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

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Every now and then stories come a long that really touch you. These are the stories every journalist wait for. They make our job worthwhile, it’s because of them we have a purpose. I grew up reading these types of stories and wishing I could be the one telling them, perhaps making someone care enough about the topics to act and help someone in need, donate some money, write a letter, make the world a better place.

I remember sitting in a cafe in Warsaw as a journalism student on a trip organised by my university, listening to an American journalist who was working in Eastern Europe uncovering stories about human trafficking. He talked for a long time to a silent audience. He cried as he talked about the girls he had interviewed, how one of them had panicked and stabbed him in the leg with a dirty needle, how he had had to jump out of a speeding car somewhere in the Balkan countryside, how he didn’t know if the girls he had talked to and tried to help had been punished for talking to him, how he didn’t know if they were alive or not. His was a story that hits you in the gut, but it was also a story that strengthened my love for this job. This is what we do. We do whatever it takes to get the truth to people about things that are wrong in the world. Some people say it’s a calling, some people might find the above sentences overly naive, but we all need something that drive us forward.

I’ve had a few similar moments after listening to that American journalist in Warsaw. When I read about Marie Colvin’s death a few weeks ago I felt the same tug in my gut. I didn’t know much about her before her death, but every piece I’ve read about her talks about her bravery, her tenacity, how she refused to give up until she’d told the full story. Very high praise for a journalist from her peers. I admire what Marie Colvin was doing and why she was doing it, telling the story so perhaps someone would act, so someone would care about the thousands being slaughtered in Homs. Because of her work, and her death, Syria went up on the news agenda, not only in news rooms, but in living rooms around the world.

But not all journalists have to risk their lives to tell an important story. It can land on your lap anywhere and for some reason you always know when. Things just click into place and suddenly the work makes sense, it’s not just for you or your editor anymore, it’s for something bigger. These stories come along during all our careers and they are the ones we remember. I’ve had a few stories like that here in London. Stories I have felt strongly about, have cried over, stayed up at night reading about. These are the stories that really make the work worthwhile. Some of them I’m starting to forget about, but many of them are still as important as they were when the broadcast went out or the piece was published.

Everyday life

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When you arrive at the Eurostar terminal at Paris Gare du Nord it’s easy to understand why some Brits are still a bit funny about the French. There is this country, not very far away, with a completely different culture and language! A language that doesn’t even recognise the superiorness of English and instead insists that its speakers are somehow worthy of actually talking in foreign!

I spent all my time in Paris on the metro and then at train stations and didn’t catch much of the city. Instead I went to Cannes, where I got severely lost and stepped in lots of puddles of water. Luckily I had opted to wear comfortable water proof shoes. I walked on a soggy red carpet and realised that this is probably not how most people experience the city.

I was there attending Midem, a conference by the music industry, for the music industry. Now I’m not in the music industry, but I write for Music 4.5, which makes me almost interesting enough to network with. Mentioning I’m a journalist is usually a great way of collecting piles of business cards.

I caught some interesting start-ups during a pitch session, ate lots and lots of white bread and pastries, had a lot of horrible conference coffee and learned that everyone speaks carefully about piracy at a music industry event, even people who run pro-piracy blogs.

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Gerry and I spent a week up at his parent’s place in Scotland. We attempted to climb a munro (a Scottish mountain), I got severely car sick on the way there and had to abandon the mission half way up the mountain. Suddenly the horizon started jumping up and down and I had to sit down and cradle my head in my hands as elderly walkers and kids with sledges walked past me. Not one of my proudest moments. I watched the second football game of my life. Hibs won. Gerry was happy. No swearing ten-year-olds at the game this time.

I did some interviews about independence at The House of Bruar, a shopping mall type place on the A9, where the staff all seem to be Eastern European and the customers all wear tweed. It was a fifty/fifty split. Sometimes the independence question feels more like a popularity contest for Alex Salmond.

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