John Sweeney on reporting in Sheffield, confronting Putin and his war in Ukraine
The much-loved correspondent sends a dispatch from Kyiv
Good morning readers. Today’s weekend read comes from the war in Ukraine. Former Sheffield Morning Telegraph journalist John Sweeney is currently in Kyiv and has sent The Tribune a special report from the war-torn city.
On Thursday, we sent our 610 members an in-depth interview with Sheffield’s director of public health Greg Fell in which he looked back on his two years on the Covid frontline. To read the full story, subscribe using the button below.
By Dan Hayes
In a video posted on Twitter, a middle-aged Englishman in a bright orange beanie hat and clear-rimmed glasses talks directly to the camera. The sky behind him is bright and blue and his breath turns to steam as he speaks. Were it not for the blockades and barbed wire stretched across the road behind him he could look like any tourist on a European city break.
But the man’s words tell a different story. His first sentence, “Kyiv diary, day 16 of Vladimir Putin’s war”, is followed by an update on the currently quiet but often tense situation in the Ukrainian capital. The man speaking is investigative journalist John Sweeney, who is covering the war as a freelance. At the end of the two-minute video, he signs off with a message of defiance:
But I want to say this too. I feel proud to be here. Proud to be reporting what it’s like to be at the wrong end of the Russian killing machine — and still standing. Love from Kyiv and take care.
Sweeney got his first break in journalism working shifts at the Sheffield Morning Telegraph in the early 1980s. In a 2020 profile in The Guardian, he said he originally wanted to be a lawyer but couldn't get his head around the idea of having to defend people he thought were guilty. He made the switch to journalism so he could go after what he calls “the baddies”.
He got one of his first big stories while he was working at the Telegraph. While visiting a friend who was backpacking in India, the opportunity arose to interview the Dalai Lama and the story he wrote was given a centre spread. When he came back and returned to more run-of-the-mill pieces, he remembers an unimpressed editor shouting across the newsroom: “There’s been a murder in Barnsley, where’s the fookin’ Tibet correspondent?”
After leaving Sheffield he went on to work as a foreign correspondent for The Observer for 12 years, covering wars and revolutions in more than 60 countries including Romania, Algeria, Iraq, Chechnya, Burundi and Bosnia. In 2001 he moved to the BBC’s Panorama programme, spending 13 years there as a staff reporter before moving into production.
It was at Panorama that he had his most impactful stories — and his most high-profile problems. His work to clear the names of three women falsely accused of murdering their own children won him the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism in 2005. His well-publicised run-ins with the Church of Scientology and Tommy Robinson put him in the uncomfortable position of being the story rather than reporting it.
Since leaving the BBC in 2019 he’s been writing books and producing podcasts. But earlier this year he travelled to Ukraine to cover the build-up to war. It’s not the first time he’s locked horns with Vladimir Putin. He has said his “ambush” of the Russian President over the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 is one of his proudest moments in journalism.
During the encounter, which was shown in the Panorama film “Putin’s Gamble”, Sweeney is filmed approaching the Russian President at the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, Siberia. “I’d like to ask you a question about the war, sir,” he says. “I’m sorry, sir, the killings in the Ukraine, thousands of dead, Ukrainians, Russian, Malaysians, British, Dutch… Do you regret the killings in Ukraine?”
On the suggestion of a reader we got in touch with Sweeney last weekend. He’s currently in Kyiv reporting on the realities of daily life as the city comes under attack from Russian forces. We asked him to send us a dispatch from the war in Ukraine to the people of the city where he started his journalism career more than 40 years ago. So here is John Sweeney, writing for a Sheffield audience again.
‘The people of Sheffield taught me to see through official bullshit’
By John Sweeney
It seems a very, very long time ago since I started work on the Sheffield Telegraph as a cub reporter in 1981. The reason why I’m sending you this is simple. The great, bloody beautiful people of Sheffield taught me how to be a good reporter. I made lots of mistakes but Sheffield looked after me with South Yorkshire’s very special and very dark and bleak sense of humour.
I spent four years on the Telegraph from 1981 to 1984 and they were some of the greatest, funniest, sweetest times of my life. That helps me report from Kyiv because the people of Sheffield taught me to see through official bullshit and the kind of crap that is coming out of the Kremlin. I remember some woman who I’m sure has popped her clogs a long time ago who said: “who’s tha kidding”. And I’ve always thought that's the correct question for a journalist when confronted with power and money.
Life here is very dark and very surreal and sometimes it's funny. You can see from my tweets I was shown blood from where one of the workers from the TV tower had been killed by a Russian missile. His body had been removed but there was blood on the ground. On the other side of the street, I saw a dead man and a dead mother and her child on the ground. I saw their bodies before the people from the morgue took them away.
And then I asked this guy I was with, a Ukrainian soldier, looking ferocious: “What did you do before the war?” “I was a hot air balloon pilot.” I said “what” and we started laughing at the madness of war. “Fuck Putin,” we said.
Every day the mood changes. I’m too old and I don’t have the resources to go out to the front line but my friends who do say that the Ukrainian army is doing very well. All I can tell is that there are far fewer armed militia guys on the checkpoints driving around Kyiv. I went to the zoo today and an elephant almost ate my orange hat which was annoying. And I got very close to a gorilla which was very frightening.
So normal life continues. You’ve got to understand it’s completely weird. There are elements of normal life and then there is the war. The war drives everybody mad and then when the war loosens a bit — and it feels like the Ukrainians are doing a bit better and the Russian army isn't continuing to advance and is stopped on the outskirts of Kyiv — you’re then in this strange position where its possible to remember a life before the war.
Then something happens and you're straight back. Eugene my fixer has a friend who is from Mauripol and her mum got through to her today and said we are all alive — mum and dad still alive — but our house has gone. And then the phone was cut. And that’s what we can find out about what’s happening in the south. So it’s as mad as that.
By the way, if the good readers of Sheffield want to know. I don’t know if you’ve seen on my Twitter there is a picture of me with five Ukrainian cops and my pal Emile [Ghessen] as we’re leaving a bar just before curfew and I am carrying a green Waitrose bag. I’ll tell you the secret. What was in the bag? Italian red wine.
And it’s how I keep my courage up in this place and this dark time. Huge love to the people of Sheffield. If you can support me on my Patreon account, that’s great. Rest assured, if anyone in Sheffield and South Yorkshire can bung me a quid, I know times are hard, but right now I’m spending it very much in the Ukrainian economy. Don’t doubt that. Much love to the people of Sheffield. Thank you.
To support John Sweeney’s Patreon where he is posting updates and clips from Ukraine, click here. His journalism can be accessed on his website and Twitter and he is currently crowdfunding a podcast about Vladimir Putin. To contribute click here.