Jake Hanrahan on Popular Front, his documentaries, and what makes a good journalist

LONDON, 3 AUGUST 2021 – In the latest episode of Trouble with the Truth, Lana meets Jake Hanrahan, the founder of Popular Front – a grassroots conflict journalism platform. He vowed to produce a different kind of conflict reporting – raw, independent, accessible and sponsored solely through public donations. Popular Front has been covering conflict all over the world – Palestine, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Turkey, Northern Ireland and more. 

In this episode, Jake talks about his latest documentaries on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the man behind the 3-D printed guns and shares tips useful to any aspiring conflict reporter.

The full transcript of the interview is available below:

Lana: Welcome to the Trouble with the Truth. Today, our guest is Jake Hanrahan, a journalist, documentary maker, and the creator of a grassroots conflict journalism platform called Popular Front, which covers international conflicts. Still, from unusual angles, so it’s not like your typical narrative. Jake, I’m actually from Chechnya. I’m from this region that used to be a war zone. And it’s definitely misrepresented, and you get a lot of this shallow Orientalist narrative on what’s going on there, and as someone from there, you kind of get used to it. I was aware of Popular Front for a while now, and the thing that I really appreciate is, it’s not about a particular narrative. It is about human stories. It’s about going out there and finding out the truth. It’s not about a certain journalist, your political affiliation or whatever international relations theory applies to this particular situation. It’s about just going out there and seeing what’s going on. And you know what, I was binging all of the documentaries, because, honestly… it just looks so fascinating, you [to the audience] should definitely go out there and watch them. I was like, oh, which one to choose because this is so much to discuss and definitely one of the latest ones on Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh, is something that really got to me because it’s quite a short documentary, straightforward format, just 35 minutes. You just went out there, and from what I understand, you couldn’t get to Azerbaijan. Quite a few journalists faced that problem. But yeah, I thought it was very poignant, quite minimalist if you can apply this popular word to this situation. You spoke to few soldiers, and there were a few kinds of shots that really stayed with me, of soldiers looking at the camera and when you ask them about their experience of war. How did you decide to do a documentary on this topic because it seemed uncovered in the West?

Jake: I mean, I wanted to be there maybe five or six years ago. I first went about the meeting because I’m interested in underreported conflicts. I think that’s often quite interesting. I didn’t have any money to go. I was working at VICE at the time, and they weren’t really interested in it. There was war in 2016, and a number of times we were going to go there, it ended in like four days. So, this time when the war was really on, I couldn’t really get there in time; I had other projects on. But then afterwards, when it was a ceasefire, everything kind of fell into place, and we said: “Let’s go and let’s see what the ceasefire really is about”. And we went there, and it was it’s very much clear that it’s not a ceasefire, really. I mean, it is still, but it’s very tense, you know what I mean. And I just felt that the way a lot of the media were covering it was very wishy-washy. You could tell a lot of editors were not that interested in the region. I mean, it’s like “Where?”, “We’ve never heard of it”,  you know, they found it hard to turn it into a Western story.

Lana: Or, you know, that it’s Russia and Turkey as if these countries have no agency of their role.

Jake: I’m not really interested in that. There are a lot of journalists that… I believe allow political slant, so they’re very liberal, they’re very pro-UN or whatever it is, or there might be on the other side of Turkey or whatever. So then they say: “Oh this, this and this”. I’m not really interested in it, boring to me so let’s go there and we went here, and we spent a long time out there on the front line with people. We stayed with civilians, and we drove up to the places where even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Karabakh said, well, you can’t go here. But we said, well, it’s a bit weird that they’re saying that we shouldn’t be able to do that because it’s on a ceasefire. So we just said, “Okay, we’re going anyway”. And I think we’ve got some of the best reporting from there because it shows the horrible situations that soldiers were living in. They’re really not well equipped. And this idea that it was all those war crimes on both sides, I felt like just saying that like the media we’ve been doing was quite disingenuous. Because context-wise, that were dozens on the Azeri side, and the people who committed were going back home to Azerbaijan and were held as heroes. And then, there was, I think, less than a dozen, even, on the Armenian side, so I felt, you know, let’s get on the ground and see what’s happening. And you got it got, and people liked it. But immediately, it was like, behind the big sensor wall on YouTube because Azerbaijani and the Turks were mass reporting it.

Lana: Yeah, I was going to ask – it’s a polarising issue, loads of people from both sides starting an online war. How did you navigate that? Did you ignore it?

Jake: I just ignored it. At the end of the day, I’ve always said this – I  believe that total impartiality… I think that’s kind of psycho. You can’t go to the war and see children and people killed and be completely objective. It’s just not natural. Actually, if you can be doing that, I think you’d probably be a lot of great reporters because I think, to be able to report, you need to understand human emotions, right? So I’ve always said – we’re not going to go there and be completely objective, but we will be truthful, not neutral but truthful. So we kind of, you know, we went there. So look, there’s one country, Azerbaijan, which is openly a totalitarian regime. It’s not a democracy and is backed by Turkey, one of the worst kinds of regimes going right now. And then Armenia is a lot more open, so I was like, well, we’re going to document it that way because that’s the reality is, how you can’t say that it’s nothing is not an opinion, but, you know, these countries are openly totalitarian regimes there are unbelievable levels of corruption going on, it’s all out there, anyone can check. So, why would we pretend that there’s some kind of difference or impartiality? We went, and we did what we did. The online stuff, I just Ignored it. I get weekly emails like we’re gonna find you and kill you…

Lana: You’ve been covering conflicts for long enough that I can ask you this question now. You’ve been all over the place – to the Middle East, to Syria, you’ve covered protests in Hong Kong… You went to Palestine at some point. Obviously, they’re all quite different conflicts, and they have their own complicated political history, but what do you think united these conflicts? What do they all have in common, and how are they different? Do you think about it sometimes do you compare them and analyze them?

Jake: Yeah, that’s definitely something I think about. I think, the thing is, that’s most similar is the young men, mostly the people fighting in these conflicts- it’s almost always men. In some cases, like Syria – young women as well with the Kurdish resistance there but mostly young men. And one thing I notice, whether it’s in Palestine and Kurdistan, Ukraine, they’re all revved up, idealistic but also are looking for a reason to feel alive- not that they enjoy the war or anything, I’m not saying that, but there’s certainly something about young men. When you give them a war, they’re the ones that always step up and are ready to go, it’s because they’re idealistic, they’re young, and there’s a reason for them to kind of, I don’t know, that suddenly there’s a place for them immediately, as a young man, even though the kind of common “man is trash” nonsense that we have now, it is actually quite hard for young men to find a place in the world in a secure country, let alone a country where there’s war, right? 

Lana: Do you think that’s why partly you’re drawn to this kind of journalism? 

Jake: Maybe, I don’t know… But I think the one thing that unifies these young men is that they find their place immediately. It’s either survive or die sort of thing that kind of takes away a lot of the complicated life issues. It’s like, oh, your debt or your career doesn’t matter right now, there’s a war, and your family might die -you have to go and fight. And I think that this is actually you see the same kinds of characters crop up here in all these wars. I mean, I’m sure many reporters say that it’s very sad and that they were put in a very bad spot, and they decided to fight for whatever it is they believe in. I don’t think it’s my place as a Western guy to say that they’re wrong or that’s a bad way to live. They stepped up, and that’s it. I find that whole environment very interesting. There’s a lot of ego, there’s a lot of machoism, but ultimately behind all that, there are very scared young men fighting because they have to. This you do, see in each war. I’ve seen this guy – he might have been a butcher last week or whatever or delivering the paper, but now he has to fight. And I think that’s a very heavy thing for a lot of these people to take on. And you do see it as well, and I also like to say on the other side of it like the way women deal with the conflict is quite similar as well. I think the men explode, and they go to war, and the women tend to keep everything secure. I don’t know if that’s an old fashioned thing or whatever, but I think it’s a good thing.

Lana: Definitely, you know, war is something that brings back all those gender roles. That’s something that I’ve definitely experienced, something that I’ve witnessed. Of course, you have women on the front line as well saving lives. The common thread that I’ve noticed in all the documentaries is how regardless of where you were or your talent, is to get through to anyone, be really able to talk to anyone, and level with them, whoever they are, And it makes great journalism. What do you think is your secret?

Jake: Well, I can’t get on with anyone. I was brought up in a way where the bin man is the most important person in your society or the waiter. You always weigh the way someone talks to people. I think everyone is equal. I don’t have any hang-ups. And I feel like when I’m out there, it’s not like I make an effort to get on with this person; it’s just like, why wouldn’t you? I don’t feel like this person is above me, or this is like, whatever, you know, especially at war, all of that gets stripped back. I’ve seen other reporters, and the way they go about things, I might say: “Oh, that’s the commander”. And I think: “Well, is he interesting?”. If he’s less interesting than the grunt fighting, I would rather talk to him. I mean, I don’t really care if you’re the commander, or the boss man or whatever. Obviously, there are certain times where you have to kind of play the game, but when you do your work, it’s… I mean, I’ve eaten food with refugees in the Calais jungles, I’ve been on the front line with rebels in Kurdistan -it’s all just getting on with people, don’t be a snob. I’m not better than them, and they’re not better than me- and that’s that. 

Lana: Exactly! Don’t try to paint them as the “other”.

Jake: Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of the time, if the war came to my country, from where I’m from, lads from my area will be exactly who you are now. Many of these kids come from very kind of poorer backgrounds, and they are always the young man who ends up dying. It’s never the rich politicians’ kids, it’s never the Royals, it’s always someone from the poorer backgrounds, and they end up as you know, end up dying in the trenches, and I see these kids sometimes, I think: “Wow, this kid from back home, you know, is this guy and unfortunately he now has the to kill will be killed. 

Lana: And obviously, it’s not just about the conflict. You also made a documentary about ghost weapons and 3D printed weapons. That’s when I was saying how you can talk to anyone when you actually speak with this guy J-Stark. He’s a fascinating character because my first initial reaction when I heard about it was like: “Oh, he’s alt-right.” But when you start getting into it, there’s just like this kind of mad libertarianism, you know, guns for all, total freedom of speech. I mean, how did you find him? Because it was very strict, wasn’t it? You couldn’t see his face, and you had to change his voice…

Jake: Yeah, it took me… I don’t even know his real name either. I don’t know who he is. It took me about three years- I got interested in 3D printed guns, just because that’s, I think anyone can find that interesting. So, we were interested in that. And then there was some movement that kind of died out for a bit, and then this new group kind of came by, his group Deterrence Dispensed. And they were decentralized. They were smart, and they realize that if one of us gets taken, it doesn’t matter. And if J-Stark gets taken, that group will not die, you know, he found it and designed lots of weapons, but there are hundreds of them, all sharing information. But J-Stark is more ideologically driven, and he doesn’t have this ideology that’s very easy to put in the box. Now, you thought he might be alt-right because I think we’ve been kind of conditioned that way. I despise the far-right, I despise fascists, I hate them all with passion, but I also despise this idea that anyone who isn’t thinking the mainstream is alt-right or radical leftist or an anarchist. There are many different layers to what people believe in. And I’m not particularly bothered about the whole box that you fit in. I was like, okay, I get it. When you’re totally openly… 

Lana: It’s about listening to everyone and not making assumptions.

Jake: I have my ideas, but I’m not saying they’re definitely right. I think they’re right. But who am I? If some other guy has some other ideas-okay well, it doesn’t matter. Maybe you are right, and I am wrong, but I want to live this way, and I certainly think many people want to live in a different way to the way I want to live, that’s fine. It is the way it is. So I met J-Stark, and he was giving me his political spiel, and I wasn’t really interested in that. I don’t really care about that. It’s like, you very quickly realize- he’s not a white supremacist, he’s not a Nazi is not like a radical leftist… He’s an idealist, and he’s a radical gunman. He has his radical ideas, but some would be considered extreme left, and some might be considered extreme right. So, you can’t really put them in this box, but that’s irrelevant. He’s made some really great guns that can kill people. 

Lana: I didn’t know anything about it until I watched your documentary. I guess it, of course, makes sense- if you can print a house in the 3D printer, of course, you can print a gun. And do you know if here in the UK today is it a big deal now?

Jake: There was one about three weeks ago, four weeks ago now, the police raided like the far-right group, raided house in Yorkshire in England, and they found that they were printing 3D weapon. I think was the FGC9 that we saw in that video. A gun is a gun. The military can use a gun to protect the country, the military can use a gun to invade the country, or it can be used by a fascist, or an anarchist can use it, you know what it means? It’s a tool. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s, it’s just a tool.

Lana: What really stayed with me is when you asked in your documentary is what if his gun was used against your family, and he said it’s just a sacrifice he has to accept.

Jake: I mean, I really… there’s a lot of things in the gun community, they were like: “You’re an idiot!.  This is a terrible question!”-  but I disagree. They just wanted someone who would basically agree with them.

Lana: I mean, I have to challenge them. They’re making 3D guns. Come on!

Jake: Exactly. He’s a really dangerous guy. And they’re like: “He’s not dangerous!”. Get over yourself, and there were people outside of your bubble. What they mean is we want a different version. We want our version of the truth. So, I wasn’t really interested in that and J-Stark- even though he’s very angry in the documentary, afterwards he said: “I really appreciate that you actually challenge me”. Because you can see at the start, he knows the answers he wanted to give. He’s obsessed with this thing, right? It’s given him a meaning, and it’s given him a community. And I thought-I gotta rattle him up, make him mad. And he does in the end, and he gets really angry at the end. He’s fuming in the end, and that’s where I think you get the most interesting stuff, you know. I think we’re gonna get a real natural reaction from him. Unless we provoked him a little bit of woke him up, you know. And I think he gave really honest answers, and it’s one of the most talked-about documentaries we’ve made, you know, it’s like, there are so many different opinions on it, and there’s, I think he’s quite open-ended.

Lana: Do you think you will use this topic again in the future?

Jake: Maybe. I mean, I don’t know where J-Stark went, he vanished. I don’t know where he is, I can’t get hold of him. I said to him -whatever you’re doing is up to you, but the authorities will be after you. He said- I know. I think like, he’s the kind of guy that he like, he lives this is, and he’s gone in the window.

Lana: Yeah, and I definitely think you’ve kind of got the best out of him. And that’s what Popular Front does – the stories that you make, they’re not mainstream, you look at the conflict that everyone is talking about and kind of look at it from a different angle. I was just wondering, you had a successful career at VICE, you built a name for yourself, and all that people recognize you. You had quite a reputation, and then you kind of walk away from that to branch out, and you create something on your own. How did you come up with that, why did you decide to start something of your own?

Jake: I just got sick of dealing with… I had a great time at VICE news, but it changed, and it got to a point where I was like, this doesn’t really fit with my way of doing work, and they clearly didn’t want someone that kind of had their own opinions. And then I was doing some freelance work, and it just got to a point where I was just like this is insane like I had stories…  I know everybody would like this, people would love it. And they’re like: “No one is interested in that, no one would think that works. It sounds like I’m getting told by someone who’s never been in the field, you know, is rich and is never really engaged with the sort of people who watch those documentaries, telling me why it doesn’t work. I was like: I know better than this. These guys are wrong. Maybe I’m wrong, and you know the only way is to test it, start my own thing and if it fails, that’s tough luck. I was wrong. They were right. I’ll go and do something else. I’m going to quit journalism. I’m sick of this, but let me try this one last thing before I quit. And it worked. I mean, it’s been going on since 2018. And it’s like, it’s flying. We started with no money. Now we make enough where it’s the only thing I do when I do freelance but…

Lana: Of course, you don’t take any money from corporate advertising. It’s all through public donations. So that’s what I wanted to ask you about, actually … So, we spoke about this briefly before. There’s a media crackdown in Russia right now, and they’re trying to silence the independent media. There are a lot of media outlets that barely survive through public funding. Their supporters are sending them some money. And there’s this really famous website Meduza was declared as a “foreign agent”, and they lost their advertisement. There’s kind of a meme going on around that people are posting screenshots of their bank accounts and just supporting this media. I am wondering, in this country, obviously, you know you have freedom of speech, it’s not perfect, right, but it’s kind of so hot. Still, at the same time, there are quite a few independent news organizations like alternative media outlets that function through public donations. Do you feel like you kind of have to compete with them, or do you think your viewer will always come to you? 

Jake: Maybe, but I’m not interested in that. They feel like: “Oh, we have to support Popular Front because it speaks about our politics”, it’s irrelevant to me. I don’t care. I think that’s nonsense. Support us if you like what we do. And I don’t think that people can do what we do, I’ll be honest, I feel that what we’re doing is very specific. I believe that you know, I think we can do it -no one else will get the access to J-stark, we got it. And you know, mainstream channels are reaching out to us saying like hey can we work with you, and they’re like: “Oh, can we use this footage”, and I say: “No, no, no, you’re gonna do it as a partnership with Popular Forum, or it’s not happening at all. Because we don’t need them. We don’t need you, we’ve done it ourselves. If you want to work with us, that means you need us. 

Lana: It’s still good to see some integrity in our day and age. 

Jake: I started it broke, I might finish it broke. That’s not the main thing – we started it with how it is, and it’s, anyone can take we’ve not moved an inch. We’ve openly rejected money like there was a very big, what is basically a cigarette company that basically tried to sponsor us for quite a substantial amount of money. I was like, yeah right, you gave half of the world cancer – absolutely not. And other very big mainstream media companies have secret offices working with them, and I said: “I know about your secret office, you’re not coming up to my place”. We were very open, and if we get money from wherever we tell people, but we’ve never had any corporate money. We sell a subscription service. So there’s extra content on Patreon.

Lana: If you want to support them, please go ahead and check these guys out because they’re doing an amazing job! You’ve been to so many hotspots. And I know you have a certain reputation to uphold, you know like you’re a tough guy definitely, but I mean… it must get scary, right? Did you ever have these situations when you’re like: “Okay, I’m not going to make it”? Thinking about your family and thinking how the hell did I get here, like, can you tell me more about it? 

Jake: I’m not a tough guy at all, but I’m just not as bothered by some things other people are, you know what I mean, like if there’s bullets or whatever… Don’t get me wrong, I’m scared, but it’s this part of me that enjoys that environment, and I think any conflict reporter that says: “I completely hate it”. Come one, why are you there? It’s scary. I mean, there were times in Turkey, mostly, obviously, there was a time when we’re filming Kurdish rebels, everything was black, they turned off the electric – Turkish military. And there was firing, I remember thinking then: it could just take one straight bullet on this alleyway, and we’re dead, and everybody’s dead, like that was scary but going to jail…

Lana: For three weeks, wasn’t it?

Jake: That wasn’t even that long it was less, it was like….

Lana: What was it like? Did they give you special treatment? 

Jake: Actually, probably compared to some Turkish citizens, who unfortunately get treated terribly… 

Lana: Did you think that you would be stuck there forever?

Jake: Yeah, I thought, this is it, we’re going to be here for a few years. And they were telling us as well: “Oh, by the way, you’re going to be here for about seven years”. They were trying to scare me.

Lana: There is like a little element of invincibility about being a Western reporter, but also there are stories of reporters being killed in Syria, beheaded by ISIS, perishing in prisons. 

Jake: I don’t think that exists anymore… I’ve read into this quite a lot, there was a time in the 80s, where that was maybe a little bit more realistic. I remember there was one reporter, he was writing about how he made sure he got his Irish passport because Jihadists would let Irish people go. One time I was in prison…

Lana: Was that in Turkey? 

Jake: Turkey, yeah. There was one guy who questioned me, whatever. I was like: “This is ridiculous, come on, man, we’ve got rights here”. I was kind of cocky in a really stupid way. I was like: “You can’t do this”, and he just said: “Look, you’re Turkish now”. He basically said: you have no rights right now. Which was actually quite a scary thing, the thing that a policeman is telling you, your rights are gone, by telling you, you’re the nationality that he is. Yeah, that was a dawning moment for me. 

Lana: What was it for your family and your loved ones? You go off to all these places, and they’re here. Do they worry about it? Do they ever tell you, can you please stay around?

Jake: Not really. Well, I think as I’ve got older now. I’ve got an odd family unit, but I think, you know, now I’m older, I’m 31 now. I was 25 when I went to prison, like now, especially after that experience, I’m a lot less… I think when I was a little bit reckless. Maybe, I was not aware of how easily you can die. Now I’m older, and there are certain things I can’t believe I did that. I think when I was young, I had a lot to prove. You know, I come from no qualifications, nothing like that. So I was like, I have to prove myself. Whereas now, I don’t have to prove myself in the same way. And also, nearly dying or dying doesn’t prove anything. I realise it now. Come on, is it worth it? Almost never. So, I’ve changed but certainly my grandad, god rest his should, he died recently, but he never said to me: “Don’t go anywhere”, because you know he respected me as a man and as a grown-up but he would say, “Are sure about this one? Yeah, okay, be careful”. And that was it, you know, and when I got back when I was in prison, he just kind of said, you alright? But then I later found out that he was working non-stop behind the scenes; we found in his diaries, he was ringing the embassy. He was doing so much. He never even told me or told anyone, but he was through it. So when I read that, I thought: “Jesus, he must have been really going through it”. So now I think like, it’s quite a selfish career. It’s quite selfish in a way; it’s not selfish to the people you’re going to report on, it’s like, wow, I think I might seem selfless, but for your family, it’s selfish. 

Lana: But yeah, I just thought also that, you know, he just said, an excuse to do it. The stories that you bring back, you know they’re unique stories.

Jake: No war reporter goes and says: “I didn’t want to do it, but I just had to do it. You did want to do”.

Lana: I mean, if you’re from a Western country, definitely. If you’re on the ground, you don’t have a choice. And, you know, this is actually a question that I never asked, but I thought it was a good one to finish this conversation with. You’ve really created something unique, and I actually get to speak to many journalists who just went out there, and you’ve created a blog that became a website because there’s some kind of niche there. And you managed to do this in the Western country where we’re spoiled for information, and you build something. Suppose there’s someone out there watching this –a young journalist, a man, or a woman. And if they wanted to create something of their own and tell their own stories -what would you tell them, what would your advice be? 

Jake: That’s a great question. I think my advice would be to avoid the kind of cliques. Journalism, particularly conflict reporting is infested with snobbery, infested with upper-class nepotism and infested with people who, frankly, don’t have any morals. Don’t think you have to be a part of that to get ahead. You can do it another way, there’s always another way. I would say that just avoid those clicks, and if you want to do it yourself, teach yourself but if you’re going to teach yourself, you can’t do it in a half-hearted way. You have to go all out. It can’t be: “Oh, well, I’m partying this weekend but then next weekend I’ll do my revision. You have to be on it constantly, you know, and if you’re not willing to do it like that, then maybe find something else. Also, I would say there’s a lot of people who mention that they want to get into conflict journalism and I say: “Don’t”. It doesn’t pay enough, unless you’re working for like a very big company, you get no respect to the industry really. I’m not being bitter about that, it’s way it is. Popular Front is successful, so I’m not really bothered about that but it’s a very hard industry, you have to have a very thick skin, everyone will hate you, but then if you still want to do it and you do it, good luck. Because then you’re going to be the right person to do it, it takes a tough person to do it. I don’t mean top is in brave, whatever. It just takes someone persistent, the system can really get through and I’ve met a lot of young reporters and I’ve seen a few I think: “Wow, one day they’re going to be even better than Popular Front”. I mean, there are better things than Popular Front, but I mean like there’ll be the new version of it, and they’ll overtake me and I’ll be forgotten and then that’s good, you know, I mean there will always be the next person doing it.  But they got to be really prepared to fail again and again and again, but not be disheartened. But I think I’ve failed so many times, got so many knockbacks told been told so many times -I’ve got a book out right now. 

Lana: What’s the name of the book?

Jake: “Gargyoe” – it’s a compilation of my work. If you focus, I think you can do it but also you have to listen to other people as well. I took a lot of advice and I learned from a lot of mistakes. If you’ve made a mistake, understand that you’ve made a mistake.

Lana: That can be a great mantra for someone. Thank you so much for coming here and doing this, it was a great conversation!