From El Sal­vador to hell

Friday - - PERSONALITY -

of Jeremy’s reporting that have al­lowed him to reach the cov­eted top rung of the jour­nal­ists’ lad­der as the BBC’s Mid­dle East edi­tor, a role he has de­servedly held since 2005 but one he cer­tainly fought hard to at­tain. Born to par­ents whose ca­reers were both en­trenched in jour­nal­ism – Jeremy’s fa­ther, Gareth, was news edi­tor at BBC Ra­dio Wales, while his mother was a pho­tog­ra­pher – Jeremy grew up sur­rounded by cur­rent af­fairs. “At one point my fa­ther had ev­ery sin­gle daily and Sun­day paper de­liv­ered to the house,” he says. “I re­mem­ber a great stack of them ar­riv­ing bun­dled in hairy string so re­ally I grew up with news every­where from a very young age.”

Grad­u­at­ing with a BA in his­tory from Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, Jeremy pur­sued fur­ther stud­ies at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton DC, at­tend­ing both cam­puses in the US and Italy.

Al­though his in­ter­est was the Mid­dle East, a course in the re­gion’s af­fairs was not on of­fer in Bologna, where Jeremy was en­rolled ini­tially. In­stead he chose to gain his MA in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, with a ma­jor in Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy, a choice he says to­day is “in­cred­i­bly use­ful”.

Fol­low­ing his doc­tor­ate in 1984, his first post-grad­u­ate po­si­tion was an in­tern­ship with the BBC. “When I got into jour­nal­ism I wanted to re­ally be there when things were hap­pen­ing,” he says, “and not when things were hap­pen­ing in West­min­ster. I wanted to travel the world and seek out the big news.”

It didn’t take long for his wish to be granted and al­though it was with a lit­tle trep­i­da­tion hav­ing only ever watched con­flict on the news, Jeremy was whisked away from the UK desk in 1989 to cover a war in El Sal­vador, South Amer­ica.

“It was a dan­ger­ous mix,” he tells an en­gaged au­di­ence at Dubai’s sixth Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture. “There was a dusk till dawn cur­few so we would go out and get shot at in the day­time, sur­vive and then in the evenings sit on the ho­tel ter­race and drink the best they had to

‘Jour­nal­ism got a hold of me. Once you’ve got it in your sys­tem it’s dif­fi­cult to do other things’

of­fer. It was like be­ing in a movie.”

In his mem­oirs War Sto­ries he ad­mits, “You couldn’t go out be­cause of the shoot-on-sight cur­few, so at night we ate... on the ter­race. Mul­ti­coloured tracer [am­mu­ni­tion] looped around the vol­cano that dom­i­nates the city. The war went on as din­ner was served. I loved it.”

Al­though ex­cited by his foray into war cor­re­spon­dence, the es­teemed jour­nal­ist that Jeremy is to­day was not born from din­ing on the side­lines as war pounded cities in the dis­tance. A quick re­al­i­sa­tion that ex­pe­ri­ences such as El Sal­vador were some­what vac­u­ous and what mat­tered was the jour­nal­is­tic chal­lenge of re­triev­ing a story from hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments, is what would see him for the next 25 years re­li­ably re­port from some of the most dan­ger­ous places on earth.

“When I was young, in­de­struc­tible and full of testos­terone I loved the adrenalin, I loved the chal­lenge, I loved the feel­ing of be­ing in a place where you live on the edge, where there are no rules and you have to sink or swim,” he says. “Jour­nal­ism got a hold of me, and once you’ve got it in your sys­tem it’s dif­fi­cult to do other things – it’s like a strong virus.

“The sto­ries are com­pelling and com­plex, yet we have to try and tell them in a sim­ple way that means some­thing to lis­ten­ers, who might be very in­ter­ested but don’t nec­es­sar­ily have strong back­ground knowl­edge.”

Hav­ing the ca­pac­ity to de­code some of the world’s most com­plex pol­i­tics and sub­se­quently trans­late them into minute-long au­di­ence-at­tain­able au­dio has al­lowed Jeremy to carve a niche for him­self as one of the world’s most re­spected re­porters. Weath­er­ing wars from Beirut to the Balkans, he has come un­der fire, been robbed by armed ban­dits, lost dear friends and re­spected col­leagues, which he ad­mits, “has af­fected me very deeply. I have a fairly thin skin emo­tion­ally and I haven’t be­come hard­ened, in fact, I’ve be­come softer. This job ex­acts a big toll out of your life, it re­ally does, and look­ing back I must have been mad to have done it for so long.”

The hard­ship has no doubt been most felt in his per­sonal life be­cause Jeremy, un­like many for­eign cor­re­spon­dents, is a fam­ily man and fa­ther to Mat­tie, 13, and Jack, 10. While his chil­dren have been grow­ing up, he has had the un­en­vi­able task of man­ag­ing fa­mil­ial du­ties and the pro­fes­sional de­mands of a ca­reer that sees him dice with death be­tween six and nine months of the year.

“It’s dif­fi­cult jug­gling the job and fa­ther­hood,” he says frankly. “The job re­quires a huge com­mit­ment and I have trav­elled a lot. I think I was

‘Some­times I slightly re­sent in ret­ro­spect the amount of time I have de­voted tomy job’

fool­ing my­self a few years ago when I asked the kids: ‘Does it feel like I’m here most of the time but I go away or I’m never here and I come back some­times?’ I was quite taken aback when they said, ‘You’re never here and you come back some­times’. That was re­ally dif­fi­cult to take and I’m try­ing not to travel so much this year be­cause, yes, quite frankly I’ve missed a lot of things.”

It’s an is­sue that re­mains at the fore­front, es­pe­cially as more women en­ter the realms of for­eign (war) jour­nal­ism, an area that has tra­di­tion­ally been the do­main of male jour­nal­ists. Christina Lamb, a fe­male cor­re­spon­dent for The Sun­day Times, who was also speak­ing at this year’s Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, has come un­der fire in the past for in­ter­view­ing the for­mer Chilean dic­ta­tor Au­gusto Pinochet just 24 hours af­ter she gave birth to her son, Lourenço.

“People do think if you’re a mother you should be at home with the kids but if you’re a fa­ther you should be out here killing mam­moths,” says Jeremy. “I think it’s just so­cial at­ti­tudes. But as far as the BBC is con­cerned, they are very con­scious of di­ver­sity and gen­der bal­ance. Al­most all of my bosses have been fe­male, I think they are keen to get women in front of the TV and to as many dan­ger­ous places as pos­si­ble.”

His part­ner of many years, Ju­lia Wil­liams, is a prime ex­am­ple of that at­ti­tude, as an­other well-known face of the BBC.

“She’s a jour­nal­ist and has worked for the BBC for al­most as long as I have,” says Jeremy. “She used to travel a lot but not so much any more as she now works on the Hard

Talk pro­gramme for BBCWorld, but in the past she’s been to places like Bagh­dad.”

He doesn’t think there is any dif­fer­ence in the way women and men re­port but he adds: “I get a bit ir­ri­tated when I hear people sug­gest­ing that some­how women have a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the news. I’ve seen things writ­ten say­ing men are just in­ter­ested in guns, boys’ toys and things that go bang and women want to get into the hu­man side. I’ve cov­ered 17 wars and I still have a slight prob­lem work­ing out in­com­ing and out­go­ing [weapon fire]. All sto­ries are about the hu­man side, I get into the hu­man side very much.”

In fact, it is Jeremy’s char­ac­ter­is­tic hu­man­ness that has helped him re­main grounded even though he has a celebrity sta­tus among BBC view­ers – 80,000 fans on Twit­ter is not a num­ber to be sniffed at.

How­ever, it was af­ter events in 2000 that the pub­lic re­ally got a glimpse of the af­fa­ble man, who had hitherto hid­den be­hind his hel­met and flack jacket.

Trau­ma­tised in May that year fol­low­ing the death of a col­league (Abed Takkoush) to Is­raeli fire dur­ing a tank at­tack on their car in Le­banon and suf­fer­ing from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, Jeremy re­treated to Lon­don where for a two-year stint he pre­sented the BBC’s break­fast news.

“Af­ter a very nasty ex­pe­ri­ence when a man with whom I was work­ing in 2000 was killed in Le­banon and the next day two good friends of mine were killed in an am­bush in Sierra Leone, I didn’t want to do that kind of reporting any longer,” he says.

It wasn’t long, how­ever, be­fore he felt the lure of war reporting again and in 2003 ac­cepted a post in then rel­a­tively peace­ful Le­banon to yet again de­mys­tify the Mid­dle East for theWestern au­di­ence.

Soon af­ter that, war broke out and Jeremy found him­self where he is most at home. “It’s not that I gave up wars,” he says, “it’s that wars came back to find me.”

Al­though Jeremy is aware that his ad­dic­tion to war zones is a dan­ger­ous game and that ul­ti­mately it’s down to luck that he is still here to tell his tales, he recog­nises that as his chil­dren grow up, his pri­or­i­ties have started to shift and that re­quires a cer­tain dis­tance from the front­line.

“A lot of the time now I say I can’t travel to­day, I’ll travel to­mor­row. For ex­am­ple my son is in a school play to­wards the end of this month and there was talk of me go­ing to Saudi Ara­bia but I said no. How­ever, I can [now] do that be­cause I’m at the top of the food chain. But it’s not easy. You do miss things and some­times I even slightly re­sent in ret­ro­spect the amount of time I have de­voted to my job. But what’s done is done.”

On a brighter note, he says, “Don’t get me wrong, I have had many fan­tas­tic mo­ments, met some amaz­ing people and trav­elled to places I never imag­ined I would ever see. It has been an in­ter­est­ing life full of very big highs and very big lows.”

And if he were given the chance to talk to his younger self, what ad­vice would he of­fer? With­out hes­i­ta­tion he says, “Work on your per­sonal life as much as your pro­fes­sional life. Be care­ful and en­joy it be­cause it’s go­ing to be quite a good ride.”

As for be­ing re­mem­bered, “What do you mean when I die?” he laughs. “I hope people would say I’m a good fa­ther, a good jour­nal­ist and a nice guy.” I don’t think he’ll strug­gle for that epi­taph.

● Jeremy Bowen’s third and most re­cent book The Arab Up­ris­ings is out now.

PER­SON­AL­ITY Jeremy sur­vived clus­ter bombs and ar­tillery fire when reporting from the front­line in Grozny dur­ing the First ChechenWar

Jeremy was in­jured while cov­er­ing the protests in Egypt last July

Jeremy is one of the few jour­nal­ists who have re­ported on the cri­sis in Syria

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