From El Salvador to hell
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