Gardner: 'We were just very unlucky'

Nearly two years on from his near-fatal wounding in Saudi Arabia, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner has told Press Gazette that no story is worth getting killed, kidnapped or mutilated for.

And he admitted that with hindsight he would have stayed in his former career as a banker rather than switching to journalism.

He said: "If someone was to say to me when I left banking, ‘You're going to have a great few years and then you're going get shot horribly and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair,' I would have said, ‘I think I'll stay in banking, thanks.' But you don't have that hindsight when you make these decisions.

"We were not attacked because we were journalists. Most of the Westerners who have been attacked by al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia have been either people who work in the oil industry or people who work in banking or business, but mostly oil and petrochemicals. This is the first time that I know of that visiting journalists have been attacked."

On 6 June 2004, Gardner and his cameraman Simon Cumbers were filming in the Al-Suwaidi area of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fundamentalist Islamic gunmen ambushed them, killing Cumbers instantly. Gardner survived, but is now in a wheelchair. Does he think reporting on the Middle East is worth the risk?

He says: "There's been conflict in the Middle East for a long, long time. There have been countless wars there and I've never known anybody personally, other than my cameraman, to be killed.

We've sent people in and out of Baghdad the whole time and I've been to Saudi Arabia countless times.

"Riyadh was always the safe but dull city. There are much more dangerous places to cover — Chechnya, for example, or Somalia is far more dangerous. The Middle East is nothing like as dangerous as it appears on TV. The Middle East is very placid and really quite normal. We were just very unlucky."

Ten years ago Gardner narrowly missed the chance to interview Osama bin Laden. But aside from the world's most wanted man, Press Gazette's person of the year 2005 would like to interview another reviled figure.

Gardner says: "I used to go to Jeddah a lot and there was a time when Idi Amin used to be spotted in the supermarket. At least that was the rumour. That would have been fascinating. Not that I know much about Uganda, but as somebody with such a colourful and ghastly past it would have been pretty interesting to have interviewed him."

Although he had dabbled in written freelance journalism for years, Gardner was 34 before he entered the profession on a full-time basis.

Having seen the good and bad of the Muslim world, he doesn't think Islam is portrayed fairly in the press, but believes a lot of the blame for that lies with extremist groups in the Middle East.

He says: "When bombers make posthumous wills on video with headbands wrapped round them, with a Koran in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other, most people are going to associate the two together."

Regarding press coverage of terrorism, he says: "There are some shining examples of people I think are very good [such as] Daniel McGrory in The Times, Michael Evans [also The Times], Mark Huband when he was at the Financial Times. The problem is there aren't really that many specialists in it, and terrorism, far more than defence, is quite a subtle area where you need to have quite a bit of knowledge about the cultural background of where al Qaeda comes from. It's not the sort of thing where you can just put the reporter du jour on the job and expect him or her to understand it."

When asked about coverage of Israel and the Palestinians, he says: "One side in that issue has a very powerful well-oiled press machine and one doesn't.

One side is extremely good at putting pressure on international news networks to cover everything bad that happens to them and the other side is completely hopeless at it."

Has being at the sharp end of al Qaeda's war on the West affected Gardner's journalism? He says: "It certainly hasn't affected me editorially. What it has affected is my mobility."

He adds: "The sort of journalism I love doing is putting a day-pack on my back, heading off to Kuwait, Yemen, Syria, travelling extremely light, filming my report, coming back and cutting it here. I've always been a bit sniffy about people who spend their whole time at desks, but I just don't have the sort of mobility to do that, wandering around the back streets any more."

Gardner, who received an OBE for services to journalism last year, has been back to the Middle East twice since the shooting. He says that although he wouldn't have a problem going to Saudi Arabia, for the sake of his friends and family he'd have to think twice about it.

Have his feelings towards al Qaeda changed since he was attacked? He says: "It was always at arms length and it's come right into my life. I suppose it's brought into sharp relief how utterly cruel and sadistic some of these people are. The same cell that attacked us went on to kidnap an American and cut his head off on camera. And what kind of a person could do that? It's barbaric.

"It shocked every Muslim I spoke to. Muslims have said to me, ‘That's how we kill a sheep, that's no way for a person to die.'"

Frank Gardner's book, Blood and Sand, about his experiences in the Arab world, is published by Bantam Press

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