BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen believes the region is more dangerous than it has ever been for journalists and that the 24-hour news culture is putting reporters under greater risk of kidnapping.
Bowen spoke to Press Gazette following the publication of his new book, War Stories – an account of his life as a reporter in the thick of conflict and war. Why did he write an autobiographical account now, in the middle of his career?
‘Because people would ask me the same kinds of questions lots of times,’he said. ‘Things like ‘why do you do it’ or ‘is it because you like blood and war?’ I thought it would be interesting to try to answer them.’And the short answer to why he risked his life in some of the world’s most dangerous places is simply because he likes it.
He said: ‘It’s may be slightly puerile, but the first time you’re in a place where there’s shooting and you don’t get killed it’s tremendously exciting.
‘The drug always had power but it became less important. For me the big thing was looking for the story. In the Balkans I didn’t want people to say afterwards ‘well we didn’t really know what was going on there, no one told us about the snipers or the shelling’.
‘I would be a liar if I didn’t say that there were many immensely enjoyable, memorable, fun moments covering wars over the years. When you live in the presence of death, life is sharper.’Bowen has taken a step back from frontline war reporting in recent years because of what he says was a pivotal experience in his life. In 2000 his Lebanese driver, fixer and friend, Abed Takkoush, was killed by Israeli tank fire in southern Lebanon. It was the last day of Israel’s 21-year occupation of Lebanon, and Bowen, Takkoush and his cameraman Malek Kanaan were there to wave them off.
Bowen said: ‘I got out of the car with my cameraman. Two minutes later the Israelis fired a tank shell and killed him (Takkoush). I said to Malek, ‘We should go up there and see if he’s still alive and if we can help him’. He said ‘Don’t go. First of all, don’t go because he’s dead and second of all, if you go up there the Israelis will kill you’. I knew he was right but I still felt gutless. I was correct in not going out but I felt bad about it. I still do.’After this, Bowen says he began experiencing nightmares, anxiety and a feeling that something bad was always about to happen. It was the reason he turned down the chance to report from Baghdad during the US-led invasion of 2003.
Bowen describes the Middle East as a ‘theme park for journalists’but also warns that it’s the most dangerous it has ever been for reporters. But how else has his trade has changed over the years?
‘Journalism is essentially the same trade, but the way we bring it to people has been completely transformed by technology. In 1988 in Afghanistan, we had two engineers, no phones, no satellite phones, nothing. You could theoretically make a phone call, but it would have taken all day. We used the telex: nineteenth-century technology. ‘Because of globalisation, news is instant and it’s a 24-hour news cycle. Everyone wants of piece of it, from governments who are trying to feed us information to people who think that a very good way of getting on the news that day is to kill a journalist. That’s a major reason journalists are more targeted.’ Bowen hinted that a career shift may be on the cards. ‘In my mid-career I can have a fantasy about being a newspaper columnist, employed for my views. ‘I think that would be a great job. I have strong views about everything I do and I would sometimes like the chance to let off steam. I’d do a blog but no-one’s ever asked me. I like TV, pictures really magnify what you do, but sometimes it’s nice just to write 300 words. I have my career at the BBC but I’d love to do it. Maybe someone should make me an offer!”