As he stood among crowds of protesters in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in 1989 at the climax of Czechoslovakia’s democratic ‘velvet’revolution, BBC correspondent Allan Little was approached by a group of people.
‘Are you from the BBC?’they said. ‘We listen to the Czech service, but in secret under the stairs’.”
Once, when reporting in Africa, a man involved in the 1970s’ Zimbabwean war of independence told Little that while some of his fellow fighters listened to the local radio ‘to feel good about themselves”, he tuned into the BBC World Service ‘to find out what was really going on”.
Sitting in a cafe opposite BBC World Service’s headquarters in the West End of London, Little says these are the experiences that continue to inspire him to travel the world in search of ordinary people’s stories in times of war, upheaval and diplomatic conflict.
During 25 years as a BBC correspondent, Little says his job hasn’t changed much – he was and is a reporter, he insists, although evidently now a far more senior one. In 1988, after brief stints at BBC offices in Scotland and Hampshire, he joined the Today programme and in 1990 moved to BBC News, where he reported for all news bulletins and the World Service.
He is now part of the recently formed BBC Foreign Affairs unit, which he says happily allows him to ‘go off round the world at the drop of a hat’reporting for radio, TV and BBC Online.
Little has been based inYugoslavia, twice in Johannesburg, Moscow and Paris; he reported from Kuwait and from Baghdad before the onset of the first Gulf War in 1990.
He was in Kosovo last week, as it moved towards declaring independence. For him it’s an opportunity to revisit a region he spent five years reporting from between 1991 and 1995, a period he sees as defining his career and which was the subject of his book The Death of Yugoslavia.
‘The one that changed my life was Yugoslavia,’he says. ‘The funny thing was, it started within a few months of the Gulf War and everyone’s eyes were very-much focused on the Persian Gulf, and this strange little conflict in south east Europe was seen as something of a sideshow. It didn’t attract the big-hitters of the day until relatively late in the conflict.’
Little says that by the time ‘the big guns’became involved it was already well underway, and a newgeneration of journalists in both broadcasting and newspapers had claimed the conflict as their own.
Little, who was this month nominated for a Royal Television Society Award for his investigation into people trafficking in the north of England, took up the post of Paris correspondent in 2003 and was there until 2005.
Although he didn’t make a conscious decision to stop going to war zones he hasn’t done so since then – he hasn’t been to Afghanistan and has turned down opportunities to go to Iraq.
‘Obviously going to Paris meant that I had a patch to cultivate and I haven’t been to a war zone since then, and although I wouldn’t rule it out fully, I don’t think I’m ready to go back,’he says. ‘It used to be my life,’he says. ‘When I look back to my 30s and 40s, I was almost exclusively reporting from conflict areas. In 1990 when I went to Baghdad, all the way through to 2000. I went to cover the Gulf War in 2003, then Baghdad in April and May 2003 after the statue came down. I really felt it was one of the few genuine moments when you see the world change day by day, hour by hour.”
Little says he is acutely aware of the role played by foreign journalists and fixers who work for Western news organisations – many of whom were killed in the course of 2007, one of the deadliest years on record for journalists.
‘Every foreign correspondent will tell you the same thing – the local fixers and stringers are the unsung heroes of the operation, you develop friendships with them and depend upon them entirely. And they are not working under the same expectations of freedom as you are,’he says. ‘When you are working abroad for an organisation like the BBC, or any of the British
newspapers, you are aware of the huge privilege of working in an environment of advanced freedom and an expectation of freedom of expression.”
Little gets angry when Britons complain about lack of democracy – they should ‘go and spend six months in Saudi Arabia and come back and see what a proper democracy is’he insists.
‘It makes me quite angry – I’ve worked in genuine police states; I’ve worked in medieval democracies and colonial dictatorships, countries where politics isn’t what people participate in; politics is what powerful do to impoverished and powerless people. It makes you acutely aware of the immense privilege of being heir to this great tradition of choice, tolerance and liberty under the law, I suppose it’s called.”
The threats facing all journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts has changed in the past 20 years, as reporters are targeted more often.
‘In Yugoslavia it was the kind of danger where if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time you were in trouble. The kind of danger journalists face now is malicious pursuit and the deliberate attempt to target and murder them.”
Little has seen immense change at the BBC: Reporters are now ensconced in what he calls the ‘permanent revolution’of online journalism as well as reporting for radio and TV.
‘It goes through cycles”, he says. ‘The first phase was when we all went bi-media in the Nineties. There was an expectation that one correspondent would file for all the outlets.
‘That wasn’t working so they said, let’s free up the likes of Ben Brown to spend the entire day gathering for the evening bulletin…, there are people whose main job is to give hourly updates, but there’s also a need for people who will give you a considered, close-of-day roundup – ‘What does it mean, what is significant, and what happens in, the future’.”
When asked what aspiring journalists can do to prepare for reporting from a war zone, Little says there are two things you need. To believe in the value of being there and respect the people you report on.
‘If you think it’s better for the world that people are informed when something is going on there, then you put aside your own feelings about it,’he says.
‘The journalists I admire most are those who are not cynical. Scepticism, yes; having distance and not identifying with one group over another, that’s important. But whether you agree with people or not, if they agree to take you in and tell you a story, you strike a deal with them in which you have to give a fair account. There are times when I’ve done things I’ve felt bad about.
‘Sometimes you feel emptied out, hollowed out by it, and when that happens you just go to sleep for a while, stop doing it and recharge your batteries.”