Interview: Frank Gardner – BBC Chief Security Correspondent

TCS - First published 8/2/2010 20 June 2013

From Our Own Correspondent

TCS talks to BBC Chief Security Correspondent Frank Gardner about a life of reporting.

“From somewhere close behind me, a gunman stood and pumped bullets into the small of my back, hitting my pelvis and sacral bones and causing immeasurable damage to my internal organs. I don’t remember it hurting at the point of impact, just the deafening noise each time he squeezed the trigger and a sickening jolt as the bullets thudded into my guts.” With this, taken from his fascinating memoir, BBC Security correspondent Frank Gardner describes the 2004 attack by Al-Qaida gunmen in his book ‘Blood and Sand’. Ambushed while reporting from Saudi Arabia, his cameraman was killed and Gardner was left unable to walk.

However when I catch up with Gardner he seems far more focused on the positive and desperate not to put me off travelling in the region. He is direct without ever being rude and becomes markedly animated as soon as he talks about the Middle East, a region for which he has somehow managed to preserve a fervent passion. I wondered what had first got him interested in the Arab world.

“Well I had always been extremely interested in the Middle East and decided early on that I was going to study it at university. My first thought about it was that it would be extremely useful, so really when I should have been swatting up on King George III, all I really wanted to be doing was learning Arabic. Also I was very lucky to meet the explorer, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who my mother introduced me to. He had spent the forties and fifties travelling throughout Arabia, crossing some unbelievably high dunes. I was very inspired by meeting him and I decided that I really wanted to be involved in that world. Having said that, I didn’t really have an idea what I would use my Arabic for but I found it endlessly fascinating.”

Gardner left Marlborough, an education made clear by his distinctive diction, and headed off to enjoy a gap year.

“I started off I suppose as most people do and ended up getting quite far. I started off working my way around Greece and ended up getting offered a ticket out to the Philippines. So it really was a crazy time. I kept a diary at the time and I’ve written all about it in a book called ‘Far Horizons’.

I took my gap year before university. As I’m sure your readers will know, there is something very comforting and reassuring about knowing that you’ve got a certain date to get back  so no matter how crap your gap year is or however pointless your trip, you know you’ve got to be back for the start of term.”

The start of term was at Exeter where Gardner took up a place to study Arabic.   I asked him if he was a good student.

“No, I was rubbish. A third of our class failed second year exams – we had to come back for retakes and thankfully I passed. I mean, I enjoyed university, although I have to admit I found it quite frustrating, in that I wanted to be out there using the language and building up a vocabulary. I wanted to be able to translate, to listen to a speech or read a newspaper. I found it quite frustrating to have to learn vocabulary by heart that no one would use today; it’s like having to learn Chaucerian English. I mean you could turn around and say that if you want that kind of course you can go to a polytechnic but at that time in the late 1980s, Exeter was one of the best places to do Arabic. That said, Arabic literature is extremely rich with a bigger vocabulary than English and is extremely worthy of academic study in itself. It’s just not particularly practical.

I didn’t really start getting into my degree until the third year when I went to Cairo, as the year abroad of a four year course, which I absolutely loved every bit of. It was brilliant because I moved in with an Arabic family living in the backstreets of Cairo and they didn’t speak any English so I had to speak entirely in Arabic. By day there weren’t any tourists in that part of town so I spent my time sitting in cafes with Egyptians playing backgammon and smoking a shisha pipe and swearing away in the most fantastic slang.”

The romantic notion of exploring the Middle East clearly struck a resounding note with him. Does he think that getting into journalism was his way of becoming an explorer?

“Well I think I had a natural curiosity and inquisitiveness about the places I’d been to. I had already found myself in the Middle East by that time and I’d already lived in several places including Jordan, so I already had quite an affinity with the area, and particularly with the Gulf.

I really wanted to bring more Gulf stories alive on TV and at that time there had not been many news stories to come out of there. So it was a real labour of love when I became Gulf correspondent, I literally went around with my camera, talking to people on the streets of places like Yemen, trying to find out what was really going on.

So I don’t think reporting is necessarily a modern equivalent of exploring. It’s so high-tech now in many ways that essentially so much journalism can be done without leaving home, just trawling through the internet and so on. But definitely at times it can be a very adventurous life. I suppose if you are a foreign correspondent, many of my colleagues have been involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed because there is so much censorship throughout the Arab world it can be very difficult trying to get people to talk to you without minders getting in the way to stop them speaking freely.”

Gardner has reported on the Middle East for over twenty five years. I ask whether he thinks news reporting has changed much during his career.

“Well the reporting of foreign news hasn’t changed in that we have the same remit per day as it always was certainly in terms of the BBC, which is to try and give views and responses. And fundamentally neither has the method of news gathering in that we try to find out what is really going and get a wide variety of perspectives. Things have changed in the sense that, when I joined in 1985 there would often be delays, sometimes of days to get footage out of remote areas whereas now you can fly in with a camera crew and be beaming back live pictures within minutes.

However, the effect of the news has changed immeasurably, particularly in the Middle East an area where the government has always tried to control the information seen, read and listened to by their citizens. There are so many ways to get the news, and now that people have realised that they don’t necessarily have to listen to the huge run state media agencies, it has made governments more accountable.”

So amidst the changing atmosphere of the Middle East, particularly since 2001 and ‘The War on Terror’, on which Gardner has been the BBC’s in-house specialist, he must at times have feared for his own safety during the process of filing a report.

“No I didn’t, except of course in 2004 when it was extremely scary being shot and I was very lucky to get away with my life. But that was an anomaly and we were very unlucky. I mean it is one thing pushing the envelope and taking a calculated risk but it is entirely different deliberately putting oneself in harm’s way. I have never been that type of correspondent; there are plenty of other people who are only too happy to put on flak jackets.

But what happened in Riyadh was extremely unusual, although there were times in Yemen where I had to be extremely careful. But I can’t think of anytime I was in fear for my life apart from in Saudi in six years ago. By sheer bad luck, a group of gunmen were driving past and they decided that here was a good opportunity to kill foreigners. They opened fire on us, killed my cameraman and left me for dead.”

I wonder how after such a distressing, life-changing experience Gardner has been able to maintain his passion for the Islamic world, even going so far as returning to report from Afghanistan.

“Well, the place I was reporting from in Afghanistan was actually extremely safe and I would never intentionally put myself at risk as it wouldn’t be fair to my wife and children. I think I’ve maintained my love of the Middle East by sorting out the fanatics – the extremists that attacked us – from  the rest of the population, because however much people in the Middle East may privately resent Western policy, they are generally very hospitable to Western visitors. We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and instead distinguish between these psychopathic men who go around shooting innocent civilians from the rest of the population. I think it’s important to understand that the extremists of Al-Qaida have killed far more Muslims than anybody else.”

TCS – First published 8/2/2010