Jeremy Bowen on reporting in the Middle East: “I kept getting dreams about having to bury the cameraman”
Covering decades of conflict takes its toll – the BBC’s man in the Middle East reveals the highs and lows of the job in a new 25-part radio series
When Jeremy Bowen offered to relive more than a quarter of a century of Middle East reporting for a new “personal” 25-part Radio 4 series, I wonder if he had bargained for the memories it would unleash. Death, depression, and years on the road in near-constant danger have all left their mark on one of the BBC’s most distinguished correspondents.
Today is proving particularly tough because he’s writing about Abed Takkoush, his Lebanese driver who was killed by Israeli mortar fire in May 2000 while they were covering Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Bowen, 57, suffered “symptoms of PTSD”, and retreated from the field for a time to co-host a relaunched BBC Breakfast show with Sophie Raworth.
“It was a really, really awful event, Abed’s death and its repercussions,” he says. “His wife died not long after, sadly; she had cancer and I’m sure it was related to the grief. Some of his kids went off the rails for a while… they were teenage boys and suddenly they didn’t have a dad.” He still sometimes works with Abed’s nephews, who are also drivers.
Jeremy Bowen at the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen
The upside of two years on the morning sofa was being home for the birth of his two children, Mattie and Jack, with his partner Julia Williams, a fellow BBC journalist. Fatherhood remains “the best thing that has happened to me, without question”, he says. The only drawback to his current job – he’s been the BBC’s Middle East Editor for 12 years – is leaving his family; he hates being away from his south London home so often: six months a year is typical.
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His father Gareth, also a BBC man, died last November. Just weeks before, in an interview with American radio about the anniversary of the 1966 Aberfan mine disaster, which his father had reported on, Bowen had unexpectedly broken down. It’s the only time he has cried on air. “It was a very emotional time,” he says. He contrasts crying alone in a studio, “where the only danger was looking a bit stupid,” with remaining dry-eyed in the field, when he can’t afford to collapse. “Dead bodies don’t bother me; I mean, I don’t like seeing people who are mashed to bits, but I can deal with it. I do feel things quite deeply, but I have to get on with my job. The Middle East is a dangerous environment a lot of the time, and you’ve got to keep your wits about you.”
Given Bowen’s drive for reporting, worrying about which camera to look into in a London TV studio was never going to fulfil him. He reports from places most people can barely pinpoint on a map in order that “decision makers in government [don’t have] the excuse to say, ‘Well, we didn’t know that was going on’.”
His stint as an early morning presenter was also making him ill. “I started getting these unexplained stomach pains; I had to have an endoscopy and they never got to the bottom of it, and then I stopped getting up at 3.30 in the morning and the pains went away. Armies will invade positions at that time to catch people at their lowest ebb.” It was 2003, and war was raging once more in Iraq. “I said to myself, ‘I used to be quite a decent reporter and now I’m sitting on the sofa making jokes.’”
He had agreed to anchor coverage of the March invasion of Baghdad but backed out because the prospect was triggering nightmares. “I’d been there in 1991 and thought this was a great way to relaunch as a reporter, but I kept getting a memory of the First Gulf War and this great big piece of shrapnel that had hit the side of our hotel, from an American bomb.” He pulls his arms wide apart. “It was as big as a baby. I kept getting dreams about having to bury the cameraman so I thought, ‘Hang on, I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind.’”
And yet he did return to Iraq later that year, and has been returning ever since, most recently to Mosul. But it never gets any easier. “I go off to Mosul, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s a reason I’ve got all this safety gear; it’s because I might get hurt.’” He travels prepared. “I’ve got a flak jacket, helmets of different sorts, first-aid kids, anti-gas things. Years ago in the Middle East I wouldn’t need all of it; now it’s very rare I don’t bring all of it wherever I go. It’s a sort of flak jacket index.”
Jeremy Bowen inside a cave being used as a home on the West Bank
Being in west Mosul, amid the fighting, is “hard; you’re tired afterwards”. This juggle, between travelling and recuperating, has dogged his entire working life. I ask about the inevitable impact on his family life. “If you spend years in places where it’s difficult, you see terrible things, it has an effect on you. You have to be made of granite for it not to. It can often have an effect on the people around you.”
He pauses, sipping his water. “I’m a human being, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and a lot of my life has been shaped by my job. If you want to get on, as a young reporter, you have to be prepared to kick anything into touch: to cancel your own parties, to go off at the last minute. I went off to the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, and that was the end of Christmas for my lot, and they were little kids. And there were long periods away. Coming back tired, being hurt a few times, physically.”
Now he’s in full flow. “You have to learn how to control it. I don’t mind telling you I’ve suffered from depression and a lot of it has related to things that have cropped up in my working life. When Abed was killed, I had the symptoms of PTSD for a while. It’s really hard… and I don’t think I should say any more, because this is not a counselling session.”
BBC Breakfast in 2000 with Jeremy Bowen And Sophie Raworth
I’m curious about family holidays. He laughs, remembering once being invited to go trekking by Land Rover with some friends. “They asked me, ‘Would you like to come?’ And I said, ‘Not in a million years, thank you very much.’ I want to go to a place, preferably I can reach by car, where you have a flushing loo, hot water and a nice restaurant!”
As well as being attacked physically – in 2013 he was caught in crossfire from the Egyptian military in Tahrir Square in Cairo – the veteran reporter is regularly ambushed verbally. He remains indignant about being ticked off eight years ago by the BBC Trust for breaching the corporation’s guidelines on accuracy and impartiality during his reports on the history of 1967’s Six Day War. A pro-Israel group in the US accused him of bias on 24 occasions; the BBC Trust fully or partially upheld three of the allegations.
“That was totally unjust. The complaints were made by professional complainants, including one in the United States… [who] intended to give ammunition to [the BBC’s] enemies. I was backed very well in private by the management; I wasn’t backed well enough in public by them.”
Born and raised in Cardiff, Bowen joined the BBC as a trainee in 1984 after university. Two days before we meet, he posted a photo on Instagram of his then peers, complete with his trademark moustache: he’s standing next to the Today presenter Justin Webb.
Asked about the prospects for the Middle East, he’s bleak. “I’m not at all convinced we’ve seen the worst of it. I don’t see a great deal of hope.” But he intends to stick around to see what happens: “I don’t think I’ve reached my peak yet.” That said, should the Big Job come calling, the posting to Washington DC, he would be ready. “Maybe. One day. Who knows! Trump is an incredible story; I can’t do this Middle East thing forever. Yeah, watch out, I might come to America!”
Our Man in the Middle East is on weekdays at 1:45pm on Radio 4