The veteran war-zone journalist visiting Dubai next Saturday has tapped his ambition, and an obvious adrenalin addiction, to cover dangerous events worldwide and, despite a traumatic loss, still goes wherever the bullets fly, writes Kevin Hackett.
Newsmaker: Jeremy Bowen
For most people, having a job that puts their lives at risk is a non-starter, especially when families are involved. Not many journalists have to face daily struggles to stay alive but, when it comes to reporting from the world’s trouble spots, the fearless reporters and their crews who tell the wider world what is happening – and why – in war zones, their lives are constantly at risk. Jeremy Bowen wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Bowen delivers the Orwell Lecture, Journalism in Dangerous Times, at next week’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, the BBC’s Middle East editor will command the room with a presence that can only come from decades of experience on the front line. For a quarter of a century, Bowen has reported from no fewer than 18 wars. He has been robbed at gunpoint, seen a close friend killed and was injured only last year when shot at in Egypt. He knows his number might be up any minute – this is the reality of war reporting.
Bowen is, by his own admission, a “BBC lifer”. His father, Gareth, was a journalist for the BBC and reported from the infamous Aberfan coal mine disaster in Wales, in 1966, leading to his promotion to news editor at BBC Wales. For Bowen the die was cast and, after leaving university in 1984, he signed up for the Beeb as a news trainee. He had spells in the radio newsroom and as a television news correspondent, but his first posting was in the financial news sector and that was never going to hold his interest for long. He was sent to Geneva as a radio news correspondent and while there he was offered a job by the Channel 4 network. His employer had to take notice and gave him a role he felt was much more in keeping with his aspirations.
He was born Jeremy Francis John Bowen six years before the horrific events at Aberfan, in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, and was educated at Cardiff High School before attending University College London, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. After that he attended the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, and in Italy, before following in the footsteps of his father and joining the most prestigious broadcasting company in the world.
Bowen’s first war correspondence posting was in 1989, when he was positioned in El Salvador. He had, he thought, arrived. He was a young man in a high-octane job that meant he’d never be short of stories to regale fellow diners with over the coming years. He was making a difference to the perceptions and understandings of overseas conflicts, explaining events to a diverse audience in a way that held the interests of experts and complete novices alike.
“In newspapers, you have a pretty good idea of your reader,” he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2012. “With television, the viewer could be anybody. So you try to do pieces that have something in them for people with different levels of background knowledge; a kind of layer cake. The trick is to use a human story to illustrate the bigger picture.”
And he has certainly done just that, often coming under fire, not from bullets or missiles, but from the BBC’s many detractors who have accused him of putting too personal a spin on his reports over the years, sometimes straying from the corporation’s self-imposed impartiality rules. But Bowen has never apologised for any of it, instead fighting to clear his name when under scrutiny and carrying on regardless. But why head into war reporting in the first place? His answer to that question in the aforementioned Telegraph interview also stirred up the anti-Beeb hornet’s nest.
“War reporting? I was all for it,” he admitted. “I was ambitious and saw that going to places not everybody wanted to be in was a good way of putting my head above the parapet, raising myself above the crowd, as it were. It was a dangerous cocktail, this combination of adrenalin and a sense of doing something worthwhile, shining a light into the dark corners. I felt pretty indestructible. There was a sense of freedom; there were no rules, except stay alive.”
His desire to put himself in the world’s danger zones as an aid to self-promotion was what caused the detractors to start frothing at the mouth but, putting that to one side, it was his wish to shine “a light into the dark corners” that really got him known to millions. He spent a great deal of time reporting from the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995 and his knack of explaining the unexplainable meant that viewers and listeners all around the world were able to get a handle on a conflict that was incredibly complex and otherwise unfathomable. This constant striving to inform everyone while excluding no one is what has always set Bowen apart.
His rule to stay alive served him and his crew well for many years and, while those around him were the enemy’s targets, he always assumed those bullets and rockets were being aimed at others. But the harsh reality of conflict really hit home on May 23, 2000, when he was reporting on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon – something he will no doubt touch on during his lecture next week.
An Israeli tank commander decided to open fire on the blue Mercedes Bowen had been using. Bowen and his cameraman weren’t in it, but he saw everything that happened from the position he was holding with his cameraman, Malek Kenaan. Abed Takkoush, who had been working for the BBC in Lebanon for 25 years and was Bowen’s close friend and fixer, was sitting in the car, talking to his son using a mobile telephone, when he was killed. The effect on Bowen was profound, and he became wracked with guilt for not being able to help save Takkoush.
“I saw Abed lurch out of the driver’s side of the car and then fall to the ground,” Bowen said at the time, adding that as he headed over to the car he was met by a burst of machine-gun fire from the Israeli side of the border, and that the same had happened to a Lebanese Red Cross truck that was heading to help.
While the BBC instigated legal proceedings against Israel for what it considered to be a war crime violation (the Israelis eventually admitted to the killing but claimed the tank commander had mistaken the tripod and camera for an anti-tank missile launcher), Bowen shrank from the front line and returned home, suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Understandably he’d had enough – it was time to calm it down, take it easy, preserve one’s own life. By this time he’d become father to a daughter, Mattie, and he claims this had irreversibly changed his priorities in life, no doubt much to the relief of his wife, Julia Williams, who is also a journalist for the BBC. He said he wanted to be around to see her grow up and he took on a role as presenter on Breakfast, BBC One’s early morning show between 2000 and 2002.
In 2003 his son Jack was born and he turned down the opportunity to head back to the Middle East, where the BBC wanted him to cover the Iraq invasion from Baghdad. Crispin Thorold, a former journalist at The National, who has worked closely with Bowen in the past, says his ease in front of the camera was noteworthy. “He owned the Breakfast sofa when he was a presenter of the programme,” says Thorold, “although he always struck me in the studio as something of a caged lion who needed to be let loose again in the Middle East.”
Bowen couldn’t fight that urge any longer, and by March 2003 he was packing his flak jacket and flying into trouble. In 2005, Bowen was appointed Middle East editor. “I felt I had more to do as a journalist,” he told BBC Wales in an interview. “The biggest kick for me is when you are in a place the world is looking at and you’re the person whose job it is to tell the world what’s happening. The kinds of places I go – it feels like history.”
Thorold, however, reminds us of another of Bowen’s major achievements: “More important than anything else, this is a man who managed to make moustaches cool far after they had gone out of vogue, and well before Movember gave them a renaissance.”
The ’stache might be history, but Bowen the man remains, and he’s not planning on hanging up that body armour anytime soon.
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