Fran Lowe, Online Features Editor, tells us what happened when Exeposé Features met Frank Gardner, Exeter alumnus and BBC Security Correspondent.
Having graduated from Exeter in 1984 with a BA in in Arab and Islamic studies, Frank Gardner joined the Territorial Army, and in 1986 became an investment banker. But it was at the age of 34, in 1995, that he took the leap of faith in a huge career move into the world of journalism, starting work with the BBC, becoming their first full-time Gulf correspondent in 1997, graduating to BBC Middle East Correspondent in Cairo from 1999-2001, and later BBC Security Correspondent. This was a move that obviously paid off: Gardner is now something of a household name, and in 2005 he was awarded an OBE for his services to journalism.
Exeposé Features met him for a chat about how he made it into journalism after what could be considered a false start in the career world, and found out exactly what it is that makes him so good at his job.
“I can’t remember the last time I dreaded a Monday”
Gardner’s main advice for any budding international journalists amongst us is to find something that you’re really, really interested in. That way, you’ll never feel like you do a day’s work in your life. He tells us to “try and discover a USP – a Unique Selling Point”- something that will make you stand out amongst the swathes of wannabe BBC Correspondents out there. Becoming an SME – a Subject Matter Expert- makes you the go-to person for stories in your area, be it aircraft engines, Arab revolutions, or women’s rights. But Gardner reassures us that you don’t have to know everything- it’s just about “bringing something to it”, and having that little something to give, rather than just taking.
He tells us to “be prepared to drop everything else when there’s an opportunity”: it seems that making it in journalism is all about taking the leap, and doing the things that other people might not do, be that the night shifts, the bank holiday shifts, or completely changing your plans at the last minute. It seems it’s all about being flexible. Gardner, it seems, is thoroughly interested in what he does, so doesn’t mind dropping everything at a moment’s notice to fly halfway round the world, chasing up a story.
“I’m fascinated by interviewing people, by world affairs, by things going on. It’s a sort of natural nosiness, I think.”
Obviously a hugely accomplished journalist, Gardner puts his success down to his genuine fascination by what is happening in the world. “I don’t think I am necessarily a natural journalist, but I am naturally curious”, he says, giving the example of the world’s curiosity over the missing Malaysian Airlines flight: “Well, to a lesser extent, I have that same curiosity about a lot of things- how is Libya going to pan out? How is this going to work? How are these wounded soldiers going to get across the Arctic ice shelf? How is Afghanistan going to establish security after Nato leave?” Essentially, Gardner cares about what happens, to the extent that he wants to tell people about it. He admits that putting films together takes a lot of hard work, and a whole team dedication, but at the same time, he clearly enjoys what he does. “It’s a kind of thirst for answers, I suppose, it sounds kind of dreamy and romantic, but it’s actually true.” Gardner takes it upon himself to go out there and find the stories and the explanations, and then tell the rest of the world all about it.
“Journalism is not a place to go if you are undecided”
Gardner only moved into the world of journalism at the age of 34 – some might say a little too old for such a drastic career move from working in the City. If he had his time again, he might have started earlier, he says, having watched his old schoolmate James Mates go on to report on the ITV news. “But,” he says, “I don’t have any huge regrets because I enjoyed being in business”. It is clear that he learnt a lot from his time working in investment banking, such as negotiating and conversation skills in the Middle East. “I certainly don’t regret leaving that to do journalism!” But, as journalism takes such a lot of hard work and dedication, it is a career only for those who really want it. “I would advise anybody who’s not sure what to do to go into the City while you can’t make your mind up”, he says- “might as well be well-paid while you’re undecided!” Perhaps his formative years, then, prior to his move into journalism, were what helped him to make his mind up. It was, of course, a huge decision, and Gardner had to do a lot of the leg work himself “to bridge the gap between one industry and another”: this meant signing himself up for TV and radio production courses (he mentions Thames Valley University and Morley College as his favourites), shadowing cameramen, and really “just turning up to the newsroom and watching how people do the job”. It seems that Gardner learnt on the job, rather than really having any formal BBC training. International journalism isn’t something that can be taught in a classroom. Despite the enormity of his career change, it is obvious that Gardner suits the journalistic world better than he ever did the City.
Unfortunately, the future of the Middle East is something that Gardner cannot be so optimistic about.
“I would not want to give the impression that the Arab Spring has worked, because it hasn’t”
One of the world’s experts on what things are really like in the Middle East, Gardner’s impressions of the region are probably amongst the most reliable. When asked if he thought the Arab Spring was now over, he replied that it is the “appetite for dramatic change” that has been dulled, having seen how badly it has gone wrong for so many countries. But, he concedes, that does not mean that there is no desire to improve the lot of the populations. “The Arab Spring is largely seen as a disaster in a lot of countries”, he says, citing Syria as the obvious example. What has come out of this dramatic change, however, is an alteration in East-West relations. “The West has struggled to keep up”, says Gardner, with no one being able to foresee the way the Arab Spring “gathered pace like a sandstorm so quickly”. Certainly it took the world by surprise, and we are simply going to have to watch and wait to see what will happen next, “now the dust is settling”. Indeed, Gardner believes the West is heading towards a much more “hands-off approach” to the Middle East, finally admitting that we do not have the influence and the power over it that we would like to believe. This is, perhaps, one of the major outcomes of the Arab Spring: while some countries in the Middle East are now in a worse condition than they were previously, the West has come to realise that their influence is pretty limited.
“The Arab Spring certainly gave hope, sadly unrequited, to millions that there was a chance for change”
Al Qaida, Gardner says, relies on fear in order to have any power: “It needs that pathological, psychopathic, vitriolic, hate-filled ideology. It needs violence to breathe, it is like a vampire, it’s got to be able to have anger and hatred, it has got to be able to suck that stuff up in order to survive”. So, when the Arab Spring gave everyone a little glimmer of hope, Al Qaida fell onto the back foot. Gardner says that when there is that hope that things will get better, the violence of Al Qaeda “withers on the vine”- it’s got nowhere to go, nothing to hold on to. But, following Syria, things have unfortunately taken a turn for the worse. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, with the world now able to look at the countries in which it was a disaster, Al Qaida, says Gardner, can “mock the Muslim Brotherhood and those who followed it, saying ‘Did you really think that the Western powers were going to let you achieve power through the ballot box- no, the only way is through the bullet’.”
It’s a rather depressing state of affairs when Al Qaida seems to be gaining in power, but Gardner does not seem to think of the Middle East as a lost cause. Instead, he talks of the legacy that will hopefully be left in Afghanistan after our troops leave- set to happen by the end of this year. Afghanistan now has a fairly sizable trained security force of its own, and while some will of course desert or fall into the Taliban over time, this is an important step in their national independency. But more importantly, Gardner seems to believe, is that “they have now had a decade nearly of forging some kind of national identity which they did not have before, because Afghanistan is a very tribal and regional place, so if you’re in a village in Kandahar, the government in Kabul is as remote as Mercury and Pluto”: essentially, Afghanistan is all in little pieces, but they seem to have learnt that in order to pull through, some kind of unity is what is needed.
While there is some optimism, though, Gardner admits that it’s not all good news: “I think that the Taliban will creep back in”, he says- “they have already crept back in in the South, and they will get some kind of power sharing there. There is going to have to be, if that country is going to enjoy any kind of peace. If they are excluded, they will simply carry on waging war, and Afghanistan really doesn’t need that after 30 plus years of it.” He has a very pragmatic approach to the future of this war-torn country, admitting that with so much strength lying within Taliban hands, it would be foolish to try and completely push them out- and nigh on impossible. His fear is that Afghanistan will go back to its 1990’s default, of warlordism in the North, and Taliban rule in the South. There is a lot of hard work to be done to avoid this happening again.
“I have never been told what to say, what to think, how to report.”
Gardner’s job is one that comes associated with a huge dose of controversy. There’s always the chance that he is going to report something that someone out there does not want the rest of the world to know. However, he has “never come under any editorial pressure at the BBC in any direction”, he says, which is certainly reassuring to hear about our primary newscaster. It is perhaps testament to Gardner’s success as a journalist that the BBC gives him so much freedom in what he says and does: it demonstrates their trust of him, and that they know he will hit the spot with the viewers.
That does not mean to say that he has never restrained himself, or “self-edited”, as he calls it: giving the example of his time as a resident reporter in Dubai, he became aware of the existence of a “red line”: “if you cross that red line, you are probably going to get kicked out”. For Gardner, it seems, journalism is all about getting the balance right between reporting the truth, and not spreading so many secrets that no one ever tells you any secrets again. He tells a story of a huge oil slick in the Gulf, which turned out to be illegally smuggled fuel- having discovered that a senior Emirati was involved, Gardner was faced with the choice of naming him or not. It’s all about tactical decisions, so Gardner chose to keep his name to himself rather than making the self-defeating move of publicising, and consequentially getting expelled from the country. He also says that “definitely I would self-edit on things to do with terrorism”, where for example he has the chance to show people how easy it is to get a bomb on a plane. Gardner takes his role as an international journalist very responsibly, and it is clear that he doesn’t want to misuse his position of power.
From interviewing Gardner, he comes across as a hugely likeable man, with a real sense of duty when it comes to journalism. It is also interesting to note, however, the things that Gardner doesn’t talk about in interview. He is clearly an incredibly modest man, telling us that he finds it very flattering when we call him successful, and not even mentioning his OBE or his five honorary doctorates. What he has done for the world through his journalism, risking his life in war-torn countries to bring stories back to us at home, he clearly sees just as part of a day’s work. What’s more, amongst our discussions about whether he has any regrets, there is no mention of the fact that he is now largely wheelchair-bound, following a shooting while filming in Saudi Arabia in 2004, in which his cameraman Simon Cumbers was killed, and Gardner left partly paralysed. Had he stayed in investment banking, this never would have happened- but these words never cross his lips. Some might have come to resent the work that left them physically damaged, but again Gardner seems to see his injuries just as part of his duty to journalism, much as the soldiers themselves who fight in the Middle East risk their health and lives for the sake of a stronger world. The challenge that it surely must have been to return to work following the shooting is not something that Gardner dwells on even for a moment.
Personally I am left with a huge amount of respect for a man who has always been willing to risk so much to bring us the news, and despite his claims that he is not a born journalist, I can’t help but think that this is Gardner’s calling- it is rare to find a journalist so dedicated, honest, and compelling to watch, and I know that when I graduate, I will be proud to put myself in the ranks of Exeter alumni alongside him.
Fran Lowe, Online Features Editor, with thanks to Alex Carden, outgoing Features Editor, and Rowley Sword of The Witness, Exeter’s student political journal. For The Witness’s take on this interview, click here.
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