Interview: Andrew Harding, BBC Africa correspondent

As an expat child, it may be no surprise that Andrew Harding has only just returned home to England since his first venture to Moscow over 25 years ago. After a quarter of a century in five different continents, from war zones to Al Shabbab, Andrew Harding discusses his life with Concrete’s global editor Sacha Silverstone.

So this is for our 25 issue and I read on your website that you started 25 years ago roughly?

I went abroad actually 26 years ago now. 25/26 years as a foreign reporter. I’ve never actually gone home.

What was your first international reporting job?

Well job is a tricky word. In 1991 in August/ September I went to Moscow as a freelancer with no firm job offers or commitments but some vague promises from NBC radio to perhaps do some freelancing for them and a few others. And I turned up in Moscow at a time when it was pretty chaotic and there was an awful lot of news. And the quite rigid system of creditation had pretty much collapsed so suddenly it was possible with a bit of bribery and initiative, I suppose, to go and work as a journalist.

What was your biggest surprise when you started; from what you expected from the job, or going abroad and broadcasting?

I was an expat child so being abroad wasn’t such a surprise. I suppose I was surprised at the amount of opportunities that came my way in ’91 because, as I say, this being a time when, like in China today, to work as a foreign correspondent was pretty difficult. You needed a creditation, you needed to be on the right side of the law. And suddenly I was able to fill in, for instance, on holidays for all these British and American journalists who were going “What? You can just come in? You’re available?” So career-wise that was a big breakthrough for me. You know, having to be in the right place when the bureaucracy was easing up.

You mentioned about being an expat child. So, what was that like and how is it different to living abroad as a journalist?

Very different. For most of my childhood my parents lived in Belgium and the result of that I ended up being sent back to boarding school in the UK. As strange as that experience was, I think it was useful in the sense that it made me independent, and it made it easier for me to imagine just packing my bags and going to somewhere like Moscow with no commitments and no job. It gave me that sense of, I suppose, confidence and the willingness to give it a go and not to see foreign travel as something worrying and not to be undertaken. So that gave me the push I suppose.

And how did you find being British affected how others treat you in various countries?

It’s been a big mixture. I mean, when you’re asked that question I immediately think of war zones because that’s the most obviously-extreme concern. I do remember, for instance, in Ivory Coast, Cote d’Ivore, during their civil war about seven years ago now. We drove through the length of the country in the thick of the fighting and we must have gone through at least 50/60 check points, and at each one I was very very glad I wasn’t working for RFI, the French international radio station because, as a former French colony everyone there listened to RFI’s French broadcast and many people had very strong views about them. And, you know, it would have been very dangerous for us had we been pulled out of a car and found to have been working for RFI. We could have easily have been shot. Whereas with the BBC, people didn’t listen to it so that was a huge relief. In other places, for instance in – well in a lot of places but in South Sudan, in Somalia, where the BBC still had such a reputation, such history, as essentially the national broadcaster for decades, doors open. During the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, I drove around with a friend of mine who’s the local African service reporter there, and he has the kind of celebrity as BBC man that you cannot – there’s no comparison in Britain, he’s like the queen/ the prime minister and John Humphries all rolled into one. And it’s extraordinary, we used to just laugh about it because we’d turn up anywhere and, in his wake we’d be ushered in; nothing was too much of a problem. So, that is the legacy of the BBC – and I’m talking, the BBC suppose more the main British is often a very useful thing. But now in South Africa, for instance, being British, being foreigner, as the atmosphere is beginning to change, as politics gets nastier, as the ANC (African National Congress) feels like it’s in power or might lose power, it’s playing up the colonial, imperialist rhetoric and so being British isn’t such a comfortable thing all the time. And that’s true elsewhere, of course in Kenya, another former-colonial country, and I think you have to be deeply aware as a journalist, as a foreign journalist, how, even without opening your mouth, you can be perceived just by being white, by being foreign, by being British. And it’s a very tricky line to tread because it does open doors. You know, I’ve been able to shout questions at Mugabe and President Moi, and they come over to me because I’m a tall, white foreigner and that gives me a certain access and a certain protection, if you like. And then there’s the flip side.

Do you think being British has probably been more positive than negative in your experience?

Yes, without doubt. And it’s interesting I’m thinking now about a friend of mine when we used to cover the war in Chechnya in Russia. And because she was a woman, the Russian military simply did not take her seriously at all. She was a short, British female, and spoke perfect Russian and very sensibly didn’t let on that she did. She worked for a British weekly newspaper and, because they had no sense of what people were reporting on, particularly pre-internet, a woman could easily be patronised or dismissed because there was never any follow-through; they were never going to see the newspapers she wrote for. And that’s changed a lot now and that’s levelled the playing-field in some ways.

Do you feel like your personal journalistic experience has affected your outlook on the way certain countries have been portrayed / or other events being reported?

I think the way particularly Africa is reported has changed, and I think it’s partly the internet, I think it’s partly this sense that foreign correspondents are no longer these figures who sweep into different countries and then disappear, their reports never to be seen again. We are much more aware that our reports are being consumed locally, and I think that’s a great thing. And I think that has been one element of the process where, for instance, when one’s covering famine in Somalia, one doesn’t do so purely through the perspective of foreign agencies, foreign organisations, foreign governments. I certainly – and I know my colleagues now – make lots more effort to see things in a more broad, and I think reasonable, way. That one is not seeing things from the perspective of outsiders helping.

The flip-side of that is that I think we have a much more sceptical view about foreign aid, about PR, and celebrity endorsements and campaigns about Africa and so on. So I think foreign journalism on the continent has become much more sceptical sadly about the way reports are, particularly on the humanitarian front.

What was your experience meeting Al Shabbab, being one of the few foreign reporters who have?

I met an Al Shabbab commander who defected and that was organised through the Somali government who were trying to use the high-profile defector in terms of what he’s been able to do as a defector. They were anxious to use him to put him on the media, to sort of amplify what he’d done.

The other time was actually with an active Al Shabbab commander and that was one of the times when actually we did fly in with WFP (World Food Programme), at a time just as the famine was looming 5 years ago, and WFP were the only organisation that had negotiated access to an area controlled by Al Shabbab and a rather bold WFP local boss decided to take a couple of journalists in. It was quite scary. We kept having to change our plans because of security, beheadings, attacks and so on. And when we did get on the ground, we were ushered in to meet this commander it was very clear: no cameras, no notebooks, no nothing. Also the possibility that the mood could change at any moment but it didn’t and it was a very useful experience.

How do you keep your journalistic impartiality?

It’s our job to meet unpleasant, “judgy”, dangerous people, who one might not agree with at all. But that’s the job and that’s in a way one of the most interesting parts of the job is meeting people that one doesn’t agree with; meeting people who are outside the law. Crossing those front lines that aren’t always literal but that are meeting people who are enemies of states, of countries; that’s, to me, a crucial part of the journalist’s role. So I’m not sure it’s about impartiality, although I do hope that in one’s report that comes across. I think foreign journalists, to me, the role is different to say a British journalist’s role or any mainstream British journalists reporting on home affairs. I think there is more latitude in reporting abroad in the sense that when you’re reporting back to the British public, they expect some analysis and, you know to some extent your experience and your views. I think so long as you make it clear that its your view, that I think people are often looking for guidance, I mean why should people in Britain necessarily have a view on what’s going on in South Africa or what’s going on in Kenya. And so I think the he-said-she-said journalism which we saw in Brexit campaign and so on, I think that’s not so much a problem for the foreign journalist. I think there is more latitude. And I think, for instance now with what’s going on in south Africa, the ANC is facing huge problems and huge challenges; the reality is something much more dangerous and profound and I think you have to get that across in your reporting.

Foreign Journalism now dubbed one of the most dangerous professions. Thoughts?

I think journalism full stop is one of the most dangerous professions, and it has been for some time. I think that the proliferation of media outlets, the sheer number of people now working in conflict situations, you may not for instance be there under the auspice of a big organisation with all the paraphernalia of an experience, of management, of security advisors or security training, of sat-phones, of hard-skinned vehicles and so on, makes it much more dangerous. There are just more people around in the thick of it and more chance of some of them getting hurt. I don’t say that as a criticism that’s just a fact. I also think that, and again it’s partly a reaction to the internet and to that proliferation of media outlets, and this growing chorus of scepticism of fake news and so on, that actually journalists are seen as much more partisan and are seen as much more politicised and therefore is more fair game in conflict situations. Because when you used to have a small group of foreign journalists – or not journalists per se – going in to cover say a war in Chechneya, you look out for each other. And if someone say was behaving badly and damaging everybody’s reputation – at check points or whatever – those people could be pulled aside and sa,y ” Look behave, this isn’t working for the rest of the team”. That’s an impossibility now; there are just too many people and so it’s much easier for the reputation of the journalistic fraternity to be damaged.

Has it made you want to stop?

[Laughs] No, not at all. This is a very addictive job and I think a very important job: more important than ever now when, if you believe in what you’re doing and the organisation/s you work for and you believe in the importance of journalism and in defending the reputation of good journalists; now is actually quite an inspiring time. We took our voices for granted in a way for a while, and now I think we realise that we’ve got to stand up for what we believe in because of those certainties about reputation, about credibility, about importability.

What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve been in?

The most dangerous war I’ve ever cover is probably the first Chechnya war; that was a superpower Soviet army trying to smash a very small rebel army and we were allowed to be in the thick of it. So, in terms of day-in day-out; cluster bombs, air raids, helicopter gunships, the rest of it that was spectacular.

I think possibly my closest escape may have been in Northern Uganda when I lost my temper with the President of Uganda and as a result he let me fly back in his helicopter rather than fly back in his army convoy because we had a deadline. The Ugandan army corporal who sat in my seat in our car was killed by a very powerful land mine, and had I not lost my temper that would have been me.

What advice would you have for young reporters wanting to start out?

I say there is still a role for foreign journalists: I believe the voice of the outsider in news, in literature, in art, it is incredibly valid and I reject the increasingly popular argument that only Africans should report on Africa; only Indians should report on India; only British should report on Britain. I think that’s a very reductive argument. But I also see that there are increasing financial pressures on journalists, on the industry, that make it harder for foreign correspondents, foreign reporters, to set themselves up like I did in Moscow. You don’t get paid much if you want to try and string freelance. So it’s not easy but at the same time, the opposite to that is that, when I set myself up in Moscow or Tbilisi, I had no internet. I had access to decent filming equipment; it was simply too expensive. Whereas now, with the internet, filing reports is free and easy whereas before I was having to send tapes – I would have to go to the airport and find somebody flying up to Moscow and beg them to take my cassette tapes. Or I’d have to try to find a way to send reports to London down a crackly telephone line. So the technological improvements I think have given foreign journalists a lot more opportunities. But I wouldn’t say it was easy. But I would say there are so many different ways to get into foreign journalism: I just took a shot and got on a plane and worked the few contacts that I had. And I still think that’s a good way to try; if you’re inquisitive, if you want to go abroad, the best way is just to hope on a plane. And the great, liberating thing about journalism still is that you are judged by the last piece that you filed. No one is going to ask where you studied journalism or media studies; no one is going to ask you what university you went to; they are simply here to look at the last piece or two that you filed. And that’s how I got my first newspaper pieces for the Guardian from Moscow, and I just found a friendly journalist at the Moscow bureau at the Guardian and, you know, he was kind enough to take me under his wing and push by copy to the foreign desk. Over time I got a few pieces accepted.

There are different types of foreign journalism. There are plenty of parts in the world that don’t involve great danger; but I think if you have no appetite for danger then mainstream foreign news is probably not something you should be looking at because what happens is that if you get into an organisation and thrive, you will quickly find that they will want to send you where the action is and you can’t dictate where that action is so you might find that having enjoyed covering Brussels, suddenly there’s a bomb or there’s a war and they want you to go there. So you need to think early on about whether that’s the sort of thing you want to do because although organisations, BBC included, say it’s absolutely alright to say no, to refuse places and it won’t affect your career, the truth is that if you’re not prepared to go to war zones and you want to be taken seriously as a foreign journalist, it probably is going to have some impact.

And you have a book coming out?

 My first book is out now – The Mayor of Mogadishu- a life story of a Somali guy I got to know who lived in London for 20 years during the war and went back as mayor. It’s my attempt to capture something of Somalia that’s not dry journalistic-y; it is more of a kind of novel.

The book I’m working on now is based on a true crime; a double murder in a small farming town near Johanessburg last year. The trial is about to start it is a kind of murder mystery that I hope will capture some of the pressures on South Africa at the moment about land and about race and about the collapse of institutions. Above all it is supposed to be a good old-fashioned court room murder trial. It’s called Crater’s Edge.






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October 2021
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