BBC security correspondent and author Frank Gardner on a life of journalism, the thrill of travel, and his love for the Middle East
In the last two decades, news media has changed - and is changing - almost beyond recognition. We’ve seen the surge first of satellite TV, and then of the Internet, and I think it’s those two things that have made the biggest difference. Nowadays, Twitter is a vital part of my life. It is a fantastic instant means of communicating stuff. That said, I don’t think there will ever be a replacement for responsible, edited journalism. For years, people have been saying; ‘Bloggers are the death of the BBC.’ No. Citizen journalism is great, but it is an adjunct; it isn’t going to replace us.
The most dramatic stories of my career came about when I was reporting on pirates in Somalia. In one story I covered, I did an embed with the Australian airforce from Dubai: they had a list of vessels that they believed had been taken over by Somali pirates. We would swoop down so low that the waves were practically coming over the wings, and their high-powered cameras would send back the digital images in real-time to Dubai.
I also embedded with a Kuwaiti merchant-ship that was sailing 100,000 tonnes of fuel oil out of Muscat to Italy. We sailed right through the Somali basin, and got pinged by pirates. The crew, who were all ex-royal marines, all came out on to the bridge wings and showed weapons to the pirates. It was thrilling.
A story I wish I’d been able to cover, but didn’t, was the so-called Arab Spring. I wanted to do Tahrir Square, in Cairo. I’ve lived twice in Egypt, I love Egypt and I speak Arabic. That whole country was changing before our eyes, and I wanted to be there – but I couldn’t do it because I’m in a wheelchair. And that is unbelievably frustrating. Being completely realistic the BBC was right not to send me - they had people having to run away from tear gas, and wheelchairs and tear gas don’t mix.
Being an author is utterly, utterly different to being a journalist. It’s very liberating writing for yourself. In my day job, I have to be absolutely nailed down, impartial, factually correct and not say anything that is going to embarrass my employers. Writing books is different. You can let it flow and express yourself. To me, good book writing is about putting the reader where you are and getting them to walk in your shoes.
I have a huge affinity for the GCC region, and we had a tremendous time living in Dubai. Being three or four hours ahead of London, being able to swim in the warm waters of the Gulf before work: it was bliss. I didn’t want to leave, but I was offered a promotion to Middle East correspondent in Cairo. It was very tough to move from Umm Suqeim to a tower block in Zamalek. Our little daughter missed Dubai so much that when I put on a video of our garden back in Dubai, she tried to put her leg inside the TV; she wanted to climb through.
That said; it was very tough setting up here in Dubai. The BBC has a business presence here, but doesn’t have a bureau. I was totally on my own. I arrived with a piece of a paper from the BBC saying; ‘We accredit Frank Gardner,’ and that was it. We had to find somewhere to live, I did all the paperwork myself, queuing in 45 degrees heat in Abu Dhabi. It was no picnic. I was so envious of people who were out here on cushy company contracts, where everything is arranged. ‘Your furniture is delivered for you.’ ‘Here’s an allowance.’
I learn as much as I can about the place and situations I’m visiting, and under what circumstances I am going there. The stints I’ve done in Afghanistan have been on very big bases, where I fly in and I’m pretty much, a part of a huge big military camp. I take the view that I’d have to be incredibly unlucky, on a base the size of Heathrow, for a rocket to land on the exact building I am in. I wouldn’t put myself on a tiny firebase. I did before my injuries: in 2003, I was on a really hairy firebase close to the Pakistani border, and that got incoming rocket fire at night. We’d gone to bed, and then at about 11pm, there were shouts of ‘Incoming!’ I thought I’d woken up in a bad Vietnam War movie.
That amazing fresh smell that says a storm is coming, and hearing the monkeys squawk and the parrots chatter – that to me is a real buzz
I’ve written a book about my love of travel – the different scents, the vibes, the different music, the colours. One of the first trips I did after my injuries, was a backpacking trip round Cambodia for a week. I hang a rucksack on the wheelchair and I travel light – I got that down to a fine art many years ago. The one thing I won’t compromise on is clean underwear. I insist on that. But you only need a few T-shirts and a decent camera, a waterproof and a hat, and you’re off. People are always very quick to offer a hand, get you up the steps of a plane in a thunderstorm.
This year one of the most exciting things I did was sit in a Bell Huey [helicopter] flying 200ft above the Amazon rainforest with the door open, with the door gunner scanning in case we got any incoming fire. I was dangling my feet over the side and looking down and seeing a flight of bright yellow and blue Macaws flying beneath me, flying over this green canopy. Everywhere I looked was green jungle, the Amazon reaching right to the horizon, with thunderclouds forming in the distance. That amazing fresh smell that says a storm is coming, and hearing the monkeys squawk and the parrots chatter – that to me is a real buzz.
Outside of work, I’m a keen skier and president of the Ski Club of Great Britain. I use a sit-ski, which I had to get used to. Earlier this year I skied in Colorado, which is about 4,000m up, so high and dry. The air is thinner and the snow is incredibly dry and powdery. I was skiing in broken powder, so perhaps 50cm deep, and it was such fun. I’m not an adrenaline junkie though. I’m not going to do something that will smash my brittle bones. I turned down a chance to go paragliding in Bavaria the other day. I’m a little like a passenger jet that is flying on two engines. I can fly on two, but I can’t fly on one.