Thursday 12 December 2019

I'll happily take a guy with a gun over the clown with the clipboard any day

A foreign correspondent's life can be terribly boring, but there are moments when a small victory over some jumped-up jobsworth makes it all very worthwhile

'The greater pressure on the free press these days comes from the limitless noise of the net where online thugs hound any journalist they disagree with' (stock photo)
'The greater pressure on the free press these days comes from the limitless noise of the net where online thugs hound any journalist they disagree with' (stock photo)

Fergal Keane

If I counted the hours of waiting, they would take up a good part of a lifetime. The depths of frustration involved have been fathomless. I have lost count of the times I solemnly declared: "I am too old for this nonsense." Of course, I keep doing it. I am no longer fit for anything else. The habits of cunning, evasion, despair and the transient elations of the road are too deeply engrained for a change at this point.

But I make this declaration: Give me the straightforward sound of the guns any day before the devious murmurings of the bureaucrats. Give me a sniper-infested suburb before slick bullies behind desks.

My first experience of bureaucratic torment was on a trip to Sudan and Eritrea with a group of MEPs in the 1980s. I recall the late Niall Andrews of Fianna Fail, a fine travelling companion, putting up a particularly spirited defence of the free press when we were held in a stifling police hut in the desert. Andrews had courage aplenty. He was an easy man to like.

The doltish sergeant was convinced we were a team of spies. Niall Andrews forcefully persuaded him otherwise, possibly, if my memory is correct, dangling in front of him the prospect of a transfer to an even more remote part of that desolate landscape. "When the President hears of how we are being treated he will be furious." Etc.

Late in the night, a triumphant Niall wandered out of the compound to relieve himself. Sadly, the absence of streetlights resulted in some collateral damage. He did not see the pack of feral dogs sleeping directly in his line of fire. We were woken by blood-curdling howls and a scattering of choice profanities as the politician fled back to safety. The dogs of Kassala were the first to experience what it felt like to be p***ed on by Fianna Fail. An entire nation would share the experience some decades later.

All those hours of being messed around at checkpoints, immigration, customs, government offices, rebel headquarters, came rushing back this week in the shiny tedium of Dubai international airport. It was after midnight and we'd travelled all day. A further two-and-a-half hours of driving beckoned. I needed food and sleep urgently.

Here I want to let you in on the biggest secret of the television foreign correspondent's life. Much of the time it is terribly boring, a battle of logistics, of moving mountains of boxes and wires on and off aircraft, getting them packed and re-packed into taxis, vans, even occasionally strapping them to the backs of animals. All for the glory of three minutes on the nightly news. Without the pictures there is no story. The newspaper reporter needs a notebook and a computer. Without a camera I am wasting my time.

So when the woman at security called out "Camera!" and pointed ominously towards a side room I knew we were in trouble. My partner on the road for some years now is a genial and wily cameraman, Tony Fallshaw. We have shared trenches, mud floors, cold rations, boredom and a lot of danger. Mr Fallshaw is a little too south of the Thames to be a proper Cockney, but he brings all the charm, cunning and ingenuity of the true Londoner to his calling.

On this occasion he smiled ingratiatingly at our interlocutor. It was a smile that would have melted the heart of a tax inspector, but not the customs staff of Dubai airport. We were passed to a superior officer, an honours graduate of the charm school who quickly announced that he was impounding our equipment.

"You need the letter," he declared. Ah, the letter. The letter. The letter. If it is not the letter it is the stamp, and if not the stamp it is the fax, and if not the fax it is the email, and if not the email it is the personal word of the deputy secretary of the ministry, or the clearance of the special assistant to the Field Marshall. Different countries, different demands, but all adding up to the same purpose: we can make your life difficult and we will.

The fleeting joys I referred to earlier lie chiefly in circumventing the obstacles put in our way by the enemies of the free press. They are multiplying in number these days. Many work for governments. They still man the roadblocks and waste our time in stuffy offices. However, our experience in Dubai was almost nostalgic, a hark back to another age.

The greater pressure on the free press these days comes from the limitless noise of the net where online thugs hound any journalist they disagree with. The internet troll factories and the armies of the self-righteous routinely unleash streams of hate in the name of left and right. Unlike the men on the roadblocks or in government offices, the online bullies follow you home. They occupy the most private space - if you let them.

My strategy is to handle praise and abuse with a determined indifference. Let it wash over you. To hell with the haters.

The sojourn in Dubai ended well. By various strategies we managed to make television. I also managed to swim in the Indian Ocean and watch the sun set over the desert. I'll stick to this job for a while yet.

The writer is a Special Correspondent with BBC News.

Sunday Independent

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