BBC’s James Landale on conflict, cancer and why we get it so wrong with death

January 19, 2024. Series 7. Episode 80

In this episode I am joined by the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent James Landale.

Drawing on a 30-year career spent on the front line of so many political and geopolitical crises, James offers insight into the role that diplomacy can – must – play in resolving the conflict in the Middle East and across a troubled world.

Reflecting on his experience living with cancer, James offers invaluable advice on coping with chemotherapy. He talks movingly about how he approached a sudden diagnosis of Non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his recovery and how it altered his view on life … and the flawed way we approach death and grief.

My thanks to James for such an interesting, moving and useful conversation. I hope you enjoy the episode.


Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning:

Some Velvet Morning Website:

Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream:

Production team:

Host – Andy Coulson

CWC production team: Louise Difford and Jane Sankey

With special thanks to Global

For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]

Full transcript

James Landale:                 [0:00:00] Noticed there was a bit of a lump in my, in my neck. Then there’s that awful moment where you’re told, “We’ve ruled pretty much everything else out, so we think it could well be cancer.” I think the worst period was the uncertainty, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with.

Andy Coulson:  [0:00:18] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, welcome, and please do hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

My guest today is one of Britain’s most respected broadcasters, someone who has worked at the frontline of crisis on our behalf for more than twenty years. James Landale is the BBC’s Diplomatic Correspondent and former Deputy Political Editor. During that time he has had a seat in the front row of endless political and geopolitical dramas.

Right now, with his trademark calm, clear reporting and analysis, James is helping us make sense of the events in Israel and Gaza, perhaps the greatest diplomatic challenge of recent times.

He is also no stranger to personal crisis. In 2008 after discovering a lump in his neck he was diagnoses with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. James’ attitude to facing down that challenge was just like his reporting; no nonsense, but also powerful.

Not long after his diagnosis, he said this: “There’s this absurd idea of battling cancer, as if you have some kind of choice about it. That language is wrong, because cancer is a nasty, ghastly thing that happens to you, and it’s the doctors that do the battling.” The experience also caused James to question our attitudes about death and grief, we’ll talk about that today.

So, this really is a conversation with someone who has worked around crisis, helping us to better understand it, but who has also lived it himself.

James Landale, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

James Landale:                 [0:02:05] Thank you very much indeed, what an amazing introduction.

Andy Coulson:  [0:02:07] How are you?

James Landale:                 [0:02:08] I’m very well. I’m very glad to be here.

Andy Coulson:  [0:02:10] You’ve just come back from Israel. Give us a feel please for the mood there, I suppose.

James Landale:                 [0:02:17] As ever, my job is I get snapshots. I go to different places, I rush around a bit. But I went with David Cameron the Foreign Secretary, and we went to one of the kibbutzim near to Gaza that had been attacked on October 7th. And you know, also went with the Foreign Secretary to Ramallah to talk to Palestinian leaders. So you get an impression.

And the impression I got from visiting the kibbutz was just the sheer mundanity of the violence. The domesticity of it. You know, we are used to seeing on our screens violence that- you see rubble in streets, you see the fighting, missile strikes, you see trenches in Ukraine, those are our images of war.

Whereas the attack on the kibbutzim and the attack in other areas of Israel on October 7th by Hamas was against people in their homes. These kibbutzim, they are leafy. I know them quite well because as I student I worked on one. I spent a lot of time shovelling cow manure and milking cows, so I know what kibbutzim are like. They are sort of leafy communities, and you know, we went into one of the properties that had been burnt out.

And essentially what happened was that the attackers had set fire, quite often by exploding the gas that’s used for fuel, and they had either- the people who stayed inside were burned alive, and those who tried to flee were shot.

And when you’re standing in a room that still reeks of acrid soot, and the smell, and suddenly you realise that you’ve leant against something and your whole arm is covered in black, and you’ve got the Foreign Secretary and his Israeli counterpart being told by a witness precisely what happened, it just brings it home to you.

I mean, a lot of my job as a Diplomatic Correspondent is to step back, to get a general overall view of what’s going on so I can tell the audience, you know, what are the Americans saying, what are the Gulf States saying? But sometimes you’ve got to go down to the absolute visceral centre of a story so that you are better able to report the general, the wider.

It’s why this year I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Ukraine just doing some general reporting but also, you know, talking to my world of ministers and diplomats there. So that you can just get a sense of what it’s like to be in Ukraine, to live that life, so that when again I’m talking about the general I’ve got a sense of the specific.

So that’s what I learned on the trip; just the sense of trauma that I think Israel is still experiencing, the initial response as a nation, as a people, to a crisis like this, was instructive, I learned a lot.

Andy Coulson:  [0:05:27] Is it the most sort of visceral example that you’ve experienced of the sort of connection between diplomacy and its impact on human beings? Because this is an epic diplomatic and humanitarian crisis.

James Landale:                 [0:05:46] This is not the first war, there have been lots of wars. And you can go to lots of conflicts around the world, you know, whether it is in the Democratic Republic of Congo or whether it’s in parts of the Sahel, or as I said, Ukraine most recently for us. And you know, war is war, and when the fighting is taking place there’s not a lot that diplomacy can do.

I remember at the beginning of the Ukraine war after Russia’s invasion there were a series of talks. There were actually negotiations between the Ukrainians and the Russians that happened on the border. And then there were talks that took place.

I remember going to the southern Turkish city of Antalya where there were talks taking place, and you know, the Russian Foreign Minister turned up. And throughout it I was going, “What on Earth are we doing here? Why are we here?” Because the talks were utterly pointless, because when the fighting is at its harshest and its most fierce, there’s very, very little that diplomacy can do. Diplomacy is what happens a bit later, normally.

What is different about this crisis and this war that’s taking place right now is that there is a role for diplomacy in shaping what can happen. How much can the West and the Americans and other allies of Israel restrain Israeli action on the ground? How much can the Arab states, the Gulf states, play a role in negotiations in trying to think about what happens the day after? All of those things.

So in other words there is a role in this war now in terms of the potential for escalation.

So for example, if you were to ask me, “Is this the worst crisis that we’ve seen in the Middle East or the world for a bit?” I have a natural journalist distrust of any superlative. Because the moment you say, “This is the biggest, the greatest, the strongest,” somebody will ring up or write in and say, “I’m terribly sorry but I’m afraid you’re wrong because of this.”

But I think what is I think serious about this is the potential risk of escalation. And actually that’s the dog that hasn’t barked so far. Because thus far Iran has got enough messaging from the West and from other people in the region to say, “We don’t think it’s in you interest or our interest or anybody’s interest for this thing to escalate.” So there has not been a second front launched from Lebanon, from Hezbollah. There has not been a second front launched yet within the West Bank with more fighting taking place there. There hasn’t been a substantive attack from Iranian backed militias in Iraq or in parts of Syria.

Now, there has been cross-border fire, people have died, you know, it’s not great. But it hasn’t been overwhelming in a way that potentially loses control. So I think that you know, we’re still- this story is still developing, it could get worse is I suppose the point I’m making.

Andy Coulson:  [0:09:10] I guess when I make the point about the close connection in this case between the diplomacy and the humanitarian, the human element of this, I suppose what I’ve got in mind really, and we’re talking in the midst of the hostage releases, and how long that lasts and how many people actually end up being released we’ll see.

But it’s been pretty- that process, I mean you tell me from your experience, does that feel swifter than usual? Does it feel like the ability to get the right people in a room to have the right conversations, to kind of address the sharp end and the risks as you just described, does that feel like it’s kind of working a bit swifter than you might have expected? Given the levels of absolute anger, fear, hatred that sits in the middle of all this.

James Landale:                 [0:10:08] It’s a good question. I think what has- there have been negotiations, and the reason that those negotiations have borne some fruit in terms at least of the release of the hostages is I think a function of the fact that throughout this crisis talking has continued. Channels of communication have remained open.

So for example there was one occasion when Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, did a tour of the region and during one of those he went to see the Prime Minister of Iraq in Baghdad, and literally almost the moment that Tony Blinken left to go to his next location the Prime Minister of Baghdad was on a plane to Tehran carrying the US message.

Now obviously the US and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, if there is any communication it’s through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. But there is communication taking place. And that is a, you know, I hate to use the phrase ‘positive’ in a crisis like this, but that is something that could have been worse. So talking is taking place.

And that means that within that communication it is possible for a country like Qatar which has relations with Hamas to play a negotiating intermediary role so that you can actually have the communication that allows these deals to be done, so that at least some hostages can get out.

So has that happened quickly? Yes, reasonably. Reasonably. But also remember, there are other factors here. There’s a widespread sort of speculation, because we don’t know, but there’s speculation that Hamas took more hostages than expected, and that actually you know, controlling that number of people, housing them, feeding them, making sure that they’re safe, making sure they can’t be recaptured, is a logistical burden that I think Hamas might be not unhappy to reduce the scale of that burden. Remember, there are still a lot of hostages left.

Andy Coulson:  [0:12:21] Yes, yes. When you saw the news of the attacks break on October 7th, what were your first thoughts? You know, beyond the obvious human tragedy your professional mind moves immediately to the sort of diplomatic, presumably. And you could see the scale of this epic diplomatic challenge. What were your first thoughts when you saw it?

James Landale:                 [0:12:42] My first thought was, “How does Israel respond? How hard, how fast does it respond militarily?” My second thought was, “Oh crikey.” This is an issue that has been neglected diplomatically for quite a long time by a lot of parties, not just the Americans but also in the Gulf. Because of the so-called Abraham accords, these deals that some Arab countries did with Israel where they said, you know, “We want to have diplomatic relations with Israel. We want to share trade, security, all those kinds of things.” These Abraham accords were supposed to have some regard to the Palestinian issue but they didn’t, the Palestinian issue was sort of pushed to one side.

And so my second thought was, “Okay, there’s going to be a lot of catching up to be done here.” And then my third thought was, “Okay, what does this mean for Ukraine?” Because Ukraine had been front of centre of my mind and so many other people’s minds for so long, suddenly you’ve got a crisis like this, what does that mean for the other crises that the world is facing? Are we going to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time? And you know, I think the jury is out on that.

Andy Coulson:  [0:14:04] Yes. How do you approach- how do we approach that? Because that’s just the reality of news, is the focus shifts and moves, and one imagines right now that you’re getting a lot of calls from the Ukrainians, “Don’t forget about us. What about our airtime? What about our coverage to keep this thing alive?”

James Landale:                 [0:14:31] I think that the media- the media is actually quite like government sometimes. It’s a bit short-term, it’s a bit micro-focussed, it focusses on the thing in front of it. If you think, for so long we covered in detail the war in Syria and the siege of Aleppo, and then almost overnight we sort of forget about it. But that war continues; there’s still fighting going on in Syria. Obviously it’s not as intense as it was then, but there is still fighting going on there.

I mean, the other day I did a story about human rights abuses in Darfur in Sudan that was based on- because no one is allowed in at the moment, but we- I did some work with an organisation that is using lots of open source data, NASA technology that identifies heat spots, so you can identify which villages are being burned by the rebels. And then attaching that to social media so that you can create a story of how these militias are just going around torching villages, that the British Government describes as ethnic cleansing.

Now, that’s a story that I felt should get on. I had to kind of, you know, muscle it on, I had to kind of push my bosses and say, “Look, I still think this is worthwhile doing,” and it got on, but it wasn’t an automatic sell.

Andy Coulson:  [0:15:53] Let’s go back to the beginning if we can, James. Journalism was always the thing for you? I mean, when you were- tell me a little bit about your upbringing. How did you get to the point were journalism was the choice?

James Landale:                 [0:16:06] There was no journalism thoughts at all. My father looked back on it and eventually he found that he thought that we’d once had a cricket correspondent of The Spectator magazine in some dim distant past, was the closest we’d ever come to journalism as a family.

What happened was- I mean, I’d always like writing as a kid at school, and writing little essays and stuff like that. But what happened was when I was at university, Bristol University, they had a newspaper for the whole student body in Bristol, and I’m not sure it was as good as it could be. And so the-

Andy Coulson:  [0:16:50] You’re studying politics?

James Landale:                 [0:16:52] Politics, yes. International Relations, stuff like that. And the Student Union decided, “No, we’re going to set up our own newspaper.” So they separated from the sort of news magazine that went off to the Poly in those days, and they set up a newspaper. And I thought, “That looks fun.” So I thought, “They’re not going to make me Editor but I’ll apply and they might make me Sports Editor or something like that.”

For some reason anyway, I got the job. So suddenly I found myself, in my third year when I’m supposed to be doing my finals, setting up a newspaper. The only thing I had no control over, which had been made by some other committee, was the name. It was called Epigram, which I never really liked. But it stayed and it’s there to this day, and it’s got a staff of sixty and it’s flourishing and it’s fantastic.

Andy Coulson:  [0:17:41] Amazing. We’re going to get onto this because resilience is a subject that we’re very interested in on this podcast, and I think there’s a conversation to be had with you about it.

When you look back at your upbringing, your schooling, your early life, seeds of resilience there? I mean, trouble-free, problem-free upbringing?

James Landale:                 [0:18:05] I had an incredibly happy childhood. I went to lovely schools, but I was sent away to school and I think that gives you resilience. It gives you a capacity to-

Andy Coulson:  [0:18:15] You weren’t at school with David Cameron, my former boss? But you kind of were there at the same time?

James Landale:                 [0:18:20] We were there at the same time but he was a couple of years above me so I didn’t really know him.

And so you learn- I went away to school when I was just 8, in terms of boarding. You know, there’s another time and place for whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what it does do is it teaches you resilience. So I have a huge capacity to think and be by myself and just cope, because you have to do that from a very early age.

Andy Coulson:  [0:18:56] A bit sink or swim.

James Landale:                 [0:18:58] Yes, it was a bit sink or swim. And I can remember developing coping strategies, because I’d be surrounded- I can remember being in a dormitory and there would be boys sobbing with homesickness and stuff like that. For some it’s worse than other, and things like that.

And I can remember thinking myself into another place. And I would do it by a physical- I would turn myself over in the bed to face the wall and-

Andy Coulson:  [0:19:26] And imagine a different-

James Landale:                 [0:19:26] And imagine myself somewhere else. And I would, you know. And it wasn’t escapism, because I wasn’t unhappy, but it was just, I’m placing myself somewhere else.

Andy Coulson:  [0:19:40] Where was that somewhere else?

James Landale:                 [0:19:42] Oh, wherever I happened to- somewhere on holiday, or back home, or doing something like that. And I think that that- I am able to do that. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I can always place myself somewhere else.

About twenty years ago I took part in round the world yacht race where you’re- some of the races are three weeks long. So you’re on a boat for three weeks, 60 foot long, fourteen or fifteen other people on the boat. There’s nowhere to escape. And so you have to be able to, at times just mentally place yourself elsewhere. And that’s a coping mechanism. It’s not an unusual one.

Andy Coulson:  [0:20:25] And in terms of your family, seeds of resilience as well? I mean, your parents, you mentioned your dad there, do you recognise your- when you think about your attitude to crisis, to difficult moments? We’ve often had the debate on this pod about whether or not it’s biography or biology, the classic debate. Where do you- what do you recognise in terms of your background in that mix?

James Landale:                 [0:20:54] I had a very happy family background, can’t ever remember my parents ever raising their voices to each other, the closest they came to anger was an occasional pregnant pause. But my father was an incredibly calm, measured man.

Andy Coulson:  [0:21:14] What did he do for a living, out of interest?

James Landale:                 [0:21:15] He worked for the West Midlands Engineering Employers’ Association. Which is essentially a mouthful that means he was the sort of professional negotiator for big West Midlands industries at the height of all the big industrial crises of the 1960, ‘70s and ‘80s.

Andy Coulson:  [0:21:36] Right okay, and it was a lively time.

James Landale:                 [0:21:37] So you know, British Leyland, all that sort of stuff. There were times when, you know, there were threats and things like that because of what he was doing. But equally when he died I was rung up by a former union boss who had run one of the big unions, who was now a peer of the realm, who just said, “I just want to let you know that your dad was the best guy to negotiate with.” And he said, “He saved my career on several occasions.”

So my father was an incredibly calm, measured, logical person. But equally robust.

Andy Coulson:  [0:22:16] I mentioned it in the intro. Your brand, as someone watching, and who has worked with you from a distance a bit, we’ll get onto that, when I was working with David Cameron, your brand is calm and measured. You are not tempted by the hysterical at all. Your inclination always seems to be, “Well, hang on. Let’s just take our time with this a bit.” Far more measured than, I would argue, an awful lot of people who find themselves on television.

James Landale:                 [0:22:55] I’m a great believer in the William Hague dictum that things are never as good as people think they are, and they are never as bad as people think they are.

Secondly, I spent many years on The Times sitting next to a very wise man called Peter Riddell, who was The Times Political Commentator for many, many years. And I remember him telling me very, very early on, he said, “James, if you want to be a good journalist remember your history.” And what he meant by that was not knowing you Tudors and Stuarts, but just remembering what happened last week, and the month before, and the year before. So that when something happens you can give the reader or the viewer a sense of context.

The risk of live television, 24-hour news, is that the way you get cut through is by saying, “This is the most extraordinary, outrageous-” you know, sort of victory for somebody, or the most utter disaster for somebody. And you know, that sort of hyperbole gets cut through and for some people it works. For me it doesn’t.

So you’re right, my natural inclination is just to be cautious, just to step back. Because I think that increasingly as media and information becomes more frantic, faster, and more uncontrolled as we have seen on social media, there is a value for the audience and for the reader to have some voices in the system that just go, “Hang on a minute, let’s step back, let’s give a bit of context to all of this.” And to say, “This is the thing that matters, and the rest of it not so much.” And I think there’s a market for that. I think the audience likes that.

Now, there are downsides for being Mr Cautious, because it means that you’re not pushing the envelope. So for example, there are some brilliant journalists who are fantastic story getters, who are pushing the envelope all the time. They crash and burn occasionally because they get something wrong, but they also get a lot right, and that’s fantastic, that’s a core part of journalism.

Andy Coulson:  [0:25:09] Have you had to resist that? Because you’re right, that is the fashion, right?

James Landale:                 [0:25:13] No, I think people know me well enough to know that-

Andy Coulson:  [0:25:16] Early days I mean I suppose, in truth.

James Landale:                 [0:25:17] Yes, maybe in the early days. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything I was uncomfortable about, but one or two occasions where I’ve kind of thought, you know, sort of- you know, you’ve said, “But that’s wrong,” “But I’d like to reflect it in the story in some capacity.” “Well, I don’t know.”

But let me give you an example. Some time ago I wrote a story about Priti Patel, who was then the International Development Secretary. And she had been holding secret meetings with senior Israeli figures, without telling the Prime Minister, without telling the Foreign Office. And this was the story that ultimately led to her resignation.

Andy Coulson:  [0:26:00] I remember, yes.

James Landale:                 [0:26:02] And I had heard pretty early on that one of the people she had met was Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister. But I did not report that fact until she confirmed it herself in her on-the-record statement just moments before she resigned, because I didn’t have a second source on it.

Now, some of my colleagues would have gone, because that was the next line, the next development, you know, “She didn’t just meet some Ministers, she met the Prime Minister.” But I knew that as a story, the moment I got anything wrong the whole edifice would collapse. And so at that point I never actually reported that.

So in other words, my natural inclination on a story where I’m investigating something and I’m pushing the boundaries, I’m uber cautious, making sure that each step happens so that there’s a strong edifice and the journalism is good. Not just for its own self, but also strategically. Because the moment you get something wrong, even if the rest of your story is right, you lose the credibility.

Andy Coulson:  [0:27:08] It’s also about confidence though, following that process, right? To be able to resist the emotion of it all as well, it’s exciting right?

James Landale:                 [0:27:18] Yes, no it is, yes.

Andy Coulson:  [0:27:18] You’re on the edge of a story, I’m sure you were convinced it was absolutely right, but you’re policing yourself along the way. Not everybody applies that kind of process to themselves.

James Landale:                 [0:27:33] It’s why throughout my career, and you would know far more about it than me, but whenever people say, “James, there’s a dossier isn’t there? This newspaper has got a dossier on this person, on that person, and they’re just waiting for the right moment.” And I’ve said, “If you know anything about journalists, if they have a story they want to get it out there.” a) because they’re excited by it and that’s what drives them, but b) because they don’t want it to get scooped by somebody else. And so this idea that you hold onto stuff, it is difficult.

Andy Coulson:  [0:27:58] Yes. Also the use of the word dossier is a nonsense as well. I’ve yet to see a dossier, I don’t know about you. Yes, interesting.

James, I think we first met in 2007 when I went to work for David, as I touched on. You were- we’ve discussed it there, you were super professional. But you also had a- I always felt a sort of sense of humour about it. You had a good sense of the absurdity, on level, of British politics.

James Landale:                 [0:28:33] You know, in life in general. You know, you’ve got to have an eye for the fun and enjoy what you’re doing. But also there’s a sort of professional point of view to it, which is this; if you cannot have fun in your job to some element, to some degree, and not be enthusiastic about what you’re doing, that comes out in the journalism. If you are telling a story and you’re a bit flat about it, the audience is going to sense that and say, “Well, why should we be interested in this?” And so sometimes a little bit of humour and a little bit of humanity just lifts the story slightly.

Where I think the whole- your point about knowing that it’s a game, where I think now it’s slightly more serious, is the fact that so many stories are now seen through the Westminster prism where there’s almost an unwritten, unspoken complicity between politician and journalist, where a line is given. And in the old days it would be, you’re flying a kite and a minister would speak something, say something, knowing that what they were saying was nonsense but just to get the idea out there just to see what would happen.

I think that now has become almost sort of explicit, and I think that my own views, I call it story inflation. There are almost too many journalists chasing too few stories.

Andy Coulson:  [0:30:02] I suppose perhaps the bigger point there that that leads to is crisis inflation more broadly, right? Is that process fuelling crisis? We’ve talked a bit about the actual word itself on this podcast. What’s your relationship with the word crisis? Do you check yourself before you use that word in a report? Do you fear maybe that we are over using it in the way that, you know, as part of that kind of story inflation process that you’ve just described?

James Landale:                 [0:30:38] Yes, no, I do think carefully before using it because it’s easy to over use it. That’s true of a lot of words in journalism and I think you’ve just got to be cautious about doing that. I think that what we’ve had though in recent years is an astonishing number of things that you can call crises. There is now a generation of political journalists who has only really known the Brexit years, and people of our generation we forget that. That actually politics and the way it’s covered and the way it’s done has changed substantially.

And I know in my world of sort of diplomacy, I spend a lot of time with former Cabinet Ministers and former Permanent Secretaries and former spooks and people like that. There’s a lot of discussion about how politics is broken, how it needs to change, how do you- how do you get the body politic to try and think longer term? To try and step back a bit and not be gripped by the immediate crisis that’s on their mobile phone in front of them?

Andy Coulson:  [0:31:48] And the answer to that?

James Landale:                 [0:31:49] Very few. Very, very few.

Andy Coulson:  [0:31:51] Yes Because technology is driving it as well, as you say.

James, can we move to October 2008? You were diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. You had noticed I think a sort of persistent lump in your neck. Can you just tell me, how did you react to the diagnosis? Obviously you remember the moment, the day. Was it a bolt from the blue or had you been- had the process been slower than that?

James Landale:                 [0:32:30] I noticed there was a bit of lump in my neck, and I thought kind of you know, that’s just a gland that’s blown up, I’m a bit knackered. But it stayed, and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to get this checked out.” So you know, I went to the GP and just went through a sort of process. There’s quite a lot of ruling things out before you get to, “Hm, it might be cancer.”

And then there’s that awful moment when you’re told, “We’re ruled pretty much everything else out so we think it could well be cancer but we don’t know, so you’ve got to go and see a specialist.” And then what happens is you go and see the specialist and-

So I think the worst period was the uncertainty, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. There’s the wild imagination of the worst case scenario. There was a tricky few days during that period of uncertainty, but once I’d actually sat down with a doctor who said, “Right. This is what you’ve got, this is what we’re going to do about it, this is the plan,” then it becomes just something you deal with and something you sort.

Andy Coulson:  [0:33:37] And you clicked into that pretty immediately, did you? Because I remember having a conversation with you actually, I don’t think it was that long after your diagnosis, because obviously you were going to be taking some time off work. And I just remember how incredibly calm you were about it all. You’d seemed to have- and I don’t know whether or not you’d just kind of, frankly that was the way you were going to handle it publicly or with colleagues, with people that you were working with, or whether that was actually the case. I mean, presumably a bit of a mix, but I don’t know.

James Landale:                 [0:34:10] Look, I was incredibly lucky. I had- I’m not sure if this is the right phrase or is a good phrase, but you know, what I call a good cancer. I think there is a huge difference between being told, “You’ve got a cancer, this is the rough-” You know, because I’m a journalist I asked the tough questions. “What are my chances? What are the death rates?” all that sort of stuff.

Andy Coulson:  [0:34:34] You went straight to that-

James Landale:                 [0:34:36] Absolutely, yes. And if you’ve been told, “Right. You’ve got a cancer. It is treatable, we can fix this, and you’re going to do the following treatment,” that is one scenario. If you’re told, “You’ve got a cancer and we’re going to manage this but we’re not going to be able to sort this entirely,” that is a different scenario entirely.

So that when I was being treated and going through all of that, what was an incredibly positive thing for me, and a supportive thing, was the knowledge that all these ghastly things that I was feeling was for a good cause. It was making me better, this was fixable sort of. And I think mentally that process is very different to one where you know this is what you’ve got for the rest of life and it’s just about managing it and controlling it and containing it, you know, to a lesser or greater degree.

And I think once you’ve sorted that, then you can deal with it.

The thing that I think- the problem with that approach if you are the patient is that it makes you quite selfish. Because you’ve got something to focus on, you’ve got this treatment. You’re going to draw up schedules and you’re going to know what you’re going to, and you’ve got a plan. This is what you’re going to do, “I’m going to take these pills then, I’m going to see that doctor then, and get that poison in then.” So you sort of go into practical mode, and I think there is a risk that you forget the people around you who don’t have that to grab hold of. They don’t have a structure or a thing to focus on themselves, they’re just worrying about you. And I think this is something that whenever I talk to people about cancer I always say, “Talk to the partner. Find out how the partner, how the family are.” Because they have a burden too and they don’t really have an outlet for it. All they’ve got is their worry.

Andy Coulson:  [0:36:37] Yes. How did your family react?

James Landale:                 [0:36:40] Well, my kids were very young so you know, apart from having Daddy home a lot with no hair, you know, Daddy’s ill, he’s having special medicine, he’s going to get better. You know, it was a sort of, you know. And it was great; I saw more of my young family than I would have done, it was a great thing. So you know, more bath times and all that.

Andy Coulson:  [0:37:00] You just took the positive straight out of it.

James Landale:                 [0:37:01] Yes, you have to. You have to.

Andy Coulson:  [0:37:03] And your wife?

James Landale:                 [0:37:04] You know what? The best thing was, the doctor who gave us the bald truth said, “Right, I want you to come and see me. I’ve got the results, I need you to come in tomorrow at 5 o’clock.” I said, “I can’t bring my wife because it’s school pick up and all that sort of thing.” And he said, “No, we’re not having this meeting unless your wife is there.” So you know, sort child care. My wife comes too, and the doctor then sort of tells you what you’ve got.

Now, I was aware enough because you know, I was in journalist mode so I had my notebook out and was writing down what he said. Because I’m aware of crisis, that sometimes you don’t absorb all the information in one go.

Andy Coulson:  [0:37:49] Yes.

James Landale:                 [0:37:50] And so I was writing it all down just in case I kind of forgot. But the crucial point, and the reason the doctor insisted on my wife being there, is so that she heard the absolute truth. Because the problem, he said, was that with a lot of patients one of two things happen. Either the patient exaggerates, “Oh, I’m about to die,” or they are very stiff upper lip and they go, “Oh, it’s a little trouble, I’ll be fine.” And the partner doesn’t know which it is. You know, is your partner being brave, are they putting on a brave face about it, what’s really going on?

And I think it’s so good to have the partner hear from somebody who, you know, metaphorically has got a stethoscope around their neck, in other words a trusted person who is going to say, “Right. This is what it is, this is how you’re going to sort it, this is what it means for you for the next whatever.” You know, even if it’s done without any kind of bedside manner. The unvarnished truth I think has an advantage.

Andy Coulson:  [0:38:54] That’s interesting, and that’s a really useful piece of advice. So if the doctor doesn’t insist on that in the way that yours did, have that in your own mind. Have someone with you if you can.

James Landale:                 [0:39:06] I think you know, in this podcast you’ve talked a lot about the importance of information, and I think that- and what you can do in a crisis, what you can control and what you can’t control. I went into practical mode. So I insisted on getting telephone numbers, mobile numbers. I said, “Right, I want the mobile number of the support nurse, so that when I get-”

Because basically whenever you’re being given chemotherapy they say, “Right, here’s the list of possible side effects,” and there’s always a blank space at the bottom where they say, “There’s always one special one just for you.” You know, whatever. And I wanted to know, “When I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and I’ve got this side-effect, what do I do about it? I want to have somebody who I can text.” You know, they’re not going to wake up in the middle of the night but they’ll text me in the morning and say, “Right, do this. Take that pill, go and do this,” whatever. And so I was in information mode, and I think just to have your partner or wife sit there and just absorb it themselves I think is incredibly good.

Andy Coulson:  [0:40:10] Very good. I do think though the idea of encouraging people to behave like a reporter when in crisis is not without value. Because I suspect actually that you extracted a lot of fairly useful information from that. And also the process for you was a helpful one, right? it gave you a plan, gave you a roadmap, gave you a way to kind of move forward. It’s an interesting idea; be more of a reporter when you’re in crisis.

Tell us about the treatment, James. Because it was pretty brutal. We had a previous guest, Sarah Standing, who I think had exactly the same cancer as you, perhaps a slightly different variant I’m not sure. But also like you, really put through it from the chemo point of view. I think you had six rounds, am I right? And it’s pretty tough stuff. What do you remember about that time?

James Landale:                 [0:40:59] Look, everybody’s chemotherapy or radiation or whatever they’ve got, everybody’s treatment is different, and different cancers have different chemos. Chemo is a bit of a misnomer to some extent because it’s so different.

Anyway, because I was relatively young and the nature of what I had meant that they basically gave me both barrels. And it completely knocked my socks off. So you know, I took a lot of time off work when I was doing it. There were some days when getting up and having a shower was the victory. You know, you get up, have a shower, and then you go back to bed and have a sleep for two hours because you couldn’t cope with anything else.

The weirdest thing was the steroids. They give you steroids when you’re having chemotherapy. I’m no scientist so forgive me if I get this wrong, but I think what it does is it sort of tees up the body’s cells to better received the chemo. But the problem with steroids is they have other side-effects. I remember the doctor saying to me, “You might feel a little low when you come off them,” because you have them for a short period of time then you- you know, for each round.

Anyway, I can remember sitting somewhere, I was reading an early John le Carré novel, and I suddenly realised there were tears streaming down my face. And it was a particularly- you know, it was a tense moment in the novel, and I thought, “Okay, this is a John le Carré novel. I’ve never cried before when reading John le Carré.” I said, “Why am I doing this?” And then I sort of worked it back, and I realised that I’d just stopped taking my steroids.

And essentially what my team advised me to do is to keep a diary of your treatment so you know how you feel when, so that when you have your next round you can anticipate how you’re going to feel. So I thought, “Crikey, what is this?” So anyway, as it happened a friend of mine who is a vet was coming round for dinner that night, and I said to him, “Look, I’ve been given these things and then I’ve come off them,” and he said, “Just show me.” And he said, “Bloody hell, I wouldn’t give this much to a horse, you know, let alone a human being.”

So anyway, next time round they tapered coming off these steroids. Because what happens is you come off the steroids, and the body which has been suppressing all its adrenalines sort of has to go, “Oh my god,” and starts having to produce them again, but it takes a bit of time. If you taper it off, have a more gradual, then the body can react.

But I knew at that point, “Right okay, when I’m in that point in the cycle, lots of walks, lots of chocolate, read books that are uplifting,” so PG Wodehouse or you know, not Dostoyevsky. Watch telly that’s light. It’s like, do you remember- my mother always used to say that as a kid, whenever you are ill, always give them the books that they’ve just been reading a year previously, not the current ones. In other words you let them go back to comfort reading. So in other words have a positive-

Andy Coulson:  [0:44:06] That’s very wise.

James Landale:                 [0:44:08] Positive way of thinking. “Right, I know that on this date I’m going to feel pretty rubbish.” So you know, have some fun, eat some chocolate, go for some walks, fresh air. In other words you consciously approach it, and then you deal with it.

Andy Coulson:  [0:44:22] Yes, that’s really useful. James, you’ve been quite frank, unusually frank about the narrative if you like around cancer. You think that the positives that a cancer diagnosis, for some of course, not for everybody, can bring- or are too often under played, undervalued.

James Landale:                 [0:44:49] I speak only for myself in this, and you know, I would not presume at all to in any way comment on anybody else’s experience, because everybody’s experience is slightly different.

I think the point that I was making- because essentially what you are talking about, I wrote an article when I was having my treatment, which was sort of unusual because I work for the BBC, I don’t have an opinion on anything and I certainly don’t write 2000-word essays for the Daily Mail, which is what I did.

Whenever you see people who are in the pubic eye or whatever who die of cancer, quite often the headline says, “So-and-so lost their battle with cancer.” And that sort of implies that somehow you have had agency in this, that somehow if you had fought harder then maybe you would have won it. I thought it was unfair to somehow suggest that there are people dying of cancer and if only they’d fought a little harder maybe they would have tipped the balance.

Because ultimately, you know, I knew that my job was to do what the doctors said, apply journalistic rigour to what they’re doing and think about it, you know, I’m a sentient being and I have agency and I could ask questions: Why are we doing that? Shouldn’t I be doing this? And there is always the possibility of thinking of alternatives. But ultimately, you know, I was fairly clear; I wasn’t going to go down the route of Doctor Google.

Andy Coulson:  [0:46:17] And the battling, as we said in the intro, the battling is for the doctors. And that’s entirely- from your perspective that’s entirely the wrong kind of narrative.

James Landale:                 [0:46:25] Yes. My cancer was cured by the poison that was pumped through my system on six occasions, and that is a fact. And you know, I think I as the patient can have an impact. I felt that I could have an impact on how I felt while that was happening, by my own decisions. No, get up, get some fresh air, that will make you feel better. Go downstairs, force yourself to eat something. Because quite often, you know, eating can be a difficult thing when you’re having chemotherapy. You know, get some food inside yourself, get some chocolate. You know, that I can have control over.

But to suggest that somehow that had an impact on my treatment I think is- I think it was just a language thing. People have cancer to varying levels of degrees, some people die of it, some people don’t.

Also I wanted to get rid of the mythology of it, you know? The Big C. As if it’s- you know, far more people die in this country of other things; heart disease and things like that, than cancer. And yet there’s a sort of mythology around cancer that I think- in my experience I just felt that wasn’t- you know, it wasn’t my experience.

Andy Coulson:  [0:47:44] And that linked to another I thought really interesting observation of yours which I totally agree with, is our sort of relationship with death and with grief; the way we talk about it, the way we approach it, the way we celebrate it or fail to celebrate it perhaps on occasions in the right way.

James Landale:                 [0:48:01] When you have a cancer diagnosis a lot of people- I call I the tilted head. They sort of, when you meet them and they know you’re having treatment they sort of put their head on one side and they look at you and go, “How are you?” And you know that the question they are really asking is, “Are you facing death? And how are you facing death?” And I just thought that there was- the way we approach death, it just felt ghoulish.

Andy Coulson:  [0:48:33] Andy Marr came on the pod and we talked about his health crises, he’s had a number. When I asked how it changed him, he likened it to sort of squeezing a fresh orange. He said that he looks to try and get every bit of value out of every day.

How did your experience change you, James?

James Landale:                 [0:48:54] I think- I mean, I didn’t go out and think, “Right. Carpe diem, I’ve got a bucket list, I’ve got to jump out of an aeroplane or-” well, I’ve done that anyway. I meant sort of a bungee jump or something like that, and do all of these kinds of things.

I think how it changed me is I became slightly less obsessed with work, I think my ambition was tempered slightly. Obviously I was ambitious, I’m a broadcaster in the public eye, you want to get the next job, but I became more sanguine, more relaxed about it, I didn’t sort of become obsessed with work so much. I think I became more conscious of wanting to derive pleasure and joy and happiness from simpler things in life.

Andy Coulson:  [0:49:43] Other than perhaps sort of seeing work and the big picture in a slightly different way in the way that you have described, has it affected your approach to the job itself? I mean, we had that conversation about crisis. Did it cause you to take a- has it given you a different perspective on what constitutes crisis as a result, when you’ve dealt with something so sort of personally significant?

James Landale:                 [0:50:07] Look, many people have suffered far worse crises than I have. I describe it as you know, I saw death across a crowded room and I turned the other way. You know, it’s not something that was, you know, many people have far closer shaves than that.

What I think it did do, it meant that when a crisis comes you’ve got a bit of perspective, a bit of- it’s like that great phrase in the Asterix cartoons that you know, a core part of my youth, where one of them goes round and always says, “Well, at least the sky hasn’t fallen on our heads,” which was the great fear that I think the Chief had. You know, and worst things happen at sea, this sort of language, I think it just gives you a perspective. So that when it’s looking pretty bonkers and pretty mad, and you’re suddenly thinking kind of, “Okay, this is all falling apart,” at least you’re not sat plugged into a very large tank full of coloured poison that’s going to make you feel very ill.

Andy Coulson:  [0:51:23] You are able to take yourself back to sitting in that chair?

James Landale:                 [0:51:25] Yes, yes. Because the thing about certainly the chemotherapy that I had is that you would see this stuff, you can see this stuff lined up next to you, and it’s all these massive great tubes and they all in different colours, they are sort of slightly sickly colours as if they look like you know, an orange squash and then a Ribena. They give them different colours so that they can identify and know which one is which.

They plug it into your arm, and you could feel this stuff kind of soaring up your arm. You actually feel it coming in. Because it’s poison, it’s there to kill the cells. And you can feel this thing slowly overwhelming your body. And so that stays in the memory, certainly.

Andy Coulson:  [0:52:08] You can take yourself back to that feeling.

James Landale:                 [0:52:10] You can take yourself back to that yes, absolutely.

Andy Coulson:  [0:52:14] James, as you have been today with us, you are incredibly generous with your sort of story. I know that you have done that in other ways as well, Cancer Research UK, your Turning the Tables lunch that I think you established is a great fund-raising success.

James Landale:                 [0:52:30] I didn’t establish, I’ve helped do it for many years.

Andy Coulson:  [0:52:33] You’ve helped, okay. But also Nick Robinson, another guest who has been generous enough to come on the pod, obviously he mentioned, talked actually in depth about his own cancer diagnosis and the role that you played as well in helping him. Because you were the Deputy, he was the Political Editor, I think you stepped in during his treatment. I know that he was incredibly grateful for the sort of perspective that you were able to offer.

You are very generous about the experience. I know you are going to be characteristically modest about this, but that is an important aspect of this for you, to be able to talk about it? Is that also perhaps part of your attempt to change the narrative around cancer as well linked or not?

James Landale:                 [0:53:24] Look, I’m an Englishman of a certain type and a certain generation, and I find this not easy. I hate the idea of talking about myself. But when it comes to this, I think you sort of have a responsibility. I’m one of the lucky ones. I had a nice cancer, I had a treatment, I’ve come out the other side you know, touch wood. And therefore I think, you know, with anything like this if you can help other people and just say, “Look, this is what my experience was. I’m not a doctor, but-”

So I’ve got a list of sort of, Landale’s Top Tips for Chemotherapy, that I slowly but surely build up when I talk to friends and they tell me their experiences, and you know, whenever you hear somebody who has got a diagnosis who you know, or whatever, I just pop them on an email. Just say, “Look, by the way, this has helped me and a bunch of friends,” you know?

And it’s simple things like sort of, get the telephone number of your nurse. Keep a diary of how you feel. Don’t watch or read your favourite books while you’re having treatment because you will associate the treatment with these things and you will never be able to enjoy them again. Do you know what I mean? It’s just little things. I’m not a doctor, I’m not going to give people medical advice because it changes. And if that can help, that’s great. But you know, I don’t feel I’m some great ambassador for this kind of thing. I certainly-

Andy Coulson:  [0:54:44] No, but you’re doing it in very practical ways which is just as important.

James Landale:                 [0:54:47] Yes, it has to be practical. It has to be practical, because that’s all you can do, really.

Andy Coulson:  [0:54:52] Wonderful. James, thank you so much for joining us today.

James Landale:                 [0:54:55] No, thank you. It’s been a- it has been a pleasure. It has been a pleasure. I was a bit nervous before but I enjoyed it.

Andy Coulson:  [0:55:02] Great, well thank you so much for that, and as I say, for coming on and sharing your story.

If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with James, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit subscribe wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website,

Thanks again for joining us.

End of Recording 0:55:43