Jeremy Bowen on addiction to danger, facing loss and battling cancer
June 10, 2020. Series 1. Episode 1
Jeremy Bowen is a man who has spent most of his professional life in the company of crisis. As the BBC’s Middle East Editor he has reported from more than 90 countries and conflicts including Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Lebanon. In this first episode, Jeremy talks frankly about his addiction to danger – how and why he repeatedly put his life at risk in pursuit of a story. And he details how that addiction turned to deep anxiety and grief when his friend and fixer Abed Takkoush was killed while working alongside him. Jeremy talks openly about mental health, and his good and bad experiences with counselling. And how, ultimately, he conquered his demons, only to face down an altogether different challenge when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Throughout the episode Jeremy reveals the tools he’s relied on most to manage those moments of crisis. A revealing and thought-provoking conversation to kick off the series.
Jeremy’s Crisis Cures:
1. Quotidian, humdrum things: ‘I was working in Damascus, the war was going on, you can hear the war through the window, you could see the smoke rising from the suburbs…but it was quite nice putting an edited story together about the Syrian war with the sound of the washing machine in the background.’
2. Exercise: ‘The natural anti-depressant. In Sarajevo I used to take a skipping rope, I used to skip in the stairwell of the hotel. In Baghdad I would jog around the streets – they thought I was insane.’
3. Old World War II movies: ‘Often John Mills is involved in some way, and Jack Hawkins. I find those quite reassuring to leave on in the background. Maybe even past crises…those reminders that you do get out of them in the end.’
Bowel Cancer UK: https://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk/
Look UK: https://www.look-uk.org/
I’ve known Jeremy for about 15 years but this was, as is the nature of us blokes, the most intense conversation we’ve ever had. The utter authenticity of Jeremy’s storytelling was inspiring.
For me, the key insights came when we discussed how, having been a crisis volunteer, he suddenly found himself to be a conscript. Facing the possibility of death – not from a sniper’s bullet (which he had narrowly avoided in Sarajevo) but from bowel cancer.
His approach to getting through that challenge was clearly influenced by what he’d witnessed so frequently as a reporter. One of Jeremy’s great skills as a broadcaster is to explain how the terrible things we are witnessing on TV are happening to people who, not that long before, were living lives similar to our own. Jeremy has spent more time than most with those families.
“I think you can see people who are sometimes better able to get through crisis than others,” he said.
“To survive in a war zone you’ve got to do a lot of small things to get through each day. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture – that you’re in a horrendous situation. Chip away at the problem.”
An analysis that echoed later in the conversation when we turned to his cancer.
“You’ve got to do one little thing at a time. Get through the day, get through tomorrow and then have a horizon for when things will be better. In my case – get out of hospital, get through the chemotherapy, then the first scan and the next scan.”
Just. Keep. Going. As Jeremy himself said, sometimes clichés are clichés for a bloody good reason.
Music: Allies by Some Velvet Morning
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Crisis What Crisis? The new podcast series designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last four years I’ve been trying to put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders. And I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success, there far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:02.23 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I’ll be talking to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so but our guest will talk about their experiences honestly. Often with humour but always in the hope that what they have to share might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis stories worth sharing.
00:01:31.02 Andy Coulson:
For this first podcast I’m joined by legendary broadcaster and journalist Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s multi-award winning Middle East editor. Jeremy is, I think, the perfect person for us to being this conversation about crisis, to expose what actually defines a crisis and more importantly to discover how you can survive, perhaps even thrive, if you find yourself in the midst of one. I say perfect because since he joined the BBC in 1984, Jeremy has almost constantly been in the company of crisis. Mainly, it has to be said, as a willing volunteer. He’s had a front row seat as the deadliest of crises exploded, quite often literally, in countries including Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Egypt. In fact, he’s reported into our living rooms from more than ninety different countries.
00:02:17.10 Jeremy Bowen:
Jeremy has also seen how crisis is created and often manipulated in his interviews with political and military leaders, including Gaddafi and Assad. And he’s been right there as an eyewitness to the frankly horrific consequences of war for innocent civilians and on occasions, of course, close friends. More recently Jeremy found himself facing down an altogether different crisis, this time as a conscript rather than a volunteer. And I’m delighted to say that he stared down that personal challenge, a cancer diagnosis, and he’s now thankfully in remission.
00:02:54.04 Andy Coulson:
Jeremy, thanks so much for joining us today. After that intro one might expect you to be a somewhat world-weary individual. But I’m lucky enough to have been a pal of yours for a number of years and that’s far from the truth. So is your sense of humour as important a piece of armoury as that Kevlar vest we see you wearing on TV?
00:03:14.08 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, you know, well first of all thanks Andy for that very nice fulsome introduction. I think it’s really important to try and retain a sense of perspective. And yes, deriving some humour from a situation or seeing the lighter side, the brighter side, as well as the darker side, is a part of trying to cope with stressful events, stressful situations. I think that if you’re the kind of person who is so… if you cannot see the light and shade of a situation then you can become paralysed in terms of the way that you deal with it. So yeah, humour’s I think, a part of it. I mean, not that I’m a comedian or tell jokes the whole time but you’ve got to see the amusing side of it.
00:04:03.16 Jeremy Bowen:
The first war I went to which was in El Salvador in 1989, one of the first times I actually came, well not directly under fire but people started shooting and it was all going crazy, and I was with a group of other journalists and there was a trench that… not a trench but a ditch that the soldiers had been using as a toilet. So we had a choice of standing up where the bullets were flying or diving into the shit. So of course we dove into the shit. And so we’re sitting there laughing about it…
00:04:37.11 Andy Coulson:
How do you see the funny side?
00:04:41.12 Jeremy Bowen:
It was just, at the time it was quite amusing, you know there were dry bits. It wasn’t like it was a four foot deep drain, sewer. But there were plenty of nasty little packages all over the place. And yeah, so you’ve got to laugh in those sort of situations and actually they were using heavy machine guns around the place so if we hadn’t taken a dive, goodness knows what would have happened.
00:05:09.01 Andy Coulson:
You were born in Wales and your dad, Gareth, was a senior journalist and your mum was a photographer. Your dad, in fact, I think covered the Aberfan disaster in 1966. That sort of proximity to hard news obviously inspired you but do you think it also trained you a bit for some of the situations you found yourself in?
00:05:32.17 Jeremy Bowen:
Maybe, maybe, you know, the news was normal in my house most of the time. I always wanted to be a journalist to be honest. And I do remember my father going to Aberfan and coming back with, I was only six, and coming back with muck all over his trousers. He’d gone there wearing a suit and spent forty hours there or something and came back with his suit covered in slurry and the car covered in slurry and then he slept for ages in the middle of the day, I remember that. And he did a great piece actually. I was really pleased at the anniversary, I pointed it out to the PM Programme and they ran it on the anniversary of what happened there with the fiftieth anniversary. And yeah, so he did a great job of reporting on that particular day.
00:06:31.09 Jeremy Bowen:
But yes it did actually make me aware of the world of news. My mother wanted to go up and take photos but she called up my granny and said, ‘Look, what’s gone on in Aberfan, I want to go and take some pictures, can I go up there, will you look after the kids?’ I had two small brothers at that point, my sisters weren’t born. And my granny said, ‘That’s no place for a woman, you’re certainly not going up there.’ So she’s always been a bit disappointed she could have been one of the first photographers there and got some incredible photographs. So yeah, so news was always something that was there.
00:07:11.16 Andy Coulson:
I mean, some people hold to the theory that the ability to cope with properly stressful situations and frankly Aberfan it’s hard to imagine just how heart breaking a place that must have been at that moment, that there’s a kind of chemical or some kind of genetic stress code that can be transferred. Do you see it as sort of muscle? Do you think you’ve been able to cope with so many, we’ll get into them in more detail as we talk more, but you’ve been through the most extraordinary stressful situations? Do you think it’s a muscle? Do you think that the fact that you did so much of it, did you find it easier as time went on, if you like, to deal with those moments?
00:08:05.19 Jeremy Bowen:
I think you acquire a certain familiarity and you know things. For example, if I was heading for a dangerous place I’d always feel quite nervous before I went but when I got there a lot less nervous and it would normally be not as bad as you thought it was. And so I know now that if I, I don’t do it quite so much now, but if I was to go off somewhere horrible I would be a bit tense beforehand but I’d know in my head that I’d be able to cope when I got there. And the thing is though, it’s how you respond when you first turn up or find yourself in that kind of situation. So I think some of it is innate, as a matter of fact.
00:08:49.24 Jeremy Bowen:
And there’s a Canadian psychologist who studies all these kind of things, particularly studied journalists who go to wars. And he said that there are certain, he thinks there’s a certain, I can’t remember what it was, a certain chemical that you might have a bit more of. I think it might be partly the kind of chemical that makes young men do stupid things on motorbikes perhaps. And I’ve had plenty of colleagues who’ve gone on to… you know most journalists do not do what I’ve done over the years, who’ve gone on to have very glittering careers. Who, one look at the kind of, you know some reporting in nasty places, in war zones, and thought, well that is just not for me. I’m just not going to do that, that’s insane. Whereas some people would be intrigued and I was one of those people. I was intrigued by my own responses as well as the by the situation. And I think that’s one reason it becomes, it can become addictive actually.
00:09:56.01 Andy Coulson:
Your early career was stellar. You’re the BBC’s man in Geneva at the age of twenty-eight. As you mentioned in ’89 you were reporting from El Salvador, but then in ’91 you suffer, what I suggest, might have been your first crisis of confidence when you’re not included in the line-up for the first Gulf War.
00:10:22.21 Jeremy Bowen:
I had nothing to do, it was really, really awful. But then John Simpson came out of Baghdad after a day or two, they kicked all of the journalist out when it all started and he was ill, he was taken ill. So the BBC called me, my allay the foreign editor John Marley rang me and he said, ‘Look, we’ve got a berth for you, do you want to go into Baghdad.’ So I went from nothing to what I saw as the biggest job. For me that was a huge breakthrough story because it went okay. But yes…
00:10:59.09 Andy Coulson:
It went better than okay; you end up in the most extraordinary of circumstances and you’re reporting on a huge story and also quite a controversial story in terms of the reporting of it. I mean, it must have been incredibly stressful to have been there. I mean, talk us through it. The attack that in the end caused people to question your impartiality in the way that you were reporting it.
00:11:30.12 Jeremy Bowen:
Well yes, while I was there, just arrived, there was a devastating attack by the Americans on a purpose-built shelter that was housing hundreds of civilians and killed, I think, more than four hundred. And it was the enemy capital and for those who don’t remember that particular time Britain hadn’t been at war for quite a while. There had been the Falklands and that had been quite remote and there had been such a run-up to the 1991 Gulf War that later on in Afghanistan and Iraq war almost became part of the routine of the country. But in ’91 it was something new.
00:12:15.00 Jeremy Bowen:
And there I was in the enemy capital and I heard Marie Colvin actually, I got up early, usual time and I was walking down the hotel corridor and Marie Colvin, a great friend of mine who of course sadly got killed a few years ago in Syria, said, ‘Have you heard what’s happened?’ And I said, ‘What, what?’ ‘…there’s been an attack’. So unlike all the other things where the Iraqis would say ‘…right we’re going to take you there’ they said, ‘Just go, just go, just go’. So we went, all the journalists we went to this shelter and they were pulling out bodies and fragments of bodies and they were women, children, old men. And it seemed to me, you know, it was horrendous.
00:12:57.20 Andy Coulson:
Was it your first experience of death in its most visceral form, if I can put it that way?
00:13:04.15 Jeremy Bowen:
No, I’d seen bodies. I’d been on a few tough stories at that point. I’d been to that war in El Salvador. I’d been in Afghanistan when the Russians were leaving. I got locked up there for a few days. And then I was back again in Afghanistan after that. And I’d done a few other things so I wasn’t completely green about the gills. But it’s quite rare, even in the years since then, that I have seen so many, you know, piles and piles and piles of corpses. Many of them blown to bits or so burnt they looked like charred pieces of wood, being just heaped up in the back of lorries and pick-up trucks and taken away to another place.
00:13:51.03 Jeremy Bowen:
And what had happened was that the… it was a fairly middle class area and the men of the houses would put their families and their dads and granddads into this shelter at night, then they’d go back and guard their houses. So they thought the families were safe and that they were taking the risk. In fact it turned out to be the other way round. So I thought it was horrendous but it was a pretty obvious story what had happened. They’d bombed an air raid shelter. And I also thought well they can’t have done it deliberately, they’re not that stupid it must be some sort of mistake.
00:14:29.23 Jeremy Bowen:
So I was absolutely literally gobsmacked when I did a live, we were just starting to do live TV 24/7 at that time. And Peter Sissons started interrogating me and said, ‘The Pentagon and the MOD are saying that this was a command centre and that they were all military in there.’ I was amazed that he was even asking the question that they were saying these things. And I said, ‘Well no, Peter, I can only go by…’ I remember using this phrase and in the subsequent days I repeated it quite a bit, I said ‘I and only go by what I’ve seen myself and what I’ve heard myself and I’m telling you I’ve seen the bodies and none of them were men of military age, none of them were soldiers, they weren’t wearing uniforms they were civilians and they were old men and there were children and there were women. And I’ve spoken to any number of families who’ve told me they’d put their…’ I said, ‘No, it was an air raid shelter.’
00:15:25.13 Jeremy Bowen:
And I stuck to my guns and then there was a hoo-ha in the tabloid press, to my amazement. No internet in those days, you didn’t know what was in the papers unless someone told you. And we didn’t have phones that worked, we just had sat phones which had very limited access too because of the Iraqis and it said that the key… I mean the worst headline was Lord Haw-Haw born in Baghdad.
00:15:50.22 Andy Coulson:
Which is something you do not want to read about yourself, right?
00:15:54.01 Jeremy Bowen:
William Joyce, the man executed for treason for broadcasting from Berlin, I was being compared to. A big picture of me and a small picture of him in The Star. And anyway I was…
00:16:08.11 Andy Coulson:
An entirely different type of stress but that must have been…
00:16:13.08 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, my ITN colleague/opponent on that story, Brent Sadler came up to me and he said, ‘I understand there’s a big row and it’s gone to the board of management level at the BBC about your reporting Jeremy. There’s a big, big stink in the press.’ He was playing mind games. I said, ‘I’ve no idea Brent. Just doing my job.’
00:16:39.12 Andy Coulson:
So camaraderie up to a point.
00:16:41.05 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, as you know, Journalism is full of camaraderie. Good lad then, I always respected him, I always feared Brent as an opponent actually, he was very, very good at his job and not a bad bloke either.
00:16:51.11 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember seeing your first dead body on the job, so to speak?
00:16:59.05 Jeremy Bowen:
Yes, it was in that war in El Salvador on day one as a matter of fact. The cameraman who I was working with, who was Salvadorian, and for him it was just a day at the office, I think. But for me it was a big deal. I had never seen a dead body. There was a big rebel offensive into the capital which was why I was there and he said, ‘They’ve shot one of the guerrillas round the corner, do you want to come and take a look?’ So I went to look and they were burning the body in a pit. And it was definitely a human being roasting, you know you could see the human flesh roasting on this wood fire, it looked a bit like pork.
00:17:41.05 Jeremy Bowen:
And I was, I’d been very curious about how I’d respond when I saw a dead body and actually I was fine. I didn’t faint or be sick or anything like that, I was fine. And what I learnt subsequently was what is far more distressing is people who are alive who when they’re dead there’s nothing you can do for them but when you’re alive you’re aware of the suffering and the pain and the anguish that they’re going through and that their families are going through. But someone who is just lying there it’s somewhat a different thing.
00:18:18.00 Andy Coulson:
You mentioned earlier that this is the early days of running twenty-four hour news. What impact do you think that that technological change had on international crisis? Because there’s obviously more reporting, there’s more transparency, there’s more truth. But there are other impacts as well. I mean, leaders, some of whom you’ve interviewed, the good and the bad, pretty quickly learned how to leverage the value of twenty-four hour news. What’s your analysis of its value?
00:18:56.13 Jeremy Bowen:
Yes, it is very, it’s different in so far as we can, if you’re somewhere dangerous, then you spend longer in the danger zone because you report from the danger zone more. It used to be that you’d dip in and get the story and get out to some place where they had communications. And now there are communications everywhere so you don’t have to get out in the same way. And of course, what you have to be aware of is that politicians are not just politicians, sometimes dangerous men with guns are watching what you’re doing and making their own mind up about how they can influence that. And that can be relatively benign or it can be quite dangerous.
00:19:43.17 Andy Coulson:
Can you think of an example where you’re presence, you’re being there is being manipulated or used? Essentially to make a bad situation worse?
00:19:56.12 Jeremy Bowen:
Well I don’t think it’s necessarily… I hope that I’m not being manipulated and I hope I’m able to see through attempts to do that. And I’ve always been a big believer as a reporter, in narrowing the distance between myself and the story. And using my won faculties rather than relying on briefings. But of course if you’re covering things you’ve been involved in in politics then it’s a different sort of story because you’re trying to find out what’s going on on the inside so therefore you’re quite dependent on your sources. You can’t use your eyes on that sort of reporting.
00:20:38.21 Jeremy Bowen:
There’ve been other times. I mean, when it was really just starting in Sarajevo in the mid ‘90s, it would have been ’93 this particular incident. There was a big newspaper storm about evacuating children from the city. And we did a story about one particular little girl who was very badly hurt and it was a quiet time, it was the summer and very unusually a lot of Fleet Street was there. And there was a huge storm about this girl who ended up being evacuated to Great Ormond Street Hospital she was called Irma Hadzimuratovic and we did the main part of the story.
00:21:26.06 Jeremy Bowen:
But then the Major government wanted to tap into, seemed to want to tap into that because there was a pressure to do something to deal with this war that seemed to be insoluble. So they sent over a hospital plane to evacuate kids. An RAF doctor and a few other people were going round the hospital almost picking children to evacuate. They were only there of half a day. And I got to know these guys and I showed them, I knew all the doctors. And anyway, there was one who was particularly ill, he hadn’t been blown up, he had kidney problems and he had very engaging parents, mother and I said, ‘Look you’ve got to take this kid’ and he said, we got out of the room and he said, ‘No, no we can’t do that because kids die of kidney disease in Britain, we’re going to have to leave him, sorry, he’ll have to die here.’
00:22:23.10 Jeremy Bowen:
And I was outraged by that and it’s the only time I’ve ever tried to manipulate something myself. And so with the guy from the UN refugee agency we did this story saying it was absolutely disgraceful that some kids were being left behind. And that was on the one o’clock news and I had a frantic meeting with the RAF doctor and hour or two later saying ‘Where is that boy, we have to take him, we have to take him.’ So presumably someone in Number 10 had seen their choreographed event going wrong and wanted to try and remedy it. So of course, yeah, they took the kid and he, well he didn’t live forever, he got a kidney transplant and he lived for I think five or ten years. And he had more time with his family and that was something.
00:23:11.19 Jeremy Bowen:
So it’s a bit… it’s a slippery slope if you try and get involved in those kinds of things. I try and be quite old fashioned about it and I don’t really bother too much about what people say or try to… I certainly don’t try and actively influence things. That was the only time I tried to do it because I thought what was going on was outrageous. But my view is that if the event that you’re covering, if the story is strong enough, then it tells its own tale.
00:23:39.19 Andy Coulson:
Let’s move on to former Yugoslavia and a story that became a very significant part of your life. And it was also, I think I’m right in saying, the first time that you were directly shot at. To ask someone ‘tell me about the first time you were shot at’ I mean, we’re having a conversation about crisis and stress, what do you remember about that situation and your reaction to it?
00:24:09.05 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, it wasn’t the first time I’d been shot at. I’d been shot at quite a lot of times. Maybe not directly shot at myself, in other places I’d been in places where shooting was going on and I got caught up in it. But certainly when I went to Sarajevo for the first time during the war, when it just started, we arrived there. And I certainly remember one particular incident where I’d just arrived and there was just time to grab something to eat and then I was going to go up to my room. And normally, when you go to a hotel, you look for the lift, you get in the lift, you’ve got your room key and you go and you find the right floor and you get out of the lift.
00:24:52.21 Jeremy Bowen:
But what no one had got round to telling me was that you shouldn’t, at that particular time, go to the front of this hotel, The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo because it faced down onto the frontline, literally. I mean, as the time went by in the war, it was hit so often the front of the hotel was destroyed and we lived at the back. But it was dark, I’d pressed my button, the third floor or whatever it was, and I’d got out of the lift and as the light within the lift, the door opened, I must have been illuminated and bang this bullet hit the edge of the frame of the lift. And there was a sniper opposite who was clearly waiting for people to try to come out of the lift because then there was a signal and when the light came and as soon as the light came on he’d take his shot which came in through the window of the hotel and bashed into the framework of the lift next to me. Luckily he missed, it was quite a difficult shot I think, and he probably wasn’t getting many opportunities because most people weren’t dumb enough to take the lift. I never took the lift again in that hotel. And shortly after that it stopped working. But yeah, that was quite personal in so far as…
00:26:09.11 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember how you felt immediately afterwards?
00:26:15.01 Jeremy Bowen:
I didn’t feel too alarmed about it, I thought, well this is a war, there are bullets flying around, if you’re not careful you get your head in the wrong place, you might get a bullet in it. So I wasn’t too alarmed. I probably went downstairs and told all my colleagues and had a drink and had a laugh about it, I would have thought.
00:26:34.02 Andy Coulson:
You use the word addiction earlier. Do you think that you, by this stage, had become addicted to danger?
00:26:43.17 Jeremy Bowen:
Thoroughly, I’d say by then I was in my early thirties in the war in Sarajevo. I was pretty much on top of everything, I thought. I was full of energy, probably full of testosterone. I was very, very engaged in the story. I had seen early on that being in a… the first time I was in a place where there was shooting going on in El Salvador then afterwards there was this big high. Because you’re in a dangerous situation and you get out of it. So I felt celebratory and I felt that I’d got out of some real scrape and I went to have a few drinks and there was this, the hotel everybody stayed in, you know, it was lovely tropical night and we sat outside and ate and the war was going on and the city, you could see the tracer. And I thought, my god, I’m in a war movie here, it’s incredible, I’m in my own personal war movie.
00:27:48.04 Andy Coulson:
To your mind it was… glamour is perhaps not the right word to use…
00:27:52.15 Jeremy Bowen:
Oh yeah, it was quite glamorous in a way, it was like being in a film. And Sarajevo in a rough way was a bit like that too at times. But I soon realised that the nature of the work that we were doing, which meant we often coming into people’s lives at their worst, worst moments meant that it was, it would just be deeply prurient horrible thing to do, just if you got a buzz out of it. There had to be a reason for doing it. For me there was a very strong journalistic reason for doing these sorts of stories and everything else came with it. I felt that there was no justification for being some kind of a war tourist. You had to be there for a reason.
00:28:48.01 Jeremy Bowen:
And I also at that point by this stage in Sarajevo in the ‘90s I liked, and Bosnia in general, I did some trips elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, a lot of them, it was all about, for me it was about the story first of all. I felt really strongly that there was this war going on in Europe, not far from where we all lived, where there were scenes that hadn’t been seen since the Second World War. And after a while it just became part of the background hum. It wasn’t significant, the government wasn’t doing what it could to end it. And I was really exercised about that. But the other stuff that went with it was, was part of it, and anybody who does this kind of work, if they say ‘I didn’t enjoy it at times, I didn’t get a buzz out of it’ then they’re lying.
00:29:46.10 Andy Coulson:
You’ve been in the room with so many people facing existential crisis in their life. What have you learned? The common themes, if you like, between those who can cope with those kind of situations and those who can’t?
00:30:02.20 Jeremy Bowen:
I do think that you can see people who are sometimes better able to get through crises than others. And as we may have mentioned before, I think a lot of that’s because, you know, take one thing at a time. Get through the day, do the things that you have to do. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture that you’re in a horrendous situation. Just say, well I’ve got to do four things before the middle of the day. I’ve got to get some food for this, I’ve got to get through that, I’ve got to get some water. And then you’ve done that and tick that off, and then do some more things.
00:30:44.10 Jeremy Bowen:
And we adapt as human beings, we can adapt. And while another thing I’ve seen is that if you get through it things do get better. Things are not awful forever. Things do get better there is something along the other end. I’ve seen that from going back to places where I was when they were in an awful state. Whether it be former Yugoslavia or different parts of the world where I’ve been where they’ve gone through awful crises and you know they’ve emerged at the other end. So we’ll get there in the end. Sometimes it’s a very difficult and very dangerous and not everybody makes it.
00:31:25.23 Andy Coulson:
But that one thing at a time, deal with what you can deal with.
00:31:29.07 Jeremy Bowen:
I think so.
00:31:30.17 Andy Coulson:
So don’t give up but that ability to kind of be present if you like in however bad the situation you find yourself in.
00:31:40.04 Jeremy Bowen:
I think chip away at the problem don’t get overwhelmed by the weight of the big picture. Of the fact that there are some, you know, at the moment we’ve got this horrendous medical emergency going on that might last for a long time. So in terms of trying to get through that, I’m not going to tell people what to do or preach to them, but get through every day, set some targets, have some structure. And I think in war zones that’s what people do. They’re forced into it. Wars are a bit different but they’re… to survive in a war zone you have to do a lot of small things every day just to get through it. Just to keep life going.
00:32:28.05 Andy Coulson:
Can we go to what you’ve described as the worst day of your life, May 23rd 2000? Just tell us what happened that day and how, as much as you’re able, and I know you’ve talked about this before, but how do you cope with a situation so close and so personal and so upsetting? Rather than me explain, if you don’t mind, would you just tell us the story?
00:33:06.01 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, what happened that day was that my good friend and colleague, driver and fixer in Lebanon, Abed Takkoush was killed while I was with him by the Israelis. They fired a tank shell into the back of his car and it blew up and he was killed. He’d managed to struggle, I’d got out of the car, about a few minutes before with the cameraman to do a piece to camera and he’d stayed in because he was on a phone call. What was happening was that the Israelis were withdrawing from south Lebanon after a very long occupation. They were leaving through one particular gate in the border. Like water draining out of a bath, the level of the Israelis in that area was going down.
00:33:54.07 Jeremy Bowen:
We’d been very careful not to tangle with them, get close to them, as they were retreating through south Lebanon and going out through this one particular gate. But just none of us thought that they’d fire across the border which is what they did. He was a real old war horse. He love it, he loved covering dangerous storers in Lebanon, he’d been doing it since the start of the civil war in 1975 when he was a young taxi driver in his early twenties. By 2000 he was in his mid-fifties.
00:34:32.06 Andy Coulson:
And his job essentially was to help you get where you needed to be, right?
00:34:35.23 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, he was a fixer. We depend on fixers, foreign correspondents, locals. However well you know a country you don’t know it as well as someone who lives there. And he was a fixer par excellence and he was also a driver, he fancied himself as a speedster, he had an old Mercedes taxi.
00:34:54.15 Andy Coulson:
And he had a family business, right?
00:34:56.20 Jeremy Bowen:
Well the whole family were in it; they still are actually. And yeah, they drove journalists around, the whole family. He had nephews, an uncle, yeah, there was a…. And he was in his car, normally he’d get out of the car because he felt the car was a target and best to be clear of it. So he stayed in the car because he was fixing… the Israelis left unexpectedly early, they were meant to be leaving a month later and they left quickly. I happened to be in Lebanon so we were on the story fast. But other people were coming in and he was on the phone fixing drivers for his family for people, clients who were coming into the airport. And he was talking to his son about it in fact when the shell hit the car. And so you know, we all knew what we were in and the dangers of the situation but no, it was horrific because we, myself and the cameraman Malek, we were pinned down. I said to Malek, ‘Let’s get up there and see him’ because I’d seen him, he managed to force his way out of the car window and his clothes were on fire, he was on fire.
00:36:11.24 Andy Coulson:
So you’re how far from this?
00:36:14.20 Jeremy Bowen:
Fifty yards, maybe. And so Malek said, ‘No, don’t go up there because he’s dead, he may have got out of the car but the blast will have killed him and if you go up there now and expose yourself’ because we happened to be in the lea of the building, he said,‘…the Israelis will kill you, do not do it.’ And I know that this was the fact because The Times correspondent’s driver was listening to the Israeli radio traffic and he heard them say, ‘We’ve got one of them, we’ll get the other two with the machine gun’ and when finally I did stick my nose out because I couldn’t bear it any longer, five or ten minutes later, they opened up with the heavy machine gun, the fifty calibre, on the tank. and I heard the bullets going very close to, it makes a particular noise. So I know that if I had tried to do the heroic thing and go up and see my friend and have a Hollywood moment of being of him dying in my arms or something…
00:37:13.08 Andy Coulson:
You would have died.
00:37:15.10 Jeremy Bowen:
I would have been killed; I wouldn’t have made it up there. But I still felt really bad that I hadn’t tried. And no, that was, it was different to all the other dangerous events that I’ve been part of because it was very personal. They targeted us, they killed a man who liked and respected. The next day I had to, I went to Beirut for his funeral and all the… he lived in an apartment building in a part of the city called Hamra and all the men were sitting outside in the courtyard on chairs and the women were inside in the apartment. He’s a Sunni Muslim and so they said, message came down, will you go up and talk to the women. So his wife, I’d never even met his wife, so they were all up there. And I had to explain what was going on, what had happened, blow by blow. The whole thing was horrendous.
00:38:10.19 Andy Coulson:
How do you begin to deal with that? How do you begin to process it?
00:38:17.07 Jeremy Bowen:
Well at the time I was very upset about it and I the BBC are very decent about these things. They said look ‘What do you want to do? Just go, you don’t have to keep on with this story, go home if you want’ which was Jerusalem for me at the time, home was Jerusalem. So what happened was that I said, ‘No I’ll keep on going with the story.’ And my partner, Julia, was there funnily enough running the BBC operation. She was pregnant with our first kid. And she and some valued colleagues from the UN who she was liaising with and they were sort of working together, they heard for a while from good source that there were two bodies on the road and they hadn’t heard from me, my phone had been burned in the car. I never leave my phone in the car anymore. They thought I was dead for a couple of hours, I think.
00:39:16.00 Jeremy Bowen:
So the whole thing was horrific. We couldn’t get Abed’s body off the road for a long time. In the end the Lebanese Red Crescent liaised through the UN with the Israelis and arranged for an ambulance to go and pick him up and take him to the morgue. And the one thing I regret is I didn’t see his body. I didn’t have the guts; I didn’t want to see him. And his nephew had come down to pick up his body said, ‘Do you want to come and see him?’ And my biggest regret is that I didn’t say yes. I just couldn’t do it.
00:39:51.00 Andy Coulson:
To anyone listening to this that would be entirely understandable.
00:39:54.03 Jeremy Bowen:
Yeah, no it was hard. And then a colleague of mine, who I didn’t really know in fact, a woman a bit older, came up to me a day or two later because everyone had heard what had happened, small world journalism. And she said, ‘Look something similar happened to me in Central America years ago. I was in an ambush and my colleagues were killed and I survived.’ And she said, ‘…believe you me you need to go and see someone about this because you’ll regret it if you don’t.’ Because at the time I was getting on with my job, I felt okay.
00:40:29.03 Jeremy Bowen:
And funnily enough when I got back the day after the funeral I went back down to the south and there was a big follow on story going on. And I heard a colleague said, ‘It was terrible as well, my god what happened to you was awful but have you heard about what was terrible, what happened in Sierra Leone too?’ I said, ‘What happened in Sierra Leone?’ And what happened was that two colleagues of mine who’d been working in Africa with friends from the war in Bosnia, Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil and been killed the following day, the day after the funeral, they were killed in an ambush. And two other friends who were with them, two other journalists who were with them, two other journalists again from Bosnia, were wounded and had to hide in the jungle while these squads were going round trying to find them to kill them for a couple of hours.
00:41:23.11 Jeremy Bowen:
So you know, my whole world was taking a lot of hits at the time. Because I was close to these two guys who were killed. So you know, these are three people I knew in separate wars, separate continents who were killed more or less at the same time. And it did make me think very hard about my life and what I was doing. But I had some therapy after that and I started having symptoms of PTSD, hyper-vigilance, bad dreams, various other symptoms, classic, classic symptoms. And I went back to London and I saw this guy and it was very helpful actually. But these things leave a permanent mark on you, no question about it. And this particular incident left a much bigger mark on me than all the other war zones I’d been in before or since because it was personal.
00:42:22.17 Andy Coulson:
But you’re a strong advocate of the value of counselling.
00:42:27.17 Jeremy Bowen:
Oh god, I’ve had loads of counselling. I’ve had a couple of years of counselling in total. And no, I’ve suffered subsequent… I’ve suffered depression, all sorts of things. And I think the key thing is getting the right counsellor. I had false starts with some useless people who left, had I not pulled out, would have made things worse, not better. I just thought…
00:42:57.18 Andy Coulson:
You just felt they didn’t get it? Or they weren’t asking the right questions?
00:43:00.08 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, they didn’t get it, they weren’t interested. They weren’t asking the right questions. I don’t know some were doing their best, others weren’t trying too hard at all. There was one woman who I went to see who said, ‘You know, you won’t be able to get to grips with any of this until you go and do some really serious work at this place in America I’ve connected with. It’s only $30,000 and they’ll give you a very intensive week there.’ I said, ‘I don’t need… I want to talk to you now, I don’t want to go to America and spend thirty grand on this thank you very much.’ ‘Oh I think it’s going to be very useful for you.’ And it was just a scam. So yeah, so I think if you get the right therapist and you have an issue in your life, frankly even if you don’t, you just need to talk about things, I think it’s very helpful. I’m a big believer in counselling, in therapy.
00:43:53.04 Andy Coulson:
You go forward to 2003 in the Gulf War, you’re asked whether or not you want to go and you decide not to. One assumes that everything that had preceded had obviously caused you to see the job in a very different way.
00:44:12.01 Jeremy Bowen:
Well I’d become a father and the second one was on the way. He was born, my son was born in July of 2003 and the invasion of Iraq was in March 2003 and after the… I’d already been talking to the BBC about coming back and presenting breakfast when Abed was killed in Lebanon and then Miguel and Kurt were killed. And so I thought, well actually this is a sign, this is a good idea. So I did that for a couple of years, I was a presenter of morning TV which was a madly different word to the world I was used to. But then I decided to go back and be a reporter because I thought well, I used to be quite a good journalist and now I’ve got a job where I’m sitting on the sofa telling jokes and interviewing actors and I’m not sure it’s really me. I’ve got a bit more reporting left in me. I was only forty so, forty, forty-two or something.
00:45:13.05 Jeremy Bowen:
And so then just as I was going back into it the war started and because I’d been in Baghdad in the previous war when the guy who was meant to be there couldn’t make it, they wouldn’t give him a visa the BBC asked me if I would do it. The Iraqis had said we’ll give Bowen a visa. So initially I said yes and I was so tormented by it. And actually if I’d gone there I would probably again, been alright. But my partner was pregnant, we had a baby, these memories of what had happened in 2000 were very strong. I started getting dreams about burying the cameraman in a shallow grave outside the hotel where we always stayed in Baghdad and I thought, no I’m not going to do it.
00:46:07.03 Jeremy Bowen:
And my employers, I have to say, because I really left them in a pickle, were very decent about it and they said ‘fine your decision, that’s good don’t worry’. And they didn’t try and change my mind. But it was pretty awful as a journalist sitting there watching everybody else covering themselves in glory and doing an amazing story when I was just sitting watching Postman Pat with my daughter. But actually that’s where I wanted to be and it was the right thing for me to do at that time.
00:46:42.20 Andy Coulson:
I think we met a couple of years later and I remember the two of us sitting at our older children, Matty and Harvey, I remember sitting at the Christmas play and I was getting choked up seeing my son in his Little Drummer Boy uniform and then I sort of looked across and saw you and you were wiping tears away with your silk tie.
00:47:08.04 Jeremy Bowen:
I was, yeah, I had to go to work that day.
00:47:09.15 Andy Coulson:
I didn’t know you at all. I only knew you from what I’d seen on television, this guy in a Kevlar vest and a helmet. So you’d changed, right? And you’d changed pretty dramatically. Obviously because of events but also by dint of the fact that you had two kids.
00:47:28.11 Jeremy Bowen:
Well you grow up don’t you? I mean, I was already in my forties but I was starting to grow up. I don’t think in my case, I don’t think I started to grow up and be a proper adult until I had children. And when you’re young as well you feel indestructible, certainly I did. And then by that time I realised how destructible we are. Yeah, I’ve always been a bit of a sentimentalist to be honest. I’ve always cried in films. But yeah, of course, I defy anybody not to in that situation. But yeah, I was no kind of a tough guy. I went to a lot of tough places but I wasn’t this sort of… I actually think that as a journalist if you’re someone who doesn’t feel anything then you can’t do a very good job.
00:48:13.04 Andy Coulson:
Well you’ve had that experience in the most horrendous of ways more recently. In 2018 you were diagnosed with bowel cancer. That moment, you know, when the C-word is used for the first time, how would you describe that? And how did you react?
00:48:35.20 Jeremy Bowen:
Well, actually it was a bit bizarre. I didn’t have one of those moments you see in films or soap operas where you’re ushered into the doctor’s office and he said, ‘Sit down, I’ve got some bad news for you’. What happened was I was having one of the procedures, a colonoscopy, where they put a pipe in your rear end with a camera attached. And I was going in and out, I was drugged, I was going in and out of consciousness and I heard two doctors saying, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, looks like cancer’. And I thought, what, cancer? But I was so full of opioids that it didn’t really bother me very much at the time.
00:49:20.21 Jeremy Bowen:
And then to start with they said, ‘Look this isn’t going to be a serious one, we’ll whip it out and you’ll be right as rain by Christmas’ and it turned out to be more serious than that and more complicated than that. And I was in hospital for a long time, for a month and I had six months’ of chemo and I’m in remission. But I’m hoping that will stay the same but it might not. So I think I’ve actually… I had a couple of, when I was in hospital after my surgery and things went wrong so that was why I was there for a month. I had a few awful long nights of the soul where I started thinking the worst thoughts you can imagine.
00:50:03.19 Jeremy Bowen:
But after a day or two I focused on getting on my feet, getting out of hospital. I found that my last couple of nights I was feeling a bit better and I found that there was a 24/7 Costa Coffee in Kings College Hospital in London so I could never sleep. So at three o’clock in the morning I would push my drip stand down to the coffee place and get myself a, I couldn’t face coffee, I’d get a herbal tea or something like that and try and move around and there was just something of the journalist in me in that I was quite curious about the experience.
00:50:42.03 Jeremy Bowen:
But no, the implications, clearly, if you stop and think about them for more than two seconds are horrific. But you know, you’ve got to just get through the experience and keep a positive mind. I’ve always felt that I’d get through it and maybe I’m fooling myself but I hope not. I’ve had the best of medical care. I continue to, I mean I still have a connection with the hospital, I see them, I’ve got a scan coming up in July and hopefully everything will be alright. And you know, so I think you’ve got to do one little thing at a time and get through it. These things are all cliches but it’s true, you just get through the day, get through tomorrow and then have a horizon as well about when things will be better.
00:51:34.13 Jeremy Bowen:
When you get out, in my case, when I got out of the hospital. And then when I got out of chemotherapy and then when I got through my first scan and then another scan; things like that. And so far so good, it’s been going in the right direction and I realise that might not be forever but I’m hoping it will be.
00:51:56.05 Andy Coulson:
Long may that continue. I remember talking to you just before you started your chemo and you were… it was like a campaign. You know, you had a plan and you’d clearly immersed yourself in the detail, the medical detail, you knew exactly what was happening to you, you knew exactly what the roadmap was ahead of you. It felt like you were talking about it in a way as if it were a campaign. Is that sort of…
00:52:22.04 Jeremy Bowen:
Oh was I?
00:52:24.00 Andy Coulson:
Does that sort of resonate?
00:52:26.06 Jeremy Bowen:
Well I don’t know. Something like chemotherapy’s got a beginning, a middle and an end because you know how long you’re going to be doing it for. I knew I had to get through six months so I’ve always put my faith in the doctors. I do actually try and… I have looked at the medical detail but only by talking to the doctors. After a couple of terrifying false bits of information I discovered by Dr Google, I’ve stayed away from Dr Google. I’ve never googled how long people live with my particular tumour, or anything like that, I don’t want to.
00:53:12.22 Jeremy Bowen:
But I’ve spoken a lot to doctors about it and the cancer specialists at the hospital where I’m being treated. So yeah I think you have to, yes, you need to have a plan. I’ve always been quite well organised in that sense I think. You’ve got to try and have a plan about how to deal with something like that. And it took all of last year. So actually when lockdown came I was quite used to being stuck at home.
00:53:45.14 Andy Coulson:
Let’s talk about Covid, it’s quite correctly described as a crisis, obviously and most acutely for those who have lost their lives or lost loved ones. And the economic shock of it is obviously going to create a ripple of proper financial crisis for millions of people. I’m interested though, in your perspective, in this idea of global crisis. Because you’re someone whose, as we’ve been discussing, you’ve seen towns, cities, countries, communities ripped to bits by actual war or civil unrest. Is it right to describe this crisis as a war as a lot of politicians have done?
00:54:27.03 Jeremy Bowen:
I understand why they use that kind of language but it’s a bit more complicated than most wars. In a war you know who your enemy is and you can identify them. And yeah, we know that Covid is the enemy but we don’t know where… it’s invisible. And it is different in so far as well wars are completely different to pandemics. But I’ll tell you where I think it does touch and where it is… one of the reasons why for so many people it has been so shocking is that we have been, since the end of the Second World War we’ve been very lucky in this country and in Western Europe and pretty much in the US as well, they’ve all been quite lucky in so far as when our countries have fought wars, whether it’s the Americans in Vietnam or for us the Falkland’s or the gulf war or Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s been done by, in the case of the British anyway, not the Americans in Vietnam, but it’s been done by professionals a long way off. And it hasn’t involved anybody except those in that community in a really direct manner.
00:55:41.08 Jeremy Bowen:
But where I think this comparison with the war and Covid works is that we have been very lucky since the Second World War in that we haven’t had a threat of sudden death hanging over us that could just come seemingly out of nowhere. We haven’t had that. Now, I’ve been in lots and lots of places where people live with that in a war. And that’s where the war, I think, the similarity lies. That if you live in most parts of Syria since 2011, for example, you live with this awful thing in the background, the war, well very much in the foreground. But the common experience is that otherwise healthy people can suddenly get ill and die, or even people who are already a bit ill can get iller and die. And that, the removal of that sense of security that I think that we had, even if we didn’t know it was there before, the removal of that sense of security is something which does happen in a war and has happened because of Covid 19.
00:57:00.19 Andy Coulson:
Jeremy, we’re out of time. Thanks so much for being so frank and giving us what I think is a really invaluable insight and perspective as we, with this podcast, as we try and start this conversation on crisis. Before you go, Jeremy, I’d like to ask a final favour. We’ll be asking all our guests to give us their crisis cures. Three things that help them get through the dark days. There’s only one rule, it can’t be a person, though I’m sure there’s a very long list of people who helped you get through, not least your partner Julia. So your crisis cures please?
00:57:40.17 Jeremy Bowen:
Well you know one thing, Andy, is I think domestic life. And you can get the whiff or the sniff of domestic life even when you’re not at home. And by domestic life I mean things like cooking dinner, doing the washing, those kinds of quotidian, hum-drum things which actually are quite reassuring. There was one time I was working in Damascus. The war was going on, you could hear the war through the window. You could see smoke rising from the suburbs. And for some reason, to work in, they’d given us this sort of room which had a little kitchenette, the hotel had given us. It had a cooker and it had a washing machine. So instead of sending the laundry to the hotel laundry we all found ourselves doing our own laundry and to save the BBC a bit of money. But apart from that it was quite nice putting together an edited story about the Syrian war with the sound of the washing machine in the background.
00:58:45.17 Andy Coulson:
Reassuring and comforting.
00:58:46.23 Jeremy Bowen:
Reassuring and you know, I even made some dinner. I invited round one of the few diplomats who was in the city. There was a power cut of course, it all got a bit mucked up, the oven didn’t work properly but you know, we got there in the end. And so, I’ve done the same in Baghdad, doing the laundry, fantastic, you put the… In Baghdad in the summer it’s really dry and it’s fifty degrees plus. So you put out your washing, even a thick pair of shorts on the washing line, they’re dry in no time. So that is reassuring for me. That’s one thing. The quotidian, the domestic.
00:59:23.17 Jeremy Bowen:
Finding something a little bit escapist, even if it’s sort of related on TV. You know, I’ve been throughout the Coronavirus pandemic I’ve been watching an episode every night of The Wire with my daughter. But outside pandemics I quite like watching those black and white films they used to have on Sunday afternoons when I was a kid. Quite a lot of them were World War Two dramas, submarine dramas or something. Often John Mills is involved in some way or Jack Hawkins, someone like that. I found those quite reassuring to have on in the background. Maybe you know, past crises, giving these fictionalised reminders of the fact that you know you do get out of them in the end.
01:00:11.17 Jeremy Bowen:
And a third thing; for me it’s got to be exercise actually. Really I think it should be, it’s the top stress buster, it’s a natural anti-depressant.
01:00:22.16 Andy Coulson:
Are you a runner?
01:00:24.00 Jeremy Bowen:
Running, I used to do running, I’ve got a knackered knee now which is a flare up of an injury that I got when I was playing rugby, would you believe, when I was in my twenties. I broke my leg quite badly so running is a bit out of it for me which is a real problem. But I’ve got a bike now and you know in Sarajevo I used to take skipping rope. I used to skip in the stairwell of the hotel. You couldn’t go outside obviously. And in Saddam’s time I used to go running in Baghdad, I was about the only jogger in the whole of the city, you know, going past the various, local police HQs. People looking at me as if I was insane, insane. Why are you running when you’ve got a perfectly good car? That was I think the attitude of a lot of those guys as they smoked and drank whisky or swigged coffee or something. And so yeah, so running, I think exercise in general, if you can do it, even if it’s just a walk it’s a really good thing to do.
01:01:23.12 Andy Coulson:
Fantastic. Jeremy, thanks again for being our first guest.
01:01:27.14 Jeremy Bowen:
Andy, thanks for asking me, it’s an honour.
01:01:31.16 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Do feel free to send us your feedback you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at Crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are more useful conversations on the way so please do subscribe and if you like what you hear give us a rating and a review, it really helps. Thanks again.
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