Jeremy Bowen

International Editor of BBC News

What was the first country you visited in the Middle East and what impact did it have on you?
1989 – Dubai, UAE – on my way to Afghanistan for the Soviet withdrawal. I got stuck there for a few days. Back then Dubai was mostly not high-rise and there was desert between the airport and the city. My first big Middle Eastern story was the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. I was despatched by the BBC to Saudi Arabia and realised I was seeing the start of a new era – the return of direct western intervention for the first time since the end of European Middle Eastern empires.

Which event, over your years of BBC reporting, has changed you most?
The wars in former Yugoslavia made me realise very strongly that journalists have a duty to shine a light into the world’s dark corners. It deepened my belief that we British are Europeans and should care about what happens in Europe.

You’ve come under fire, seen colleagues die and had PTSD. What drives you back to the arena of conflict?
The belief that the best way to report the world’s big stories is to see them for yourself.

How do you rate the West’s interventions in the Middle East?
They did the right thing to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. What the coalition forces did was authorised by the UN and they were invited in by the Kuwaitis. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the other hand was a catastrophic, hubristic error.

How did you feel when Assad was welcomed back by the Arab League?
It showed authoritarian leaders that if you wait out the storm you can outlast your enemies. President Putin will have been watching his ally President Assad.

What do you make of the recent Turkish elections?
Turkey is more deeply divided than ever. It was a closer-run election than ever before for him, but he made it. His base is devoted to him. Erdoğan’s opponents despise him and what he’s done to their country

Is Western influence becoming more irrelevant in the Middle East?
Western governments have much less clout. The invasion of Iraq cemented a conviction in many that western countries intervene for their own reasons, not to help the people of the region. Gulf leaders, led by Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, are determined to go their own way. They feel like real players now. The US is still influential but wants to pull back – and “pivot to Asia”. Meanwhile, China is becoming a serious player.

Do you see any glimmers of hope for the Israel-Palestine peace process?
Zero. There is no peace and no process.

You’ve said the same story can look different depending on where it’s written and how you get it. How do you ensure impartiality?
You ensure that reporting is the best obtainable version of the truth by being accurate, empathetic and fair – and by putting your own beliefs to one side. You must make judgements based on evidence, not prejudice.

Is there a leader you’ve met in the theatre of war who made a lasting impression on you?
Many, for different reasons. I saw the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić from the time he was presiding over the siege of Sarajevo to the days I spent in the witness box at the former Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where I testified in his trial for crimes against humanity among other charges – for which he was convicted. He made me think repeatedly of Hannah Arendt’s phrase about the banality of evil.

What Middle Eastern customs would you transpose to the UK?
Taking shoes off at the front door and washing your hands a lot. I like the spray-guns that are conveniently positioned next to the loo. I’m getting one in our new bathroom.

How did your brush with bowel cancer change you?
It made me remember to be positive and optimistic and try to make the most of the day. It also made me lecture perfect strangers about the importance of getting symptoms checked out – and to take tests when they’re offered even when you don’t have symptoms. I didn’t have any.

You’ve interviewed despots like Gaddafi: how do such conversations feel when you’re so aware of their brutality?
They need to be challenged; I’m interested in trying to talk to them to try to get some idea of how they became this way and why they do it.

Where’s home for you now when you’re outside the UK?
I live in London – my home is south of the river.

Which modern British government has been most skilful at foreign affairs?
David Miliband was an excellent foreign secretary,

What does your Welsh heritage mean to you?
I am Welsh through and through. It’s good to have roots.

How do you rate Wales’ chances at the next Rugby World Cup?
Poor. Even Warren Gatland is not a miracle worker. Welsh rugby has long-term problems. Not just the structure of the professional game. Even the big internationals in Cardiff have somewhat lost their way. Having a few drinks was always part of it but now for a vocal minority of the crowd they’re all too often boozefests – for people more interested in the party than the game. Not just because I’m old – an aspiring young sports journalist in Wales told me the other day he hated the pyrotechnics and manic PA announcements designed to rev up the crowd. I’d close the bars while play is going on.

What’s your maxim?
What’s for dinner and shall we open the wine now?

Jeremy Bowen was the BBC’s Middle Eastern Editor from 2005-22. His most recent book is “The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History” (Picador)

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June 2023, Q&A

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