All quiet on the Eastern Front?
David Loyn with the Taliban
David Loyn is the BBCâ€™s developing world correspondent. He has over 25 years experience as a foreign affairs journalist, 20 of those with the BBC. He is amongst a rare elite of journalists who have won Journalist of the Year for both radio (Sony Radio Reporter of the Year) and television (RTS Journalist of the Year). He has reported the fall of the Berlin Wall, the massacres in Kosovo as well as controversially spending time travelling with the Taliban in 2006. VIVIDâ€™s Stephen Eisenhammer met him and tried not to bore him - too much. 16
VIVID 2nd Edition March 2008
How did you originally get involved in journalism? And what made you want to? (Laughs) I met someone at a party who was working for an amateur religious programme, on a local London radio station called LBC; that was about 30 years ago. I was studying to be a Barrister at the time and LBC was just round the corner. So I started working for this pretty dreadful amateur religious programme for the rest of that year. I did that and ended up thinking that this is far more interesting than doing Law. I therefore gave up the idea of being a Barrister, freelanced a bit and eventually got myself a proper job working as a reporter for that same programme.
“The role of journalism is to paint and highlight the shades of grey” I think journalism is mostly about a knack, a certain temperament. Nicholas Tomalin famously said that to be a journalist you need “rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability”. Temperament is the most important quality. Ability to write, yes, but it is more of a knack than a profession, and I’m lucky enough to have got away with it. With the places you go and the things you do it seems logical to deduce that you are an “adrenaline junkie”. Are you? No! Not at all, no. There are of course some journalists who are. Anthony Loyd, for example, who is a good friend of mine, admits in his book My War Gone By, I Miss it so that he went to Bosnia to become a freelance journalist
VIVID 2nd Edition March 2008
in order to be shot at. Now, I’m not saying it’s not exciting, but I see the danger very much more as another part of the planning. If you want to get to report on the Taliban, for example, there are a series of obstacles in your way. You’ve got to get someone to pay you, you’ve got to get the commissioning editor to be interested in the story and then… you’ve got to make sure you get back alive. I am someone who has delayed a trip because the jeep I was supposed to be travelling in didn’t have any seatbelts. You are far more likely to be killed in a road accident on your way to the frontline than once you’re there and being shot at. Do you think that journalism has a crucial role to play in resolving the issues in the Middle East? What is this role? I think that journalism can have a very influential role to play when it is aligned with policy makers. In Kosovo, for example, the reports that I did directly influenced political policy. However, when like in Bosnia, 3 years earlier, journalistic opinion runs contrary to policy it often makes very little difference. I would say that events in the Middle East fall more into the latter category. The course of action in the Middle East is mainly framed within US policy, and this policy is currently determined by the Bush administration which sees everything in black and white. The role of journalism is, therefore, to paint and highlight the shades of grey. To explain, for example, that Al Quaida is in fact the main enemy of Hamas. Or what the aims of the Taliban are and why they are enjoying increasing support in Afghanistan. Not all apparent terrorists are working in collaboration with each other. It is these shades of grey that I think are vital to understanding the conflict in the Middle East. As a journalist how do you bal-
ance the two pressures of objectivity and getting a “good story”? I do not think that these two things are in opposition. Objectivity is a tool and getting a good story is an aim. Some people might argue that there is no such thing as perfect truth or complete objectivity; however, I do not accept this. If you follow this argument you end up falling to relativism and either believing that journalism is worthless, or, that one must censor and manipulate information to aid the development of society - like the Peace Journalists do. Both of these are dangerous paths and in different ways they both lead to ignorance. A journalist’s aim must be to inform objectively. One can always ask and discover: “Is this man lying?”, “Why are they doing these things?” These questions usually have answers and it is these answers that one must strive to uncover. Can one be perfectly objective? Maybe not, but one must at least try.
“The danger of Bush leaving is that the US may lose patience just when things seem to be looking like they could get better” Are you looking forward to the end of the Bush administration? Do you think it will mark a turn for the better in terms of international development? Naturally as a member of the BBC I have no personal political views (Laughs). However, I think that the US reaction to 9/11 was entirely inept. 60 years of UN attempts to avoid wars was thrown to the wind and the result is a serious threat to world peace. We