Ben Brown: 'I am lucky to be alive'

As a reporter who heads straight for every trouble spot, Ben Brown has cheated death on more than one occasion. But there's no way he wants to be stuck behind a desk, he tells Ian Burrell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Just how many close shaves can a foreign correspondent expect to get away with? The evidence from last month's inquest into the death in Iraq of ITV News correspondent Terry Lloyd threw into stark relief the dangers faced by that special minority of British journalists who make their living by heading off to perilous, faraway places and reporting back on what they have seen.

Ben Brown, who was a friend of Lloyd's, has come close to death on three occasions - in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East - on his way to becoming the most high-profile reporter on the BBC.

More than a decade after his first escape, Brown still appears incredulous that he survived. He found himself stranded in front of the presidential palace in Grozny, just as the Russian army unleashed a full-scale artillery barrage on the building and the Chechen rebel forces within. "It was one of those moments where you think 'What an idiot. I've just pushed my luck way too far, I'm not going to get out of this, I'm never going to see my kids again, and please God, if you get me out of here this time I'm never going to do this again.'"

He felt bullets whizzing past his head and was reduced to a "gibbering wreck". Though his cameraman continued to record the attack, Brown, who has three children, took to his heels, lying on the floor of his hired car as a local driver (nicknamed "Hatch" after Brands Hatch race track) took him to safety. The reporter later described the terror he experienced as "the sort of fear that turns your legs to jelly and your guts to acid".

Brown - the son of the late ITN newsreader Antony Brown - had arrived in Chechnya in January 1995 brimming with the self-confidence that had helped him to become one of the rising stars of BBC journalism. But battle-ravaged Grozny - "it was like Stalingrad" - tested his mettle. "I covered that conflict for about three weeks and I started off completely fearless. Then, every day, I could feel myself notching up more fear and going less and less close in. You would see other journalists being killed - there was a photographer who had her head blown off - and I think it's a bit like being a driver, the more accidents you see the more cautious you become."

Somehow, and in spite of his pledge to the Almighty, Brown found himself in peril once again, five years later. This time he was in Zimbabwe, trapped inside the home of farmer Mike Mason as the property was besieged by a mob of militant "war veterans" armed with machetes, knives and iron bars.

"The farmer was very media-friendly and he said we could be with him on the inside as the war veterans came to his front gate. We could film that and we had the car at the back gate to just drive off having got the footage. The trouble was that the mob split off into two groups. Half went to the front gate and half to the back, so we were suddenly trapped," Brown remembers. "I was reallyscared and remember thinking 'I'm either going to die here or win an award.'"

His circumstances weren't helped by the fact that the veterans' leader, Rex Jesus - "inappropriately named" - had ordered that any BBC staff who were found should be killed. "They climbed the gate and started smashing the windows. I had a brilliant cameraman, Hedley Trigge, and he filmed from inside very bravely while I was cowering, whimpering."

After an abortive attempt to make a run for it, the BBC crew escaped only after Mason persuaded the militants that the journalists were visiting relatives. So Brown drove away, with the film that was to win him a Royal Television Society award safely stashed in his underpants.

When preparations were being made for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Brown was still desperate to be at the heart of the action and pleaded to be posted to the Iraqi capital. "Baghdad was the epicentre of the story, where the final showdown was going to be, and I wanted to be involved in that."

But Saddam Hussein's spin doctors were not his most ardent admirers. "I had been insufficiently nice about their leader. The fact that I called him 'Saddam' they thought was insulting, as opposed to 'The President, Saddam Hussein', which was the form of words they liked. They said you wouldn't call your Prime Minister 'Blair' so why do you call our leader 'Saddam'. It was a big disappointment."

So Brown found himself embedded with British forces as they advanced across southern Iraq. Once again, he nearly lost his life.

With his crew, he abandoned his embed and hitched a lift with some Irish Guards as they entered Basra in their Warrior armoured vehicle. "At one stage they opened the back door to the Warrior and we got out. There had been fighting around the university and there was a dead Iraqi militia fighter on the ground with a rocket-propelled grenade next to him. So I was doing a piece to camera and suddenly another Warrior opened fire, a huge bang."

The prone Iraqi militiaman had risen to his feet and trained his RPG on Brown and his crew. "He was about to kill us. The gunner on the other Warrior had blown a big hole in his chest - I remember seeing the guy with a hole in his chest and smoke coming out of it."

What Brown did next he came to regret. "We went and shook the hands of the soldier that had killed him which was a very bizarre experience because it was completely crossing the line. There was so much relief because we knew we had nearly been killed and somebody had saved our lives. Afterwards we thought 'We shouldn't have done that' but I think it's a human response."

Brown would not have faced these mortal risks had he followed his teenage urges to pursue a career in politics or the law. But after graduating from Keble College, Oxford, he determined to follow in his father's footsteps.

Alas, ITN turned him down for a traineeship ("the family connection didn't work in my favour there") as did the BBC, twice ("I was bitterly hurt and offended that they didn't want me and remember saying 'Right, I'm never going to work for the BBC.'").

So Brown made his start in journalism on the commercial station Radio Clyde - apparently only after the controller had confused him with another applicant also named Ben Brown. A succession of early mistakes did not exactly endear the young Kent public schoolboy to his Glaswegian listenership.

"The worst one was when there was a fire in a street that was named after Jean Armour, the wife of Robbie Burns. Because I was a posh Oxford graduate and had never heard of Jean Armour (pronounced Gene Arma), I said, 'There has been a fire in (puts on French accent) John Ahmoor Street.' The entire West of Scotland besieged the phone-lines of Radio Clyde saying, 'Get this ghastly Sassenach off our radio station now.'"

Shortly afterwards young Brown was asked to record a piece on the return to port of HMS Glasgow on the first anniversary of the Falklands War. "I did this story which included the original announcement that the Falkland Islands had been invaded but I, er, didn't really make it clear that this was from a year ago. The entire West of Scotland thought the Falklands had been re-invaded, the phone-lines went mad and I was hauled in for another bollocking."

Undaunted, Brown moved on to Merseyside and Radio City where he had his first foreign assignments, following Liverpool FC on the trail to their 1984 European Cup final victory in Rome. By his mid-twenties he was working just off Fleet Street, for the then-giant Independent Radio News, being sent to Beirut to cover the demise of the civil war-torn Lebanon, only days after the kidnapping of fellow journalist John McCarthy.

It was after this that Brown, today one of the BBC's most recognisable faces, finally joined up with the corporation. He is grateful for his experience of commercial media - "I'm quite glad that I didn't just go from public school to Oxbridge and into the BBC" - and, unlike most of his colleagues, he chooses to be interviewed away from the newsroom, upstairs in a Shepherd's Bush wine bar.

He originally arrived at White City as part of an intake of four new television news reporters that included the current Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen and the former royal correspondent Jenni Bond. "I remember practising pieces to camera with Jenni in the Blue Peter garden. It was amazing how little training one had. It was just sink or swim."

Now 46, he has combined his former role as a roving "special correspondent" with studio-based presenting on BBC News 24, a unique position within the corporation.

Presenting was a job that Antony Brown - who announced the assassination of JFK on ITV - had warned his son against. "My dad always said, whatever you do, don't become a newsreader, it's boring. Stick to being a reporter, it's much more fun. I do think that if I was going to stay in a studio and just read an autocue for the rest of my life I would probably shoot myself."

But Brown is still very mobile, and last week he was back in a conflict zone, reporting on the conditions faced by British troops based in Afghanistan. When he returned to Beirut earlier this year to cover the evacuation of British citizens, he combined his two jobs: the foreign correspondent reporting from the frontline and the rolling-news anchor. "As an anchor in the field your mind is bursting with lots of things going on around you. We were interviewing Israeli politicians in Jerusalem down the line while people were being evacuated all around us. It takes some powers of concentration to focus on the scene around you, the editorial content of your programme and instructions from the gallery in London at the same time. It can be pretty nerve-wracking."

The evacuation of Beirut was a breakthrough story for News 24 and one of Brown's finest moments, though he admits that, having had a day planned with his children, his "heart sank" when he was phoned and told to head for Heathrow to cover the crisis. He is also gracious enough to say that he is still learning and hopes to "emulate" the work of rival broadcasters Mark Austin and Jeremy Thompson, who perform similar reporter/presenter roles at ITV News and Sky News respectively.

Not that Brown is universally admired. Diarists on the Daily Mail and Sunday Times have sneered at his "glossy" hair and reminded him to pack his Clinique when going off to war. One Mail writer also took exception to his failure to wear a tie on assignment, claiming Brown's sartorial shortcomingsundermined the BBC's credibility.

"I've never worn a tie in a war zone and don't really intend to start now just because I'm a presenter rather than a reporter," says Brown, who prides himself on making his reports accessible and says he tries to avoid making his appearance a distraction to his story.

For his News 24 presenting slot of 7pm-10pm, Brown teams up with Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. More diary items - this time in the London Evening Standard and the Independent on Sunday - have suggested a tension between the two over who gets the starring role.

Brown, who admits the importance of ego in his job, says he and Maitlis are "big mates". Presumably, BBC news executives thought they would make a good double act?

"I don't know actually, to be honest, I was just offered the job and told I would be with Emily. She's great, she's a real... she's quite an extraordinary broadcaster, she's got amazing star quality. I'm lucky to be paired with her really," he says, gushing a little.

According to Brown, the atmosphere in BBC news and current affairs has improved immensely since Peter Horrocks took over as head of television news just over a year ago. "The emphasis is on what we do, the content - not the individual programmes. The crazy internal competition between programmes has disappeared largely. There was a time when some of the management thought there was a creative tension between programmes that was healthy."

And in his new hybrid role, Brown feels that, just like BBC News, he has found the right balance. "It suits me as a lifestyle because there's a bit more routine to my life, more predictability, but at the same time I'm still travelling, still getting out of the four white walls of the studio. It's quite a nice combination."

Comments