CV: Fergal Keane

FERGAL KEANE Foreign Correspondent, BBC
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A young woman called Gillian Johnston was murdered as she sat in a car. I went to the funeral and saw the despair of ordinary people in Northern Ireland over what was happening to them.

Because both my parents were actors - my father often on TV and radio - I was always very aware of the media. From the age of 13 or 14, I knew I wanted to be a reporter, and a foreign reporter in particular.

When I left school in the late Seventies my uncle, who was a newspaper columnist and playwright, managed to get me an interview with a newspaper in the west of Ireland called the Limerick Leader and Chronicle. I was also offered a job on a newspaper in Cork, where I lived, but I think that if I'd taken that, I never would have left Cork.

I got the job in Limerick, and did all the routine cub reporter jobs: court, county council, agriculture stories. And I got a valuable lesson in how important it is to be accurate when I said the wrong person had won the first prize for blackberry jam at a local show, and the real winner came in and lambasted me. I also did a lot of sports coverage, particularly rugby, and managed to cover greyhound racing for three years without ever knowing what it was all about.

I then applied to the national papers in Dublin, and got a job with the Irish Press as a news reporter and feature writer. But I could see in my second year there that industrial relations and very poor management were going to make the place come crashing down - which it did - and so I decided to move into broadcasting, getting a job as a reporter with RTE in 1984. It was still based in Dublin, but I did a lot of work in Northern Ireland. And the more I went to Northern Ireland, the more I felt that, if you're an Irish reporter, you can't really understand all the issues if you're just based in Dublin.

So I went to the Belfast bureau of RTE, where I covered the Enniskillen bombing, and the Lisburn fun run where the IRA attacked the Army. But it's less the big events like that that stand out for me than individual murders that wouldn't have got as much press attention. A young woman called Gillian Johnston was murdered as she sat in a car with her boyfriend one night, and I remember going to the funeral and seeing the despair of these ordinary people over what was happening to them.

Then, in 1989, the BBC were looking for both a Dublin reporter and a Northern Ireland correspondent. I applied for the Dublin job, because I fancied going back there, but the following day they rang and offered me the Northern Ireland job, which meant staying in Belfast. But I was so thrilled with the idea of joining the BBC that I thought "What the hell!" I'd always wanted to go abroad, and knew I would only be able to do that by going to the BBC or a Fleet Street newspaper.

I stayed in Northern Ireland for 18 months, and then the job of Southern Africa correspondent came up. I'd always let them know I wanted that job, and I went for it with all guns blazing. Getting it was a defining moment in my career in that I was on air all the time, and built up a following. Living there was traumatic - some of the people I worked with were killed, and I began to realise the dangers attached to what journalists do - but it was incredible to see elections taking place and Mandela being sworn in as president.

Then, in 1993 I reported on the genocide in Rwanda for Panorama, which was another kind of turning point. During my time in South Africa I'd largely been reporting for radio, so this launched my television career. The programme caused quite a reaction when it was broadcast, winning quite a few awards.

After that I felt quite a bit of weariness about covering the troubles of Africa, and when the job of Asia correspondent, based in Hong Kong, came up in 1994, I applied for that. Physically, it was a tiring job, because the beat stretched from Afghanistan down to the South Pacific, but the thing about the BBC is that you are working with great people whose level of commitment, integrity and craftsmanship make it all so much easier. I reported from Afghanistan and Cambodia, and in Burma I got the first TV interview with the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi when she was released from house arrest in 1995.

This summer, I covered the Hong Kong handover. My abiding memory of it is waking up the day after and seeing two Chinese military helicopters from my hotel window. That more than anything said to me: "Things have changed."

I'm now based out of London, as a foreign correspondent doing news and documentary, TV and radio. It's nice to be able to do a mixture; that's what I want to be doing for the foreseeable future.