John F Burns: How a Brit came to star at 'The New York Times'

The reporter whom Chemical Ali mocked as "the most dangerous man in Iraq" has returned to run the London bureau of 'The New York Times'. He tells Ian Burrell about life working as a journalist inside Baghdad, of his admiration for the vitality of the British press – and what they can learn from their US counterparts

On the eastern bank of the Tigris River, barely 1,000 yards outside Baghdad's protected Green Zone, lies a smaller enclave, surrounded by 15ft-high concrete blast walls designed to deter suicide truck bombers. It has its own 50-strong security force and its own armoured cars.

But this workplace, the most heavily guarded newspaper office in the world, also offers its 115 or so workers the comforts of a swimming pool, laundry services, first-class catering and a verdant relaxation area that recalls Nebuchadnezzer II's famed Hanging Gardens.

The Baghdad bureau of The New York Times has for much of the past five years been home to John F Burns, one of the most distinguished British journalists of his generation, the longest-serving foreign correspondent in the long history of the newspaper known across America as the Grey Lady. No Western journalist has spent so long at the epicentre of the Iraq war and enjoyed such a privileged perspective on the most critical story of the 21st century thus far.

Now, as the newspaper's newly installed chief of its London bureau, Burns has exchanged the perils of a daily artillery barrage for the gentility of life in Cambridge, allowing him – for the first time in his professional career – to write about the land of his birth, and to reminisce on the challenges of working in the most dangerous journalistic environment on earth.

Burns, a big man with a huge mop of grey curly hair and a beard, was mocked by Ali Hassan al-Majid ("Chemical Ali") in the build-up to war as "the most dangerous man in Iraq". As coalition forces approached Baghdad, he narrowly escaped being taken into custody by Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat secret police, having to work for a week under cover of darkness until the Iraqi regime fell. He is close enough to General David Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, to travel in his helicopter and put his feet up on the general's desk while discussing the military "surge".

He is a double Pulitzer Prize winner (for his coverage of the tragedies of Bosnia and Afghanistan) but, as much as anything, he is proud of the cross-cultural harmony that developed within that New York Times bureau in Baghdad. "We tried to create within our walls the kind of society that the Western enterprises intended to create in Iraq itself, based on tolerance and goodwill," he says. "We had Europeans, Americans and Iraqis of every background. The one thing I would take as a lasting satisfaction is that we did create there a kind of haven in the midst of all this madness."

But even here it was not safe. "We survived one of the biggest suicide truck bombs. There was a daily barrage of mortars and rockets on the city and you could not be there for 10 minutes without knowing you were in the middle of an active war zone. It's like living on a dartboard."

Not that Burns, 63, dressed in a blue blazer and green wool tie, enjoys war stories. Having "spent a great deal of my professional life in very unfriendly places where there has been a great deal of repression and misery" he loathes "self-vaunting journalists" and regards himself as a foreign correspondent rather than a war reporter.

Having spent 32 years working for what is probably the world's most famous paper, he is acutely aware of the advantages he has enjoyed, particularly in covering the Iraq conflict. "The New York Times has enormous strengths, and one of them is – to speak of the story that I have just left in Iraq – the willingness to spend extraordinary resources. I think there's no doubt that the Iraq story is the most expensive story that The New York Times has ever covered."

The paper's executives say that they are spending more than $3m (£1.5m) a year on a story that has run for nearly five years. The expatriate team of around 15 reporters, photographers and administrators is supported by around 100 Iraqis.

"It is a black hole for those who manage our newsroom budget," admits Burns. "Especially when newspapering in America is going through this period of tremendous stress, trying to adapt to the challenges of the internet when Wall Street has marked down the share price, including that of The New York Times, by 50 per cent or more over the last three years."

Even more so when the Grey Lady has been struggling to overcome two scandals, the first concerning concocted stories by fantasist reporter Jayson Blair, the second the flawed coverage by senior New York Times journalist Judith Miller of the US administration's knowledge of Iraqi weapons programmes.

Burns praises the "brave" strategy of the Sulzberger family, which owns the controlling interest in the Times. "They have always followed the principle that if you show the reader high-quality journalism that it will sell and the profits will take care of themselves. I think The New York Times's coverage of the war in Iraq has been more comprehensive than any of the other newspapers."

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Burns was one of the most outspoken critics of Saddam Hussein's regime. While other correspondents kept their heads down for fear of losing their visas before the fighting began, he "felt quite strongly that as a matter of journalistic integrity we should write about Saddam's Iraq in as unbiased and honest a way as possible".

That included a provocative piece in January 2003, with a Baghdad dateline, stating how many deaths Saddam had been responsible for.

Burns was especially concerned about Saddam's human rights record because he had experience of other sinister regimes. "I had spent a great deal of my professional life in the world's nastiest places: South Africa under apartheid, the Soviet Union in the depths of the cold war, China during the Cultural Revolution. But, saving only North Korea where the nastiness is largely hidden, there was nowhere quite as nasty as Saddam's Iraq."

In the pages of The New York Times he has argued that, even without WMD, "the stronger case [for military intervention] was the one that needed no inspectors to confirm: that Saddam Hussein, in his 23 years in power, plunged this country into a bloodbath of medieval proportions, and exported some of that terror to his neighbours."

He does not, however, feel that he personally played a part in getting the tanks rolling. "Although I was writing for an American newspaper with considerable reach and influence in Washington, DC, I didn't see myself as being a player in that process. I felt that that was something that was quite independent, at least in my mind."

He also claims that the WMD argument has been "hijacked" by opponents of the war and history rewritten. Aside from Robert Fisk of The Independent, he says, the media did not foresee the downside of removing Saddam. "The overwhelming majority of the foreign press in Iraq, with one outstanding example well known to you, Mr Fisk, felt that the removal of Saddam Hussein, could it be done at an acceptable cost, would be an enormous relief to the suffering of the Iraqi people." Fisk, he notes, "is given a latitude that we are not given and he used it to strongly oppose the war".

In one area in particular, however, he feels that the media could have done a better job in informing the public of what might happen to Iraq after a regime change. "It's probably time for the American press – and, I dare say, the British press – to ask ourselves whether we didn't, in writing about those things that were accessible to us – and the most accessible fact of life in Iraq was the terror – whether we didn't perhaps give too one-dimensional a view of a very complex society," he asks.

"It might be that in using the ruler of human rights or, if you will, human decency, and too rarely using the ruler of history and of culture, we may have failed to give a sufficiently rounded view of this country that our governments proposed to invade. The deep, deep fissures in Iraqi society into which the American enterprise in Iraq has now fallen, the sectarian and religious divide, the 1400-year history of schism in the Islamic world between the Sunnis and the Shiites, the front line of which runs right through the centre of Iraq – we didn't write a great deal about that, and perhaps we should have written more about it."

Burns's gaze now falls elsewhere, to life in Britain, the country where he grew up. Born in Nottingham, he was educated privately, attending Stowe boarding school, the Buckinghamshire Alma Mater of Sir Richard Branson. A family weekend in Rhyl is among his relatively few British memories. Burns's mother was from Leicestershire but his father, a South African, was in the Royal Air Force and relocated to Canada. After leaving school at 18, Burns joined his family in Vancouver and took a politics and economics degree at McGill University in Montreal before reading Soviet Studies at Harvard (he later studied Chinese at Cambridge).

He worked on newspapers in Ottawa before joining The Globe & Mail in Toronto. At the age of 26, he was assigned to a post in China, covering the Cultural Revolution. One piece headlined "1001 Ways to Lie in China", which highlighted the multiple tiers of Chinese bureaucracy, caught the attention of an editor at The New York Times.

After a professional lifetime of globetrotting, he now feels he is coming home. "One of the reasons I wanted this job was that I'd realised at mid-life that I knew more about the distant world than I did about my own native land. I think to be New York Times bureau chief in London is a tremendous reward for somebody who has walked the ragged edges of the earth all these years: to come home to reacquaint myself with my own country."

Despite being grateful to an American-owned paper for the opportunities he has been given, Burns, who speaks with an English accent that contains not a hint of a mid-Atlantic twang, has had something of an epiphany in respect of his nationality.

"I'm not a mid-Atlantic person, I'm a Brit, I feel very at home here. It's very easy if you have a kind of nomadic life to get confused and think there's a new cosmopolitan identity, a new tribe that lives on 747s and can speak many languages and is at home as much here as there," he says. "It came to a point when I found there was an inauthenticity to this. There comes a time in life when a man has to know who he is."

He is a "tremendous admirer" of the US and thinks anti-Americanism is fool-headed. "People need to make a clear distinction in their mind between a war at present that they judge ill and a country which is a very great nation of which we are all – not just we Brits but all of us everywhere – beneficiaries. What kind of world would this be without America, its power, its culture, its generosity, its enterprise, its invention, and what it has taught us all about liberty? I'm sorry if that sounds jingoistic – I believe it."

He thinks American papers can learn from the "vitality, humour, passion, human interest, immediacy, and sense of what is a story" in the British press. By the same token, he politely wonders whether they can match the rigour of his own title. "There is an enormous weight placed on the integrity, comprehensiveness and accuracy of our reporting. Many people familiar with the British press would find that there is a kind of earnestness and seriousness about The New York Times which is to some a very engaging thing, and is to others a very inhibiting thing."

As for life on the front line, he'll miss it – but not for the thrills. "How could you miss something in which tens of thousands of people have been killed? Well, in all wars, and in this one as much as any, the best in human nature is also apparent. It may be in the end that that's the narcotic. It's not the drama. It's not flying in a Black Hawk 50ft above the date palms under machine-gun fire. It's experiencing human nature at its worst but also at its best."

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