'In the Sudan famine, people would die as you were filming'

New author Ben Brown tells Matthew Bell why he feels such guilt over his war reporter years
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The Independent Online

After three hours presenting rolling news on News 24, Ben Brown is ready for a drink, so we head to the only wine bar in White City. "What a dreadful place to work!" Tanned and slightly crumpled, he is less autocutie and more war reporter, which is probably how most people know him – covering every major conflict of the past 20 years.

A couple of years ago he realised his children were growing up without him, so he decided to do fewer foreign assignments, which is why he now co-presents BBC News 24 with Emily Maitlis.

Spending more time at home has allowed him to write a novel about war correspondents, called Sandstealers. "John Simpson always said keep a diary, but I failed to. There are probably enough memoirs by journalists. I thought maybe there are some deeper things you can say about journalists in fiction."

If you were in a hurry at the airport you might mistake Sandstealers for a Dan Brown book (Brown is cleverly the biggest word on the cover), but the plot isn't nearly as far-fetched. Or is it? When hot-shot war correspondent Danny Lowenstein is killed in an Iraq back street, suspicions emerge that the killer could be a fellow journalist. Ben Brown seems far too nice to have entertained thoughts of murder, but his assassination of Lowenstein is heartfelt: he abhors the sort of journalist-as-hero that the character represents, and which he admits is partly based on his younger self.

"I suppose," he says, "I'm slightly railing against the journalists who report in a tear-jerking, moralistic way about the awful side of war, when their own morality is suspect. Journalists are a hypocritical bunch; we're pretty venal." Indeed, Brown is a surprise defender of Max Mosley. "I don't really see that we have a right to know what he gets up to. If you looked at most people's sex lives up close they would seem quite absurd."

Brown admits to having been ruthless in the pursuit of stories, even stitching up rivals in his youth. Witnessing human catastrophes has also hardened his heart – one minute he would be at home in Fulham, the next in a war zone. "I remember sitting at dinner parties and I'd just be back from Rwanda and people would say 'what was it like? It must have been ghastly?', and the truth is you can't begin to explain what it was like.

"If you get a good connection, you can be in West London the day after seeing thousands of starving children. I remember taking my children to Sainsbury's the morning after getting back and they were crying because they couldn't have some sweets, and I suddenly felt very angry. But it's not their fault they're not starving Africans – you've got to be careful not to impose your anger on to them."

When his third child was born in 1999, during the Kosovo war, Brown turned up at the hospital in his flak jacket. His son had breathing problems, but Brown was angry because it delayed him getting back to the war. "I'm not proud of those emotions," he says, "but you are so driven at the time."

While he has never felt the need for counselling, he has had nightmares. "I have had really bad dreams from things I've seen. Especially after the tsunami – I've never seen more dead bodies than I saw there. There was a river in Banda Aceh and they were like logs, like a huge pile of logs in the water. And then in the streets wherever you walked there were dead bodies. That was quite shocking." Was that the worst? "How do you measure it? I remember covering the famine in Sudan and seeing people die in front of you. You would be filming and they would die as you were filming. In a way that is more shocking."

After Oxford, Brown did a journalism degree at Cardiff before going into local radio. He joined the BBC in 1988, the same year as Jeremy Bowen, a friend who was recently censured by the BBC Trust over supposed anti-Israel bias in his reporting: "Nobody knows more about the Middle East than Jeremy, and I would defend his reporting to the hilt."

Brown has already started on a second novel, also about journalists but with a different set of characters. He has plenty of experiences to draw on, including several stints embedded with the British Army, which, he says, has a somewhat contradictory attitude towards journalists. "When I was first embedded in Afghanistan, the commanders hated us and they made us clean the toilets just as a punishment for being journalists. So we had to clean the toilets at Bagram Air Base. But the Army is often quite enlightened and it does want to show you what it's doing. Often I talk to soldiers and they're just hoping to see action, and it's a bit the same with journalists. It sounds ghastly, but war sort of defines you if you're a foreign correspondent."

The morality of chasing wars for a good story is explored in his book. "There's a huge amount of guilt when you're parachuted into places. After the tsunami, we went into one town where half the people had been killed and we were among of the first people to land in a helicopter, and of course they all surrounded us thinking we were aid workers – but we were just there to take their pictures and to do a story. And the worse they look the better the story, and you do feel a lot of guilt."

Only once has Brown been overwhelmed by it all. "I was doing an earthquake in Turkey and there was a woman who had lost her family, and her house was a pile of rubble, and she was sorting through broken crockery, which was all she had left. I asked her, 'how do you feel?' – the classic crass question that one asks – and she said: 'I've lost my whole life, everything I've ever had, and you ask me how I feel.' And then I just felt like crying. It's a moment like that that stops you and you think, "Christ, what the hell am I doing?"