Simon Reeve: My Life in Media

'I was told to track down two terrorists in Boston, and went dancing round the newsroom at the thought of a flight - but they were in Boston, Lincolnshire'

Monday 04 February 2008 01:00

Simon Reeve, 35, is an author and broadcaster. Presenting BBC2's Equator, part-travelogue and part-current affairs programme, earned him comparisons to Michael Palin. He returns to our screens on Sunday with Tropic of Capricorn, a journey from Namibia to Australia and on to Argentina and Brazil. Reeve's first book, The New Jackals, predicted the rise of al-Qa'ida and became a New York Times bestseller. He grew up in Acton, west London, and lives with his wife Anya in north London.

What inspired you to embark on a career in the media?

I had a vague notion that journalism could be interesting, but I never thought it was an option. After leaving school I had no idea what to do in life. I went on the dole, ran a charity shop, and I was turned down for a job as a white-van driver based on Wembley Trading Estate. That was a low point. Then my dad saw an advert in The Sunday Times and somehow I landed a job.

When you were 15 years old, which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?

We used to get The Times, largely because Mr Murdoch introduced a complicated cut-price scheme. I was equally interested in the Ealing & Acton Leader, which I delivered locally. It grabbed eyeballs with headlines of the "Slasher horseman stalks Acton Park!" variety. A clever mix of parochial shockery.

And what were your favourite TV and radio programmes?

On the TV it was anything that had even a suggestion of violence or sex. I loved Minder, partly because I'd see them filming as I walked to school. But I was also obsessed with the news, documentaries, and travel and adventure shows: anything that involved wielding a machete in a jungle. We'd have the Today programme on every morning, and that encouraged an ongoing affair with Radio 4. It's one of the many things I miss on my long journeys away.

Describe your job

I've written and edited a few books, and now I'm travelling to far-flung parts of the planet and hoping I can interest people in what happens there. It's hard when Amy Winehouse and Paris Hilton are so fascinating.

What is the first media you turn to in the morning?

Radio 4, then the BBC news homepage. I get The Independent news email every day, which is still free – thank you very much.

Do you consult any media sources during the day?

Endlessly. If I'm preparing for a trip then I have a slab of travel guides to use as reference. Otherwise I'm on the BBC website, Google and all the usual. Everyone slags off Wikipedia, but I think it's getting stronger and sharper all the time.

What is the best thing about your job?

The fact that it's less like a job and more of an education. Travelling around the Tropic of Capricorn, I was overwhelmed by new information, knowledge, smells and sights. Travelling makes up for never having gone to university.

And the worst?

I seem to work every day of the week. There's always something to do. That's the downside of being freelance.

How do you feel you influence the media?

Not a jot. But I hope the TV programmes I've been making show viewers a bit more about life in dusty corners of the planet.

What's the proudest achievement in your working life?

My first byline. It was a tiny "compiled by..." on a Sunday Times table of worst theatre reviews. My gran framed it. Close second was winning a One World Broadcasting Trust Award for Places That Don't Exist, a series I devised about unrecognised countries. The citation said it made an "outstanding contribution to greater world understanding". You can't get much better than that.

And what's your most embarrassing moment?

When my big break came I still hadn't been on a plane. I was told to track down two terrorists hiding in Boston and went dancing around the newsroom at the thought of a flight, only to be told they were in Boston in Lincolnshire.

What do you tune into at home?

At home or in the car it's Radio 4. I even podcast programmes like From Our Own Correspondent. I love watching TV while I'm abroad, particularly when I can't understand the language. I once saw an It's a Knockout competition in Saudi Arabia that gave me a whole new take on life in the kingdom. And a dubbed, pirated version of Titanic in Kyrgyzstan was better than the original.

What is your Sunday paper? And do you have a favourite magazine?

I subscribe to The Week, which I think should be compulsory reading. And I love the scoop of analysis you get from The New York Review of Books. I'm fickle when it comes to papers. If I want a doorstop I'll get The Sunday Times. Usually it's The Observer or The Independent on Sunday.

Name one career ambition you want to realise

If I make it through life without being forced to take jobs that fill me with daily dread then I'll be happy.

What would you do if you didn't work in the media?

I'm endlessly trying to spot a great business idea while I'm away, but the best ones appear to be illegal. I think I'd settle on a tree stump grinding business.

Who in the media do you most admire and why?

Adam Curtis for The Century of the Self. George Monbiot for banging on about things that matter.

The CV

1990: Joins The Sunday Times as a post-boy.

1993: Starts researching the first World Trade Center bombing.

1995: Leaves The Sunday Times and starts writing a book on new "apocalyptic" terrorists.

1998: First book, The New Jackals, is published. Later becomes a New York Times bestseller.

2000: Writes One Day in September, about the Munich Olympics massacre.

2003: First TV series, Meet the Stans, on BBC.

2005: Places That Don't Exist, BBC4.

2006: Equator, BBC2.

2008: Tropic of Capricorn begins on BBC2 at 8pm on Sunday; the accompanying book is out on Thursday.

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