FERGAL Keane has said he was stepping down as BBC’s Africa Editor because he needed to address the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he was suffering from and that he could not continue covering misery, mayhem, wars and unrest.
The Irishman, one of the most respected and familiar faces on British television news, spent some three decades flying into the most dangerous situations across the globe to report on the Rwanda genocide and the Iraq war; the Syrian and the Afghan civil wars and Congo so the world could learn of the Ebola ravages.
Fergal represents a rare breed of international journalists. Some of his colleagues, whom we jokingly referred to as uninformed parachutists, would drop into the midst of a situation and then, having made little attempt to understand its intricacies, ‘authoritatively’ hold forth live on TV.
He was as far as anyone could be from falling into that category. Before he’d succumb to the demands of the dozens of voracious editors in London, he’d make sure he understood the story. He had to feel the intensity before reporting it.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. A BBC correspondent who has been sent in to cover a major story halfway across the world is running against the clock with dozens of outlets waiting to hear from him/her.
Fergal Keane’s reporting was informed and epitomised dignity; it was storytelling at its best. He lived the story to tell it. That took its toll.
That he always managed to understand first enabled him to explain so well. A rare gift. Most ‘star’ TV reporters/presenters have egos that do them no favour and often are a major impediment to their learning, though their gift of sounding convincing and confident on air helps them win the day.
Fergal was an exception. He did not seem to have an ego and was keen to learn as would a child. Funnily enough, while I also worked for the BBC then I did not meet him in London. We first met at the Emirates lounge at Dubai Airport. He’d flown in from London’s Heathrow, and I from Gatwick.
We, and Fergal’s producer Penny Richards, a consummate professional who’d become a dear friend and worked as South Asia bureau chief later, were waiting to make our connection to Islamabad. This was in the aftermath of 9/11 and the US air strikes on Afghanistan had started the day before.
Fergal, who appeared half asleep, sat up, suddenly alert. He picked my brain or, let’s say, whatever little there was to pick on Pakistan and Afghanistan; then took out a notebook and carefully wrote down all contacts I could give him. We even chatted on the plane later.
Upon landing in Islamabad, we parted as Fergal and Penny were catching a flight to Quetta and I was staying on in Islamabad for work. Fergal was the first BBC reporter to have images from inside Afghanistan beamed to the whole world.
BBC’s intrepid Haroon Rashid sneaked in and shot some great footage of an IDP camp near Kandahar. Fergal used those images and was upfront in giving Haroon the credit for the work he had done. That too was rare for a BBC star who could ‘big foot’ anyone.
This was well before John Simpson, another famous BBC journalist, announced live on air ‘we have liberated’ Afghanistan and, at least within the corporation, became a bit of a joke. Fergal Keane’s reporting was informed and epitomised dignity; it was storytelling at its best. He lived the story to tell it. That took its toll.
The BBC statement on Fergal’s decisions said: “Supported throughout this time by friends and colleagues in News, as well as receiving professional medical advice ... However, he now feels he needs to change his role in order to further assist his recovery. It is both brave and welcome that he is ready to be open about PTSD.”
Guardian quoted the corporation as praising Keane’s “insight, experience and thoughtfulness”, adding that the journalist was in discussions with the BBC over a new role “that will enable him to continue to provide original and compelling journalism … [he] would continue to guide and nurture emerging talent in the UK and around the world”.
I remember well my former colleague, Mark Brayne, who first raised the issue of addressing PTSD for reporters after he was himself traumatised while covering the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1985 in Beijing. I first became familiar with the issue in early 1990s on joining the BBC.
And here we are in 2020. Few of our journalists who have suffered beatings, kidnappings, brutal slaying of colleagues and live under constant threats to their life and limb from both state agencies and non-state actors have or have had any form of counselling or help with PTSD.
In fact, so many journalists who covered some of the worst terrorist incidents did not even have proper safety gear or awareness unless they worked for international news organisations. Agreed that some journalists today do not act as journalists and are more like players, or even pawns, in power politics. But surely a much larger number of media men and women do their job with the required professional commitment and whether it is terror incidents or untold pressures after a crisis such as the one manufactured by the state and dubbed ‘Dawn leaks’, journalists, from the editor down to the front-line reporters, may need help with post-traumatic stress.
And one is not even talking of the stress and trauma suffered by non-payment of wages or salary cuts during an economic downturn, worsened in the case of journalists by state designs to gain control over media, and its impact on working media personnel.
The Institute of Excellence in Journalism in Karachi run by my former colleague and close friend Kamal Siddiqui is offering some counselling but bodies such as those of media owners and journalists need to do more and take ownership of such efforts. We also have our Fergal Keanes and we need to protect and support them better.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2020