London, Asharq Al-Awsat—British journalist Alan Philps had had a storied career in the British and international media, starting out as a Reuters correspondent before joining the Daily Telegraph as a Middle East correspondent. He is currently editor of The World Today, published by Chatham House.
He has witnessed a number of historic events throughout his career, including the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the failed putsch that brought Boris Yeltsin to power in 1991, and the bloody fighting in Chechnya and the rise of bandit capitalism in the mid-1990s.
In a wide-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Philps gives his take about the state of the modern media, journalism in the Middle East and the digital revolution.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with the Arabic language?
Alan Philps: God bless the Arabic language. Its grammar is an endless source of fascination; speaking it is one long disappointment. I owe several jobs to Arabic. My first job in journalism was in London with JANA, the Libyan news agency. I then got a traineeship with Reuters, because I had Russian and Arabic. It was the 1970s just after the oil price rise, and suddenly there was news and money in the Arab world.
I studied Arabic at university, but I learned more in Damascus when I supported myself by translating commercial contracts—they are all quite similar—into English. The boss of the translation agency saw that I would be useful, and he let me learn to touch-type there. The other translators were all highly talented and educated and would have been professors or cabinet ministers but for their politics—which no one dared mention, of course—but I guessed they were rather to the Left of the Ba’ath party.
Q: How has the Arabic language benefited your career?
I strongly believe that anyone can communicate in any language if their life or job depends on it. That’s the reason Arabic is so hard. It is not that it is difficult to pronounce, or that there are so many levels, from formal to spoken, or so many dialects. The problem is that so many people in the Arab world are educated in English or French, often from an early age, and they speak those languages better than I will ever speak Arabic. That’s not the same in Russia—where few people speak English and you have to communicate in their language from day one—or even in France. So, actually, I have depended more on Russian and French in my career.
Q: What is the most memorable story you have covered throughout your career?
I was in Beirut in 1982–1983 for the Israeli invasion. The editor said: ‘Go for three months or so—until the Israelis withdraw.’ He was a poor forecaster. The Israelis did not leave until 2000. With West Beirut surrounded by the Israelis, working for Reuters was a real mission to get the story out, with electricity and water cut off. Our generator had a big notice on it saying it was under the protection of the Palestinian Revolution and no one should steal it. Somehow, we kept working.
There was more respect for the international press then. I recall driving to work in my Fiat Ritmo early one morning and being stopped by five guys with RPGs. They wanted a lift to the front line where the Israelis were advancing. As I drove them, they discussed whether to commandeer the car for the defense of the city, but came to an agreement to let me keep it, as they thought the press was valuable to their cause. These days, I would be kidnapped for ransom instantly.
Q: Are you currently writing a book, and if so on what?
I wrote a book about Russia, not politics but the state orphanage system. People ask me why I’m not writing a book on the Middle East. In my editor’s job, I receive a lot of new books on the region, but they mostly seem out of date by the time they hit the bookshops, and do not sell well.
If you are going to write a successful book on the Middle East, you have to study the example of Tom Friedman, who used to share the Reuters office in Beirut in 1982. His book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, has been continuously in print since 1989, topped and tailed with regular updates, and it still sells. Clearly, a good narrative is more important than being up-to-date with the latest developments. This is difficult for a news reporter.
Q: Can you tell us about your front-line experiences? What advice would you offer a reporter working on the front lines of a conflict?
There are many reporters who cover wars from time to time. I have been one of them. The real war reporters are few, and they stand out for their knowledge and their soldier-like ability to be cautious most of the time and only occasionally exceptionally brave. They know how to judge risk and to prepare back-up plans and that allows them mostly to survive. Anthony Loyd of the Times, who has had a couple of near escapes in Syria, is one example. Didier François, the French radio reporter recently released from captivity in Syria, was exceptionally generous with his expertise during the Chechen wars we covered in Russia. It is people like Didier who guide the ignoramuses who cannot tell the difference between a tank and an APC [armored personnel carrier]. I can do that, but I was never a member of the brotherhood of war correspondents, which obviously includes some notable sisters too, such as the late Marie Colvin.
One piece of advice: don’t spend too long with TV crews—even though they can afford the best transport. They spend too long in one place, and attract too much attention.
Q: You have reported from different conflicts and countries, and no doubt witnessed many disturbing things. Do these experiences linger with you or do you forget about them and move on when an assignment is over?
I used to dream I was back in Beirut in 1983. I am running toward a plume of smoke on the seafront. The American Embassy has been devastated by a truck bomb. This is a turning point in history: the rise of the Iranian-inspired Shi’a groups in the Middle East. I don’t have time to think about history. I need a phone—this is years before the invention of the mobile. I am running down all the side streets to call the office with the news. I go into the shops, but none of the phones has a dial tone. Running back into the street and wondering which way to turn, I see Terry Anderson, the AP reporter and my rival who was later held hostage for more than five years in Beirut, on the same quest. We look at each other and dash off on our separate ways. Eventually I found a phone in car hire office, dictated a few lines and went to the American hospital to count bodies, which was part of the drill. It’s not that gruesome task which sticks in my mind, but the ludicrous competition between two agency reporters at a time of catastrophe. It appears all the more trivial in the light of what happened to Terry later.
Q: What was your first story? When was it broadcast or published?
It was a magazine piece on Israeli nuclear weapons. Some things do not change.
Q: What is your take on the print media vs online media debate? Do you think new forms of media are killing off old forms?
There is no doubt that the digital revolution has killed off newspapers’ business model. They either have a non-commercial source of revenue, such as the Scott Trust which supports the Guardian, or they fall into the hands of digital gurus who claim they have the secret of making money from the Internet, which has been the fate of the Telegraph titles. The Independent does a great job at producing a newspaper with next to no resources, but for how long?
So I would not be surprised to see paid-for daily papers disappear Mondays to Fridays, but they will continue to appear at the weekends. Newspapers struggle to cover their costs with the revenue they can get online and on tablet versions because of their heavy fixed expenses, such as printing plants and distribution networks.
In terms of content, the blogger version of journalism is attractive but dangerous. Bloggers have to create a clear brand in a crowded market place, which means you usually now their politics and what they are going to say. The essence of newspapers is surprising their readers. The newspaper experience should provide you with something you did not expect to find. A lot of online content is preaching to a converted audience.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism?
To people in Britain who want to work in newspapers, I say: Don’t. The best years are gone. If you really want a newspaper career, ask yourself if you would work at the Daily Mail. By that I mean, would you accept the compromises required to produce a commercially successful product? If you can do that, you’ll probably survive in the rubble of the inky trade.
Q: In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a successful journalist?
An inquisitive mind and the curiosity of a little boy. This is the unique characteristic of Jon Snow, the anchor at Channel 4 News. He never looks bored. Whoever he is interviewing, from a king to a street sweeper, he believes they have something of interest to say, and he is determined to find it.
Q: Finally, do you have any advice you would like to give Arab journalists in particular?
I don’t feel able to offer advice to Arab journalists. Each nation has its own media culture. The British media culture is quite brutal, just as our politics and courts are harshly adversarial. This does not suit all cultures at all stages of their development.
This is an abridged version of the original interview.