London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Dipesh Gadher joined the Sunday Times as a graduate trainee in September 1998 and has since held several roles in the news department, including transport correspondent, media correspondent, and deputy news editor. He now works as the newspaper’s chief investigative reporter.
During his career at the Sunday Times Gadher has covered a variety of topics—in 2011 he reported on the Arab Spring and during the 2000s followed the rise of increasingly strident extremist preachers in London like Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada. Today, he continues to focus on extremism in the UK, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) drive to recruit followers from the country.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Gadher about the phenomenon of extremism in Britain and the lure which groups like ISIS have for some young Britons, as well as British coverage of regional issues such as the Israel–Palestine conflict, and the future of journalism in the digital age.
Asharq Al-Awsat: After Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada have been deported from the UK, do you think the term “Londonistan” still applies?
Dipesh Gadher: I think the “Londonistan” term is still very relevant today. It seems many of the seeds that were planted by Islamists in London in the 1990s may now be coming back to haunt Britain and the West. The last two stories I wrote involved Tunisian extremists who have lived in the UK and who were disciples of Abu Qatada and who have now been linked to last month’s massacre of British tourists in Sousse.
Q: You played a key role in covering the Arab Spring. What is your view of what happened? More than three years on, are you disappointed by the progress that post-Arab Spring states have made?
Of course it’s disappointing to see what’s happened in the wake of the Arab Spring. Syria is a complete mess, Egypt has veered back to an authoritarian regime—where journalists can be locked up and democratically elected leaders are sentenced to death—and a lack of economic progress in Tunisia seems to have driven many disillusioned youths into the hands of extremists.
Q: Most recently you have been writing about foreign fighters going to Syria. What particularly interests you in this subject?
As I mentioned earlier, what interests me most is what motivates a youth who has been raised in Britain to suddenly join a bloodthirsty group like ISIS and, in some cases, seek to carry out or encourage attacks on his or her home country or its citizens. Why does a 15-year-old girl with grade-A results from a school in east London think it would be a good idea to become a jihadist bride in Raqqa? What led Mohammed Emwazi to become “Jihadi John” and behead British hostages? Part of this relates to the “brand” that ISIS has created for itself and its expert use of social media—which is something that we’ve not witnessed before to this degree as a tool of radicalization. In the late 1990s, I was focusing on the influence of preachers in mosques and study circles, such as Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza, but now recruitment and radicalization are being carried out over Twitter and Kik—and, often, by young peers who have only just recently made it out to Syria or Iraq.
Q: As a journalist for the Sunday Times, a very recognizable newspaper, how has it helped, or perhaps even hindered, your work?
Working for a well-known newspaper can sometimes open doors and gives you credibility with government departments and ministers. However, the fact that the Sunday Times is a center-right newspaper can occasionally make it harder to build up trust and confidence with jihadists and extremists and their families. I always make it clear when seeking interviews with such people that my aim is to understand someone’s behavior and not to castigate or demonize them for it. It’s important to remain objective as possible as a news reporter.
Q: How did you start your career in journalism?
I was always interested in news and current affairs as a teenager, but I only seriously thought about a career in journalism after working as news editor at my student newspaper at Nottingham University. Unfortunately, every local newspaper I wrote to for a job or training contract after I graduated turned me down. I was so disheartened that I started filling in application forms for accountancy firms instead. Luckily, a job as a junior reporter came up at a weekly English-language Asian newspaper called Eastern Eye. That’s where I earned my spurs for two years before getting onto the Sunday Times graduate trainee program in 1998.
Q: What was the moment when you were sure you had chosen the right profession?
When I realized you could get paid for being nosey and writing about other people’s lives!
Q: What was your first story? When was it published?
I think my first national newspaper byline was in 1995 when I was on work experience at The Times and I was asked to cover a press conference at the Argentine embassy in London which was about oil rights around the Falklands Islands. My first ever Sunday Times story was written in September 1998 and, appropriately enough, was about Osama Bin Laden’s alleged PR men and financiers in London being questioned by Scotland Yard about the east African embassy bombings of that year.
Q: What is it that you most enjoy doing?
If I’ve interpreted this question correctly, I still love tracking people down for a story and turning up on their doorstep unannounced and asking them to speak to me. It’s still a buzz if it works out well.
Q: What is the story or interview you are still waiting to write?
Tough question! An exclusive with [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would be good—assuming he’s still alive! Or Mohammed Emwazi, the ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John.” Might as well aim high.
Q: You’ve won many prestigious awards for your work, but is there one that you’re most proud of?
Alas, I haven’t won any proper awards. But this year I was shortlisted for “News Reporter of the Year” at the Press Awards and for the “Breaking News Story” category at the British Journalism Awards—both to do with my work on British jihadists in Syria. Which was a nice way to be recognized.
Q: We are now more than three years into the Syrian conflict, with this story being reported on front pages and sitting at the top of the news since it began. Is there a chance of media fatigue?
I don’t think so. The story in the British media has evolved from one about President Assad to one about ISIS and the threat it poses to Britain and the West. It’s clearly a shame that this angle has taken precedence over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Syria, but national security is always likely to get more coverage in the British press. Indeed, today’s front pages are dominated by David Cameron’s efforts to deploy the SAS to fight ISIS.
Q: How do you rate the Sunday Times’ coverage of terrorism and jihadist stories?
At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader for my own newspaper, I do genuinely think our coverage of this subject has been more comprehensive than in most other UK media. Not least because I am one of about half-a-dozen Sunday Times reporters, including our Middle East specialist Hala Jaber, who are interested in the story. I would, however, say that the Independent has been extremely good in spotting the ISIS phenomenon from a very early stage.
Q: The coverage of the Palestinian issue is noticeably biased, whether we are talking about a pro-Israel bias in the West or a pro-Palestine bias . . .
This is a perennial issue—and even the BBC gets blamed for being either too pro-Palestinian or too pro-Israel on occasion. It’s very difficult. All I can say is that as a news reporter you have to stick to being as objective as possible.
Q: Who is your favorite journalist—both locally and internationally—and why?
I’m afraid there are too many to name in both the UK and in the Arab world. I particularly admire those who go to the frontlines to report on conflicts when their own safety may be at risk and those who try to find the truth in countries where freedom of speech and a free press are stifled.
Q: How many hours do you spend working a week? Does this leave you with much personal time?
It varies depending on what’s on the news agenda, but—on average—I’d say about 60 hours a week. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest for a Sunday newspaper. I’m afraid like most journalists I spend much of my “down-time” reading newspapers, magazines, and online reports—so I always have less personal time than I would like.
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?
I think the two forms can live side-by-side. Personally, I still like the feel of ink on my fingers. And I do think that print publications, such as the Sunday Times, Der Spiegel, the New York Times, and Washington Post, have enough resources to excel at investigations. However, I’ve been impressed by the Vice News website for its coverage of jihadists. And I can see that BuzzFeed is also investing heavily in news reporting. Time will tell on which form is more commercially viable.
Q: What is your favorite blog or news site?
I still turn to the BBC News site for most things. But, increasingly, I’m finding Twitter the best source for breaking stories—in the UK and abroad.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism?
Be persistent and thick-skinned, be prepared for rejection, but, most of all, be true to yourself.
Q: Who is your role model in journalism?
To be honest, there are countless journalists—and editors—who I admire. If I was to single out one person, I guess it would probably have to be Marie Colvin, the former Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was killed in Syria by Assad’s troops in 2012. She gave me one of my earliest bylines on the paper and was always generous to rookie reporters with her advice and time. She was also fearless and made a difference. Every time I see my local Sri Lankan newsagent, he goes on about Marie and how she helped to highlight the plight of the Tamils in an earlier conflict—and losing an eye in the process!
Q: What characteristics do you think every successful journalist should possess?
Determination, modesty, and the willingness to challenge authority. Don’t take ‘No’ for an answer.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to young Arab journalists in particular?
It would be the same as above: be persistent and thick-skinned, be prepared for rejection, but, most of all, be true to yourself. And for those whose families might not approve, journalism is every bit as important as medicine or law or politics—though not necessarily as well paid!