London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Michael Binyon is one of Britain’s most well-respected foreign correspondents, notably serving as Moscow correspondent for London’s world-renowned The Times newspaper, and also reporting from across the Middle East.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Binyon takes a look back at his career in journalism, gives his view on the state of the media in the 21st century, and offers some pearls of wisdom to young journalists.
Binyon, a former Leader Writer for The Times, was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2000 for services to international journalism. He has also won two British Press Awards for his reporting from Moscow.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you start your career in journalism?
Michael Binyon: I began life as a journalist almost by accident. My first job after leaving Cambridge University was a one-year job with the British Council teaching English at a college in Minsk, USSR. In fact, I had applied to teach in an Arabic-speaking country, as I had studied Arabic at university, and I was offered a post at Baghdad University. But this was in June 1967, soon after the Arab–Israeli war, and rioters in Iraq had burned down the British Council building. So there was no job in Iraq, and instead I went to the Soviet Union.
After leaving Minsk in the summer of 1968 I returned to England, and a friend told me there was a vacancy at the Times Educational Supplement, a weekly paper on education run by the Times. She suggested I should write to the editor. I did so, saying I had just spent a year in Russia—which in those days was unusual. I was given an interview and offered a job as a trainee journalist straight away. I was then 23.
From the moment I began working as a journalist, reporting on educational matters in Britain, I knew that I had found the job I wanted. The job of a reporter was to find out facts, interpret them and tell the reader the story so that the reader could follow the news. Sometimes this meant being the first to experience a new development—I will always remember the excitement of being on the first train through the Channel Tunnel after it opened.
Sometimes it meant going to wars and danger zones—I was a reporter in Egypt during the 1973 war, and crossed the Suez Canal with Egyptian troops two weeks after they first broke through the Israeli lines. I was also present in the desert at the signing of the ceasefire at Kilometer 101 in the Sinai desert. I reported the first press conference after Dr. Kissinger arrived in Cairo.
It was also important to meet world leaders and find out how they saw the world situation: I interviewed President [Ronald] Reagan just before he ordered the American bombing of Libya. In 1989 I joined the joyful German crowd and climbed up with them on the Berlin Wall after it was opened during the tumultuous celebrations. In 1990 I was at the European summit in Paris, when Margaret Thatcher was present as prime minister for the last time the day before she resigned. These things will always remain in my memory.
Q: What was your first story? When was it published?
My first story began much more modestly. On my first day in the Times office I was asked to write a short report on the decline in the number of Boy Scouts enrolling to join the movement. It was just a short single paragraph, but I was so excited to see my name above the report when it appeared in the paper two days later. That was in October 1968.
Q: What news event or region would you most like to cover and why?
The news event I found the most exciting to cover was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Europe. I had been a correspondent in Moscow and Germany for some years earlier, and I had crossed many times from West to East, going through the East German checkpoint in Berlin. Now, suddenly, the checkpoints had been abolished. Suddenly East and West Germany were united. I knew that life in Europe would never be the same. The Iron Curtain had been torn down. It was the same all over Europe that year—in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, the communist governments were overthrown. I had reported the huge wave of East German refugees fleeing to the West a few months earlier, and had interviewed many of those who fled their country. I saw the hopes of the joyful East Europeans who wanted to live in freedom.
Q: We are now more than three years into the Syrian conflict, and the story has been reported on front pages since it began. Is there a chance of media fatigue?
The war in Syria is one of the greatest tragedies that has befallen the Middle East. I had visited Syria many times, and came to love Damascus and that beautiful country. Now all is ruined.
I had had an exclusive two-hour interview in Damascus with President [Bashar] Assad in 2002, just before he flew to London for an official visit. He was charming, civilized and courteous. He answered my questions and spoke of his hopes then of reform in Syria. I asked him about economic changes, and he admitted that he was deliberately going slowly so as not to destabilize Syria’s economic system. I then asked him about political reform. “Oh, we haven’t even begun on that,” he replied with a smile. It was a truthful answer—but one that was to lead to terrible consequences 10 years later.
The war in Syria has been very difficult for all Western journalists to report. At first the Syrian government refused to allow any Western reporter to enter Syria legally, and therefore many went in clandestinely, crossing the frontier with the rebels. Then as the jihadists began to take a greater role in the fighting they began to harass and intimidate the Western reporters. Many were kidnapped—and it became too dangerous for anyone to risk visiting Syria to find out what was happening. So there has been little chance to report accurately on what is happening, either on the government side or with the opposition.
The result is that today few people really know of the horrors going on in Syria. And the public has grown weary of the tragedy. It becomes difficult to report some of the atrocities, as readers no longer want to know the awful details. The same thing happens in many wars. During the Bosnia conflict, there was a lot of reporting of the fighting between Serbs and Muslims at first. I was one of the reporters who visited Sarajevo when it was under siege by Serb forces. It was dangerous, but we had to take risks. But gradually people grew tired of a war that never seemed to end, and reporters found it difficult to find anything new to say. The same seems to be happening in Syria.
Q: How do you rate the Times‘ coverage of the Arab Spring, particularly the Egyptian revolution?
The Arab Spring has been easier to report elsewhere. There was enormous excitement in the West at first, as many people shared the hopes of all the people in the crowd at Tahrir Square. It was fairly safe to mingle with Egyptians and find out their views, and there was almost non-stop coverage of the dramatic events that led to the fall of President [Hosni] Mubarak.
I did not go in person to Tunisia or Libya or Egypt at that time, but I had many good contacts and was able to write analyses of what was happening. But right from the start I was pessimistic. I always knew that many of the hopes—for more jobs, a better life, and an end to corruption—would not be realized and that people would become disillusioned. I knew that there were few experienced leaders who could take over.
I think the Times has been careful to give a fair picture of what has been happening. Of course, the paper’s reporters have been very active and often very brave on the front line in Libya during the uprising against Gaddafi. But the editorials and the analyses have also looked at the difficulties that would come.
This is especially true of Egypt. We tried to be fair to the Mursi government, although the Times does not support the Muslim Brotherhood and believes that its program was unbalanced. But especially after it won the elections, it was important to judge the Mursi government on what it did and what its programs were for the economy. We tried to be fair, but soon realized that his government had few answers to Egypt’s problems, and reported the growing unrest in the country and the increasing alarm by the Coptic minority and the secularists. There was little surprise at the military decision to remove Mursi.
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 in the Arab world. Would you agree with this statement? What do you think can be done to resolve this?
All Western reporters have long tried to be fair in the reporting of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There is a huge amount of propaganda on both sides, and all facts have to be checked very carefully. The Israelis especially have very strong lobby groups, and it is vital for Western reporters not to accept everything said by the Israelis at face value.
Most Western papers were sympathetic to the Israelis 30 years ago, but Israel’s continuation of the settlements, its treatment of Gaza and its refusal to engage in serious peace talks have undermined Western sympathy. The Palestinians used to be very poor at communicating their grievances, and saw all Western reporters as enemies. But today the Palestinian case is much better understood in the West. They and other Arab governments are much better at providing truthful statements of what is happening and are willing to admit their own mistakes in dealing with Israel.
How can this conflict be seriously reported today? It is almost impossible to say. Western readers have grown bored of a conflict that seems never to end, and have become very cynical of all peace plans. There once were high hopes that the Oslo Accords would lead to peace. Now nobody thinks that even a two-state solution is possible.
Q: Who is your favorite journalist and why?
I do not have a single favorite journalist. There have been some very good British and American journalists working in the Middle East: Thomas Friedman and Seymour Hersh have worked hard to find out the facts and do not accept any propaganda from any side. In domestic politics, I admire some of the good analysts who write about British and European affairs. The German journalist Josef Joffe is very fair and balanced, so is Matthew Parris, a former British MP who now writes for the Times. I like journalists who can write well and are witty and well-informed. A good article should be more than just facts: it should be original and make readers think.
Q: What is your take on the print media vs. online media debate? Do you think that new forms of media are killing off old forms? How reliable is new media, and can it replace traditional media?
All newspapers are facing difficulties nowadays. Few have understood how to face the challenge of the Internet and online news. I am an old-fashioned journalist and still prefer to read newspapers than to read websites. But most young people nowadays do not buy newspapers, and so circulation of the print media is steadily falling. I have little time for Twitter or Facebook. I think the best journalism is done by face-to-face interviews or going to places to find things out. It is no use just sitting in an office reading the Internet—you may learn the facts, but you can never get the real feeling or atmosphere unless you talk directly to people.
The advent of rolling news and instant comment has led to a lot of poor reporting, as it is often impossible to reach a balanced conclusion within a few minutes. In many ways the new media are leading to a general dumbing down of all news. The cult of celebrity journalism and a focus on gossip is ruining good journalism, especially in the West. In the end, I believe there will always be a need for proper reporting—although newspapers in the future may become entirely online, and will stop selling the print editions.
Q: What is your favorite blog or news site?
I do not read many blogs. But some news sites are good. I am interested in an excellent daily blog on Russia called Johnson’s Russia List, which gives a huge range of news from inside Russia. I also find the daily bulletin by the Conservative Middle East Council very useful as it picks out the most interesting events in the region and draws attention to the best articles that I may not have seen myself.
Q: What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism?
My advice to all journalists beginning their career is the same now as it would have been 40 years ago. Try to be fair, try to be objective, try to find out in person what is happening, do not believe propaganda, do not spend all the time in front of a computer screen. There are still many good publications, especially specialist magazines, and even though print journalism is no longer so important, news reporting for radio and television still commands a huge audience. The old training is still the best, and journalists should remember that what is important is the story, not their own views or their own importance.