Interview with Andrew Harding

Bruce Whitfield interviews BBC correspondent and author, Andrew Harding

Bruce Whitfield:

Well, welcome this evening to Andrew Harding. He’s the BBC Africa correspondent. He’s an author more recently of a book all about a really horrible microcosm of South African history, and we’ll talk about that this evening, but Andrew Harding has spent most of his working life at the BBC. But before he joined them, I first would hear his voice when I would have to phone London to Independent Radio News late at night as a young reporter to be fed overnight voice pieces that had been sent from all over the world, and there was Andrew Harding in Moscow sounding authoritative, knowledgeable, knowing every single facet of what was happening in this mysterious place, and today, he’s doing that for audiences around the world, based in Johannesburg as Africa correspondent.

And you’ve lived this expat life, not just in Moscow, and Tbilisi, and Nairobi, and Singapore, and Bangkok, and the last dozen years in Joburg, but I think before that, it was actually quite normal for you. Were your parents in the military or something, Andrew, that you had already traveled half the world by the time you started doing it for yourself?

Andrew Harding:

Hi, Bruce. Lovely to be on your show and greetings, by the way, from Wells in Somerset. I’m outside a pub that was made briefly famous for being in that wonderful film, Hot Fuzz. I don’t think you remember that one.

Bruce Whitfield:

I don’t, I’m afraid.

Andrew Harding:

Anyway, this pub was featured prominently in that film. It was by the guys who made a wonderful zombie movie, Shaun of the dead. Anyway, I digress, but in case there’s some violent noises behind me, that’s the British people celebrating whatever they are celebrating these days. So, I’m in Wells. I’m in Somerset, and yes, my parents were not diplomats or military or anything so glamorous. My father was actually a scientist and studied plastics and chemicals, and so moved to Belgium for the headquarters of an American chemical company, the European headquarters when I was about six or seven, and that’s how I ended up living abroad and going eventually to boarding school in the UK as plenty of people do, and it ends up shaping or scarring them for life. But I was one of those people who was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight.

Bruce Whitfield:

I know how you feel about that, but mine wasn’t quite as exciting as going to boarding school in England. I ended up in Bloemfontein, but that’s another story altogether. Do your three sons have the same yearning to see the world? Have they been bitten by this expat bug that catches so many?

Andrew Harding:

I’m sort of still waiting to find out. I think actually so far their instinct is to go the opposite of whatever their dad has been doing. And so, right now, they’re all back at university in the UK and trying to kind of engage with a country that they’ve never really lived in and never really known that well, but which is, of course, their passport and which, of course, is going through its own sort of spectacular range of crises with Brexit, of course, and now with the pandemic and with this whole strange world of post-Brexit Britain. So, they are at university here, and I’m not sure where they will end up, but I hope something of the wanderlust might have rubbed off on them.

Bruce Whitfield:

And I mean, you’ve got a wonderful world view by virtue of the fact that you’ve immersed yourself in various places as a foreign correspondent, and in some cases, I’m sure, a very chaotic existence because you could be dispatched anywhere at any time and at a moment’s notice.

Andrew Harding:

Well, I was just thinking of you in that introduction talking about Moscow because I went off there in 1991 with a rucksack with sort of vague plans to try my hand as a foreign journalist with no real work. But I turned up in Moscow in ’91 as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and suddenly, there were just opportunities galore. And these days, I get a lot of messages and emails from people wanting to make their start in journalism. It is a fast-changing and weird world to try and get involved in it. But it worked for me, that idea of you just launch yourself off into a difficult, strange, but sort of newsworthy part of the world and just start reporting and see who will buy your wares.

Bruce Whitfield:

I didn’t realize it was quite as courageous as that because it never sounded particularly terrifying, other than what you were reporting on, and of course that was the end of Gorbachev, and it was the rise of Yeltsin, and it was tanks in Red Square, and the shelling of the parliament buildings. I mean, it was a traumatic time.

Andrew Harding:

Well, that was all fascinating, but my first war was the Chechen war, ’95, ’96, and that was a complete baptism of fire. I mean, Chechnya was like Vietnam, Stalingrad all rolled up. I mean, it was quite a spectacularly violent conflict. I lived it for a couple of years, and then I covered the second war as well, no conflict, and I covered, I don’t know, I stopped counting at about 20-something, but no conflict has ever come close to that, and that was my first. So, it really was quite extraordinary.

Bruce Whitfield:

How does that affect you? I mean, we hear the stories of the foreign correspondent, particularly those who get addicted to war zones, and movies have been made of some of the characters who just have these most remarkable lives, and they get obsessed and driven by this deep desire to try and fix the world, and then almost have a meltdown when they realize they can’t. All you can really do is rapport the facts of what is happening and leave it up to others to sort out, I suppose.

Andrew Harding:

Yeah. I mean, it’s a very messy business, and you get to see awful stuff, and I think different people handle it in different ways. I know a lot of friends and colleagues, it’s changed their lives, and many people find it very, very difficult to deal with. I’ve always taken comfort in a sense of purpose. I do believe in what I’m doing, and I do believe in the BBC, and I think you’re going places and telling people’s stories, and that feels like a very useful thing to do. And I always, I guess, unload as we journalists tend to do on each other, and that has always helped me, and obviously my family as well.

Andrew Harding:

But I guess you become more cautious. When I was covering wars in my youth, I took risks and it was a very different environment as well. You didn’t have all these safety advisors, all these courses. You just went and did stuff. Years later, you look back and go, “I cannot believe I used to drive across the front lines delivering messages from the Russian to the Chechen troops, waving a white flag, and shells coming down on the road beside us,” stuff that I just wouldn’t even contemplate now. And I guess you do it out of a purpose, but also certain amount of naivety, and that’s why there’s always a worry that younger journalists get into these situations, particularly as wars get more complicated and there are fewer front lines and so much more murkiness and so much more targeting of journalists that you worry about people now getting into this business and ending up in really big trouble.

Bruce Whitfield:

And the instantaneous nature of news and the social networks and the way they work and the ability of information to travel the world far more quickly than it ever could back in the time that you’re talking about also brings an immediacy and perhaps a sense of bravado, which in itself brings danger.

Andrew Harding:

Maybe, maybe, the instantaneousness, as you say, perhaps, although personally, I think I get more cautious. I just think the world is getting more complicated and journalism is getting more complicated. One’s so much more aware now of… I used to report and I used to report for the BBC World Service so I knew I had a global audience, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting people in the country I was reporting on to be listening and reading and critiquing. And now, of course, that’s very much part of the game, and I think it’s a good thing, and I think it keeps us on our toes and honest as journalists, but it also makes it very risky.

Andrew Harding:

I mean, I remember driving around Côte d’Ivoire during the civil war there and being so relieved that I was not working for the French media because all the rebels were listening, all the troops were listening to the French media, to RFI, and people, journalists I knew were getting pulled out of their cars and nearly killed because they were seen as partisan, whereas actually there no one cared about the BBC. So, you are marked by the company you work for and the language and the politics that have nothing to do with you really individually, and it can be a matter of life or death.

Bruce Whitfield:

Is it as much fun as it used to be? I was listening to a podcast with the great John Simpson the other day, and he was just saying in the olden days, he’d get the whiff of a story, or maybe it wasn’t a story, he’d jump on a plane, he’d arrive. If there was a story, he’d covered it. If there wasn’t, he’d move on the next whim. And now, he says, “Ugh, it’s all accountants and budgets, and the story’s almost over by the time it sort of gets approved by a committee that sits sort of somewhere in the bowels of the BBC before…” Takes ages for stories to be okayed. Is it still as much fun as it used to be?

Andrew Harding:

Yeah, I don’t recognize Simpson’s world. I think generally, actually, if you’re there on the front lines as a correspondent in your patch, you go where you need to go, and you can still get there pretty fast. And what I love about this job almost to a fault, and in fact, it’s been very interesting that during lockdown with the way journalism has changed because, of course, these days, you’re not expected to be everywhere. You’re expected to do your work online on Zoom calls, whereas I still come from a generation or more than a generation, many generations of journalists where particularly in TV, particularly in radio, you just had to be there.

Andrew Harding:

So, the logistics are everything. If you’re not in the right city when the war starts, you’re in the wrong place, and nothing will get around that fact, whereas these days, you can get around that fact, and I sort of regret that because my instinct is still that if you’re not in the right place on the ground, away from a computer, and doing honest, proper walking around, meeting people journalism, you’re not really doing your job. That increasingly is sort of an old-fashioned view.

Bruce Whitfield:

But you would never, you would never in a billion years of Zoom calls have ever got the story that you got in These Are Not Gentle People, and the story about Parys, and the Free State, and murder, and court cases, and have gained the trust of families on all sides of that particular tale had you tried to go, “Hello? Could I have a Zoom call? I’m going to put it into your diary for Thursday next week at 12:30, and then we’ll have a really deep and meaningful and intimate chat.” You simply wouldn’t have got that story, would you?

Andrew Harding:

That’s very true. I mean, also, it’s that, but it’s also time, and time is so precious, and it’s such a rare commodity these days with social media with what you were mentioning about the crazy world, the way journalism has changed, but a book is a such a different project, and it does afford you that luxury to just go and wait. You pick your story, and then you wait, and you wait for people to get used to you being this wall fly. It’s a wonderful thing. In the same way, I love doing those sort of long, two-hour interviews where you know people have got to get stuff off your chest that you’re never going to use, that you don’t care about, but you need them to get that off their chest in order to get to the interesting stuff.

Andrew Harding:

And so often in journalism, particularly in TV journalism, where you’re always in such a hurry, you’re listening out for the soundbite, and you’re not sitting and waiting for people to gain your trust. So, I’ve loved being able to have the opportunity to take a little bit of time away from the day job and try a very different form of journalism and writing.

Bruce Whitfield:

And very sort Truman Capote if you like. I mean, it’s just the sense of getting really immersed in the story and learning the characters and the people. It’s a very particular form of journalism in terms of the narrative journalism of telling the story. Much global appetite for that story? It’s so local. It’s so parochial. It’s so specific yet so symbolic of a country that is still so deeply traumatized by its past president and the fear of the future.

Andrew Harding:

Yeah, I mean, it’s published in the UK. There’s a paperback out, and I’m hoping that it’ll go other places in other media. So, on one level, clearly, South Africa is not as interesting to the rest of the world as it used to be. The days of Mandela, the days of incipient civil war, all those dramas are over, and now it is just a struggling country, one of many, and it’s a long way from all the issues and all the flashpoints that really preoccupy the West if that’s what you’re interested in.

Andrew Harding:

So, I was just thinking today about COVID and why is South Africa still on the red list. Well, it’s still on the red list with Britain because it’s got no leverage. I think it’s as crude as that. It’s not front and center. That’s not to say that Africa isn’t front and center. I mean, I think Africa has all sorts of incredibly important issues for itself and for the rest of the world, and obviously, I come with a British slant which most people don’t, but a British slant that is looking out for things that will affect us, good and bad, markets, opportunities, conflicts, problems, and I think in that sense, it will always be very much part of our world. But it’s funny as a foreign correspondent to try and work out is there interest in your part of the world, and sometimes, it’s a very good thing if there isn’t interest because it means nothing bad is going on.

Bruce Whitfield:

Yeah, but then your time is limited and you won’t be there very long. The fact that you’ve been in South Africa for a dozen years is quite an extraordinarily long period, is it not for a foreign correspondent to be sort of immersed in a country?

Andrew Harding:

It is. It’s a fluke. I mean, I was four years in Moscow, two years in Georgia in the Corpus, another four years in Moscow, then I was four years in Nairobi, four years in Asia as Asia correspondent. I came to Moscow thinking, “Well, four years here and then we’ll see.” But a confluence of things, just chance, a foreign editor moves on, then his replacement goes, “Well, maybe we don’t need to move people on every four years. Maybe it’s better that people stay, had kids growing up here, family here,” and you start to get roots, and you realize that actually, maybe this brisk nomadic lifestyle isn’t quite so suitable for a growing family, and you get to love the place you’re staying in with all its sort of quirks and glories and flaws. And so, here we are, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be in South Africa, but it’s been a wonderful experience.

Bruce Whitfield:

Is the life of a foreign correspondent all champagne, soirées at embassies?

Andrew Harding:

Of course. Nothing but.

Bruce Whitfield:

I mean, flowing ballgowns and tuxedos James Bond style. I mean, is it a glamorous lifestyle or is it just bloody hard work journalism on a budget?

Andrew Harding:

There’s very, very, very little glamor in this business. I think if you go back to your home country and you’re a presenter or award ceremonies, there’s a hint once in a blue moon, but journalism, if you’re in it for the glamor or you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason, and you’re bound to be disappointed. Actually, I think by and large, we’re a very sort of driven community and a really close-knit community of people who think what we do matters, and it is a vocation in that sense, even if people don’t necessarily join it as a vocation. It’s not like being a doctor or whatever, but you very quickly get caught up in that sense of purpose and of telling people’s stories and of holding those stories precious to you, and so you forego some of the home comforts.

Andrew Harding:

You spend a lot of your time calculating the risks and it teaches you a lot about yourself, about are you going to drive down that road, are you going to cross that frontier, are you going to go somewhere where the chances of death are always pretty slim, let’s be honest, but they’re there, and if you enter certain areas, they go up quite dramatically. And are you going to keep going back, and are you going to put that on the line? And particularly, when you start getting kids and getting older, these risks and these equations that you have to make start getting harder and harder.

Bruce Whitfield:

Yeah. I mean, so you’re good at risk management in the real world. You can face down a Chechen rebel. You can face down a Russian soldier armed to the teeth. So, you’ve done that in your time. Could you face down an asset manager who was underperforming in your pension I wonder?

Andrew Harding:

Oh god, no. You’ve probably got the wrong guest on, I’m afraid, Bruce, because I’m not-

Bruce Whitfield:

Wrong guests are the best guests when it comes to talking about money because here you are taking risk every day and investment’s about risk.

Andrew Harding:

Yeah. Well, probably as you can imagine, as a slightly wooly liberal working for a public broadcaster, I am more interested in the right sort of investment if any, if I have any money to invest, than cash. I guess it’s a luxury, and I’m very aware of that, and a luxury not to be very interested in money. So, I don’t say that lightly. But I’ve chosen a career path that is not about… You work for a state or public broadcaster. You’re not in it to make a large amount of money, although the truth is, of course, if you end up living abroad with a big company like the BBC behind you, which is a good employer in many ways, you do get certain things looked after, and of course the pound, when you’re earning it and living somewhere like South Africa or in Russia in the ’90s, a pound still goes, even today, a fair way. So, yeah.

Bruce Whitfield:

It has its advantages. It has its advantages.

Andrew Harding:

Yeah, actually, it does.

Bruce Whitfield:

Do foreign correspondence ever retire I wonder? Because I look at John Simpson at 76 or 78 or 708, I forget how old he is, and he still wants to get out there and work. Do you think you’ll be doing it in your seventies?

Andrew Harding:

Look, I kind of hope so. I mean, I’ve been very lucky for the first thing. So many people, it is a process of attrition or at least an acceptance of family duty. A lot of people have parents who may need support or help. They have family and young children who need schooling, and people end up returning to their home bases and swapping the life on the road for something a bit more sensible and often a bit duller, and sometimes that’s presenting something. With huge respect to you, Bruce, I don’t know that I could do it. I don’t think I can think of more than one thing at the same time and talk as well. So, it’s a particular skill I don’t really have. I love this job and I love this world, and I have, I suppose, branched out with some writing and some longer-form projects, and I love that as well, and I suppose at some point I will start to wonder whether I want to take the risks that I’m still sort of prepared to take, even though that equation does change.

Andrew Harding:

But I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a family that has gone along with this, and an organization behind me that has kind of supported me in this and made it work for 30 years now. I’m not sure it’s a record, but certainly, there aren’t many of us out here who’ve managed to kind of keep on their own. And what worries me, of course, is that journalism is changing so fast and the money is seeping out of the organizations that allow people to do this kind of job and the expertise, or call it what you like, the experience that I have that the BBC still values is kind of becoming less and less important, and it means that I think you’ll have fewer and fewer people who can make a life as a foreign correspondent.

Bruce Whitfield:

It’s not less and less important. It’s more and more important. It’s just less and less appreciated, I think on that particular bit.

Andrew Harding:

Well, yes, and I mean I think you get a particular argument these days which I respect and I agree with to some extent, which is particularly in Africa, Africans need to tell African stories. They need to tell the stories of their own country, and the BBC is brilliant to that. We have hundreds of journalists across Africa telling African stories to Africans. We are the sort of virtual national broadcaster for right or for wrong in countries that don’t have that, and I think it’s a useful role. While it’s needed, it’s useful.

Bruce Whitfield:

Yeah, But we must leave, yeah.

Andrew Harding:

But I just believe that we need to tell… You need to send foreigners to different countries. Africans, South Africans need to go to America to understand America for South Africa. You can’t just rely on Americans to tell you what’s going on. You do need to have that exchange and that outside voice and that sort of skeptical pair of eyes.

Bruce Whitfield:

Andrew Harding, we must leave it there sadly. I wish we could carry on, but you’ve got to go back to the pub. Which pub is it? I’ve got all the pubs and bars of Wells in Somerset open in front of me. Which one is it?

Andrew Harding:

It’s called, hang on, it’s called The Crown, and it’s a wonderful in a film called Hot Fuzz.

Bruce Whitfield:

The Crown. Oh, there it is. It’s lovely. And the film is called?

Andrew Harding:

Hot Fuzz.

Bruce Whitfield:

Hot Fuzz.

Andrew Harding:

The man made Shaun of the Dead and World’s End.

Bruce Whitfield:

You’ve just ruined the pub. You’ve ruined the pub. But the pub looks lovely. Please will you go and have a pint in the pub and enjoy your evening, and thank you so much for taking time out of the pub for us. Andrew Harding, BBC Africa correspondent. Other People’s Money.

Bruce Whitfield is an award-winning financial journalist, radio host and business speaker. 

 

Original Podcast: https://www.702.co.za/podcasts/470/other-peoples-money/555448/other-peoples-money-bbc-africa-correspondent-and-author-andrew-harding

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