Legendary War Journalist Jeremy Bowen speaks at Wimbledon BookFest

Jeremy Bowen on stage with a microphone

On Thursday 22nd September, we were proud to host former BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen at the Baille Gifford Tent in conversation with Toby Mundy.

His new book: The Making of The Modern Middle East, is a fascinating read that covers Jeremy’s experiences reporting on wars across the region.

The first Middle Eastern conflict Jeremy covered was the Gulf War in the early 1990s. He then went on to report from numerous countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. During the event, he discussed the political situations in many of these nations with an honest frankness. “The Brits are not blameless,” he professed after being asked if our country had any role in the conflicts within the Middle East. “Britain handled the growing conflict in Israel badly between Jewish Zionists and Arab Palestinians.”

He told the story of his time in Jerusalem and navigating life in a city divided in two: the west of the city is populated by Israelis and the east by Palestinians. He spoke of how the two sides did not share anything, not even simple resources such as gas. “Everything in Jerusalem is politicised, whether it is fish or gas.” When asked what he thought about the future of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Jeremy was not optimistic, “I think it is building up again to some sort of explosion.”

Throughout the talk, Toby Mundy asked Jeremy about some of his most iconic pieces of journalism, such as his 2011 interview with former Libyan dictator Gaddafi. “He was convinced that his people loved him, and he believed it,” recalled Jeremy. That interview showcased Jeremy’s supreme commitment to journalism as he asked difficult questions. He showed great bravery in challenging Gaddafi, a man who is reportedly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Jeremy also took the audience through his brief encounter with former Prime Minister Tony Blair in Afghanistan. Jeremy asked him a simple question: “What about the weapons of mass destruction, Prime Minister?” A question that went unanswered by Blair as he immediately walked away.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked Jeremy, “Is there such thing as good military intervention?” To which he bluntly replied, “No. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t work.” He then elaborated using the example of the US and the UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. He criticised former president George Bush and his neoconservative advisers, claiming that Bush’s government took down Saddam Hussain’s regime “without knowing what to do afterwards” and that this is the reason the country still lies in turmoil.

Another question allowed Jeremy to reflect on how he coped with the horrific sites he had witnessed throughout his career. He talked of how “seeing the suffering of others is devastating” and how, without professional intervention, his experiences would have had a long-term effect on him.

But although Jeremy had experienced emotional and psychological consequences from his years of reporting on the various wars, he never stopped returning to the front line. He spoke of how it was a “privilege” to report from the epicentre of the war, pointing out that if he wants to tell the story well, he must be there. “It can be dangerous and difficult,” he said, “but the positives outweigh this.” He ended the event by commenting on how “it is always a huge privilege to be the person who tells the story.”

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