Sometimes news just catches you cold. Especially in the age of Twitter. We’ve all been there, blithely scrolling down that hypnotic timeline when the torrent of words and pictures comes to rest on a story that knocks you for six.
So it was for me the other day, when I stumbled across the news that Fergal Keane, the BBC’s Africa editor, is stepping down because he’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The announcement serves as a valuable reminder of the extraordinary job many journalists do and the profound personal toll it can take. I wonder how many colleagues had a quick moment to themselves when they heard the news and reflected on quiet struggles of their own.
I don’t really know Fergal Keane but I’ve met him on the road a few times. He’s a formidable correspondent and, more importantly, a lovely man. He’s always struck me as kind, generous with his time and great company.
His CV is testament to his bravery. Kosovo, Iraq, Rwanda – he’s reported from frontlines and genocides. But to me, the most courageous thing he ever did was to publicly admit his fears and vulnerability.
A reminder of the extraordinary work many journalists do, despite the personal impact it can have.
Hope this decision helps Fergal to find some peace. He’s a formidable talent, and an inspiration. https://t.co/p5nS2ZC0gM
— martin geissler (@mmgeissler) January 24, 2020
A decade and a half ago Fergal decided to stop reporting from “hot wars”. He’d seen too much and, with a young family, he was frightened to go back. He did this at the peak of his career.
A lesser man would have pushed through, ignoring the fear and selfishly putting career before everything else. A lesser man like me, for example.
I spent more than a decade covering foreign news for ITN. I was never near the same level as Fergal, but I went to war zones, I saw the impact of famines and natural disasters, and I’m pretty sure the limited horrors I was exposed to must have left a mark on me.
When I first expressed an interest in taking up a foreign posting, a colleague laid out what would be expected of me: “You pick up the phone on the second ring 100 per cent of the time, and wherever they ask you to go, the answer’s always yes.”
You either like the sound of that arrangement or you don’t. To me it sounded magnificent. I couldn’t wait.
Truth be told, I’m not very brave, which was a problem, of course. But I am ambitious, and that proved to be more than adequate compensation.
I’m sure he’s still ambitious and still hungry to tell that big story, but he’s putting his health and his family first, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. He has my undiluted admiration
In August 2003 I found myself in Baghdad. Saddam was still on the run, Iraq was in chaos and ITN had a permanent presence in the capital. Nobody with any pedigree wanted to be there in midsummer. It’s the worst possible time to go, with temperatures touching 50C, but when they asked for volunteers my hand was first in the air.
The trip started badly. On the first morning our hotel windows were shaken by a blast from across the city. A plume of smoke emerged from the diplomatic district – the Jordanian embassy had been hit by a car bomb, al-Qaeda’s first-ever strike in Iraq. The front of the building was destroyed. Body parts were strewn across the road. I’d never seen anything like it.
A couple of weeks later we were filming in the east of the city when another deep boom reverberated through the streets. The United Nations compound had been blown apart by a truck laden with explosives. We were there within minutes. The scene was horrific. The dead and dying were carried from the building and laid out in front of us. It sounds awful but professional instinct kicks in. You’re looking at the worst imaginable horror but seeing only a story. Your mind is working out where the best pictures are and how you’re going to hit your deadline; it’s not processing what’s actually happening. That comes much later.
It’s hard to describe how happy I was to leave Baghdad. It had only been a month but the events we’d witnessed and the constant threat of violence all day, every day, made the experience simply awful. The pressure was relentless, inescapable, claustrophobic.
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I’d spent the whole trip desperate to get home, yet walking through the door of my house was a weirdly joyless experience. My wife and kids were delighted to see me but I couldn’t summon any enthusiasm when I was finally reunited with them. Nothing seemed real or relevant.
I had a bit of an episode in a supermarket. Everything seemed incredibly bland and banal. I watched people arguing over which cereal to buy and I couldn’t cope. I started to shake and walked out. How could they even be thinking about something so unimportant when such apocalyptically awful things were happening in the place I’d just left behind? The problem wasn’t with them, of course, it was with me.
Things deteriorated, briefly, from there. All the classic symptoms. I’d wake up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat. I’d rarely remember my dreams but they were evidently vivid because I’d shout in my sleep. One morning my wife was clearly worried about me. Was I OK, she asked. Seemingly, I’d woken her up in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright, shouting and screaming. I had no idea what she was talking about.
Maybe my employers offered me help. I can’t remember. I hadn’t told them anything was wrong and I’d almost certainly have turned down the chance to talk things through anyway. That was, broadly, the way of it back then – get the head down, get back in the saddle, get on with it, everything will be OK. I’m pleased to say things are different now.
In the years that followed, the job took me all over the world. I went to Afghanistan, Libya and many other places I’d rather not have been. I spent long stints working undercover in Zimbabwe, which brought a different, grinding type of stress. I didn’t really suffer another episode like the one after Baghdad, but I do fear the experience has left a mark. Being grumpy in middle age is a rite of passage, but occasionally a situation at work can cast a darker cloud than is normal over me.
It’s nothing compared to what many others have to deal with, but it’s there.
I’m still ambitious, I still love a challenge and I relish the chance to challenge authority. My new job as a presenter indulges all of that but I devote more time and attention to my family these days and I think I’m a better person for it
I’ve spoken to several colleagues about the pressures of that kind of work, people who’ve been exposed to far worse horrors and more danger than I ever saw. A few will talk openly about it but more often the subject is brushed aside. It’s far easier to treat war stories like badges of honour than to recognise them as the dents in our psychological armour they so obviously are.
Alcohol’s an important ingredient in all of this. Seeing off the demons with a bout of self-medication in the pub. The old notion that beer and bravado will get you through seems daft these days, but there’s catharsis to be found in company. Some of my happiest memories are of big nights, hanging over bars, laughing like a drain at gallows humour and slapping the backs of the colleagues who have become my best friends. I drank too much for quite a while. Maybe that had nothing to do with the job, but it certainly didn’t help.
Fifteen years after stepping back from the frontline, it seems the ghosts still haunt Fergal Keane. He’s taken another big decision in an effort to exorcise them once and for all. He’s giving up a job he loves. I’m sure he’s still ambitious and still hungry to tell that big story, but he’s putting his health and his family first, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. He has my undiluted admiration.
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— martin geissler (@mmgeissler) February 5, 2020
I switched jobs a year or so ago, not for the same reasons as Fergal, but the change is doing me good. These days I spend my time in the studio rather than on the road. I loved being a reporter, right up until the last day I did the job, but I don’t miss it as much as I’d feared.
I’m still ambitious, I still love a challenge and I relish the chance to challenge authority. My new job as a presenter indulges all of that but I devote more time and attention to my family these days and I think I’m a better person for it.
I really hope Fergal finds the peace he’s looking for. He deserves it. And I hope his latest act of professional courage might inspire others to look after themselves a bit more carefully too.
Martin Geissler presents The Nine on BBC Scotland