From Basingstoke to Baghdad: Channel 4's Alex Thomson on life as a frontline reporter
PUBLISHED: 13:51 18 February 2016 | UPDATED: 14:32 18 February 2016
From Basingstoke to Baghdad, the roles reverse for Langley resident Alex Thomson as MICHAEL STEWARD puts the questions to the Channel 4 News chief correspondent about his career in the media.
“Have flak jacket, will travel,” is how Alex Thomson amusingly sums up his 32-year career spanning 20 wars and countless other conflicts as an award-winning journalist.
The 55-year-old chief correspondent for Channel 4 News has been shot at, held hostage and watched shells land all around him in places such as Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But he insists that it comes with the territory, “You can’t do the job sitting in a hotel,” he says with a wry smile.
Although his description of a chilling incident in central Syria in 2012 is enough to send even the most hard-nosed journalist cowering for the nearest Holiday Inn.
Alex, his driver, two other journalists and a translator were attempting to return to government lines after a day’s filming in the then rebel-controlled town of Qusair, around half an hour’s drive south-west from the city of Homs.
After tagging along with the UN convoy, who insisted they could not guarantee their safety, the team decided to make their own way back to their Homs base, with footage deadlines looming back in the UK.
Alex said: “We said goodbye to the UN and almost immediately were approached by a couple of armed types, who said they were intelligence for the rebel group which held the city. They said we couldn’t go out of town the way we came in and that they would show us where to go.
“It was getting late and we thought we don’t want an argument, so maybe the easiest thing to do is what they’re saying. They weren’t unpleasant about it.
“So they led us down this road and told us to get to a crossroads and turn right. I remember thinking this doesn’t look right, there was no oncoming traffic at all. We got to the crossroads and got sniped.
“A couple of rounds came in, one hit the car, the other very nearby, and when we did a U-turn and went back up the road they were waiting for us. They jammed one car in-front and one behind and took us off for ‘a cup of tea’.”
“It was a set-up. They had taken us down there to get shot by the Syrian army in a black propaganda exercise, and because we had survived, they now had a problem.
“We didn’t know what they were going to do. They were obviously worried that we would tell this story and it was starting to get late. In the end, we told them that, in an hour, the ITN newsroom would be in contact and they would have a kidnap situation on their hands.
“All of a sudden, they were all friendly, and said what a big misunderstanding it had been. We got the hell out of dodge pretty quickly.”
More than 70 journalists were killed around the world in 2015, with nearly half of those deaths occurring in Middle Eastern countries.
Alex, who is married to freelance journalist Sarah Spiller, with twin 15-year-old boys, says he is conscious of the danger and how it affects those who are left behind.
He said: “You are aware that a lot of people die or get badly injured doing this and I’ve lost some very good friends in the business.
“But it’s worse for the people you leave at home, because all they know is that I’m in Afghanistan or Syria where bad things happen.
“If a car bomb goes off in Kabul, then immediately they begin to worry where I am. Whereas if a car bomb went off in London, they probably wouldn’t automatically think I’d been blown up.
“But because it’s Kabul, in people’s minds, rightly or wrongly, that equals violence. The perception matters more than the reality, as in all things.”
The war-torn countries where he now regularly gets his passport stamped provide an altogether different backdrop from where he grew up in Hampshire.
Educated at a Basingstoke comprehensive, Alex gained a first in English at Oxford and considered a career in academia before settling on the idea of becoming a journalist.
Following a post-graduate journalism course at Cardiff, he was taken on as a BBC trainee and spent the final three months of his apprenticeship in Belfast, covering what he describes as a “low level civil war”.
A full-time job at the BBC beckoned, and in 1986 he became part of the Spotlight team in the Northern Irish city, following in the footsteps of the likes of David Shukman, Gavin Esler and Jeremy Paxman.
The multiple BAFTA award-winner said: “It was an amazing time. Here I was in my 20s, making half hour documentaries that had a Thursday night 8pm slot on BBC 1. It was like some sort of bizarre unofficial BBC finishing school.
“About two and a half years in, we did a naughty film about the shooting of three IRA members by the SAS in Gibraltar that caused a huge row at the time.
“There were questions asked in parliament and at first the BBC wanted the programme banned, and then they wanted it cut down from half an hour to ten minutes.
“I felt I was lacking support and friends at the BBC so I leaked it left, right and centre to every national newspaper and of course the story then took off. I think it’s fair to say it made my position at the BBC rather difficult after that, and I left.”
It was then that Channel 4 News came “bounding over the hill like the cavalry” for his services and in 1988, he accepted an offer from editor Richard Tait to work for ITN.
He said: “In one sense, I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I’m chief correspondent, but I think that just means that I’ve been around longer than anybody else.”
As one of the longest serving members of the Channel 4 News team, he is insistent about what continues to drive him, both abroad and with some of the hard-hitting investigations closer to home.
“It’s anger. I speak to a lot of young journalists and that’s always what I tell them. Be angry about what’s going on because journalism does have the power to make a difference.
“It’s very easy to malign the media and say it’s all celebrity obsessed, but I don’t think Channel 4 News is that, and there are lots of good newspapers and television news stations who aren’t doing that.
“If it wasn’t for the Telegraph, we would have never have known about the politicians’ expenses, Panorama made a difference with care homes, and the Washington Post made a difference all those years ago with Watergate.
“It’s abundantly clear that journalism, when it’s done well and the two Ts are applied – Time and Trust – along with money and commitment, then it has real power.
“I’ve been lucky that Channel 4 has allowed me those two Ts in order to do my job, without breathing down my neck every five minutes for a story.”
He says it would be impossible to name a favourite story, as each one is incomparable to the next, but an incident with former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic does stick in his mind.
“I was the last person to interview him before he got indicted. At the end of the interview, he came over and gave me this great big bear-hug, and he wouldn’t let go.
“He smelt of really strong aftershave and I’m looking down at this little man, who is arguably responsible for the slaughter of 8,500 men and boys in Srebrenica, with his head buried in my chest.
“When he eventually let go, he said something very bizarre that I’ll always remember. He said ‘Your mother must be very proud of you’. There was a pause and I replied with ‘yes’ and then he said ‘You must come hunting with me sometime’.
“To this day, I have no idea quite what he meant by it.”