An interview with Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennet-Jones, formerly of the BBC and now working as a freelance journalist, has been working as an international reporter for over 20 years. I had the chance to interview him about his work last week, and came out a little surprised by his confidence in the old-school set-up, as well as his optimistic views regarding the future of professional journalism as a whole.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Jones wouldn’t utter a bad word about the BBC – he’s worked for the corporation for 20 years. “Things are changing”, he said, when I asked whether the BBC was still respected in Central Asia; “when I was first in Pakistan the BBC was the only reliable source of news… But they’ve got their own broadcasters now… However, when something contestable happens, they’ll still turn to the BBC for what they think will be an authoritative account, so that basic credibility is still there… In other places like Afghanistan and Somalia, you don’t have any other reliable sources of news so they are almost entirely dependent on the BBC.”
I wondered out loud that the BBC might be seen as a colonial force, or at least as a remnant of a by-gone era. “I don’t think so… I think the BBC has managed to avoid that.” And so a BBC working as a BBC journalist gets you a lot of respect? “Absolutely… it opens a lot of doors.” Perhaps there’s no greater sign of the esteem it’s held in than that.
How about the internet? Twitter, especially, surely takes the onus off the professional reporter and gives it to anyone with a smart phone in their hand? “Not exactly”, say Jones. He tells me about when he first became a reporter, in Romania. “At that time there were six foreign phone lines… for 20 million people. It was impossible to find… I would literally spend 18 hours trying to get a phone line… now it’s a lot easier.”
And Twitter? Hasn’t it completely revolutionised the way reporters do things? “Not really… radio audiences are up as people demand more content. It doesn’t really undermine us, but’s it an excellent way of gathering news. Every morning I can check all the people follow in Pakistan and within half-an-hour I know everything important that’s going on. It’s a brilliant news agency almost… and I can put my work out there and it helps get it out.”
So the internet has no downsides for the foreign correspondent according to Jones? Not exactly; “You are now expected to file all day, every day, it’s constant demand, and instead of doing just the radio, which I really like doing, I have to TV and Online stuff as well.”
A reporter turning their nose up at the future and embracing the past then? “I like the radio because you can say more. TV is so complicated… and it’s so tight for time, that it’s very difficult to say anything of any significance at all. On radio you can get more in, and it’s a very intimate medium… I can do these long sequences, where I get 15 or 20 minutes together where I do try to explain what’s happening in Pakistan, for example. How it’s working. What’s going on. You could never do that on telly.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. With the acceleration of news media, on all various forms of screen, we’ve lost something. The long story, the journey; the news very rarely involves the reporter’s story. We’re never given the investigation, only its results. Some will say this is healthy. Others might not. Jones clearly doesn’t like it, but he might be just one of a dying breed.
I myself am a newspaper man; where does Jones see the future of printed journalism? “Newspapers now are a lot more analytical. Look at the front page of the New York Time’s, there will be analysis pieces, instead of simply showing the news because everyone has already got the news. Some of those newspapers would hang on to the idea that there still not giving opinions, but the distinction between analysis and opinion is so thin, that distinction is increasingly difficult for them to make. But there is a trend towards journalists becoming more analytical; many people would see that as more opinionated. Of course though, this doesn’t apply to Jones’ own haunt; “Within the BBC context, it’s very difficult to provide any comment at all.”
After I’d said ‘goodbye’, it struck me that maybe Jones would prefer the world of opinion and analysis. At the very start of the interview, he told me that loves journalism because “I like journalists. I like meeting up with my mates around the world and drink and talk politics, which is satisfactory from my point of view.”
It’s satisfactory from my perspective too. I just hope there’s still a place for the old-school journo by the time I get out of here.