An award-winning journalist, Brian Stewart began his career as a political reporter for The Gazette in Montreal, before joining CBC in 1971. Now 65, Stewart has reported from innumerable war zones and ravaged countries, including El Salvador, Ethiopia, Beirut and Sudan. Graeme Smith, 28, is technically The Globe and Mail’s Moscow bureau chief but spends most of his time reporting from hot spots in Afghanistan.
The Review brought the two together at Dora Keogh, an Irish pub in Toronto, to discuss the business of foreign correspondence.
Miranda Voth: What’s been your biggest eye-opener working outside Canada?
Graeme Smith: One of the best lessons I learned—one of the first things I learned in the field—was when the Uzbek government massacred some people in a place called Andijan during my very first month on the job in Moscow. I was sent down to the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border to try to figure out what had happened. We went to a refugee camp of people who had fled the shooting. On the first day, no one had seen anything, no one had been there, no one had any idea what we were talking about. On the second day, some people admitted they’d seen some things. On the third day, some people admitted they’d been wounded and under fire. By the fourth day, we’d found the ring-leaders involved in leading this revolution that was violently put down. That was all from hanging out in the same tiny bunch of tents in this barren wasteland on the border between these two countries. Suddenly I saw the value of just being there—and the value of being a westerner, because otherwise those stories wouldn’t have been told. It’s not, if you don’t get it someone else will. It’s, if you don’t get it nobody’s going to get it.
Brian Stewart: The biggest eye-opener I ever had was the first conflict zone I went to, El Salvador in the 1980s. It really struck me how petrified I was, and how much more incredibly frightening a combat area—I won’t even say war—is than you think. The atmosphere of fear where people have to hold their lives together, where aid workers have to try to do some good, where human rights people have to take the kind of risks that would make my hair stand on end.
GS: Knowledge can be an engulfing experience, too. You were in Ethiopia, Brian—you were smelling it. It’s not something you can send back through the camera. I remember being in Balakot after it was destroyed in the Pakistan earthquake. The smell is just not something you can capture in writing or photographs. It’s something that becomes you.
BS: Even sounds. Microphones don’t pick up the real sound of a field of people coughing with pneumonia, or anything like the sounds of battle. They’re incomparably larger and more terrifying than they can ever be on a television screen.
GS: The sound of an American A-10 Warthog military jet, flying low and firing over you, has a certain dragon howl. The bullets don’t go rat-a-tat-tat because they’re firing so quickly. They just make this sort of “Harroooooh!” howl—you can’t put that in your copy anywhere.
And we’re just occasional visitors to that world—there are people who do this sort of thing full-time.
MV: Have you ever experienced culture clash?
BS: Once I had to interview, with my producer, the guy we think planned the Air India bombing. We went to see him and I forgot, unforgivably, to bring headgear along with us to the shoot. And I knew that because he regarded himself as a religious leader, we’d have to do something to show respect. The only thing they had in the room was kind of a tea doily, a little lacy doily from the side of an armchair, which I had to drape over my head. And my producer had to put a tea coaster on his head. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—conduct an interview with this guy without looking over at my producer with the tea coaster on his head and breaking into laughter.
GS: I’ve never been religious myself, but in southern Afghanistan it matters, especially when you have a Taliban contact. Some guys are willing to work with me for money, or because they think improving the understanding will make the foreign troops wiser, or the hate better. But in a lot of cases they won’t work with me unless I promise to read the Qur’an.
MV: Is it better to be embedded with the military or not?
GS: The biggest problem in southern Afghanistan right now is the difficulty maintaining the physical presence of an office, or a place to sleep without being invaded. I had one, but then it got raided. For me, it’s terribly useful to be able to travel with the troops, to get the interviews and be welcomed into places that would normally be off limits. Then again, they trust me because I’m restricted by an embedding agreement.
It depends on how you do it. Embedding gets a bad name because it makes you more sympathetic to the troops—you start to appreciate their human struggles as they do their jobs. And it’s a good thing that you become close to them and understand what they’re going through, so long as you also become close to the civilians and the others who are involved in the conflict and not become sympathetic to only one side. It can be too much of a good thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a good thing.
BS: I had an experience during the Gulf War in 1991 where only the British were embedded by the British, the Americans by the Americans and the French by the French, which left a whole bunch of us out. We were so desperate to get to the front we formed our own international press corps on the spot, declaring ourselves embedded with the “Kuwaiti” army. We made it into Kuwait, but only because we had to design our own union.
MV: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently in your career?
BS: Take photographs. I could kick myself for not having done it. All those years as a foreign correspondent and I didn’t take a camera along.
GS: I’m teaching myself video for the same reason, because I’ve been in situations where I wished I had a video camera. Now where I’m starting to carry one, it’s turning out to be very useful, not only for me but also CTV [Smith occasionally files to the Globe’s corporate broadcast affiliate].
MV: Being a foreign correspondent can be a tough job. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
BS: I think it was Pierre Berton who said, “just read everything. Read the Kleenex box, read the back of Rice Krispies—read everything you can get your hands on.” The degree of stories you will find that way is just fascinating.
But first, although the job might strike you as glamorous, you need to make sure you have a real interest in working abroad. It can be disillusioning and much more difficult than you think.
GS: I absolutely agree with that—about having to want it. It’s much more of an unhealthy fixation than people realize. You have to be willing to actually shape your entire life around the pursuit of stories.
MV: What story are you most proud of for breaking to Canadians?
BS: Ethiopia was, I suppose, the defining stage of my career. [Stewart was the first North American reporter to cover the Ethiopian famine in 1984, reports of which were initially suppressed by the ruling Marxist regime.] There wasn’t a lot of investigative reporting going on there. It was brought in—forced in—and then smuggled out.
GS: Well, I’ve had a pretty short career so far, but it would be the detainee situation in Afghanistan [“From Canadian custody to cruel hands,” April 23, 2007]. It was lovely to see effects right away, as a young journalist, to see something that will make me want to keep doing this. I wrote the story about how bad things were happening in the Afghan prisons, and within a matter of days Canada had a new understanding of the Afghan government. And things have gotten better.
BS: The good thing about that story is we never know how bad things could have gotten.
MV: Did either of you ever have any other career ambitions?
GS: I’m still not sure I want to be a foreign correspondent. In my teenage years I became interested in helping the world understand itself. I can do that by writing for the Globe, making little videos, writing a book, becoming an academic. I always think if journalism doesn’t work out there are other things I can do.
BS: Really, there’s only one job in the world I could do and that’s journalism. I couldn’t manage anything else. I can’t even get a cab to pull over. I have no organizational skills, no money skills. My daughter, who is 14, says, “Daddy, you really aren’t that bright.” All I can do is report.