Impact’s Anne Moore talks to Martin Fletcher, Associate Editor of The Times, about interviewing the Lockerbie Bomber, life as a journalist and editor, and his advice to the journalists of tomorrow.
What was it like to be the first reporter to interview the Lockerbie Bomber?
Great! It was a genuine, old-fashioned scoop. We somehow managed to extract a visa from the Libyan embassy in record time, and flew out the day after he was released. I sat next to a Libyan on the plane who knew where he lived, so we took a taxi from the airport to his house and were interviewing him within two hours. I was so excited I almost forgot I was talking to a man convicted of killing 270 people. He was rather charming, insisted we met his whole family and put on a very good show of being a loving family man, not the perpetrator of Britain’s worst terrorist attack.
If you weren’t a journalist what job would most appeal to you?
A professional footballer. I always thought journalism would be a good way to get out and about and avoid sitting behind a desk. As I get older, though, I find myself rather envious of architects whose legacy is rather more enduring than newspaper articles.
What do you prefer: being an editor or a writer?
Both have their attractions. Editing is surprisingly creative. Dreaming up and commissioning an idea, making sure you have the right headlines and pictures and graphics, and seeing the finished result on an attractive page is extremely rewarding. Having a fine team of correspondents around the world doing their best to give you what you want is a privilege. But nothing quite beats the excitement of flying off to some distant country or scooping the opposition.
How does it feel to see your article on the front page of The Times?
Even now, after 25 years, you get a kick out of getting the ‘splash’ in The Times, especially if it’s a story you’ve found yourself. I was drawn to foreign reporting for the same reason people travel – to see the world.
As a journalist your job has put you in some pretty dangerous situations. How do you feel about putting yourself at risk in this way?
Some places seem more dangerous from afar than close up. I dreaded going to Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan for the first time, but once you arrive you realise that the risks are low provided you are sensible. Statistically, the chances of something happening to you are very small. And to be honest, a little bit of danger can be quite exciting. Some journalists, photographers especially, become addicted to it.
How have you reacted when witnessing suffering and war?
Sometimes you become very emotionally involved. The worst place for me was Zimbabwe, where the people were so gentle and lovely but whose president is genuinely evil. On one trip we met a six-year-old girl, Sarudzai Gumbo, whose head was one great running sore and was going blind. She had AIDS. She lived beneath a tarpaulin because Mugabe had destroyed her home. Her parents were jobless and had no money for medical treatment. After we wrote about her, readers spontaneously donated £8000, but the next time we visited we found her alone in a hospital abandoned by its doctors and nurses. We moved her into a private clinic where she finally received proper food and care, but died a few weeks later. My photographer and I both cried inwardly, if not openly.
Do you believe journalists can make a difference to the world?
Yes. Everyone likes to blame the media, but they would notice if we weren’t there. We stand up for ordinary people against overbearing authority, and hold authority to account.
How do you feel about derogatory attitudes towards journalists?
Journalists are simultaneously pariahs and objects of fascination, but it really annoys me when we are portrayed as untrustworthy, disreputable scumbags. Most journalists I know do their best to uncover and write the truth in the face of formidable spin operations. There are many bankers, lawyers, politicans and other professionals far more deserving of opprobrium.
Should a journalist write from a neutral point of view?
Yes if they are news reporters, no if they are columnists. A neutral columnist would be pretty boring.
How important is free press?
Few countries with a free press have corrupt governments. Dictators like Mugabe, Gaddafi or Kim Jong Il survive only because they have gagged their media.
Who has been the most interesting famous person to meet?
Bill Clinton, who has an astonishing intellect, an extraordinary ability to grasp the most complicated issues, and can switch instantly from one complex subject to another. Like most clever men, he was undone by one act of extreme stupidity – his fling with Monica Lewinsky.
Which country has been your favourite to travel in and why?
Burma. It is completely unspoilt, though sadly that’s because its military regime is so backward. It has the most wonderful, diverse and generous people, who remain irrepressibly happy despite being so repressed.
Why should students read The Times? What makes it better than other newspapers?
There are two responses to the collapse of newspapers’ circulation. One is to cut, cut, cut. The other is to invest in good journalism that people will pay for. The Times is one of the few papers that has chosen the second course.
What would be your advice to an aspiring journalist today?
Start working tomorrow for your student newspaper or magazine. If you have no track record you stand little chance.