Interview: Veteran BBC foreign correspondent Allan Little on life on the front line
WHEN Communism crumbled in Eastern Europe in the Eighties, Allan Little was there.
Then, at the age of 30, he found himself in Baghdad as the Gulf War reached new heights.
A year on, Kuwait was his home, affording him a direct insight into the Shia rebellions.
For the next four years his focus was the ‘death of Yugoslavia’ before he relocated to Johannesburg, from where he reported on the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide.
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Two years later, when Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as Russian president began to teeter, Moscow beckoned.
As a BBC foreign correspondent, Allan Little appeared to have a knack of being in the right place at the right time, often just in time to witness some of the most seismic shifts in recent history.
Thankfully, this week has been less stressful for the Dunragit-born journalist who is now based in the Capital, where he lives with his wife, fellow journalist and broadcaster Sheena McDonald.
On Thursday, at Napier University’s Autumn Graduations Allan received the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts.
For the 59-year-old, who made the decision that a career as reporter was for him while a teenager at Edinburgh University, the recognition means a great deal.
He reflects, “Edinburgh is my home city now. It’s the place I moved to when I was 18 so it’s the place I feel most rooted in after a lifetime of living out of a suitcase, to be recognised in this amazing way by your ain folk is pretty special.”
Allan initially moved to Edinburgh from Glenluce in Dumfries and Galloway where he was raised to study physics and maths. A plan that changed on the first day of Freshers’ Week.
“I had a change of heart so changed my course to history and politics,” he recalls, explaining, “I read Inside The Third Reich by William Shirer, who was the CBS man in Nazi Germany in the 40s. I thought, ‘My god, what an amazing experience, being a reporter in Nazi Germany with a seat in the front row of history.’
“I knew then I wanted to be near the great events of my lifetime - to be up close, to touch them and smell them and feel their texture...to be part of it.”
The military coup in Poland in the early-80s cemented his determination to take that front row seat.
“At the time I was living in a flat at Blackford Hill with three other guys. We’d bought a wee black and white TV for £25 and on the lunchtime news on BBC One was a report of a military coup in Poland.
“There was only one reporter in the country when they sealed the borders, Tim Sebastian - he became famous because he was on every news bulletin for the next few weeks.
“I thought, ‘Wow! Imagine being in a country no one else can get in to as it undergoes this amazing change in its destiny.’
“I looked at him and thought ‘How lucky are you. I want to do that’ but it took me a long time to become a foreign correspondent.”
Allan first worked for two years as a BBC Scotland researcher (“Hated it, phone-bashing for other journalists”), before moving to London as a trainee radio reporter where he was quickly farmed out to a local radio station (“Which I absolutely loved. I learned my craft there).
When a three month stint on Radio 4’s Today programme brought Allan back to London in 1988 his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent suddenly became achievable.
“Today was a great shop window. Suddenly there was an explosion of foreign news as communism started collapsing. That was my first big assignment, to run around with a tape recorder recording the voices of the anti-communist revolutionaries.”
Which is how he found himself in Prague during what became known as the Velvet Revolution.
He says, “That was one of those rare occasions where you knew at the time you were witnessing one of the hinges on which history turns... and I was slap bang in the middle of the crowds making it happen. It was exhilarating.”
Of all the countries the award-winning journalist has reported from (Allan won the Amnesty International Reporter of the Year in 1992, Bayeux-Calvados Radio War Correspondent of the Year in 1994 amongst others) it was Bosnia that had the biggest impact on him.
“That’s because I was there for four years and got to know it well. It really got under my skin.
“I made very good friends there, I was young, and it was my first sustained experience of war - I’d been in Iraq before and in Romania during the Christmas Revolution against Ceauescu so I’d seen people being killed by gunfire, but I hadn’t stayed long, Bosnia was something else.”
Those early experiences of death left their mark on the young journalist and helped form the approach he would take when reporting the violence with which he frequently came face to face. “The first time you see someone being shot you can’t believe it’s happening. You think it’s a dream.”
He pauses, “I remember going to a school in Romania, Christmas 1989, freezing cold it was.
“There was this clinic set up in a school room. The facilities were rudimentary and there was this young man on a mattress on the floor, he had been shot in the neck.
“A waterproof tarpaulin covered the mattress he lay on and a sheet covered the lower half of his body. He was bare from the waist up and he had a thing in his mouth that was breathing for him... but he had bled out. He was lying in a pool of his own blood.
“I was utterly speechless, transfixed, immobilised by this sight. I couldn’t move. I just stared at him - he was about my own age, 27 maybe 28.
“As his chest rose and fell with the rhythm of the ventilator, his elbow dipped in and out of the blood he was lying in, but he was dead, he wasn’t coming back.
“It was literally a bloodbath, a term we only use metaphorically, and I promised myself I’d never use that phrase again, that I’d be very careful with military metaphors in future because when we bandy them around they loose their power.
“That was a shocking moment for me, I’d seen a literal blood bath and it stayed with me for a long time. I remember saying to myself, ‘Never get used to this, never grow hardened to this because that’s a life, somebody’s son.”
Such experiences simply hardened Allan’s resolve to continue down his chosen path although candidly he admits, “At the same time that much of what I’ve seen is shocking it’s also exhilarating, and the guilty secret that all people who cover war share is that as well as being distressing, the camaraderie makes it fun.”
In 1991, it was The Gulf War that Allan found himself reporting on. With no first aid or hostile environment training and still learning to manage his fear, he set off for Baghdad.
“When the bombing of Iraq started, three up of us managed to get Visas and loaded up our station wagon. While we were loading all the things we’d need, a cameraman friend filmed us. I asked why and he said, ‘Oh it’s just for your obituary...’ and laughed. But gallows humour was essential, especially as we then drove into Iraq during the bombing - that was an extraordinary experience.”
If it seems Allan has lived a charmed life, there have been a occasions when he thought he’d used up his last life.
“There were a couple of times being caught in an artillery attack with no way forward and no way back - you just have to wait,” he says, adding, “and there was once in Bosnia, when we were kidnapped by the foreign mujahideen. They put us on trial for spying, it seemed like a joke at first but as the afternoon went on I realised we were in serious trouble.
“That was frightening because there was nothing we could do. We were trapped with no way out, I became genuinely frightened.
“In the end we were rescued by the local police, the last thing they wanted was four dead foreign journalists.”
Describing him as the ‘quiet man’ of international reporting, brings a smile to his face.
“I’ve never much liked ‘look at me journalism’,” he says bluntly, “the best journalists make the story about the people they are reporting on, not themselves.
“The ego driven approach, especially on television, just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t like it. It’s not for me. I’ve never much liked the limelight.”
Which is perhaps why he manages to captures the stories he brings to life so vividly.
His low-key approach allowing him a unique insight into the people and communities he works in.
“I had the time of my life when I was in Russia. I liked the Russians they were funny and self -deprecating,” he says.
“I was there during Yeltsin’s second term when the democratising experiment collapsed and the bottom fell out of the rouble and people lost their life savings.
“The Russians came to see democracy as a great con. I remember asking in my pieces at the time what were the political consequences of this kind of disappointment, this rage they felt that they had been cheated again; the promise of democracy, capitalism and prosperity actually impoverished them.
“The political consequence turned out to be Vladimir Putin, Russian nationalism and a lurch to authoritarianism.”
That is the perfect example of one of the most important things the broadcaster says he has learned during 30 years in the business.
“As a reporter commentating on things as they happen you never see the whole picture, that is only fully clear in hindsight,” he reflects.
“For example we reported on all those anti-communist pro-democracy revolutions in Eastern Europe, and they were that, but what we missed was that for the people on the streets they were also moments of national liberation.
“We missed the nationalistic dimension and now you see the governments that have emerged in that part of the world, all hugely nationalistic and in some cases xenophobic. So you don’t always see the full significance of an event at the time. Subsequent events make much clearer what you lived through.”
While he insists he doesn’t miss those days, you’ll still find Allan popping up on your telly and radio on a regular basis.
“I still work for BBC News, mostly the 6 O’clock and 10 O’clock News but I do it on my terms now.
“I’m not chasing hard news stories anymore, I did 25 years of that and it was fun but I made a decision in my mid-50s that I wanted to live a different kind of life; I wanted to live in Scotland, in Edinburgh, it’s the first city I ever got to know, the first I ever lived in and I was ready to come home. I feel like an Atlantic salmon coming back to the river where it was born...”