I’m currently facing a quandary which I doubt most of my contemporaries at MTS are contemplating: having just celebrated the age of getting my free 60+ London travel card, do I finally hang up my flak jacket and helmet and perhaps have a more ‘settled’ lifestyle, more befitting to my recent birthday?
MTS (1971 – 1975) will always be remembered as a love-hate relationship during my time of study. Many of my former boyhood friends and colleagues may well recollect that I was not necessarily the most academically gifted or most conformist boy in the class. However, I will always be grateful to those masters who persevered with me and gave me the background knowledge (both academic and worldly) to pursue the career path I still currently tread.
Having left MTS, I subsequently read Electronics and Music at Keele University (having changed my A level subjects after a year to the correct subjects!) and then joined Polydor Records as their junior engineer – continuing my streak of non-conformity by working with punk/new wave/new romantics musical masters such as The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Visage (who the heck remembers them!!) for a couple of years before joining the BBC in Cardiff as an Audio Assistant.
Gradually rising up through the audio ranks, whilst also moving to BBC News in London, I quickly began to move to field work – away from the bosses – and established my credentials as someone who rather enjoyed forcing equipment to breaking point and then putting it back together again (usually in the right order and with not too many components left over).
Airport runs started to become more frequent. The troubles in Northern Ireland were to prove an excellent training ground for both the career path and for the leaps in technology that have accompanied this path.
Audio at this stage was on the cusp of moving from tape to the computer – and so my studio-based razor blade (for cutting tape) was swapped for a field laptop. The first ‘easily portable, easily set-up’ satellite dishes made their debut – and I could now produce and transmit ‘quality’ audio from anywhere in the world – and get every correspondent I was working with to sound as if they were sitting next to the presenter in the studio (creating ‘location studios’ for programmes such as Radio 4 Today often meant that the foreign correspondent actually was sitting next to the presenter!).
I’m not sure exactly how or why, but I became known as the engineer (and subsequent senior producer) who rather enjoyed those hostile environments – whilst also becoming versed in all aspects of both editorial and technical field work – and the scene was set for my BBC career, with amazing highs but tempered with occasional very difficult lows.
I have three passports and tend to renew at least one a year. I have covered virtually every conflict since Bosnia – on every continent. Drinking tea with the Taleban (they offered me a factory to run after I mended a radio station for them) was followed a few years later by walking into Kabul with John Simpson (via 9-11 in New York). I’ve been ambushed, shot at, bombed and faced the threat of execution.
Alongside conflict has been the coverage of natural disasters – famine, earthquakes and tsunamis. Many of these have been at next to no notice, with my phone on and with me 24 hours a day – a lot of breaking news is just that – it breaks and I head to the airport, hopefully having a few minutes to pick up the essential kit needed for that specific job (I have cases of equipment and stores at home for all eventualities).
Occasionally there is no time to even get home (even though it’s en-route to Heathrow) or the airlines forget to load my favourite case. Covering the breakout of civil war in Ivory Coast, not one case left Heathrow the entire time my correspondent colleague and I were deployed – I also carry at all times a small backpack which contains the essentials, ensuring that we didn’t miss any transmission slot – live and packaged, for both radio and TV. This was also the first occasion that an iPhone was used to broadcast live for BBC TV news.
Finding that I could use all technical equipment, I became the first BBC News ‘multimedia producer’ – handling all aspects of audio, video, satellite communications and IT – often travelling with just a correspondent and therefore very manoeuvrable.
Not all deployments have been hostile though – with memories of trips to the Galapagos Islands, Mandela meets the Spice Girls meet Prince Charles in South Africa, the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, both Everest base camps (Nepal side to cover the earthquake and Tibetan side to cover Olympic torch) and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar being among dozens of other highlights.
I have worked alongside virtually every BBC foreign correspondent during past few decades – making sure that they get on air saying the right thing at the right time in the right place. The right time is essential for news – missing your ‘slot’ is not an option and can occasionally be rather stressful (Jeremy Bowen’s 4 minute package from west Mosul a few weeks ago took me 6 hours to transmit to our London studios – and got there with 2 minutes before it was due to be on the air). However, behind every correspondent is ‘the team’ – and I’ve been lucky enough to be in that team, alongside a fantastic group of colleagues, for the past 25 years.
Will I give it all up now that I’ve blown out the candles on my 60th birthday cake? My wonderful (and long-suffering) wife has a list of jobs needed to be done around the house! I’m sitting here writing this in north Iraq, with equipment (now including a drone) spread out before me waiting to head into Syria.
For now, the slippers and pipe have been put on hold!
(Note: Peter’s deployment to Syria has since been completed and the resulting film can be viewed here).