Frank Gardner, OBE, British journalist and correspondent
Frank Gardner is the UK’s first full-time Security Correspondent, reporting and analysing for BBC TV, radio and online on issues of both domestic and international security. He is a fluent Arabist with a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Exeter University, and has lived and worked in several Middle Eastern countries. He spent nine years as an investment banker in New York, London and Bahrain before switching to journalism in 1995 and later becoming the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent based in Cairo. Frank has reported extensively on terrorism and security from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Horn of Africa.
In 2004 he was shot six times in an opportunistic attack by al-Qaeda gunmen while filming in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. His cameraman was killed but Frank survived with major injuries, returning to his BBC job after 14 operations. In 2005 he was awarded the OBE by HM The Queen for services to journalism.
FITA: I went to Bedales School in Hampshire and was a boarder, a stark contrast for the the boy who had once boarded with, and was one of, India’s poorest children. How were your school days at Marlborough?
FRANK: – They were great thanks. Big, open-air country school with lots of opportunity to explore the Wiltshire countryside on bicycle. I particularly enjoyed drama, rifle shooting and cross country running.
FITA: Do you recall when you fell in love with Arabia?
FRANK:- Probably before I even got there, when I first read Wilfred Thesiger’s epic book ‘Arabian Sands’ as a teenager; it described his journeys across the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsular accompanied by his Bedu guides and living largely off what they could catch or shoot.
FITA: Who or what influenced you to become a journalist and move away from the banking sector?
FRANK:- Nobody influenced me, it was just what I wanted to do. All the time I was in banking I was writing the occasional travel piece for newspapers and magazines on unusual destinations like Eritrea, Djibouti and Yemen. I always wanted to get into reporting foreign news for TV, I just had no idea how to break into it.
FITA: What is your current work and role at the BBC?
FRANK: – As the BBC’s Security Correspondent I cover international security and terrorism. This can include anything from reporting the conflict in Afghanistan to covering an attempt by injured servicemen to walk to the North Pole.
FITA: What is your opinion and solutions to access for people with a range of disabilities to utilize public spaces such as restaurants, airports, train stations, office buildings to concerts venues? Are they accessible enough and how do you think the disability discrimination act could be improved?
FRANK: – I feel very strongly that disabled drivers and passengers who are wheelchair-DEPENDANT (ie. not just the occasional user) should be allowed to park anywhere, for free, that is not on a red route. It is almost impossible for us to park abreast in a normal parking slot because we cannot open the door wide enough to leave room for the wheelchair. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been unable to park in a designated Disabled space in London because it is full, only to see a blue badge holder merrily walk away from the car they’ve just parked. My other whinge is aircraft. Singapore Airlines now have disabled access toilets on aircraft, its time the Europeans caught up.
FITA: You have clearly traveled the world both as a person with a disability and as a person without reduced mobility. Is the UK one of the better places in the world that enables those with disabilities to be more independent and have Freedom plus meaningful support from Government services such as health care, education and housing? Are there countries in the world that you have visited we could learn from?
FRANK:- Yes I do think UK is not bad in this respect. What we could learn from is the US policy on toilets. They don’t make a big deal about special ‘Disabled Toilets’ in public places, they just make the last one in a row wider to allow a wheelchair to get in and turn around. Simple.
FITA: How can life be improved for people with disabilities in the developing world, such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and indeed Saudi Arabia. We are so, so lucky here. I wonder how many of us will ever truly understand and appreciate that.
FRANK: – Ask the experts like Motivation on this.
FITA: What has been your greatest achievement to date?
FRANK: – Surviving being shot 6 times at close range.
FITA: What meaningful things do you do that give you satisfaction?
FRANK:- Spending time with my family, especially on holdiay in somewhere new (this year we went to Borneo). Reporting for the BBC on some key issue of security. Pushing my personal boundaries such as getting around the Arctic this month.
FITA: Can you share with us, how it felt, to realise that your world was going to change after you survived being shot?
FRANK: – Its all there in my book, Blood & Sand!
FITA: Where did you find the motivation, determination, confidence and self believe to not let your reduced mobility change your ambitions? I wish I could stand on top of a mountain and say to all people with disabilities that there are so many reasons to get out of bed and harness whatever individual talents they have to try and achieve anything they set their mind to.
FRANK: – Having a wife, family and career helped enormously. We made a conscious decision early on to try and continue as normal a family life as possible for the sake of our children.
FITA: Do you like flying and have you ever piloted an aeroplane? If not, then we have aeroplanes fitted with hand controls so come and have a flight with me and enjoy the freedom of flight, of being liberated.
FRANK: – I have co-piloted only once with a friend over Oxfordshire. Great fun. A pilot also once let me land a commercial jet in the Gulf using ILS but I seem to remember this was just pushing buttons.
FITA: I used to Ski in New Zealand and had skiis on my feet and on my crutches when I was a little boy, could you tell us how you continue to ski and who helped you to get back on the mountains?
FRANK: – I try and ski every year, using a sit-ski or bobski. I did a one week course with the Army in Germany which was pretty rough and ready but taught me the basics. I tend to ski with friends or the family and hire a guide to help me negotiate getting on and off the chairlifts which is the hardest part.
FITA: What is your ideal example of your perfect day?
FRANK: – If its on holiday then it would be spending most of it with my family somewhere hot and interesting like Borneo then riding off on my handbike to look at some jungle. If its during the working week then its spending the day reporting for TV and radio on something interesting then coming back to a cosy family dinner.
FITA: Who are your heroes and what is it about them that you find amazing? For me, my Mother is a true inspiration along with my Grandparents.
FRANK: – I don’t really have any heroes but somebody who’s been a great inspiration for me is my friend Stuart Butchart, shot in the chest by Guatemalan bandits in 2000 and paralysed from T6. He’s not let this stop him doing all sorts of wild and wacky trips.
FITA:Where is your favorite place on earth?
FRANK:- I have several favourites: Oman, Thailand, Colombia and the Maldives
FITA: You are a real inspiration for many in the UK – especially those with a disability wishing to become journalists. What makes the BBC a special place to work at? What adjustments do you have to make when travelling and reporting from the field using your wheelchair?
FRANK:- The BBC is a special place to work at because of its journalistic values. For me now there are obviously some places too difficult or too dangerous for me to report from and I just have to accept that. But here in London the BBC have been exemplary in making any adjustments needed so that I can get around as easily as possible.
FITA: What is the essence of Communications?
FRANK: – Getting across what you want to say as simply, as briefly, as engagingly as possible
FITA: Finally, what is it like to be a parent?
FRANK:- For me its great but it isn’t always a bed of roses!