Knowing how to say “We are stupid journalists” in Macedonian is a very useful skill when you are lying face-down in a ditch with a gun pointed at the back of your head. But having the ability and luck to emerge unscathed from such hair-raising experiences was a key part of the job description for Tim Marshall as a foreign correspondent who covered wars across the world in a 30-year broadcasting career.
Marshall, who left school in Leeds at 16 before a circuitous path eventually led him into a globe-trotting career filing the first draft of history from various frontlines, says that incident which occurred as he covered the Balkans conflict is one that sticks in the mind as the on-edge special forces soldiers involved feared he and his colleagues were Albanian fighters rather than a news crew.
But it is just one of hundreds of tales from an extraordinary career in journalism that was kickstarted by a chance meeting at a night school French class. After leaving school, Marshall briefly worked as a “completely rubbish” painter and decorator but continued to educate himself on politics, history and languages as he pursued his dream of becoming a journalist.
“I had always wanted to be a journalist since I was a kid and had heard the radio recordings of the D-Day landings and thought I could do that. I was always really into history but without an academic background.”
While living in London in his early twenties, he attended a night class and got chatting to a fellow student who happened to work in the media and was looking for someone to work on the graveyard shift at radio station LBC. Marshall agreed to do it and became known as ‘Cappuccino boy’ because he used to go out and get coffee and bacon sandwiches when his colleagues arrived at 6am, several hours after he had started work.
After two years of hard work, he managed to convince bosses to set him up as a freelancer in Paris. He stayed there for three years before coming back to the UK after being offered a job at Sky News in the fledging days of the satellite channel. “It was a real culture shock as my last story in Paris had been about Cambodian peace talks and when I came back to London I was back to being the cat-up-a-tree correspondent,” he says. “It was hard but I learnt a lot from starting from the basics again.”
Despite his new domestic beat, covering foreign affairs was Marshall’s passion. He was eventually sent to cover the Balkans conflict, which was to result in the deaths of around 100,000 people, and he reported from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. Marshall says covering the conflict was a “coming of age” experience as a reporter. “A whole generation of Europeans, including journalists, were just stunned to see war on that scale on our continent.
“To see it really was quite shocking but you just get on with it and you can’t get too emotionally involved. I also learnt pretty early on that I don’t think there are any good guys in these conflicts. There are always two sides or even three sides to every story.”
Marshall says his “self-taught knowledge” of history helped him get his head around the complex conflict. He later spent the majority of the 1999 Kosovo crisis in Belgrade, where he was one of the few western journalists who stayed on to report from one of the main targets of Nato bombing raids.
His focus changed again as a result of 9/11 and within days of the Twin Towers falling, he was sent off to Afghanistan. He visited pre-war Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was running the country as a “total police state” and was back there to report after war broke out.
Marshall also covered the Arab Spring, Syria’s collapse into an appalling civil war and the rise of ISIS. Marshall says his career has given him something of a bleak view of human nature but has also been a reminder of the good people are capable of. “You see some of the worst sides but being in these extreme situations, you also see how wonderful a lot of people are.”
And he is clear about what drove him to cover such challenging stories. “It is an absolute fascination with the world and people, and being on the front row of history and doing the first draft of history. It was the excitement as well but I’m not a thrill-seeker or an adrenaline junkie. I’m very conscious that you come in somewhere for two to three weeks, sometimes staying in nice hotels, sometimes sleeping in ditches, and then fly out again and the people you have been reporting on are still there, living it.”
But he recently left full-time news journalism to concentrate on writing after narrow escapes in Syria, including a failed kidnapping, and the impact of the death of his friend and colleague Sky News cameraman Mickey Deane in Egypt.
Mr Deane was shot in August 2013 while covering protests in Cairo and it was the job of Marshall, who had been out in Egypt just the week before but was back in London, to announce the news on live television. “A friend, first and foremost to us, not just a colleague but a friend. Michael Douglas Deane, but Mickey to all of us – brave as a lion, what a heart, what a human being,” he told viewers.
Marshall says today announcing the news was a very difficult experience. “I felt I owed it to him not to start crying.”
Feeling that he was running out of luck himself, Marshall says he “stopped being in denial” about the dangers of his job and eventually started to embark on what is now becoming a successful literary career.
He is currently midway through writing a trilogy of books about global politics. The first, Prisoners of Geography, examined how location is a determining factor of conflict, while the second Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags looks at the symbolic importance of flags – from America to ISIS in an era of growing nationalism.
He is currently working on the third book, called Divisions: Why We Live In A New Age of Walls. Marshall says: “When the Berlin Wall came down, everyone said great, boundaries are coming down. But since then, more walls have been built than in the previous century.”
Many of the new ones in Europe relate to the refugee crisis stemming from the Syrian conflict, while India is in the process of constructing a 2,116-mile long barbed wire fence on its border with Bangladesh. Marshall says there the increase in such walls and fences is linked to growing nationalism which stemmed from the 2008 global financial crash.
But despite his hard-won expertise in global politics, the book the 58-year-old is proudest of is very different to his others; “Dirty Northern B*st*rds!” and Other Tales from the Terraces is a history of football chants. The Leeds United-mad Marshall, who is a season ticket holder at Elland Road, says it had been a pleasure to write and a “rare escape” from foreign affairs.
And despite all his experiences in war zones, he says nothing compares with watching Leeds away at Millwall.
Marshall to discuss meaning of flags in Harrogate
Tim Marshall will be speaking about his latest book, Worth Dying For, in Harrogate later this month.
Marshall will go into detail about how the book explores the idea that nations are essentially ‘tribes with flags’ and how we can better understand the power and politics of the symbols that unite and divide us.
He will be among three speakers at the Revolutionary Ideas event on October 26 at The Crown Hotel, where he will be joined by broadcaster and journalist John Paul Flintoff, talking about his book How to Change the World and writer and Radio 4 presenter Natalie Haynes giving her take on revolutionary thinkers of the ancient world.
For more information, visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com or call 01423 562303.