Alexi Demetriadi interviews Martin Fletcher, who has worked as a foreign correspondent across the world during his impressive career.
“When you work for a newspaper, they own you”, Martin Fletcher tells me over a coffee at Victoria station. Martin, who was named Feature Writer of the Year at the 2015 British Press Awards, is a foreign correspondent with an extensive portfolio and a large number of stamps in his passport. From Belfast through to Tripoli, Cairo and Erbil, via Washington, Fletcher has reported from the centre of some of the world’s most recent major events. When working as the foreign editor for the Times, he was tasked with assigning correspondents to cover war zones across the world. Eventually he realised, “I had to go to these places too”.
The foreign corresponding industry, it is claimed, is in terminal decline. When I asked Martin whether my own editor’s thoughts, that this was indeed the case, were correct, he agreed. “I think he is right”, Martin states. “It is now very expensive, not many newspapers can afford them anymore.” With the emergence of the internet and social media over the last 20 years, it has become easier and cheaper for newspapers to hire local freelancers than to maintain an expensive network of foreign correspondents sent abroad.
“There used to be around 15 or 16 staff foreign correspondents at the Times when I started”, Martin explains. But this is not the case anymore. “Most newspapers now are turning to freelancers, foreign officers’ offices are now closed.” Echoing sentiments made by many, it is a sad reflection on the industry today. “The ability to get out of the office is now less and less”, Martin tells me. “You can now do it from an office in London.” It is the money that is the problem. Whereas once “newspapers had more money than they knew what to do with”, it is getting an expensive trip abroad funded for that proves a stumbling block. “Everyday the world gets smaller, globalisation prevails”, Martin states.
Martin is one of the most experienced foreign correspondents working today; accordingly, his travels across the globe have been far reaching. He joined the Times in 1986 after studying English at the University of Edinburgh. When the Sunday Telegraph expressed interest in him, the Times offered Martin the coveted position of US Bureau Chief in Washington D.C. as a political reporter. Martin then became its Belfast Correspondent, followed by a move to Brussels to become the paper’s chief European Editor before becoming Foreign Editor. He then became writer-at-large, following the events beginning to unfold in the Middle East.
Following the Iraq War, Martin travelled to Libya and Egypt at the height of the Arab Spring movement in 2011. “I was in Suffolk when I heard that the [Libyan] rebels were advancing. I got the next flight to Tunisia, drove all night to Zawiya, about 30km from Tripoli.” Libya, a country in the midst of a revolution, was fraught with danger. At the town of Zawiya, Martin and his photographer were “told that we couldn’t go into Tripoli, but we edged in closer.” Martin explains that, “before we knew it, we were in the centre of Tripoli.” Close to Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azaziyah fortified compound, he recalls seeing the rebels “braving rockets, mortars and heavy machine gun fire” to breach the walls of Bab al-Azaziyah as “the last remnants of Gaddafi’s regime fought back”. In the end, “this was where the regime fell”.
A few months previously, in Cairo on February 11th, Martin recalls the moment the rebels realised that another dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had fallen. “Thousands surrounded his palace, then the tanks turned their turrets inwards towards the palace,” Martin says. “This was the moment we knew Mubarak had gone.” The fall of Mubarak, Martin remembers, “sparked an almighty party”. When the euphoria had subsided, Martin explains, “hundreds of young Egyptians started cleaning up the streets, scrubbing graffiti”, off the walls of Cairo’s Tahrir Square which they had occupied for the previous fortnight. “I call it, the ‘rented car syndrome’,” Martin states. “They had taken ownership for the first time of their own country.”
When asked how he would evaluate the success of the Arab Spring, Martin warns against judging the outcomes of the 2011 revolutions instantly. “We are judging it by too small of a time span, it requires another 20 to 30 years, not 10.” He is not as pessimistic as you might expect. “The genie is out of the bottle, they’ve tasted freedom,” Martin states. “Countries need time to rebuild, to develop society and political institutions.” It is a prediction we should hope for.
Arguably the greatest human rights crisis of our time, Syria has transformed from an intrepid travellers hotspot to a warzone beyond compare in modern times. It is “square mile after square mile of devastation”, states Martin. While many Middle Eastern countries are rebuilding after the events of 2011, Syria is not. The process is not likely to start soon: “for Syria to rebuild, it will take far longer than 30 years”, explains Martin. “The country is a mosaic of different groups and religions”, the melting pot of the Middle East.
“The lesson of Syria is that, worse than interfering is not interfering. It has created a vacuum filled by Jihadists” Martin states. The war in Syria has distorted from a genuine rebel led uprising to dispose of authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad, to all out civil war. “The original rebels were good people”, Martin tells me, “they just wanted what you and I had.” However, unlike the successful rebel led revolutions in Tunisia and Libya, escalation into chaos was swift. “Al-Nusra came in and hijacked the revolution”, Martin explains to me. Al-Nusra, once the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, is one of the major jihadi groups that took over large territories in Northwestern Syria. It’s founder, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, once fought and worked alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS).
“They [ISIS] are profoundly anti-Western, extremely well trained and are mostly from the West themselves”, explains Martin. “We have helped create ISIS by creating a vacuum we failed to fill.”
Syria’s Eastern neighbour, Iraq, too has its own factions and infighting, albeit on a less severe scale than Syria. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which encompasses the north east of the country, has long pushed for independence and has ardently stated its claim to the much-disputed oil fields in Kirkuk and Mosul. Martin, who travelled to the region in 2013, explains that Iraq “is like two different countries”. “Kurdistan is in Iraq, but not of it”, he explains. “It should never have been made part of Iraq, it was an artificial construction”.
The region, which until recently was classified as ‘safe’ by the Foreign Office, has long been an area of relative peace and calm, but since the rise of ISIS “it has all gone backwards.” “It was once a refuge, it was safe and prosperous”, Martin recalls to me. “It was a place for Iraqis to ‘decompress’”.
Before the events of 2014, many were optimistic about the prospect of independence for Kurdistan in the next 10 years. When I put this to Martin his words, like that of many commentators, were tinged with reluctance and regret. “It is a lot harder now for Kurdistan to achieve independence than it was 3 years ago”, he states. “It is hard to see now how it will get independence, but the borders in that region are fluid,” says Martin. “But, a lot will depend on what happens in Syria.”
Remembering back to my visit to the region in June of last year, I can’t help but smile and agree when Martin explains that, “it is one of the few places in the world where both Blair and Bush are widely loved.”
The conversation moves to Brexit. Describing himself as an “ardent remainer”, like the large majority of students at UCL, Martin is disgusted by both Brexit and what will follow it. “It is an absolute catastrophe, a small group of ideologues duped and manipulated the country”, Martin tells me. “Those that will suffer most, will be those that actually voted to leave.” The impact Brexit has had on the economy, Martin claims, is hard to ignore. “They said the economy wouldn’t suffer, but the pound dropped by 20%. Investment isn’t being made, neither is recruitment.” But it is also the impact on the UK’s standing in the world that angers Martin, “the UK is now in a slow process of decline.” “It is a loss of standing in the world, it’s humiliating, the group of ideologues are the British equivalent of ISIS”, Martin states. “They are harking back to some mythical golden age of empire.”
Martin explains that no one is speaking for the 48% of people that voted to remain last June. “It is the most important issue of my lifetime, one that transcends traditional party loyalties, but Labour is failing spectacularly in its role as Her Majesty’s Official Opposition”, Martin tells me.
Nearing the end of our interview, I ask Martin what tips he would give to budding journalists and foreign correspondents. “The first rule of journalism”, he says, “is that you never know what you don’t know.” “If you have any doubt about going somewhere or talking to someone, always do it. You never know what you’ll find out.”
“The second rule is to read widely.” “Inform yourself, know who’s who, know your history”, Martin explains to me. “History is very important. So much of what happens is a reaction to something”, it is important to understand the context, he states. “How can you understand Brexit if you don’t understand the last 40 years of Britain’s relations with the EU?”
To those readers who aspire to break into journalism, Martin encourages to “think laterally”. “Less money means more need for young freelancers,” he says. “Be brave, just go and do it.” “There are large swathes of the world that aren’t being fully covered yet.”
My final question to Martin is whether he has a favourite place during over a decade of foreign corresponding. He laughs and states that he likes the ‘Stans, “big empty places with no people.” For someone who has holidayed in Syria, witnessed the fall of authoritarian rulers, and travelled the world over from East to West, maybe the empty plains of Kazahkstan are the perfect respite.