Television

"There is a backlash against the continued onslaught of reality TV in the UK, and we are now seeing a revival of serious programming"

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Just 31, and already a NYT best selling author, investigative journalist and television presenter. That's Simon Reeve for you. Reeve is coming to Indian screens on BBC World on July 10, when he begins a four-part documentary series on Central Asia. While the journey through the four Stans, is itself a riveting and eye opening presentation, Reeve is better known as the author who first warned the world of apocalyptic terrrorism and Osama bin Laden in his 1998 book The New Jackals:Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden and the future of terrorism.

Reeve has been known for his painstaking research that underlines all his work. Whether it was spending hours in disguise searching for a Lebanese arms smuggler for his book or fending off secret police in the Stans documentaries, Reeve underscores the need for verified fact and deeper meanings to enhance an already riveting story.

Based in London, Reeve has been studying terrorist groups since the early 1990s. After starting work as a post-boy on The Sunday Times, he became a researcher at the paper and then a Staff Writer - the youngest on a British broadsheet. He now works as an author and writer, and as a consultant on international terrorism, counter-terrorism and conflict resolution.

In his latest assignment, Reeve traveled from the far northwest of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border, to the eastern fringes of Central Asia, by the Chinese border, south through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and west to Uzbekistan and the legendary Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. In a telephonic chat with indiantelevision.com, Reeve talks about his work, the state of investigative journalism today, and more. Extracts -

What started you on this assignment?

The BBC has always been taking up issues and areas that I was concerned about. This series also explores similar issues that I had pondering over, and finally we filmed it last year, over a period of six months, requiring three trips to the region.

So, it must have been an exploratory journey even for you, to venture into a region you had not been to before?

Yes, it was more of an exploratory trip for me. Although I had been writing about terrorism and related issues, I had never been to Central Asia.

Our journey started from the northwest, near the Russian border, and led us through trains, helicopters and assorted means of transport to the south, towards Tajikistan. The motive of course, was to explore the issues that the region is grappling with and we met some really incredible people along the way.

Did you face any problems on your sojourn through the region?

I have traveled widely in the Islamic world, and my experience is that people there are far more hospitable than people in Europe.We had the standard problems one has while on such a journey, like having four tyre punctures in the course of a single day! At times, we also had the secret police following us, and we were racing against time as we completed the assignment.

"Indian news channels and journals seem to be becoming more combative, which I think is a sign of a healthy democracy"

You must be one of the youngest investigative journalists on air today. How did you start your career?

I started with the Sunday Times, worked my way up to become a staff writer. That was six years ago. I wrote several books in the interim, based on my journalistic experiences. I even spoke with several television companies, but not many were ready to take the plunge. When BBC came up with the idea of exploring the Stans, I jumped at the chance. While I had done a lot of punditry on talk shows on the subject of terrorism (laughs), this was to be the first show I did as a presenter.

You must have been really young when you started, considering you are only 31 now!

I was 18 when I started. I did not go to university, prefering to start working. While that may have seemed like a handicap some times, I feel I have gained more with my experience on the job. And I have worked on one of the best newspapers in the UK and with some of the best journalists!

Is enough being done in the arena of investigative journalism on television in the UK?

Not enough. Television is dominated by soaps and reality shows. Personally speaking, the BBC stands out against this trend by offering some good investigative journalism, perhaps because of its role as a public service broadcaster. The Stans series, particularly, is a good example of how you can make an effective and credible programme on a strange part of the world.





What kind of resources did the BBC offer at your disposal to fulfil this challenging assignment?

We had very good resources at our disposal. Besides, the BBC itself is a powerful name that opened access to individuals and even the powers that be, it opened doors that otherwise would probably not have opened for us. Besides, it was quite an emotional experience to see people respond to the BBC name in different ways. In Uzbekistan for instance, there was this man who came up and actually said 'thank you' to me, claiming that it was the BBC which he tuned in to on an illegal radio set, during the communist regime which helped him to live through those days!

There must also have been some unpleasant experiences you encountered in your travels?

Some, yes. There are several ethnic Russians who moved to Central Asia during Stalin's regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, pension payments were frozen over the decades, while hyper inflation set in. On my journey, we met several perfectly respectable women reduced to begging on the streets for a living. That was not very pleasant to watch.

You were one of the first to warn about the potential of the Al Qaeda.

Yes, when my book first came out in 1998 there was considerable reluctance both in the UK and the US to believe that the Al Qaeda was capable of launching terrorism in a big way, whereas after my research it was fairly obvious to me that the organisation was quite keen, willing and able to go ahead with its terrorism plans. One review of my book even accused me of scaremongering, but I knew I had my facts right. Today, sometimes I question myself if the situation would have been different if my caution had been heeded...

Is investigative journalism on television not favoured much for lack of demand for such shows?

That may not be true. It is basically a less attractive proposition for makers of such shows as they cost a lot and need a lot of time investment too. Which is why not many TV stations are ready to fund major documentaries, at least in the UK.

Luckily, the scenario is chaning now, thanks to viewer preferences. There is a backlash against the continued onslaught of reality TV , and we are now seeing a revival of serious programming.

And from what I have been hearing and reading about the Indian media, Indian news channels and journals seem to be becoming more combative, which I think is a sign of a healthy democracy. In India probably what is needed more is news in a language the people understand, which could mean more of regional news channels would work better.

What's the next project on your plate?

There is this new documentary that I begin shooting for the BBC next year. In the next five years, I hope to have fanned out to various media, rather than restrict myself to writing for one single newspaper!

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