This piece is a biographical sketch of Barnaby Phillips, Al Jazeera’s Europe correspondent, who has been covering news from different parts of the world for 20 years. He shares his thoughts, learning, and insightful experiences as a foreign correspondent.
About Barnaby Phillips
Barnaby Phillips has been the Europe Correspondent for Al Jazeera English since 2006. He was based in Athens, Greece for four years and currently he reports from London. Prior to Joining Al Jazeera, Phillips was with the BBC for 15 years, where he mostly reported in Africa. He has also traveled to India, the United States and the Middle East.
Career in Journalism
Barnaby Phillips pursued his undergraduate studies in Modern History from Oxford University. He then received his Masters degree from School of Oriental and African studies, University of London, in African Politics and Economics.
After graduating, Phillips joined the BBC straight away that summer. He spent 15 years at the BBC almost entirely doing African news. He was usually based in Africa, but he sometimes did editing and production from the BBC World Service in Bush House, London.
Phillips always had a great interest in covering African news as he had spent much of his childhood in Kenya, East Africa. His Masters degree in African Politics and Economics further helped him in pursuing his interest. So to begin with, he joined the BBC’s African service in London and worked there from 1991 to 1993.
“In 1993 I did what a lot of young people, who want to get into foreign journalism, do. I took unpaid leave from my job and I worked as a freelance correspondent,” Phillips said. He went to Mozambique in Southern Africa and lived there for about a year and a half.
“And that was a very extreme time in Mozambique. The civil war was just ending and there was a UN peace keeping mission. So there was enough exciting news to keep me hooked on,” Phillips said.
After a year, Phillips went back to London and resumed working for the BBC. “Then at that point I felt bored, so I took unpaid leave again,” Phillips said.
This time he went to Angola in Southern Africa, a country with similar problems of Civil War. “I can speak Portuguese which I learned in Mozambique… Angola is also a former Portuguese colony… so I worked in Angola for a year, which was interesting,” Phillips said.
At that stage, the BBC offered him a proper foreign correspondent job. He lived in Nigeria, West Africa, for 3 years from 1998-2001. Then he was posted at Johannesburg where he worked as the BBC’s South African correspondent.
In 2006, Phillips joined Al Jazeera English which was launched around that time. He said he left the BBC because they wanted to move him back to London, which was something he didn’t want.
“Many people from BBC, CNN, ITN and SKY were joining Al Jazeera at that time. It seemed a good opportunity to be with an organization from its beginning… You don’t get that chance quite often,” Phillips said.
Al Jazeera offered him a chance to work in Greece. Phillips said that was quite exciting because he knew how to cover the eastern Mediterranean, Balkans, Turkey and so on, but he knew little about that part of the world.
“That was the opportunity which probably the BBC wouldn’t have given… you know it’s a bit more competitive, once you’re in it, then they won’t send you to a region unless you speak the language or have real expertise. But because Al Jazeera was new, there were lot opportunities,” Phillips said.
For the first three years in Greece, Phillips travelled a lot and covered news from the Napan Balkan countries, Turkey.
“The fun thing about Al Jazeera is they send you to quite a lot of places — I ended up doing the American elections in 2008, the Indian election in 2009, which was wonderful,” Phillips said.
In 2009-2010, when the Greek economy started to get into difficulties, Phillips ended up doing a lot more from Greece.
A year ago, Phillips finally moved back to London, where he is from, and now he covers Europe mainly from London.
Phillips’ Experience in International Reporting
“There are certain areas or parts of the world that I feel I am more familiar with… where I feel I have more to offer as a journalist,” Phillips said. “My understanding of Greece or Nigeria or Mozambique or South Africa or all countries I have lived in, is much more than my understanding of Japan, where I have been for only three days… and I don’t speak the language.”
Phillips said he thinks although it’s not possible to speak the language of all the places journalists cover, but it does give them an edge. He said what he enjoyed in Africa, for example, is that he speaks Portuguese, French and English. That helped him get by most places in Africa as people there knew to speak one of those three languages. This reduced the need for translators and interpreters.
“I don’t speak Arabic, for example. I have worked in the Middle-East on and off for Al Jazeera and it’s a fascinating and tumultuous region. But if I really went to live there, I would make a serious effort at learning Arabic. Likewise for my brief experience in India, you would really have to speak some Hindi to explain what’s happening to the world,” Phillips said.
As far as the kinds of stories, Phillips said he loves to keep it a diverse mix.
“I think one of the great fun things about my job is that you can be reporting on a scandal in cricket one day and a problem in Greece’s debt the next… and I have always enjoyed that,” he said.
While covering the financial crisis of Greece, Phillips said he as well as many other journalists working in Europe had to get up to speed with a lot of financial and economic terms.
“To be honest, two years ago many of us didn’t really know what a credit default swap was … or bond deals … we all had to learn that terminology… but you know learning these things is fun as well,” Phillips said.
Burma Boy – The Documentary
Watch the story here:
About the story
Barnaby Phillips worked on a documentary “Burma Boy”, where he pursued the story of a Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who fought for the British during the Second World War in Burma against the Japanese troops from 1943 to 1945. Phillips traveled to Nigeria, Burma and Japan and talked to those who fought alongside as well as against Fadoyebo. At the end he managed to find the family of the person who had saved Isaac’s life, named Shuyiman, in the jungles of Burma.
The Idea for the Documentary
The documentary was produced as part of Al Jazeera’s initiative to cover long form stories in a series called “Correspondent”.
“They basically said Israel-Palestine doesn’t have to be the big story that’s in the news. We don’t have to hear about the American election or the obvious stories that are in the news… or the story of the Libyan revolution. They wanted something more personal and something more unusual. And there was the time and the budget to do it which is very rare,” Phillips said.
Phillips said these days when we mostly see quick news journalism, he felt lucky to get a chance to do a longer project.
“If you are very lucky you are given two and a half minutes to do something on TV, maybe three minutes on the radio. It’s fun and exciting with longer projects as you get to test yourself in new ways. If you stop trying to test yourself then you become stale,” Phillips said.
“I have always been fascinated by history. And being British and having lived many years of life in Africa, I have always been interested in Britain’s impact, good and bad, in Africa and the legacy of what Britain left behind. I find it sad that you could walk around London and you could ask an average British person and they wouldn’t even know which countries in Africa had been ruled by Britain and which had not, let alone maybe some of the terrible things that British might have done to them. So I am interested in those aspects of history,” Phillips said.
Making of the Documentary
“I really loved making that film. I don’t think I could have made that film unless I had lived in Nigeria for 3 years… I had to understand quite a lot about Isaac Fadoyebo’s and Nigerian history to put it in context,” Phillips said.
Having lived in Nigeria and having studied about African history back at Oxford University, Africa always interested him.
“When I was leaving Nigeria, I was frustrated because I felt that I have never done anything about Nigerians,” Phillips said.
“I felt I haven’t really researched the story properly, and I also feared that maybe the really interesting people would have died”
Research and Challenges
In December 2009, Phillips took a week off from his routine news job to research on it further in the library of London’s Imperial War Museum. At that time Phillips said he was thinking of writing a book about it, and not making a film. That was when Phillips came across the memoir of Isaac Fadoyebo and he later found out that Isaac was still alive.
“So when they asked for a great story, I had this story ready,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he had started researching 3 years before actually covering the story and it took him about 3 months to cover the story – to find the people in England and Japan as few of them were few alive. Those who were alive were very old.
Phillips said it was even more difficult to connect with the Japanese subjects as some didn’t use emails.
In Japan, a Japanese journalist and researcher helped him find all the people and did all the translation. “And that is the reality of our job. You are often in hands of somebody local who will help you,” Phillips said.
Phillips doesn’t speak Japanese, and he said he could not have found those people himself.
Nigeria had his own set of challenges, Phillips said. “What would be more straight forward in some countries – logistics, getting visas, arranging and making sure of the vehicles – may take a lot of time in Nigeria.”
In Burma, Phillips said he needed a lot of help and translation. “One of the wonderful skills you do get is that over time you get to judge who will help you and who is not so talented at helping you or who is interested in just money and hanging around with a foreign crew for few days,” Phillips said.
Phillips said the whole trip to Burma was quite complicated.
“Shuyiman and his family belonged to an ethnic minority who were closer to Bengalis, they were not Burmese as such. So in fact when Isaac and African soldiers in the war were there back in 1944, Isaac called those people “Indians”, as opposed to Burmese,” Phillips said.
Phillips said his first worry was that the Bengali community wouldn’t exist anymore. “This Bengali minority, who today are called Rohingya, are very unpopular in Burma and in fact there was a war between some Rohingyas and the Burmese government in the 1960s and 70s. So many of them were expelled and still today live in refugee camps.”
Secondly, Phillips said many of the villages that had Bengali names at that time, have Burmese names now. So Phillips couldn’t find Shuyiman’s village on a map. Fortunately another British officer had kept a detailed record of the attack and Phillips got hold of the map of where the attack happened.
Phillips said his other concern was the safety of people who were helping him.
“I wasn’t worried about my own safety because probably the worst that would have happened to me was our equipment would have been confiscated, and we would have been expelled from the country. But I was more concerned about the local people helping us and Shuyiman’s family. Even though the story was entirely innocent and positive; and we were not talking about corruption or government brutality or anything… we were talking about something amazing somebody did almost 70 years ago. So logically there should have been no problem, but one should always be careful.”
Phillips said he had a good local guide working for him in Burma. He made sure that he is never in any of the footage.
This local guide and travel agent helped Phillips find the village. But as the village was close to a military base, Phillips said he decided to quickly meet the family in a nearby forest. If caught, Phillips supposed Shuyiman’s family would be questioned.
Although Phillips knew Shuyiman’s family members weren’t risking their lives, he tried not to put them in any form of hassle. Throughout the film, he had edited out every mention of the village’s name or the specific region.
The other challenge Phillips faced was getting in Burma in the middle of the monsoon season. He said it was a terrible time of the year to be there.
Phillips and his crew went to Burma hoping to find Shuyiman or his family and he said it was incredible that they did finally find them. “Honestly it was so miraculous because we had no idea until the day before whether we would find them or not. We did not know that they were there before we went and before we found them. We didn’t arrange it over the phone from London or anything like that,” Phillips said.
“We sent a guide to the village a day before. And he was very skilful in determining who the right people were in the village,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks a journalist should always be skeptical. Some villagers may have falsely claimed to be Shuyiman’s family, thinking they would be getting money in return.
But Phillips said his guide in Burma was very skilful. “He went to the village and spoke with a lot of people they all pointed at the same family. He asked them questions such as – Did two Africans live here… Or maybe how many Africans hid in your hut, and they replied two. Then he would ask what their names were.”
When Phillips met them the next day and showed them the pictures of Isaac, their immediate question was “What happened to Dauda Ali?” (the other soldier they saved). Phillips said this reaction confirmed that they really were Shuyiman’s family. Also the sincerity of their emotions after knowing about Isaac was so overwhelming and that it removed all doubts about their identity.
“And to uncover something like that is a story of a lifetime… It’s incredible,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks as a journalist it’s important to have empathy for people. “The moment you no longer care about the people who you are recording, then you should do something else. A good journalist will never lose that empathy. And will never get jaded or cynical about human beings,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he likes to cover human interest stories, “I have to admit personally, I felt very emotional about that story. I had worked on it for so long… I had put so much of effort into it and I met such amazing characters along the way, including the old British officers, the old Japanese guys, everyone I met in Nigeria, Isaac himself… and at the end to meet the people in Burma… so I was very emotional as well.”
Phillips said the piece was finally edited in Doha. But his couldn’t be a part of the whole editing process. “ My news editors were getting so fed up with me because I had been on this project for so long… that they did not allow me to sit through the whole editing process… which was about three weeks work.”
So Phillips spent a very intensive week in Doha, about half way though the editing, and discussed the story structure with his colleagues over emails and Skype.
Barnaby’s Coverage of Indian elections
Watch the stories here:
Phillips visited India during the elections in 2009.
Phillips said on that assignment, he was again given a very generous time – two weeks (before elections) to do four features. He managed to find a good researcher in Mumbai.
Phillips said he was trying to pick up the big themes of India. “We weren’t saying that in this state the BJP is ahead of the congress party… and in that state, a well known political figure is involved in corruption. That is not so important to an international audience. Our audience wants us to be more analytical and talk about the big things that are happening in India. One – it is becoming far wealthier very quickly… But two – a huge number of people are left behind… and actually some way things are getting worse. It is all about picking up on those big themes – divisions between urban and rural India… what India is good at and what India is bad at.”
As Phillips had never been to India before, he read a book about India, “In Spite of the Gods”, and that helped him. “Good journalists read a lot of books,” Phillips said.
Phillips began the package by saying, “Today rich people are coming to poor areas. That means it’s the time of election” – something that Indian media would rarely do. Phillips said that’s what somebody had told him.
“Somebody said –they are only coming here only today because of election. They won’t be here tomorrow. And it’s picking up on the little funny things. Often you just laugh about something and forget about it. But if you carry a little notebook and if you talk about it later to someone you would find that was a very profound remark and that would explain the whole story, the whole relationship of Indian politicians to ordinary people.”
Phillips said sometimes being an outsider is an advantage as one can see things more clearly. “All sorts of things can strike outsiders in a way that an Indian might not be surprised at… as they are things which they may take for granted…and they don’t see as surprising. An outsider can realize unusually interesting,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks Indian TV media looks at politics as a national horse race. “They mostly cover – who is ahead, who has made a mistake… which powerful person has said what to another powerful person. And that is not always the most informative way of finding out what’s happening in your country. It’s cheap television because you just have taking heads in studio… and if you get loud mouth opinionated people to say controversial things, it can be quite amusing or shocking… But does it really tell you what’s happening in the country?” Phillips said.
Phillips’ comments about American Media’s coverage of Europe
Phillips said when he was in Kosova, Athens or Berlin, he met with journalists from other TV groups in hotels or while doing a live at the same point. He said he rarely found American TV crews there. “I know there are certain kinds of stories that they will cover… you see them at a royal wedding in London in big presence…or maybe a few big events… and obviously if Obama or Hillary Clinton is passing through.”
He said he thinks the extent of international coverage on American Television news is tragically inadequate given what a powerful country America is and how huge its interests are around the world.
Phillips said when I first knew the BBC office in Johannesburg, there were three American TV networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – in Johannesburg. But they all were shut down and they don’t have a single bureau in the African continent.
Phillips said the American media has not given enough time to understand the behind the scene story of Greece. “I get the impression that the American media perhaps a bit like the British media has seen the Greek’s financial crisis very much through its own ideological prism. Therefore many voices on the right say “This is what socialism does for you” “This is what Obama will bring to America”. You would know Greece is a disaster and there are many things Greece got wrong. But their history is more complex.”
Phillips said he thinks history plays a crucial role in understanding how to cover stories today. “For example, the US played a very important role in Greece after the World War, throughout the cold war and during the civil war in the 1940s and 50s. Greece had a military regime in the 60s and 70s, and many Greeks rightly or wrongly blamed the Americans for supporting that military regime during the cold war. When there are such riots that are very anti-American and anti-authoritarian, it’s useful to know why there’s such animosity left on the streets of Greece. And I suspect American TV has not done a very good job of explaining that to people in America.”
But Phillips said he doesn’t blame the American journalists. “Many American colleagues are brilliant and brave reporters, and they feel very frustrated by trends in the media. The criticism is aimed more at owners and managers of TV stations and newspapers, who’ve presided over a decline in international reporting,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ take on War Reporting
Phillips said war reporting is a very grey area because people have different opinions on how to report wars.
Phillips has covered wars in Africa, and he said they have been very chaotic – there wasn’t a recognized frontline, very badly trained soldiers; sometimes the soldiers had children or were high on drugs, and they barely knew how to use guns. He said that was very different than working with the American Army when it’s invading Iraq.
“One should listen to the advice of experienced people there who will tell you when something is dangerous. Don’t take stupid risks. Err on the side of caution because you can only make one mistake once,” Phillips said.
This year, some of Phillips’ colleagues were killed in Libya. “They were all people who took real risks and kept on pushing it. You can get many fantastic journalists lucky enough to get away with that for ever but sometimes they don’t. It’s not worth it.”
When Phillips was covering Iraq during the US invasion, there was a lot of bombing going on but he played safe. He said he was mainly talking from the rooftop about what was happening in the war.
But Phillips said that he did take life-taking risks in Angola and Liberia. “In Angola, we took long journeys through areas by road, that were controlled by the rebels in Angola and we could have been ambushed and somebody could have been killed.”
Phillips said news organizations are much more cautious now than they were 20 years ago. “We all go with flap jackets and helmets to those situations, Often we have security advisors… some are more useful than others in some circumstances. Like in Liberia we had a very good security advisor.”
Phillips said knowledge of a place definitely helps in handling risks. “The recent riots in Athens were dangerous and they were getting worse. But I would never take a security advisor because I feel I know the situation there. And there was a BBC team with a security advisor. I feel that is just a waste of money if you are familiar with the place.”
Phillips said that local knowledge is developed slowly, by taking small and not crazy risks.
Phillips interviewed George Papandreou, former Greece Prime Minister, during Greece’s financial turmoil.
Watch the interview here –
“Papandreou is a difficult man to interview because he is so nice. Because when you meet him, it throws you off coz if you get too aggressive with him, you feel really mean,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks the most important thing to do while interviewing is to listen to the answers very carefully. “One should have a prepared list of questions but it’s still important to listen to what the person is saying… because sometimes people say unexpected things. Pick up on that and then you get a more lively conversation. And if somebody is saying something that you feel is blatantly wrong or illogical, pick up on that point, or maybe they admit to something that you never expected them to admit to.” Phillips said he thinks a really good interviewer will closely listen to what the interview subject is saying and would allow the conversation to go to unexpected directions.
Thoughts on Balancing Voices – Objectivity vs. Fair Judgment
Phillips said as a journalist one has to exercise judgment. But it is not objective to try to balance every argument equally. “There are small groups of scientists who don’t believe that HIV virus causes AIDS, it doesn’t mean that every time you do a story on AIDS you have to give a voice to the small group of scientists who believe something else. That’s not objectivity – that’s just bad judgment on the journalist’s part.”
“I guess the skill of a good journalist is knowing what you know, knowing what you don’t know, and I think somehow certain kind of fairness it is quite hard to define, but you or the listener know if they are getting it or not.”
The Story he is most proud of
Phillips said in his 20 years in journalism, “Burma Boy” has been the most satisfying story.
He also enjoyed being in Mozambique when he was 24 years old, learning a language and getting his voice on the radio from an African country. He said although that was very simple in comparison to the Burma Boy documentary but it was equally satisfying.
Phillips said he was pleased with his work in India as well.
Presence in Social Media
Phillips has been on Facebook for three years and he has been fairly active. He said he is careful about his posts on Facebook. “I would never express any political opinion on Facebook whatsoever. I will often put a video up of our latest story… or a blog,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he thinks if one is aspiring to certain standards on TV then he/she should aspire to those standards online as well.
Phillips joined twitter two months back. “Twitter I think is more dangerous than Facebook as it’s almost like you are sending a text message to your friends. And you would want to say interesting things but you have to be conscious about it.”
Comments from Phillips’ colleague/Supervisor
Juan Carlos Van Meek is an Executive Producer (EP) at Al Jazeera based in Doha. He currently manages all the content on the network. So while he is not micromanaging Phillips’ material, he assigns him to the kinds of stories he believes warrant coverage and which best allow him to showcase his skills.
Prior to his current role as an Executive Producer, Carlos worked alongside Phillips as a Bureau Chief/Senior Producer in Athens. Thus their working relationship was much more day-to-day than it is now. They traveled extensively on various assignments as well as taking stock of moving stories in Greece.
Carlos said that Phillips’ greatest attribute is his ability to take in vast amounts of information, much of it complicated, then distill that information to the audience in easily understandable terms. Carlos believes that’s where most journalists fail.
“They get caught up in the complexity of an issue, confusing themselves and the audience. This means Barnaby prepares for every assignment with tremendous amounts of research. This gives his storytelling the authority it requires, and the anecdotes which help viewers – many of whom have nothing invested in that story, and who live on continents far, far away – relate to any given situation, in any given country,” Carlos said.
Carlos said he believes Phillips’ performance is also stellar. “He’s rarely flustered on camera and his live timing is impeccable,” he said.
Finally Carlos thinks Phillips’ voice work is perhaps the most underrated quality he has going for him.
“I had a workshop where I used Barnaby’s voice track to show my students the value of finding your voice. A well written story can be undone by a poor voice track. Barnaby, having hailed from radio, is well versed in the art of a good read,” he said.
Carlos said one issue Phillips shares with most senior correspondents is that he’d like more time to develop stories, so he’s not always keen to turn around a quick spot news story. But that doesn’t present a problem, he said.
“We live in a 24/7 world with more news on more platforms globally than ever before. So we don’t always have the luxury of time. At the end of the day he works for news, so after he gets his grumble out of the way he’s good to go. Not the worst of sins.”
Carlos has covered a lot of stories with Phillips and he thinks his work is very consistent. “The body of his work really shows off the breath of his skills,” Carlos said.
Carlos said he thinks Phillips work during Indian elections in 2009 was remarkable as was his series on the challenges facing America in the lead up to the US election in 2008. “Both very different demographics and cultures facing serious challenges. A more recent example of longer form was his Burma Boy special. All are very strong, character driven stories,” Carlos said.