Ann Leslie

Diary - 29 March 2003

The foreign correspondent of the Daily Mail regrets her forced act of desertion

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Breakfast with Frost (the actual breakfast, not the programme which precedes it) is usually a rather jolly affair. Uniquely in today's cost-conscious BBC - where, if you're lucky, you'll get a plastic cup of some thin brown liquid called 'coffee' and a dusty artefact described as a 'bun' - Sir David's star status entitles him, J.-Lo. style, to accountant-mocking extravagances. Like, for example, the Great British Breakfast Fry-Up, complete with fine napery and waitresses; amazingly, for the sternly non-smoking BBC, heretical ashtrays are scattered everywhere. Sir David is partial to a breakfast cigar or two, which allows us lesser mortals to indulge in a quick drag on a fag once the great man has lit up. You often share the Frost fry-up with guests whose presence alongside your eggs, bacon and black pudding can be a mite disconcerting if you've recently insulted them in print or on air. One Sunday I forked uneasily through the scrambled eggs next to a dour-faced Andy Gilchrist of the FBU, whom I'd just described as a donkey - as in 'lions-led-by-donkeys' - and Iain Duncan Smith, whom I'd equally recently described as someone whose very presence 'took the oxygen out of the air'. Must be something in the Frost fry-up which acts as a bromide: we're all extraordinarily nice to each other.

Last Sunday wasn't, for once, particularly jolly. No smoking, for a start: to my horror, our host did not light up his usual cigar. At first I assumed that, as one of the guests was the American ambassador, David might have abstained, perhaps on the diplomatic grounds that, while most Americans thoroughly applaud the death penalty, they regard us smokers as part of the Axis of Evil - especially those who smoke US-embargoed Cuban cigars. In fact, to his mild fury, David had simply run out of the things. But the main reason for our rather downbeat state was, of course, news from the Iraqi front (in my case, particularly, news of the death of a fellow journalist, ITN's Terry Lloyd). There were only two remotely cheery figures round the table: Piers Morgan, the combative and gleeful anti-war Mirror editor, and Robin Cook, who beamed gnomically throughout, refusing to rise to Piers's boisterously blunt-instrument attempts to get him to be rude about the 'warmongers' Blair and Bush and (in Piers's words) the 'revolting' Clare Short. The programme's military commentator, a brigadier and veteran of Gulf War I, was a little worried that he'd violated some unwritten dress code: he'd turned up in a very nice blue sweater - 'I thought, since it is a Sunday, we should dress casually' - while everyone else was rather formally clad. I assured him that I base my sartorial decisions largely on what happens not to be in the laundry basket, or at the dry-cleaners, at that particular moment. And he did look fetchingly appropriate for a spring morning, whereas I looked as if I were a PR on my way to a junk-jewellery 'presentation' at a provincial Holiday Inn. The late American comedienne Gilda Radner was once asked about her fashion philosophy and replied, 'I base it on what doesn't itch.' I'm with her there: if it doesn't itch, doesn't show my bum and is free of moth-holes, it'll do.

Feels weird, though, to be talking about 'appropriate dress'. I'd just come back from Kuwait; for tiresome medical reasons I'm now considered unfit for combat zones. Frankly, I wasn't particularly fit last time round, 12 years ago, in the first Gulf war; my army instructor timed me trying to get into my gas mask and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical protection suit in nine seconds. 'Oh dear, Ms Leslie,' sighed the Scottish sergeant, 'you were dead about seven minutes ago.'

Like everyone else, I'm glued to 'rolling news' and, as a foreign correspondent, I feel oddly guilty about not being there. I tell myself that for decades I've been involved in conflicts all over the world, been sniped at, mortared, seen the bodies, examined entry and exit wounds, so don't need to prove my credentials in that area any more. And yet.... Perhaps it's because foreign correspondents feel they belong to the same tribe. We all, of course, have fierce intra-tribal conflicts, but whenever one of our fellow tribesmen or women is threatened by outsiders - local gangsters, enemy troops, government spinners, religious fanatics - we spring to each other's defence. Leaving Kuwait felt to me like tribal desertion. Mind you, my fellow tribespersons, who are usually fuelled by a combination of adrenaline and booze, were already having a hard time even before a single mortar was fired. Muslim Kuwait is 'dry' and the non-alcoholic Budweiser on sale achieves the impossible: it gives you a quivering hangover while at the same time depriving you of the booze hit. One fellow hack mused, 'This stuff should be banned under the chemical weapons treaty.' We all laughed, and then fell silent. Jokes about chemical weapons suddenly didn't seem so funny after all.

On Wednesday night, Index on Censorship held its annual awards ceremony. I was on the panel of judges, a token non-leftie - my fellow panellists included Sir David Hare, Ursula Owen and Sheena McDonald. I'd expected some fireworks between us, but mostly we were remarkably united. I did throw a bit of a wobbly about the evils of 'moral equivalence' when one of our number nominated the American Library Association, which is under pressure from assorted fundamentalist right-wing loonies. How on earth can you compare the trivial 'ordeals' of American librarians with the grotesque persecution of men like the Iranian Dr Hashem Aghajari (one of our winners) who was sentenced to death for speaking out against the rule of corrupt Islamic clerics? (I was, of course, delighted to present the unanimous award for Services to Censorship to Zimbabwe's so-called 'minister of information', Jonathan Moyo.)

Back to the war. 'Military incompetence' is a favourite theme of newspaper commentators opining from the safety of their office eyries. Good thing the military doesn't expose journalism's own incompetences. One national newspaper supplied its correspondents with up-to-the-minute NBC suits. When the chaps opened their protective kits in Islamic, anti-Israeli Kuwait, they found that the suits were plastered with Hebrew lettering. Someone in their procurement department must have purchased a job lot from the Israeli Defence Force. We promptly nicknamed their chief reporter in the desert, a jolly Irishman, 'Yossi'. Good luck 'Yossi', Dave, Jamie, Richard, Keith, Cavan, Ross, Bob and all the rest of my fellow tribespersons. Let's hope we share a few thoroughly alcoholic Budweisers soon.