An interview with veteran war correspondent and Sunday Times journalist, Toby Harnden

Story first published in EX magazine, April 2013


For over two decades, veteran foreign correspondent, and Sunday Times Washington bureau chief, Toby Harnden has reported on some of living history’s major events including the Omagh bombing, 9/11, the South Asian Tsunami, 7/7, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. He also found the time to write two books – his second, Dead Men Risen which follows the Welsh Guards’ 2009 tour in Afghanistan, profoundly effecting the way the Ministry of Defence monitor reporting of the conflict. Fran McElhone met him

For Toby, 14 days in a Zimbabwean prison doesn’t come close to the fear of being captured and beheaded throughout almost 14 weeks in Iraq. But regardless of their hierarchical placing, both top the list of his most harrowing experiences during his 20+ years as a foreign correspondent.

Before the Times, during 2012 Toby worked as the US editor for the Daily Mail and US executive editor for the Mail Online. And it was while working as the US Editor for the Daily Telegraph before that, that the father-of-two wrote Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan. This is the work of a literary genius. Over 600-odd pages, in intricate detail, Toby tells the story of the regiment’s tour in 2009.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) deliberated over it for six months and even then, once it was printed they recalled it, slapped an injunction on it and ordered the pulping of around 24,000 copies before it was reprinted for the sake of 50 words. The MoD confirmed they bought the entire first print run of the book because at a late stage the text was found to contain information that could damage national security and put the lives of members of the Armed Forces at risk. Last year the masterpiece won Britain’s most prestigious award for political writing, the Orwell Prize for books.

I almost expected to be able to tell, just by looking at him, that behind bright eyes this was a person hiding two decades of fascinating stories. But Toby, who was a Royal Navy lieutenant before making his break into journalism as a theatre reviewer in 1994, has an understated demeanour – and an unassuming and humble manner, considering.

It was when covering the 2005 parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe that Toby and his photographer Julian were imprisoned, charged with entering the country illegally and practicing journalism without accreditation. They are understood to be the first journalists to be imprisoned in the country and the first journalists to be imprisoned for such a long time.

“The maximum sentence was four years in prison, which we would probably have survived,” he tells me. “But it wasn’t death.”

At the time the Government was not allowing foreign journalists in the country so they entered the country as tourists. “It was illegal,” he says. “Under their law you had to apply for a state license to work as a journalist and we didn’t have that. But only a small number of licenses were ever granted and those who were granted permission were shadowed by a minder the whole time so you couldn’t work freely. So we decided not to apply, which would have tipped them off that we were coming.”

Toby and Julian crossed the border by land from Zambia, a considered decision made in order to take advantage of the more informal procedures while blending in with the rest of the tourist hoard. “We went on safari and set up a tourist cover taking lots of photos of hippos and elephants,” he continues. “Everyone in the office back in London joked about us going on holiday on the paper.”

After making their way through the country, Toby spent two weeks interviewing, including the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – the main opposition party to the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by President Robert Mugbe, and the archbishop of Bulawayo as well as, ironically, the man responsible for bringing in the act restricting foreign journalists into the country. No, he didn’t enquire about their visa status.

“We stayed clear of anything to do with Government,” explains Toby. “There was an underground network of people sympathetic to the MDC and we made use of that. But on the day of the elections we thought maybe we were getting too confident. We were at a polling station at a primary school where we were speaking to voters and an MDC candidate. I’d almost finished the interviews but Julian was still taking pictures when he was grabbed by a ZANU guy.”

Trying to talk their way out of the situation didn’t work. “They were asking for our official papers, which of course we didn’t have,” continues Toby. Now the pair were attracting police attention and the situation started to snowball. “We whispered to each other and agreed to walk really quickly to the gate and jump in the car and go.”

But this didn’t work. The situation escalated, more police arrived and Julian found himself handcuffed. “We tried to bribe them but they were scared and this didn’t work either,” Toby continues. “They started to make phone calls which gave us the opportunity to text our office and take the card out of Julian’s camera and hide it in the room under a black board duster.”

His own version of shorthand illegible, Toby’s notebooks proved obsolete in terms of revealing for certain their true identity. The disorganisation that ensued helped as well. As Julian was taken to the police station, Toby followed in the hire car giving him time to discard other evidential items out the window such as receipts and business cards.

At the station, questioning continued, all the time Toby and Julian stuck to the tourist line. Meanwhile the Telegraph had contacted a stringer in Harare who organised for a lawyer to be sent to their aid. “We kept thinking we’d just be deported if they didn’t believe us, but we ended up in a jail cell,” Toby recalls.

I learn that this 15ft by 15ft holding cell, with its graffitied walls and earthen floor with a hole in the corner, which was more accustom to drunks and criminals than educated, earnest journalists, stank. After three nights it “started to get beyond a joke”. But instead of being deported, the men were charged and sent to remand prison.

“That’s when it became a totally different thing,” explains Toby. “But this was not Iraq where you could be beheaded, so we just thought, nothing is going to be that bad. But it was pretty worrying, we didn’t know what was going to happen to us. And everything was taken off us – in the police cell we were allowed to use our mobile phones, now it would have been tweeting,” he laughs.

Soon after arriving in the old Colonial prison and made to join 100-odd other prisoners in a 20ft by 60ft cell, still with one hole in the corner, Toby and Julian were sent to see the governor, “a figure in a military uniform” who made them sit on the floor as a sign of subservience. “At this point, the only way we were going to get out was through the legal process,” Toby explains. “What you were afraid of was getting beaten up, stabbed or raped,” he adds. “But it became clear that it was very well organised and there was a hierarchy among the prisoners, with one in charge.”

Thanks to their lawyer, Toby and Julian had soap and cigarettes – prison currency – so it was decided they should be looked after, giving them a little, albeit, much needed reassurance. Toby is remarkably modest about the whole saga, as if this ordeal just came with the territory, and I have to coax the stark reality of the situation out of him. He didn’t fear for his life, he tells me, but I when I ask whether the conditions were humane he doesn’t hesitate to answer, “No, they weren’t”. Hence why he tells me they would “probably” have survived if convicted. “A lot of people in there were very sick, with sceptic sores and HIV,” he adds. Julian contracted typhus and scabies but Toby remained unscathed.

Over three weeks the pair were taken to court for trial on a bus, shackled together. When they weren’t at court, they were able to go out into the prison yard where prisoners were playing chess using pieces made out of sadza, gooey cornmeal porridge, or cards made out of bits of cardboard.

In the end they were acquitted because of lack of evidence. “But it was obvious we were,” Toby says. However laid back Toby is about it all now, I imagine their relief at this verdict.

But by this point, Toby had reported from all over the world. In addition to reporting from Zimbabwe, during his stint as the Sunday Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent throughout 2005/06, Toby covered the aftermath of the tsunami from Thailand, was posted to Saudi Arabia when Prince Abdullah was on his deathbed and reported from in Pakistan after 7/7. Prior to this role Toby lived in Jerusalem for 18 months as part of his role as Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph before being sent to cover the war in Iraq. And prior to this he was the Daily Telegraph’s Washington bureau chief, reporting from Washington on 9/11.

There is no doubt that the role of a foreign correspondent is embedded with risk. But risks that need to be considered and accepted and dealt with professionally and confidently – assets of Toby’s proven by his longevity in the job. “Generally speaking if you’re going to go to a place where’s there’s an intrinsic risk, you need to do what you have to do and get about and see things,” Toby says. “There’s no point in going to Afghanistan and then not going out on patrol, because that’s the reason you’re there. But you have to always be weighing up the balance between risk and reward. When you first start war reporting, that’s probably the most dangerous time because you’re not fully aware of the dangers,” he tells me, admitting that when he first went to Iraq he took “far too many” risks.

“Within a couple of days I decided to go down to Najaf and do a journey some other journalists had done but it was extremely dangerous, but I just thought, I have to get out. But before we knew it, me and my translator were dragged out of our car and had our body armour and helmets taken off us  and were driven off in a truck with guys with Kalashnikovs and RPG rockets and I remember looking at my translator and thinking, should I be really scared?

“We were questioned for about two hours as they tried to establish what we were doing and whether I was genuinely a journalist and not a soldier or spy. It was pretty scary, but eventually they accepted I was who I said I was and proceeded to allow me to interview them.

“There have been times where in hindsight I’ve looked back and realised I’ve taken risks, so you have to strike that balance between doing your job and being open to doing things – if you’re always after specific things to see specific people you’re not going to notice other things, but you always have to think, what’s the journalistic reason for going somewhere?”

Toby says the fundamental difference between reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan is that in Afghanistan, on the whole, reporters don’t go out without troops. “In Iraq I lived in a hotel in Bagdad and drove around and interviewed people or went to where there had been an incident,” he adds. “You can do this in Kabul and in certain parts of Afghanistan, but not in Helmand.

“I first went out to Afghanistan in 2006 before the British troops arrived but since that point it has been ridiculous for any Westerner to drive around, you’re embedded all the time which gives you a different kind of experience.”

Not only does a foreign correspondent have to be incredibly independent, logistically there are numerous challenges to fulfilling the role efficiently such as the sourcing of internet connection, finding a satellite phone “that works” and the reliance upon security personnel and dependence upon a translator, “all that can take up time, money and energy”.

“In Iraq journalists were spending 80 per cent of their time obsessing about whether they needed armed guards or armoured vehicles,” says Toby, who was out there when kidnappings were common. “For years afterwards I had dreams about being beheaded,” he says. “That was on my mind a lot of the time.”

Little did he know at the time, near the beginning of his career in journalism when Toby was the Daily Telegraph’s Ireland correspondent reporting from Belfast from 1996 – 1999 which culminated in the publication of his first book, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, the way was being paved for his bond with the Welsh Guards and the publication of Dead Men Risen a decade later.

The father-of-two found himself back in Afghanistan in 2009 poised to reveal the stark and controversial reality for our troops fighting the Taliban, from the cumbersome bureaucracy, flawed strategy, the issue of being under resourced including the lack of helicopters, bomb-detecting equipment and armoured vehicles. But what he also revealed was a highly sophisticated, complex and emotive operation.

“When I was in Northern Ireland I got to know Rupert Thorneloe, then a captain in the Welsh Guards who had an intelligence job,” he says. “He became a friend but we lost contact, but I expected to run into him again. I’d been with the Welsh Guards in Northern Ireland in 1997 and in Iraq in 2004 I was embedded with them so fortuitously I got to know more people in the Welsh Guards than any other regiment.

“I knew they were in Helmand and Rupert was Commanding Officer. I was following the war from afar in the States and I was aware that a Platoon Commander and a Company Commander had died. Then Rupert was killed. First of all I was stunned by his death. This was the first time since Korea that a single battalion lost officers at those three key levels. And it was the first time since the Falklands, with Lieutenant Colonel H Jones VC, that a Commanding Officer had been killed, so it was a big deal.

“I emailed some of the Welsh Guards that I knew and was commiserating with them and it became immediately apparent that there was something going on and I wanted to find out what. It seemed like carnage. The guys from the regiment thought there was a good story to tell. And I knew there must be a fascinating story behind it.

“They went out there in April 2009 and Rupert was killed in July. The clock was ticking as they were only out there six months. I knew I had to get out there.” Toby went to Afghanistan for the Guards’ final month of their tour. “Most of what happens in the book had already happened so it wasn’t me being a fly on the wall,” he reveals.

“The MoD asked me if I could just interview them here when they got back, but I was never going to do that, because you never get a feel for the place.”

Toby signed a contract agreeing to hand over the manuscript for the MoD to check for operational security and accuracy, in return for flying him out and giving him access. Initially Toby interviewed as many people as he could which meant visiting all their bases, continuing the interviewing when he got back, including with family and friends.

He also came by a “cache” of 2,300 documents, a “treasure trove”, including radio and incident logs and copies of emails, from the tour. “To this day I don’t know if I was supposed to be given them,” he says. “The MoD didn’t know about this. These were massively important and gave me the structure and when I wanted to refer to an incident I could just check the incident report, in granular detail.”

Toby delivered the manuscript about a year later, all the while continuing his full time work with the Telegraph and being a husband and dad. “It was definitely a busy time but it becomes a labour of love,” he says explaining that the reason some bits are blacked out is to make sure the story is portrayed in the most honest way.

The author said the manuscript was passed around within the MoD for six months, who then came back to the author with 518 points, either questions or disputes. Eventually the book was published in March 2011. “I thought the points were reasonable,” Toby says. “Most were small factual things I could change easily, other times I would come up with a compromise, or I would reject them.

“The MoD reluctantly signed it off. It was printed and I breathed a sigh of relief. But then they raised two other objections and granted us with an injunction. Then it became a big legal battle. The legal agreement was that they would pay the publishers £150,000 of public money to have 24,000 books pulped and reprinted. They took the opportunity to review the whole things and wanted changes throughout the book having raised other issues, and we flatly refused.

“In the end only about 50 words were changed. We printed it in good faith, this was their fault, it was a real mess. Dead Men Risen changed the system, they became even more controlling about what could and couldn’t be printed.

“I spoke to another author whose book came out shortly after mine and he had to go through line by line.”

In three hours, I only scratch the surface of Toby’s experiences. We wander back along the beach and say goodbye and watch him, an inconspicuous figure, cross the road and disappear up the lane to his parents’ house.

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