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The Lure of the Story

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

Owen Bennett-Jones on his latest book on the Bhutto dynasty, his soft spot for Pakistan, and his career as a journalist.

As someone who attributes his success as a journalist to being curious, Owen Bennett-Jones asks few questions when I approach him for a profile. He simply responds with the day and time, and later sends the location. And not for him the hours usually associated with journalists in Pakistan – he asks to meet at 11 on a Sunday morning! At the appointed time, he was waiting at the entrance of the house he was staying at in Islamabad, dressed casually, his hair as tousled as it appears in many photographs and programmes.

We enter the house only to exit on one side into a patio that leads to the garden. “Let’s sit out here,” he says as he pulls chairs into the strong October sun, looking up towards me for the first question, even before I had even managed to pull my phone out.

A private school and the best that the higher education system in England had to offer – the London School of Economics and Oxford – journalism was his first choice; he wanted an ‘interesting life’, as he left his student days behind.

“I wasn’t interested in British politics, but abroad,” because he felt he could learn about life and shed the ‘prejudices’ one is brought up with. But how does a young university graduate, with a privileged upbringing and education in the eighties, even realise he has prejudices to overcome? With a shrug, he says he doesn’t know why he was aware of it, adding after a short pause that he was always “against the system.”

With his background, he probably could have had his choice of organisations, so why did he choose radio? It is not a question he answers immediately, perhaps because he cannot absorb why the choice was not obvious. Radio was just it for him always, “despite being the poor relation of television.”

He calls radio moving and intimate. “People all over the world wrote to me – they knew me. It’s not like television, where they can get a false perception of you.” He also feels it provides for more depth. “I did a radio report on Hala in Sindh and on Makhdoom Amin Fahim, explaining feudal power, Sufi power, land, religion, how it works in a remote place in Pakistan. I can do this in five to eight minutes on radio.” But it wouldn’t be possible in 800 words or a couple of minutes on television.

His deep voice is familiar, as were the voices of everyone who reported for the BBC in the days before television news descended on Pakistan, although the low tones and the short silences, as he stops to find the right word or phrase, sound alien to ears used to the rapid pace of our local television faces. The BBC training ensures Bennett-Jones is a careful speaker, precise with his words and his facts. Having worked on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination for 10 years, he says nothing when asked if he had suspicions about who could have been involved. “My whole approach to journalism is to never say anything that is wrong,” says the BBC man, who describes himself as super cautious.

Joining the BBC, his first international assignment was in Nicaragua, where he produced “boring, analytical” reports; he realised this when the stories he told his friends at the pub after returning were far different from what he put in the programmes. “I realised then that journalism wasn’t about analysing a situation and I had to find the people and tell their stories.” Perhaps it was the same self-awareness that prompted him to choose journalism.

By the time he came back from Nicaragua he had “a taste for conflict reporting.” And when the revolution began in Romania, he knew where his next destination would be. But the BBC had other plans – they “wanted me here,” but to no avail. He quit his job and took off for Romania, telling the BBC they could “take it [his reports] or leave it.” Take them they did, and thus began his long and fruitful freelance relationship with the world service.

Before Pakistan, he “did the Middle East, went to Geneva and did the UN stuff and the Yugoslavia stuff when it broke up.” By 1998, he decided Pakistan seemed “interesting.”

“I flew in at my own expense for a weekend and walked around Islamabad for two days,” before concluding that his hunch was right. He flew to London and got the green light from the BBC to report. He came back to Pakistan and stayed for three years. As with the BBC, it was a relationship that has proved long-lasting; he continues to return and report and write on the country. His latest book, The Bhutto Dynasty – The Struggle for Power in Pakistan, traces the family and its role in politics, from Shahnawaz Bhutto, pre-Independence, to the present times.

When he begins to speak of Pakistan, it is with familiarity and a hint of affection. “It is absurdly easy for a foreign journalist to work here. Everyone has information and they love to share it,” he says, with a short laugh. “It’s a brilliant place to work.” However, it is not just the ease that attracts him to Pakistan; it is also the story.   

 “Five years ago, I decided to go to Lebanon and do the same thing because it was similar – religious politics, parliamentary politics, many groups, but I couldn’t understand it. It was too difficult and I came back to Pakistan,” he says with a smile.

Pakistan and Lebanon are both states which are not authoritarian as such. Does he prefer weak states? “They are interesting states. I need complicated and open,” is the reply. And when did he realise Pakistan was both – “about a month after I arrived, when there was a major sectarian attack.” He adds that it took him two years to get his head “around most issues.”

It was during this three-year long stint that he first met Benazir Bhutto. He invited her over for a party he had thrown for a BBC manager in town and turn up she did, after 10 o’clock as everyone was leaving and stayed “talking, talking, until four in the morning.” This was followed by an invitation to Larkana, which he promptly accepted. “It was fascinating,” he says, “Here is this woman, an imperious woman, in the middle of this male society, commanding everything she saw.”

It also gave him an insight into feudal Pakistan. But it wasn’t just Benazir Bhutto that he came across; he was in Pakistan when the nuclear tests happened, Kargil and the military coup of 1999, when he was the first to get the pictures of the security forces climbing over the PTV gate. “Reuters turned up and got the images just minutes later.” The news cycle kept bringing him back and eventually led to the book on the Bhuttos.

Why the Bhuttos? He thought there would be an interest in them, as they are known in the West. The Sharif family, in comparison, he says, wouldn’t be as much of a draw there. He has met Nawaz Sharif extensively as well and feels he was a “reluctant politician” initially.

The book is finished and out, but Bennett-Jones returned – on this particular visit, he was here to speak at the Islamabad Literature Festival. Obviously, he and Pakistan are far from done with each other.

 Moving on from Pakistan, I ask what makes him and other journalists feel comfortable with such a nomadic life, moving from place to place, which by his own laconic admission takes its toll on the family. Instead of revealing something about himself, he replies with a general observation and a question. 

“The British do it and the French do it. The Americans hate it. They take themselves so seriously. Is it a post-colonial thing?” After a pause, he adds: “There is virtually nowhere I have been and not thought that it would be interesting to be there for a year or so.”

The interest and curiosity haven’t died down – for stories, especially from Pakistan.

Arifa Noor is a journalist and the lead anchor for NewsWise on DawnNews.*