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Covering conflict is ‘a kind of madness‘– BBC’s Fergal Keane
BBC's Fergal Keane

29 Sep 2022 / wellbeing Print

Covering conflict is ‘a kind of madness‘– Fergal Keane

BBC journalist Fergal Keane has said that the ‘moral wear and tear’ of being a reporter and the onerous responsibility of always getting facts right, is one of the most difficult parts of his job.

Speaking at the Law Society of Northern Ireland’s centenary conference (23 September) Keane said that he had learnt to understand the  dynamics of armed conflict and of how young men in particular get drawn into it.

“There are periods in history where elements collide that bring us to warfare,” he said.

Pain of conflict

One of his early postings was to the North, where he saw the pain of conflict in a small community.

“The key things to remember is that once the guns start firing, it’s bloody hard to stop it, because every new killing creates a reason for revenge,” he said.

On wellbeing, Keane said that he had learnt to separate his core self from his work, and to care less about other people’s opinions of him.

“I am not the sum of my work, it’s part of me but it’s not my core,” he said.

Keane has recently completed a documentary that examines the impact of his PTSD diagnosis, following many years as a war reporter.

Something wrong

“Something was wrong with my mental health from very early on,” he said, adding that as a child, he had been referred to a psychiatrist because he couldn’t sleep. Keane said he grew up with a lot of fear in a dysfunctional home disrupted by alcoholism.

In 2008, a breakdown, and a hospital admission for PTSD allowed him to confront a serious anxiety condition that was directly related to multiple instances of trauma in war zones.

He admitted that ego kept him going to wars, but low self-esteem was also a factor.

“Deep inside was this person who was scared of what others would think or say about me,” he said.

“I began to be honest with myself about it, though I kept going to the wars.”

He described 30 years of covering conflict as a “kind of madness”.

The Madness: A Memoir of War, Fear and PTSD is the title of Keane’s latest book.

“Knowing something, and being able to do something about it, are two separate things. And the cleverer you are, the more ingenious you become about your rationalisation, to keep doing the thing that is harmful,” he said.

Quit booze

“I wasn’t in denial, I just kept bargaining, though I was able to quit booze 20 years ago. I had a much tougher job quitting war reporting,” he said.

“No one is going to ostracise you for being addicted to war, quite the opposite,” he said.

He got a great deal of affirmation for being a war reporter, he added, though he was also committed to telling stories, which is a tradition in his family.

“In no other addiction would people tell you ‘you’re great’,” he said, adding that it is possible to be hooked on adrenaline.

“You are never ever more alive in terms of your senses, than you are close to the possibility of imminent death,” he said.

In rehab, he found it a relief to realise he wasn’t a bad person trying to be good, but a sick person trying to get well.

“That’s a really important insight,” he said.

Never too late to get help

“It’s never ever too late to get help.”

Keane said that lawyers are high-functioning people who may be reluctant to admit they are in difficulty for fear it might affect their career.

Journalism and the law are competitive environments and may not have evolved to a sufficiently compassionate and caring level, he said.

The long-term consequences of a highly pressurised target-driven environment include workplace stress.

But this stress is now increasingly viewed as a litigation issue, he pointed out.

“Apart from the humane responsibility to another individual, keep yourself out of messy litigation,” he advised the lawyers present.

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