Author Interviews

Interview With Paul Moorcraft

From the council estates of the Welsh Valleys to living with Jihadists in Afghanistan as a war correspondent and training recruits at  Sandhurst, all the while with the numeracy skills of a four-year-old due to an undiagnosed disability, it is safe to say that Professor Paul Moorcraft has triumphed against all odds. World-renowned for his deep knowledge of foreign affairs, Professor Moorcraft grew up on a salubrious estate in Ely, Cardiff as well as just outside Pontypridd.

In the 1950s Tom Jones was a semi-neighbour and his cousin was in his class at school, and like the Welsh pop star music was in Paul’s blood, shaping how he felt about the world from an early age.

“I would have been a professional musician if I had been good enough, I still sing at the drop of a hat and I used to read the New Musical Express like a bible, I was an NME man, not Melody Maker. I was the founder member of the Welsh Del Shannon Appreciation Society, Runaway was a big hit and it is a standing joke. Jeff Lyne reckoned that he was one of the top three singers in the world so he was not as bad as people make out. When I was younger I used to play any instrument that I could get my hands on; my father played the piano, he wouldn’t pay for lessons but said ‘If you are any good you’ll learn. I joined the school orchestra and played the violin and joined a jazz band and played the guitar badly and so on. I loved music. I used to sing quite a bit in English and sometimes in Welsh.”

Music was certainly an escape for Paul, and the harsh environment of his childhood set him up as an ardent Welsh Nationalist, and for a life of observing some of the bleakest and most dangerous of circumstances. He said: “It was a place where you were a snob if you wore socks. So it was a natural progression from there to working in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan and so forth. “

Paul left home at 16 and drove cabs to allow him to study in the local Sixth Form while supporting himself. He also worked in the hardest local job: on the coke ovens of the steelworks. Over time he saved up enough money to take a place and Swansea University to do a three-year degree in history and politics, and later an MA at Lancaster which was connected to the Ministry of Defence. A sporty young man, he then studied at The University of Cardiff for a teaching qualification in PE. But all that studying cost money, and Paul continued to drive cabs, before getting a job at his local newspaper the Western Mail in advertising, which enabled him to get a company car.

Though in an advertising role, this was Paul’s first experience of journalism, at a paper to which he would later send dispatches from abroad for more than 40 years. He said: “I was a passionate cultural nationalist and my long-term childhood sweetheart was Welsh speaking and didn’t like speaking English to me, yet I had an intellectual interest in international affairs so I was always torn.”

In 1973 Paul was headhunted for an unlikely role for a Welsh Nationalist. Picked for the job because of his defence studies MA, he became a civilian training instructor at Sandhurst, rubbing shoulders with new British Army recruits and members of the Royal Family. He said: “Sandhurst was an odd thing. Here’s this bloody ardent Welsh nationalist at Sandhurst, and there was a paradox, as I was teamed up with Captain Mark Philips, a member of the Royal Family! I fitted in at Sandhurst in terms of sport, I used to play rugby and was a good shot. But I was a troublemaker as a Welsh Nationalist, and I was asked to stand for Plaid Cymru against the Prime Minister for Cardiff South East which didn’t go down well. I’ve always believed in the idea of a federal solution for the UK, which is obvious because the union is breaking up now. I am sad about that in a way and I have some regrets, about wearing my MOD hat, but I do understand the Welsh and the Irish and how they feel. It can only work for so long because the English elite have no time or interest or understanding of the four nations.”

Throughout his youth, Paul travelled a lot: hitchhiking to Germany at the ages of 14 and 16, as well as taking part in overseas exchange schemes. He realised he was good at languages so in the 1970s he travelled to Israel and stayed on a kibbutz, an interest in the country spawned by their revival of the Hebrew language, and how that could apply to Wales. He said: “My family are English speaking, but I spoke Welsh as a political act, I tried to learn how they learned Hebrew quickly, the immersion method and I tried to learn how this could apply in Wales. I am not Jewish, but I was offered a scholarship to study at the Hebrew University, so I was there in 1975 and Arial Sharron was my patron, who later became Prime Minister. I am rather sympathetic to Israel, as I was interested intellectually in siege cultures and at university studied Israel, Rhodesia and South Africa. Eventually, I did a doctorate on these ‘siege cultures. I understand why people believe in lost causes.”

Around this time this interest in siege cultures led to Paul’s first full-time journalism by-lines, for Time Magazine.

Picking up the story he said:  “I was in East Africa visiting a friend but realised that all of the action was in Rhodesia because there was a major war on, so I hitchhiked there and was immediately offered a job at the university where I started lecturing in politics. My five predecessors had been deported so I thought it was a good place to learn some of my craft because I wanted to write. So I started scribbling for the local newspaper the Rhodesia Herald, and then because of the Sandhurst background, I started editing a magazine there. My first full-time journalism though was for Time.

When people ask me what I have to do to become a war correspondent I always say ‘You have to become an alcoholic, get divorced three times and give up all hope of having a holiday’, only two per cent are mad enough and bad enough to survive. I try and put people off, it is always ladies who ask me, as they want to become Marie Colvin. I knew Marie quite well, I had a soft spot for her but she did not reciprocate in any way. She was dangerous but she had a lot of integrity and worked hard, she was a thrill seeker, wouldn’t listen and like all crazy hacks never filled in her expenses in time! After about ten or twelve hours I’ve had enough and just want a beer, but she would just carry on. I’ve always been really lucky, I was interested in military history which led to my selection for Sandhurst and I was interested in journalism and I got a job at Time magazine. But I’ve always made a point of being in the right place at the right time. Also, another thing I say when people ask me about how you become a war correspondent is ‘Well you have to go to the most dangerous place on earth, learn some of the language and make a lot of contacts’. 99% of people are wise enough not to do that but the odd one will…”

While writing for Time, Paul also picked up international radio jobs for organisations including the BBC, when he lived in South Africa after Rhodesia, he was a TV presenter as he could speak English and some Afrikaans. However Paul didn’t agree with the government and, unafraid to speak his mind, the stint only lasted for two years. He then began covering wars around Africa and his instinct was to live with insurgents, which set him up for later on when he would live with Jihadists in Afghanistan. He supplemented his income with work as a locum professor at universities including Cape Town and Durban to make ends meet as ‘journalism doesn’t always pay that well’. And then Paul met the journalist Tim Lambon, who would become one of his closest friends and colleagues. Speaking about Tim, who is the partner of fellow war correspondent Lindsey Hilsum, Paul said: “He was all the things I couldn’t be: he could fly planes, and helicopters and was a weapons specialist, tough as nails and a crack shot plus a medic. He was a good person to be with. He’s Rambo and I’m Danny Devito and we have done a lot of things together.”

In 1984 the pair were recruited to produce some films in Afghanistan to mark the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasions of the country. This experience was both terrifying and life-changing for Paul, who suffered an injury to his eye during a mortar attack, survived numerous attempts on his life, and also lost three stones in weight due to the tough conditions. It was also the first time that Paul had led teams on a journalistic project in wartime, and the horrors that they all encountered, coupled with the sense of responsibility for their safety, are factors that have stayed with him throughout his life. He said: “Don’t tangle with the Russians is my experience because they killed every household that we stayed in. Six, seven or eight people at a time. We would leave and then the next day they would go in and wipe them all out. The most challenging thing in my life was working there and leading people who were ex–special forces, I had to be in charge and I didn’t lose a single person. I got every team out of the trips and I had to be in charge even though I was physically the weakest. It was really hard, we would go back to the village that we had been staying in, where the locals had been offering us hospitality. And there is nothing worse than going to the house when two days before you have been staying there and in the interim the Russians had either bombed or sent in troops and slaughtered the whole household, including the women and children. The guys I was with had been special forces and were fairly used to witnessing killing on a wide scale, one of the guys had killed 22 people close up himself, so they were more resilient than I was. But I had to keep everyone together because there were 40 different insurgent groups and they were often ambushing each other and us. It was all round pretty tough, but I managed it and I was surprised.”

Throughout this time Tim Lambon kept a diary of the experience and documented Paul’s leadership skills during the project. This was not always flattering, but rather than be offended Paul said that this kind of learning experience cemented their friendship and working relationship. He added: “The diary was awful about me! But it was a fantastic experience to have a very professional person who was a very good soldier to observe my leadership, and instead of becoming enemies we became the closest of friends and went off on lots of missions together. Just the two of us. He must have had a morbid sense of humour!” The experience in Afghanistan, being under fire two or times a day, almost made Paul give up war reporting for good, but together with Tim Lambon, he continued to undertake missions and file reports.

“It was hard mentally and physically, physically you had to walk for hours a day with a Bergen, and I know I would never pass SAS selection.” He said: “I was quite good at Sandhurst and was physically fit, but I found that every man wonders about his courage. Most young soldiers wonder about that. I had been under fire quite a bit by the time I went to Afghanistan, but I had seen nothing like a superpower wiping out whole areas. And there Russians were having it all their own way because the Americans hadn’t yet introduced the surface-to-air missiles, especially the Stinger, and that completely changed everything.”

Paul went back to Afghanistan again with the British Army in 2002. “Because most of the officers there I knew from previous decades I was sleeping in the mess and went on patrol. Kids would come up and say ‘are the Russians back?”

Post 9/11, Paul’s services were required by the MOD again and in 2003 he was recalled to help out with media operations during the Iraq war; just before the war, he had travelled to Baghdad with the MP George Galloway to find out what was going on and attempted to interview Saddam Hussein. He added: “I went into Baghdad on the eve of the war, as it was the only way that I thought I would get to speak to Saddam was to go in with George. I interviewed him in the House of Commons and said ‘Can you take me in with you?’ And he did. It was entertaining, and I don’t agree with George on all of his principles, but he is engaging and we got on well. I didn’t get to see Saddam but I got to see everyone else. We sneaked in through Jordan. Of course, when I got back I was immediately contacted by the MOD who wanted to know what I had seen and done, but I had to be careful if you are a journalist because otherwise, journalists are going to get killed everywhere. I always tried to separate my journalism from any contacts I had with the establishment of the armed forces. Though I worked closely with people in other agencies, and secret services and understood how it worked as a journalist I never once got a penny paid as a journalist from the MOD. I did not break any confidences, and I never compromised my principles as a journalist.”

And speaking about how critical it was to maintain his journalistic integrity during this time, and the issues that international correspondents face, Paul added:  “I think it’s very important that journalists separate their role. When I was in Iraq I worked in media operations, and how the military dealt with journalists, which is very different.”

But the Ministry of Defence’s work was compromising Paul ethically, and when his department was involved in the David Kelly affair he knew that he had to take a stand. He said: “I felt that the MOD was trying to blacken the name of a ‘decent chap’. I walked out of the role that day foregoing any future career opportunities and his pension.” His military career over, Paul set about doing what he describes as ‘making amends’ setting up a group of homeland security magazines, advising on international crisis management and setting up a centre of foreign policy analysis which advised countries including Sri Lanka and Sudan.

“This was my one-man way to exact change. I was so appalled at what the government was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq because I had been in right at the start, I used to travel sometimes with the Secretary of State for Defence and had total access. I believed in the war against Saddam but had no illusions about thermonuclear weapons. So I thought I would try to do my foreign policy work. It was my way of putting things right. We should never intervene in a non-humanitarian way in any country at all. Our intervention in Iraq was a monumental mess.”

As well as this Paul has always been in demand, as a television commentator and pundit, most recently on the Harry and Meghan drama unfolding in the news. Paul’s charity work has always been a big part of his life too, particularly on the issue of dyscalculia, a condition which Paul was diagnosed with later in life, which means that he has the numeric abilities of a four or five-year-old. He said: “ It is the numerical version of dyslexia. The inability to deal with numbers. Can you imagine calling out an air strike which I have done and having to read the coordinates on a map?! It got so bad in the Ministry of Defence that I used to have one of my assistants help me because I couldn’t remember the code to get into my own office. I was 50 and I kept it to myself, you can’t admit to people that you can’t count.”

After confiding his problems to a friend, Paul went to see Professor Brian Butterworth who was doing a study on super achievers who suffer from the condition. At their first meeting, he was tested and found to have the lowest score of any adult ever tested. He said: “He told me ‘You are not fit to even be a farm labourer you are moron level’, I said ‘Thanks Brian, we are both professors but I have written more books than you!’ He said ‘That’s why I want you to come on board.”

After this Paul took part in a TV appeal with Professor Robert Winston, raising awareness of the condition, which up until that point had resulted in a lifetime of Paul counting on his fingers under the table to work out simple sums during high-level meetings. The Child of Our Time Series appearance saw Paul be tested and profiled on the show, helping to de-stigmatise the condition. Paul wrote a bestselling book about the condition called It Just Doesn’t Add Up, and his work in the field has helped countless others deal with their own diagnosis and condition management effectively.

As well as this, Paul also lost his sight.

The 1984 mortar injury to Paul’s eye had affected his vision, but he could still see and drive as usual. But in 2009 it was uncovered that Paul was suffering from a massive misdiagnosed brain tumour – the doctors had said it was glaucoma. The tumour was the size of a tennis ball and he had to undergo brain surgery, from which he only just survived. He said: “I was completely blind and was registered blind, I was given a white cane for a year. I didn’t completely see again but I do have a bit of vision back now. I can just about read thank goodness.”

But he still travels to war zones, taking a guide to, as Paul puts it, ‘help him spot the landmines’. Paul’s current home is back in Wales, and as well as his dyscalculia work Paul advocates for other disabled travellers by sitting on the accessibility panel for Great Western Railway (GWR). He said: “I did it before I lost my sight, the way disabled people are treated on trains is appalling, I don’t know how many times I have helped people out who are in wheelchairs, it’s abysmal. GWR got so tired of me complaining so they asked me to join their team, and I must say since I have been working with these guys they do put a lot of effort in, but our railways system is in a bad way and I would renationalise the railways.”

But what of the future of journalism? What does Paul think about the rise of social media and clickbait headlines? Does the truth matter anymore? Paul, who still lectures in journalism at several National Council For The Training of Journalists accredited universities still believes in the next generation’s ability to make a difference. He said: “We all know that everyone is subjective but I believe in old-fashioned journalism, if it is raining just go outside and see if it’s raining, not seek two opinions on whether it is raining or not. I use social media to promote some of my books, they didn’t like some of my views and I got trolls and pulled out of these things. I still think there is a place for professional journalists and I have always called myself a ‘hack’ and I do believe that the old-fashioned standards of journalism are important. I admire journalists, of course, some are in it for the big hair and vanity, but most journalists, and especially foreign correspondents take enormous risks and the pay is not that good. There is a genuine belief in telling the truth.”

Paul has written numerous books about his experiences and conflicts, and his latest work entitled ‘The Jews Hitler Hated The Most’ is a historical investigation into the Jewish Special Forces who fought as part of the British Army during the Second World War.

Paul is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and the new book combines his historical and military expertise, as well as his experiential perspective on Israel.

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