Looking down from a helicopter hovering above a remote mountain-top village in northwest Pakistan, CNN’s Becky Anderson was shocked by the scale of destruction caused by the 7.3-magnitude earthquake. There were few structures standing and the survivors, hearing the sound of the helicopter, were waving their arms and shouting out for food and medicine.
After the chopper landed, the CNN journalist, who had accompanied a small group of aid workers, immediately began making arrangements to report on the situation in Pakistan where the 2005 quake had killed around 73,000 people.
“In my 16-year career, this is an image I can never forget. It had been four days after the incident and the look of relief on the few survivors’ faces was palpable as they reached out for food packets and medical aid,’’ she says.
Suddenly a hand grabbed her and pulled her to a school building that had collapsed. “It was a four-storey structure and scores of school children had been busy studying or playing in the ground floor when the quake shook the region. Before they could flee, the concrete roof collapsed on them. I saw little school shoes, school bags... When you see the bodies of five, six and seven-year-olds who nearly made it… you really don’t forget things like that. It was definitely one of the most moving moments in my career,’’ she says.
On the other end of the spectrum is an interview she had with football legend David Beckham, which she lists as one of her most entertaining ones. “I spent a week following him around as he prepared to move with family to the US. The programme was called Becks on Becks and I really had a fantastic time with the Beckhams,’’ she says.
From covering natural disasters to interviewing celebs, bomb blasts to uprisings, Becky, 45, has done it all. Blessed with the ability to charm viewers with her 100-watt smile and forthright style of reporting, be it the anti-austerity riots in Greece or the uprising in Tunisia, her well-publicised interview with Brad Pitt or on the financial debacles on Wall Street, as the star anchor of CNN, Becky has endeared herself to viewers around the world.
Concluding the second season of her news programme The Gateway, Becky was in Dubai recently to anchor the show’s final episode on Dubai. She says she was excited to see the emirate’s development and how its ultra-modern sea port has helped transform it into a major transport hub of the world.
“There is a great synergy between the city of Dubai and the trading ports that connect it to the rest of the world,” she tells Friday. “Nothing could have evoked the spirit of The Gateway programme more effectively than Dubai. My programme shows how transport hubs around the world churn the grand wheels of globalisation, and Dubai is such a fabulous metaphor for the show. I am amazed to see the evolution of Jebel Ali Port over the last decade – terminals two and three of the Jebel Ali Port are just fantastic.’’
This is not her first trip to Dubai. “Before I joined CNN in 1999 I had made two trips here. But this is perhaps my 20th trip to the region and I can say that I have seen the evolution of Dubai over the years and am overwhelmed by the leadership’s vision. I saw the Dubai Marina when there was just one building a few years ago, and today the view is dramatic... all due to a great vision.’’
In the decade and half of interviewing celebrities from Hollywood, the sports circuit and politicians including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, South African President Jacob Zuma and former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Becky has had several interesting moments including plenty of learning curves. She says she loves the crazy routines of her work and is ready to take on any challenge thrown at her.
“The fun of this job is its unpredictability,’’ she says. “I am on the road for maybe 150 days and when overseas, sometimes I work 19 hours a day and I do a variety of jobs.’’ One of the busiest years, she says, was 2005. “In April, I covered the royal wedding of Camilla and Prince Charles. The same month I was on the beat to cover the funeral of Prince Rainier of Monaco. This was followed by the 7/7 bombings in London before I rushed back to cover the 21/7 bombings. Later in October I was in Pakistan to cover the devastating earthquake – a story I stayed to cover for three weeks, long after all the other channels and magazines had moved on,” Becky says.
Like any other scribe worth her salt, the Briton treasures some interviews and finds others forgettable. While shooting the The Gateway in Dubai, she was hurriedly called to CNN’s Abu Dhabi bureau to present a breaking news story on a standoff between Israel and Lebanon.
“One of my most inspiring interviews was with Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley. He came from quite an underprivileged background and I didn’t quite realise how far he had come in life until I met him and got talking to him. The scariest interview was with actor Sacha Baron Cohen who just wouldn’t get out of the character of Borat the misogynist and woman hater and treated me with complete disdain.”
Becky has covered the entire gamut celebs from sports to politics to showbiz to entertainment and she’s enjoyed it all, she says. Along the way she has learnt how to get people to open up to her and give her the kind of interview she wants. “When you are interviewing someone like a prime minister or president who is in the public eye, the trick is to treat them with respect, but not to place them too high on a pedestal where they can’t be handled. She recalls her interview with Bill Clinton and she found him to be “particularly charismatic with an endearing personality”.
‘If you’re aggressive, you get nowhere’
“What I have learnt over the years is when you go into an interview, it never harms to be charming and polite with impeccable manners. Go in with thorough research on the story and most of all, respect the person you are interviewing.
“I remember the interview I did with [US Olympic swimming champion] Michael Phelps.’’ She did her homework thoroughly and was well prepared for the interview. Michael Phelps, who is 27 and already announced his retirement from Olympics swimming, holds the record for the most decorated Olympian having won 22 medals. But he hardly reveals anything to the press and his retirement announcement at the London Olympics was a surprise to many. To find out anything additional about him was a challenge for journalists, but Becky managed to draw him into a conversation that revealed few lesser-known things about him.
“He eventually told us about how he loved golf and might be taking up the game seriously; what he does in his leisure time... But this all comes with trust the interviewee places in you. If you’re aggressive you get nowhere.”
Becky has a list of favourites from the celebs she has interviewed. “I can never forget interviewing George Clooney and the very suave and erudite former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I can still hear my beating heart.”
Happy times are contrasted by challenging, high-intensity moments in her career when Becky reported from a war zone in Beirut, covered the war in Chechnya, and the Arab Spring in Tunisia. So working under pressure is not new to her. “It’s something you learn on the job,’’ she says. “To get a true sense of the story, however chaotic the situation is, you never forget the golden rules of journalism: What? Why? When? Where? How? Who?. You don’t put yourself in harm’s way. You’re there to report and it’s very rare that you become part of the story – although, of course, that does happen sometimes.’’ She feels she was lucky to have never really faced a life or death situation unlike many of her other colleagues.
Friends with journalism royalty
“I was fortunate to have joined in 1999 when I got the opportunity to work closely with Christiane Amanpour. She is my friend, my senior and my mentor. I feel in many ways she personifies the brand.
“I have covered wars and reported from front lines in Beirut, been in war strikes with bombs going off in the square ahead of me, and have been tear gassed, but have never had to stare death in the face like war correspondent Christiane has.
“I can’t help recalling the lines of late reporter Marie Colvin who gave up her life on the front lines in Syria in February 2012. She had said: ‘There is a very thin line between bravery and bravado’. One always has to remember that on the front line.
“I recall interviewing a young girl involved in an acid attack in Afghanistan,’’ says Becky. The girl had been attacked by a boy who was infuriated because she spurned his advances. “The gruesome attack had left her face disfigured and blind in one eye. It was difficult to conduct an interview with her. But I feel at the end of the day our job is also to treat victims with compassion and deference.”
Becky became a broadcast journalist after several events that colluded to get her a dream job, she says. “I’d always wanted to write while I was growing up in London. My mum, Rachel, was an English teacher and didn’t think much of my writing skills. After graduating in French and economics, I began to seriously wonder what I could do with these subjects. It was the early Nineties and a new world for business journalism. I applied to Bloomberg and was hired as a business journalist. They sent me to Princeton for a course to understand bonds, derivatives, stock indices and futures.
From Bloomberg Becky moved to CNBC. “It wasn’t the most common beat to be a business journalist in those times – and a woman at that. But I could talk endlessly about derivatives and futures and had the pizzazz to carry the job. I love business journalism although I enjoy all genres. I think my career as a business journalist has come a full circle in the post-recession world where every story I do is seen through the prism of business and economics. The slump in Europe has made this line of work important as never before.”
“What I learnt from watching cultures around the world is this incredible spirit of buntoo – an African concept that, loosely translated, means the spirit of giving. I’ve seen people reach out to others in pain and suffering during disasters. For instance, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan I saw individuals and organisations generously giving away cash stuff and people volunteering for social service.
“I’ve realised that the spirit of selfless charity is present all over the world and I feel overwhelmed by it. It exists as much in the developing countries as it does in the streets of South London where I have seen people run soup kitchens, feed and clothe the hungry and poor. I have also seen an incredible joie de vivre in the darkest places on earth.
“In recent times, things have been tough in Spain and there has been real poverty and despair in Western Europe and there, too, I have experienced this spirit of giving.”
Becky is in favour of social media such as Twitter, which she says has had a huge impact on the way she works. “Twitter helps me find out what’s going on in a place before I get there, and it can give me some great contacts on the ground,” she says. She doesn’t tweet, herself, although she regularly searches Twitter and other social-networking sites for leads. “We must engage or we will die. We have seen trends come and go, but social media isn’t going to die,” she once told journalism.co.uk.
When not facing the camera Becky loves to be in London. “I love Italian and Middle Eastern food and, of course, at home I love having a good British curry.
“In the past, if someone had asked me what I would like to do in ten years, I would have said, ‘to be a broadcast journalist with CNN’. I am already doing that and feel very happy, content and blessed to be part of the team.”