Gareth Browne, who was named the British Journalism Awards New Journalist of the Year 2017, has spoken of his decision to leave his “sheltered life” and cover the ISIS conflict in Iraq at the age of just 22.
Speaking on the Press Gazette Journalism Matters podcast, Browne revealed that he originally told his parents he was going to Turkey when he flew to the city of Erbil, Iraq, in 2016.
His mother only found out the truth when he was asked to speak on the radio. “I’m not sure it was calm”, said Browne of her reaction.
“It quickly dawned on her how serious it was for me. I was passionately interested in what was going on. She always knew what I wanted to do.”
Since arriving in Iraq in 2016, Browne has written for The Times and Telegraph as well as other titles.
He has covered the conflict between Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, an experience he says involved a lot of learning on the job.
“The critical thing for me was meeting other people,” Browne said. “It was just trying to be familiar with the topic on the ground, trying to work out what the mechanics were of working here as a journalist”.
Three of his reports were shortlisted for the Press Gazette New Journalist of the Year Award last year, including an account of the massacre of over 200 ISIS rebels at a village near Mosul.
“The story was so strong it put itself into words,” he said on finding mass graves of victims of the massacre.
Browne said he was drawn to Iraq because he was interested in the events taking place, adding: “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a bit of adventure.
“I can remember being a witness to combat, seeing a dead body for the first time. Having these ethical, moral challenges thrown at you in a very short space of time”.
“I’d come straight from university and I’d never been to a funeral”.
Studying Arabic enabled Browne to talk locals, many of whom he became close with. He recalls speaking to Peshmerga fighters on the eve of a key skirmish.
“Everyone has been personally affected by the war somehow”, he said. “You could tell it was going to be a really personal fight”.
Browne says he always wanted to be a journalist and recalls inviting Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy to his Sixth form after he had been smuggled out of Syria.
Since cutting his teeth in Iraq, Browne has covered key events in Syria and Lebanon from his base in Beirut.
He’s now settled down in the London bureau of the National, an Abu Dhabi based newspaper, as part of a six-strong team of journalists headed up by ex-Sunday Times Foreign editor Damien McElroy.
Browne says the paper is “ambitious” and has “a lot of resources, adding: “I’ve never really worked in London before in an office, and done stories in my own country.
“A lot of journalism these days is just turning around copy, but at The National they really do put a lot of pride into original content and speaking to people, making your work unique and different to what other people are putting out.”
Picture: Press Gazette