Ann Leslie: Stuff and nonsense — The Independent

She’s been shot at, almost blown up and has serious health problems, yet she still covers the world’s trouble spots with her trademark stoicism. James Silver meets the woman far removed from the macho image of a war correspondent

The day after cameraman Simon Cumbers was murdered and six bullets were pumped into BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner in June 2004, Ann Leslie stepped off a plane in Riyadh. It was the Daily Mail foreign correspondent’s third visit to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom crackled with tension. Twenty-two people – mostly foreigners – had been slaughtered by militants days earlier in a housing complex in Khobar. Soon after her arrival, two US defence workers were beheaded. Expatriates were fleeing and the Foreign Office had ordered non-essential staff to leave. “It was a hairy time,” she recalls with a mixture of jolly-hockey-sticks stoicism and world-weary understatement.

After a long day spent interviewing “ordinary” Saudis and shaking off minders, Leslie, 64, retired to her hotel coffee shop in search of refreshment. There she noticed a young man with a full beard was staring at her. “Something just felt wrong,” says Leslie. “It’s against Saudi etiquette for a man to stare at a woman in that way. He came and sat at a table next to me. He spoke a mixture of English and Arabic. I indicated I didn’t want to speak. Then he asked me whether I believed in Allah.” That rang alarm bells because the same question had been asked of those slaughtered in Khobar. The man then demanded to know if she had “Allah in her heart”.

She went to her room and rang an Australian academic friend who was an adviser to the Saudi government. “I asked her whether I was overreacting. She hit the roof and said, ‘No, you’re not!’ The hotel sealed off my floor. They told me not to answer my door to anyone. The Ministry of Information panicked. They couldn’t have a fourth death in one week in Riyadh. Then an armoured car and armed escort arrived to take me to the airport.”

That Leslie – who has won nine major press awards – dismisses this as “a silly little story, really” tells you much about her. In an age in which journalists have become targets for militants, and few reporters – let alone women in their mid-60s with serious illnesses – encounter anything more dangerous than a dodgy takeaway, she still, albeit less frequently, steps into the cauldron of conflict zones and on to the streets of totalitarian states.

Over the years she’s reported from 70 countries. She has been shot at by snipers in Bosnia, pursued by the COI, Mugabe’s secret service in Zimbabwe, reported undercover in full Islamic dress in Iran, filed from the North Korean border and amid Shia refugees fleeing the bloody vengeance of Saddam Hussein.

We meet for lunch in a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill, north London. There’s a touch of the dotty aunt about Ann Leslie. You can imagine her bamboozling overzealous officials in the middle of nowhere. “I’m not going to drink wine because it sends me to sleep,” she says, ordering a double whisky and coke. As we pick at our food and she smokes a prodigious number of cigarettes, I wonder if she’s tempted to call it a day, write a column and perhaps her memoirs? She is, she admits, gradually winding down but won’t quit altogether.

“I would like to keep on doing a bit of this, but not as much, because I can’t actually physically. It’s stupid. I was very ill nearly five years ago. I have a very compromised immune system. I have to live on antibiotics every day for the rest of my life. So there is a limit to some of the places I can go to. For example, I didn’t do Iraq this time. I still consider myself a reporter with attitude. Now the balance between reporting and attitude might change. I might write my autobiography as I have been asked to do so for many years. But I don’t want a column. There are too many columnists these days.”

Although she has reported on wars in Central America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Far East, Leslie stresses she is not a war correspondent. “I specialise in foreign politics, which of course includes wars. But ‘war junkies’ shrivel and die if there isn’t a war around. And when a war comes they run towards the water singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again!’. That’s not for me. I was always more interested in the real lives than the wars.”

Besides, life on the road takes a heavy toll on family relationships, says Leslie who is married with a daughter. “I always try to keep my family intact. I have rarely met a male war correspondent whose marriage or children have worked out, because of their decision to go for the adrenalin hit rather than the families. War correspondents have a feeling that they are invulnerable. There’s something slightly retarded about them. They don’t think they’ll get it. That death is not an option. But in too many cases it is an option.”

Yet Leslie – who once narrowly missed three suicide bombings in one day in Israel – clearly has a dogged, stubborn side too. She will chase a scoop, even if means spinning her husband, Michael, a line. “The Mail asked me to go to cover the Jenin [refugee camp] massacre, which wasn’t actually a massacre. Michael said: ‘You can’t go. I am not going to have you climbing over the hills and getting into Jenin and caught in crossfire.’ I promised him that as I didn’t ‘do news’, I wouldn’t go near Jenin. But I didn’t promise him I wouldn’t go to Bethlehem. And I got a nice scoop there because I got into Manger Square which nobody else did.” She adds: “It’s like having an affair which is in the papers the next morning. Of course, when he picked up the Mail and saw I was in Bethlehem he screamed at me down the phone.”

Despite the risks, Leslie, doesn’t consider herself particularly brave. Indeed, she says, it is invariably those interviewed or those who assist journalists who are taking the bigger risks. “In Zimbabwe I was being followed by the COI at one point. A street-hawker, who had sussed the situation, pretended to sell me some peanuts and warned me that I was being followed. He told me there was a shop I could go into and leave from another door to shake them off, which I did. I am always incredibly moved about how brave people are, far braver than any journalist. It rather annoys me when journalists show off about how brave they are.”

Similarly she has no time for stunts and gimmicks. And here she points a finger at TV. She mentions one particular reporter, who travelled in a car boot to visit the MDC opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe and laughs. “You can interview Morgan Tsvangirai by walking up and doing it. You really don’t need to go in the boot.”

But her real contempt is reserved for the foreign correspondents who invent their copy while nursing a Scotch in the hotel bar. They became known as the Avon ladies, because they specialised in make-up. “I remember working in Zimbabwe. Mugabe had just come into power. The Smith regime had just been defeated. These boys in the bush, who were high as kites, proceeded to rape and pillage. There was a particular Avon lady who used to sit in his hotel and make up the most wonderful stuff. I went out and risked my life interviewing the boys in the bush, some of whom tried to kill me. I returned to the hotel and the Avon lady said: ‘I don’t know why you bother.’ I replied: ‘Because I think I’m a journalist. You are just an Avon lady, aren’t you?’ And he said: ‘This has done me fine.'”

The memory stirs up one of the few flashes of anger in the interview. “Actually, it enrages you. There are people today who are still like that. But it’s less easy for them now because of communications. The Sunday Express in the old days used to have people who would file the most amazing rubbish, but they would file from some place where nobody could check on it. They would make up whole villages. Nowadays, people can check much more easily thanks to the internet.”

Ann Leslie was born in Pakistan. Her father was in the marketing side of the oil business and she was dispatched to boarding schools from the age of four. Later she won the Maud Hayes scholarship to Oxford (“I had to wear a special gown”) but says she spent her three years at Lady Margaret Hall “man-hunting”. At the graduates’ milk round, she heard someone from the Daily Express was in town. She wasn’t the faintest bit interested in journalism but went to meet the Express man in a pub. “We got on very well,” she recalls, “and the money seemed to be good compared to working in detergents.” She was summoned to meet then Express editor, Roger Wood. “He never looked up from his desk and simply told me ‘You start in Manchester on Monday’.”

“Manchester was absolute hell,” she says. “I remember coming over the Pennines and seeing this thick smog and this smell of sulphur. In those days they were demolishing most of the city except the pubs.”

The Express office was, if anything, worse. The moment Leslie came through the door, the news editor took an instant dislike to this posh, southern, Fleet Street-appointed young woman. Trainee reporters were supposed to be given the Daily Express style book which set out how Express journalists should write their copy. But no one gave it to Leslie, which turned out to be a boon and allowed her to develop a lively style. “I would be sent out to ghastly stories which were never going to make the paper, certainly not if you wrote them in the house style. The news editor was determined to make me give up. But the night news editor used to see my stuff, thought it was funny and different and started putting it in the paper which enraged the news editor.”

One day, she got a break. “I was sent to Oldham during a blizzard. There had been a rumour that there was dwarf there who had been at school briefly with Cary Grant. I door-stepped the dwarf who invited me in for a drink. I thought he meant a cup of tea. He said the wife was out. He had a huge iron kettle on the fire. His wife didn’t approve of his drinking so he used to hide his Scotch in the kettle. We were getting merrier and merrier. It turned out he had been at school with Cary Grant. Suddenly the wife, who looked like Les Dawson, turned up. She was furious. She saw this upper-class woman wearing a fur coat getting tipsy with her husband. So she threw me out.”

It turned out to be the making of her. She wrote the story up and was given a boxed byline – “a kind of coronation”. She started writing a teenage page which involved her ringing The Beatles – in their pre-superstar days – on a near-daily basis. John Lennon, in particular, was always witty and helpful.

Soon afterwards, then editor Bob Edwards offered her a column in London. The headline teased: “She’s young, she’s provocative and she’s only 22.” Having grown up in the subcontinent, Leslie felt she had missed out on most youth culture and didn’t feel particularly provocative. “I loathed doing it and the editor was amazed when I went in and told him I didn’t want to do it any more. Having a column was a huge thing in those days, and he thought I was mad. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘Features’.”

She covered showbiz at a time when London swung with a vengeance. “It wasn’t so ghastly doing showbiz in those days because it was before the whole growth of minders.” She remembers Steve McQueen taking her for a drive in his new “souped-up Mini Cooper”. “He regarded the streets of London like Le Mans. He drove on the pavements outside the Dorchester.” A youthful beauty much in demand, Leslie was wooed by several major stars, including David Niven. But when the film star came on too strong and she turned him down, he turned “nasty”. “He suddenly became ungentlemanly and spread frightful rumours about me.” She was also romantically linked to James Mason. “He’d had several marriages by then. He used to take me up to see his very old parents who lived in decayed splendour near Harrogate.”

She once covered a Tom Jones tour, travelling with him in a private plane. “In the front of the plane it was Tom’s people and the groupies. It was always champagne and cigars. The middle of the plane was taken up by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Although I didn’t see much of Gladys because she was ill and so was one of the Pips, so we ended up with three Pips and no Gladys. The middle of the plane was marijuana. At the back of the plane was Count Basie, which meant hard liquor.”

But soon afterwards she had tired of interviewing stars. David English, then foreign editor of the Daily Express, became her mentor and started sending her on foreign features stories. He offered her the job of running the paper’s New York bureau, but was overruled by the editor, Derek Marks, who said “women can’t run bureaux”. When she was sent to interview a top England cricketer’s wife for the third time (“I had nothing to say to her the first time”), Leslie decided to resign. She went freelance and worked mainly for Nova magazine. Later, David English became editor of the Daily Mail and invited her to join him. She turned down a staff job with a flash office and a car, saying she “never again wanted to be a taxi in the line”, dispatched to cover the story of the day. In the end, she accepted an exclusive contract. The arrangement plainly worked because it’s still in place nearly 40 years later.

Last year Leslie – who was recently named by The Independent on Sunday’s David Randall in his book The Great Reporters as one of “the greatest reporters in the English-speaking world” – worked undercover in Iran. In a coruscating article she describes how she “almost fainted from the heat induced by my mandated Islamic dress code of black hijab headscarf, black socks and a long shapeless black coat”, on her way to interview a young dissident who had been tortured by the ruling mullahs. Reporter and interviewee were both taking a big risk. A Canadian journalist had been tortured to death the previous year.

Her visit led her to the conclusion that with an estimated 70 per cent of the population under 30, Iran will “reach a breaking point” and the mullahs – “some of the nastiest and cruellest people I’ve ever come across in my life; they hanged a 16-year-old girl in public for supposedly committing adultery” – will eventually be overthrown. For that reason she opposes military intervention against Iran, despite the regime’s recent rhetoric and what many see as its race to acquire nuclear weapons.

She did, however, back the Iraq war, thereby contradicting her newspaper’s editorial line. “I don’t vote any particular line. I was against the Kosovo war because I believe it delayed the departure of Milosevic. I was in favour of the Iraq war from my experiences seeing the Shias being pulverised and I came to the conclusion – and I didn’t know about WMD, who did? – that we would have to dislodge Saddam Hussein sometime because he certainly had the intention to get WMD. He was an off-the-wall psychopath.”

The catastrophic aftermath of the Iraq war has, in part, led to Leslie’s growing disenchantment with George Bush, a politician she had long admired. She used “subterfuge” to get a one-on-one interview with the US President when he was running for the White House in 2000. “We got on like a house on fire,” says Leslie. “He’s a very, very sharp man. He has a speech problem, which his father had too. But he has great instinct. I’ve been a great cheerleader for him, but recently he appears to have lost the extraordinary instinctive ability to connect with his own people. Having said that, I loathe the anti-Americanism that newspapers like The Independent go in for. I despise the moral equivalence that Bush and Blair are ‘war criminals’. How many mass graves are we digging up outside Esher, of people who have opposed Thatcher or Blair?”

Although the Daily Mail “didn’t like” Leslie being pro-Bush or in favour of the war, they were prepared to let her have her say. But she says she wouldn’t have wanted to push her luck. She laughs: “I couldn’t, for example, say I was in love with Tony Blair.” Her laughter turns into a complex cough. “But that’s all right because I wasn’t anyway.”

This article was first published in The Independent on 21st November 2005