From Whitby’s beach to the sands of Syria

Chief Correspondent for Channel 4 news, Alex Thomson  w140812b
Chief Correspondent for Channel 4 news, Alex Thomson w140812b

His team had been ambushed by rebels who wanted to use his death as propaganda for their civil war.

Yet little did Alex Thomson know, his life was about to be saved by a cup of tea.

Alex Thomson in Syria

Alex Thomson in Syria

After a childhood spent exploring the Whitby coastline, Alex has developed a sense of adventure which takes him around the globe in his role as chief correspondent for Channel 4 news.

But he was in the Syrian city of Daraa at the height of the uprisings and things had gone wrong.

Alex found himself held at gunpoint by a group of Syrian rebels who just moments earlier had ambushed the car he was travelling in with a group of journalists.

“The mood in that town was very bad,” he said. “There were a lot of people under siege, a lot of frightened people who were borderline deranged.”

Alex Thomson with cameraman Stuart Webb

Alex Thomson with cameraman Stuart Webb

Rebels had attempted to engineer his assassination at the hands of the Syrian army by leading the car into ‘No Man’s Land’.

When this failed the rebels panicked and took the journalists to a secure house. In the chaos that followed, one wrong move could have had tragic consequences.

At that moment a recently-defected Syrian Army general walked into the room, hoping for a cup of tea.

He realised the danger to the rebels’ cause if they were found responsible for the journalists’ deaths and made sure they were returned to safety.

Picture by Philip Hollis for Channel 4 News   26-7-10''Alex Thompson

Picture by Philip Hollis for Channel 4 News 26-7-10''Alex Thompson

“If he hadn’t come? Who knows,” said Alex.

Although he was born in Basingstoke, Alex spent much of his time in Whitby as his grandparents lived in the town and kept a chalet beside the beach - the same one which the family still rents today.

His parents, Archie and Marjorie Thomson, were teachers and Alex spent the long summer breaks adventuring around the coastline.

“I feel in so many ways that I grew up on the beach in Whitby,” he said. “Our parents never knew where we were and it was great. You could go off for a walk, but actually you were sneaking off to look through the old railway tunnels at Sandsend. For young boys, Whitby is in many ways an unofficial adventure playground where you learn your own limitations.”

Alex’s entire immediate family were teachers, but the self-confessed “black sheep of the family” longed for more and was inspired to pursue a career in journalism after a chance meeting with the comedian Eric Morecambe while working at University College, Oxford’s student newspaper.

He said: “I realised people go out and do that for a living and I thought, well that beats working.”

After completing a post-graduate course at Cardiff University, Alex got his big break when a female friend helped him secure a place on the BBC’s trainee scheme. That woman, named Sarah Spiller, later became his wife.

It was the mid-80s and all the action for an aspiring journalist was in Northern Ireland, and that’s where Alex was sent.

He said: “They gave you a tape recorder and said ‘Can you go and interview Martin McGuinness? He’s round the corner talking about last night’s bombing.’

“There I was, early 20s, making half hour current affairs documentaries in what was effectively a low level civil war.”

Alex would stay with the BBC until 1988, when he got in hot water over a documentary about Gibraltar. ITN News got in contact to offer him a role, and he found himself posted back to Northern Ireland.

The Troubles eventually ended, but in the years that followed he has found himself at the heart of some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and dangerous war zones.

Last year 70 journalists were killed around the globe and statistically a journalist is more likely to be killed in war zones such as Afghanistan than a soldier.

Alex said he has lost many friends around his age group and there is always the danger that disaster could strike at any moment.

So does he ever get afraid?

He replied: “How do you distinguish between lying on the ground in Sierra Leone with a child soldier who is out of his mind on drugs pressing an AK47 into your back saying he is going to kill you, to being in an underground building in Yugoslavia or Syria and you are coming under shell fire from someone who is probably the distance from Guisborough to Whitby away. One is an indiscriminate terror and the other is a very up close and personal fear that here is someone who would kill you, as he has killed many people, without a second thought.”

In order to enter a war zone, the team must work hard to negotiate with authorities and secure local contacts such as a translator or a driver. This means that fear does not come into the equation until you are leaving the security compound and you suddenly realise there are rebels in the area who have been literally hacking people to pieces.

But these are the important stories that need to be told, and Alex said the atrocities of the Central African Republic could so easily be taking place closer to home.

“You would be surprised how easy it is to chop another human being up,” he said. “If we all walk around thinking I could never do that, then you are making an appalling mistake.

“In a situation of civil war, if you get the sense that everything you held dear, everything you care about - your livelihood, language, religion - everything that makes you who you are, is absolutely being threatened by the other lot, and the other lot are doing appalling things to your lot, it’s terrifying how quickly we are capable of descending.

“Don’t think for a second the people in central Africa are different from any other people.

“Be in no doubt that we can very quickly descend. It’s what fear does, it carries people into the most monstrous of places.”

As the longest serving member of the Channel 4 news team, Alex has covered more than 20 major wars, won several BAFTA and Emmy awards, and in 2012 was named the TV Journalist of the Year by the Royal Television Society.

He is also the father of 13-year-old twin boys, one of whom is autistic, and although this has not stopped him from heading into some of the world’s most dangerous places, Alex said suddenly his priorities changed.

“You have a clear realisation when you have children,” he explained. “You have greater responsibilities and you have to keep that in mind.

“But this is what I do. When the guys go out on the lifeboat in Whitby, whether he has kids or not, he goes out there because that is what he does.

“You can’t do this job from a hotel. You have got to go down there with a camera and if there are people walking around murdering people, you have got to film them.”

ITN reporters are given strict instructions that no story is worth getting even a minor injury for. But sometimes, Alex said, the story needs to be told.

He said: “I take a risk or two for something that’s generally new or different. Look at the Central African Republic, I do that because it could be another genocide and that in my opinion is worth taking a risk for.

“Or if you stand in a pile of rubble in the eastern Philippines, then someone tells you the appeal has reached £40m in four days because the British people are still amazingly generous, then you have got to think it is worthwhile.”

With so much of his life spent uncovering some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, Alex said it is vital for there to be a home to come back to, where people still moan when the price of a beach chalet goes up by a few pence.

“It’s all about balance and space,” he said. “You go off and do your job and it’s there on television if anyone wants to go see it, and then you’re back home to the school run or fixing the TV.

“If I didn’t have that grounding in my life, I think there is a real danger I would wake up one day and suddenly realise ‘I am 53, I am in another hotel room, and I don’t know who I am’.

“That’s why I think somewhere like Whitby is important. It’s about the passage of time, it’s about family. Whitby is steeped in history and in a comparative sense it all works quite well. It’s quite reassuring coming back to a place where they are still working out the park and ride and it’s all Scarborough’s fault.”

Reporting carries extra responsibilities

When on assignment in a war zone around the world, Alex is not just responsible for his own safety, but also the safety of the rest of his team.

This will include a cameraman and usually a locally-recruited translator or driver.

He said: “We go into these places and then leave the translator and driver behind. Everybody knows they have been working with us and making a lot of money. Have we made them a target simply because people know they have been working for us?”

Fact file

Alex Thomson is chief correspondent at Channel 4 News.

Alex is the longest-serving on-screen journalist on C4 News since the channel began.

In more than 25 years he’s covered over 20 wars, led major investigations and continues to front the programme from around the world.

Maternal grandfather Matthew Nicholson first brought the family to Whitby

Father Archie Thomson helped out at the Captain Cook Museum for many years

Mother Marjorie Thomson still volunteers at the Save the Children store on Flowergate but also lectures about local history and is a member of the Whitby Whalers walking group

The family have leased the same beach chalet since 1965 and used to own Bell Island Cottage in Church Street

You can follow Alex on Twitter using @alextomo