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Tuesday, January 12, 1999 Published at 18:47 GMT


Bridget Kendall



Bridget Kendall is one of the BBC's best known correspondents, having covered the break up of the Soviet Union and more recently - as Washington correspondent - the trials of President Bill Clinton.

She joined presenter Robin Lustig in the Newstalk studio on January 17, 1999 to answer your questions live.

If you want to read more about her career click here


Bridget Kendall takes your questions

Sandy Walsh: E-mail from Roger Long asking how petrified you were during the shelling of the Russian Parliament when you reported from the Hotel Ukraine?

Bridget Kendall: This is going back to 1993 which is when President Yeltsin - I must say to my surprise and I think quite a lot of people's surprise - suddenly decided to oust his enemies from the Russian Parliament by turning tanks and guns on them and it was frightening.

I remember I wasn't quite prepared for it, I was on the way coming back from the airport and I heard on the radio that there was trouble in the centre of town and went down to the Hotel Ukraine, which is on the other side of the river from the Parliament, and what astonished me was that there was pandemonium, there were crowds everywhere, there were snipers shooting - this was just before the shelling began. And what I couldn't understand was that people were standing around almost like tourists watching what was going on. I remember there was one man walking his dog.

So you had this odd disconnection which I think is probably quite common on these occasions when it was very frightening and I suppose I was in danger but more than anything I was aware that here was this crowd in enormous danger and yet it didn't seem to have sunk in. Of course this was a capital city, you could argue that Moscow is part of Europe, not what you'd expect. And I think people didn't realise what was happening.

Robin Lustig: But when you get frightened Bridget do you feel that it helps you in your work or hinders you?

Bridget Kendall: Actually what I get, I suppose, is a huge rush of adrenaline and it's very exciting and I think it really helps being a journalist because you think: 'I've got to get this story, is my tape recorder working?'

I remember one occasion in Tajikistan when I got caught in a gun battle, probably the most dangerous place I was. I'd gone down to the front line in my naiveté to have a look and see what was going on and brought out my tape recorder and microphone to interview a man who looked as though he was in charge and suddenly a tank rumbled out and he said: "Oh my God the last thing we need - foreign journalists." And the tank began to fire and I did what anybody does in that situation you think - well I'd better save myself. So I rolled into a ditch but my next thought was: 'Must record this.' Turned on my tape recorder, I thought: 'I need to comment on this because I'll want it afterwards, I'll kick myself if I don't have it.'

And in that situation you kind of forget about being afraid, you're worried about doing your work. And I suppose the worrying thing about that is, of course, you might put yourself in even greater danger especially cameramen very often do.

Robin Lustig: Have there been times though when you've walked away from a story because you felt it was just simply too dangerous?

Bridget Kendall: Well at a certain point you think yes, I shouldn't go any further. But I think the other thing you also think is: 'My organisation isn't going to thank me for being dead and I need to get the story back and is this practical to go any further and it would be silly, it would be foolish on all accounts.' So yes, I mean people make that judgement all the time.

Sandy Walsh: An E-mail from Mikhail in New Jersey in the United States of America wants to know what your vision of Russia will be in one year's time and he says please the honest answer?

Bridget Kendall: Maybe I should preface my answer by saying I've been involved in Russia for a very long time. I started learning Russian when I was 14 and I spent a year there as a student in the mid-1970s so I remember it when it was at the height of the Soviet Union and a communist state with all the problems and difficulties that entailed from wondering if people were eavesdropping or reporting back on your conversations to the terrible queues.

And so when I was there as a correspondent and saw the collapse of the communist government and the break up of the Soviet Union I felt, in some ways, although it was very distressing for the people there, in some ways it was a cause for, not exactly celebration, but it wasn't a bad news story.

And of course what's happened in Russia since many people are very distressed and most of all those people living there - the stress and the pain and the difficulties they've had to go through and one can see that that's going to continue for some time to come. Everyone is wondering what will happen after President Yeltsin is no longer president and it is a period of enormous anxiety and uncertainty - not the first one that Russian people have had to deal with.

And still underneath it all my gut feeling is - I have enormous sympathy and respect and admiration for Russian people and they have been through 70 years of a terrible government, not just that it was communist but that it was very unfair, a lot of things didn't work, the economy was totally made destitute by it and it's going to take a very long time to get it to rights but I think there is an enormous ability to endure, an enormous patience among Russian people. And one thing that they learnt through that 70 years was to be very sceptical and very critical and therefore they have enormous reserves, I think, to make their country a better place.

It may take a generation, it may take two generations but I do not despair about Russia although I'm very well aware for people living there now they say: "That's all very well for you to say sitting in a comfortable studio in London - what about us now?" And I appreciate life is difficult.

Robin Lustig: We've got a caller from Copenhagen who also has a question which is relevant to the future - Stephen Constantine you question?

Stephen Constantine: I have fiancée who lives in the city of Yaroslavl which is 200 kilometres north of Moscow. My point is I think that Russians always need a strong leader and Yeltsin isn't one but maybe Mr Lebed is?

Bridget Kendall: Yes I take your point. He's turned out, as Mayor of Moscow, not a man with a democratic past, he was part of the city's administration when it was run by the communists. But I think many people feel that he's done a good job at keeping a firm grip on affairs. And certainly I was in Moscow last in September and certainly the centre of town looked considerably better than it did last time I was there. Yaroslavl is beautiful. I don't know who's running Yaroslavl now and how things are there for your fiancée I imagine, in many ways, very difficult.

Stephen Constantine: Well I can tell you that she's a bookkeeper and she's earning £50 a month.

Sandy Walsh: An E-mail from Christopher Morrison in New York saying you had and I hope still have a cat - Gogol - which joined your team in Russia and was with you while you were in the US, were you able to take it back home with you? Did he have to be locked in immigration gulag for six months? Have you had any difficulties such as this in your travels? What would you advise people in similar circumstances?

Bridget Kendall: Christopher thank you very much for remembering Gogol. He's a very important individual to me and he certainly is still a companion. He's actually still in the United States - I only moved back here a month ago. I certainly agonised, to some extent, as you well know the quarantine laws in Britain, in order to keep rabies out of the country, mean that any domestic pet coming back here has to spend six months in quarantine and I was very much hoping the law might change before I came back here. And that it became clear if it is going to change it's not going to change so very quickly and it's not going to change with regard to the United States where this is rabies even though, I might say, Gogol has been vaccinated and has spent all his time in the United States either in my flat or the occasional stroll on the roof of my apartment block - so I don't think he's possibly got rabies but nonetheless he is going to have to go into quarantine.

I've already booked his flight back to Britain. He's arriving at the end of January. And after a lot of research I've come up with what I hope is the very best quarantine cattery where they call the cats guests, they promise three square meals a day and a lot of attention and a pond at the end of his enclosure where he can sit and watch the birds and chickens - a sort of cat TV. So I hope he won't be too unhappy but I think I'll be getting to know that part of Sussex quite well.

Robin Lustig: Does he listen to you on the radio Bridget? Does he recognise your voice? Can you keep in touch with him over the airwaves?

Bridget Kendall: Well I don't know about that. He sometimes does perk up on the answerphone. I will admit to sometimes, on a long trip away, I would call in and say hello to him in the hope that he could hear. As you can see I'm very fond of him.

Sandy Walsh: And does he respond to different languages? Does he speak Russian?

Bridget Kendall: He was a Russian cat who first walked into my apartment block there. But after five years in the United States he seemed to respond very well. He's a charming cat and I hope he'll be with me for a long time and it is a shame the quarantine laws are so long. I don't know what I'd advise to anyone.

Robin Lustig: Bridget on the question of moving from Moscow to Washington. There you were in Moscow at a time when the Soviet Union fell to bits. It was a difficult time, I mean, it's always been difficult as I understand it to report from Moscow anyway particularly difficult at a time of such drama. You then moved to Washington a place which thrives on journalism, on openness, on everybody talking to everybody else - the culture shock must have been immense wasn't it?

Bridget Kendall: Yes it was. I knew what I was going to. I'd spent two years in the United States in the late 1970s as a student. And in a way I felt it was a good move because in Moscow the story had been so extraordinary that I had felt that I'd lost touch a bit with the Western world. I didn't know much of what was going on in Europe, I didn't know what was going on in the US - so I sought out a posting which would put me back in touch.

But I also, in a sense, I felt that I needed therapy. I felt that after nearly five years in Moscow I'd been under such stress because, of course, you're not just reporting the story under difficult circumstances to deadlines in London which - through the snow and the bad communications and the bureaucracy - it's just hellish. But also there were all my Russian friends going through an agonising time and you feel enormous guilt and I'm sure foreigners living in the former Soviet Union still feel that guilt. I felt that I was getting very grumpy and tense and I could no longer laugh at a joke and I was taking the world so seriously, I needed to go somewhere where I could relax a bit and the United States in that way was very good.

I remember when I first arrived and I'd be sent off on a story to Wisconsin or Washington State and I'd arrive at the airport and I'd think: 'This is marvellous - I'll be able to get a cup of coffee, no one will shout at me, I won't have to go into filthy toilets and I'll probably get to my destination without the plane crashing.'

Sandy Walsh: An e-mail from Vincent Sedvantes from the United States says there's been great talk about the Millennium Bug problem in the United States, however, I've heard little discussion of it in Russia - what concerns should we have over this?

Bridget Kendall: Nobody really seems to know whether we're getting over concerned about the Millennium Bug or under concerned. Certainly in the United States there's a lot of discussion on it. And I know from hearing that I've followed in the US Congress that what they're particularly worried about is not just what goes on in the United States but areas now of commerce and technology and communications which link up with other countries. I mean it's all very well if air traffic control in the United States have sorted itself out but what if it hasn't in Brazil or indeed, as you point out Vincent, in the whole of the former Soviet Union. And this can affect telecommunications, it's very important for all types of security. So I'm sure we should need to worry.

Although I should say that if you think about the penetration of computers in the former Soviet Union - in Russia - in comparison to the United States it must be much less. I remember when I first went there as a correspondent in 1989 in airports and hotels everyone was laboriously still writing everything in longhand. And that's not so long ago. Completely different from the United States.

James Watson calling from Glasgow in Scotland: Do you think that the mainstream media in America has displayed any self censorship when reporting on the Bill Clinton affair?

Bridget Kendall: Well that's an interesting question. You're talking about the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal I assume.

James Watson: Well yes. Paula Jones.

Bridget Kendall: The whole thing. Well to begin with people were very reluctant, indeed the Washington Post didn't want to run the story which had been very extensively researched by one of its reporter. And I think there was enormous reluctance to embroil the Presidency in this. It was partly the circumstances of the Paula Jones story - there was this woman accusing the President of sexual harassment. But when she first appeared she was at a press conference which was directly connected to conservative groups who were known to be politically hostile to the President - that made everyone very wary.

But I think they were also aware that if this story were to blow up into an enormous story that they could not just involve the Presidency in something which was seamy and distasteful, which is of course what happened, but they would involve themselves. And of course when the whole Monica Lewinsky story broke, last January just a year ago, we to begin with were absolutely stunned all of us but because the Justice Department was involved and the Special Prosecutor - Kenneth Starr - at that point the story couldn't be ignored.

But I think over this last year I've certainly felt, talking to my American colleagues at the White House, they felt enormous resentment in many ways that their careers as White House correspondents have meant that they've had to deal with this story which demeans, in a way, their profession as well as it demeans other people who are involved more directly in it, they'd much rather have dealt with something which was more worthwhile.

Robin Lustig: Another question on the same subject Bridget. Bethesda in Maryland Stephen Want's calling from there. Stephen just recovering from the ice storm I take it?

Stephen Want: Yes indeed it's quite warm now. All the ice has gone. What do you think would be a suitable punishment for President Clinton and whether your gender has in fact affected the way she perceives him as a politician and a wielder of power?

Bridget Kendall: Those are good questions. On the question of punishment for a long time I thought: 'Well it all depends on whether he's guilty or not' and by August it became pretty clear - the whole business of the stain on the dress and then his own admissions that he had really been lying about the whole thing. And for me what mattered most was that he lied directly on television broadcast to the country and to his cabinet. And at that point, personally, I thought if this man had any self respect he'd resign - why is he dragging the country through this. He didn't and he doesn't look as though he intends to at all.

What happened subsequently with the release of Kenneth Starr's report, which was really breathtaking in its sexual detail and things that seemed unnecessary - where Mrs Clinton was at the time that alleged trysts were going on and so forth. The fact that then Congress released this to the public and on the Internet and then released the video tape of President Clinton's Grand Jury testimony my own feeling was well maybe this is punishment enough - for the President, for the country - does it need to go any further? So I must say, personally, I'm surprised that it's still continuing to this point in the Senate. I don't think that's anything to do with me being a woman.


Career details

Bridget Kendall covered most of the superpower nuclear disarmament summits that led to the end of the Cold War for the BBC, including the breakthrough Reykjavik summit between President Reagan and President Gorbachev in 1986.


News breaks of Moscow coup - August 19 1991
During her posting in Moscow from 1989 she reported daily on the power struggle inside the Soviet Communist Party that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to introduce economic and democratic reforms. She travelled throughout the former Soviet Union to report at first hand on the break-up of the Soviet empire, including the political rebellion of the Baltic states, and the descent into anarchy in Tajikistan, Western Georgia, and Chechnya.


Bridget Kenall reports on "tense but almost festive atmosphere", Moscow, 19/8/91
In August 1991 she sent hour-by-hour eye-witness reports back to London from Moscow on the attempted coup by former Communists. Thereafter she followed the emergence of Yeltsin's Russia, including his decision to shell his own parliament in the autumn of 1993.


Bridget Kendall: Four months after America's worst ever case of domestic terrorism, the initial trial is over, July 28th 1996
In Washington, her reporting covered both domestic and international politics and spanned President Clinton's first and second terms. She covered the Oklahoma city bombing - America's worst ever case of domestic terrorism -; she has reported extensively on the rise of the religious right in American politics, on the debate over abortion rights and the issue of welfare reform in America. And in the last year she has reported extensively on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.


Bridget Kendall reports on the Oklahoma bombing, August 10th 1995
She has also made several television documentaries: a television profile of Hillary Clinton, based on an exclusive interview with the First Lady; an in-depth portrait of a remote community in the north western state of Montana; an hour long documentary about Vladimir Zhirinovksy and the rise of Russian nationalism; a television profile of Mikhail Gorbachev; and a two part documentary called "Tsar Boris", tracing Boris Yeltsin's first three years as Russian President.


Paula Jones makes her allegations - 5 May 1994
Bridget's work for the BBC has won critical acclaim. Two of her radio programmes have been shortlisted for 'Sony' awards, including 'Revolution Without Shots' -a three part radio series on Gorbachev's reforms, presented jointly with Gordon Clough for Radio Four. In 1992 she won the bronze 'Sony' award in the category of Reporter of the year, and in the same year she became the first woman to receive the James Cameron Award for journalism for her coverage of the Moscow coup and her ongoing contribution to reporting events in the former Soviet Union. She won the 1993 award for Excellence in Broadcasting (radio), awarded annually by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer. In the New Year's Honours list of 1994, Bridget Kendall received an MBE.

Bridget was born in Oxford on April 27, 1956. She attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford to study Modern Languages, followed by St. Antony's College, Oxford and Harvard University, USA where she was a postgraduate studying Soviet Studies. She spent two years in the Soviet Union as a student at Voronezh (1977) and Moscow (1982) universities.

She is the co-author of 'David The Invincible', a book on classical Armenian philosophy, published in 1980.

Bridget Kendall is currently BBC Diplomatic Correspondent based in London.



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