Ken Brazier: fearless foreign correspondent

Veteran British journalist Ken Brazier died in August 2022 after 80 years working in journalism. His family has donated to the IFJ Safety Fund in his memory. A member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the work of the IFJ "was close to his heart " his family told us. As former Editor of BBC World Service News, Ken knew first-hand about the dangers of being a journalist and the importance of the press and media. This obituary was written by his daughter Mary. 

Credit: Bushlog Photo Archive, Preddon Lee Ltd

When my father Ken Brazier died last year, the family donated to the IFJ Safety Fund in his memory. As a journalist for 80 of his 95 years, who started his career in journalism aged 16 on a newspaper in south London in wartime England and went on to become Editor of BBC World Service News, this was a cause close to his heart. As a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Vietnam, he knew first-hand about the dangers of being a journalist and the importance of the press and media. 

Nearly 60 years ago, my father was hit by flying shrapnel when a bomb exploded at Aden Airport in what is now Yemen. He had been posted with the family (my mother Judy, my brother Patrick aged three and me, aged five) by BBC World Service to cover the growing insurgency against British rule in Aden, Britain’s last colony in Arabia. This was a massive news story that mixed local and regional rebellions against the British with the wider geopolitics of the Cold War.   

That bomb, on 10 December 1963, was an attempt to assassinate the British High Commissioner. It failed but two people were killed and dozens injured. It marked the start of the four-year Emergency that lasted until the British withdrew in 1967.

True professional that he was, Dad calmly filed his cable back to London before seeking medical attention. His fellow newsman and lifelong friend, Reuters correspondent Ibrahim Noori, who also died recently, was more seriously injured. He dictated his despatch from his hospital bed. 

Then, as now, journalists faced huge dangers in the line of duty. Then, as now, foreign correspondents sought out the news relentlessly, reporting coups and conflicts, crises and calamities, determined to find the truth and to report it without fear or favour, factually, accurately and objectively. My father and Ibrahim always believed that the journalist can only be an impartial reporter, never the story.

News gathering was very different in those days. So different then from today's 24-hour rolling news agenda, social media, citizen journalism and the vast range of information on the Internet. All of which are very important. But I'm not sure they beat the romance of bashing out copy on a "steam typewriter", as Dad used to call his old-fashioned manual machine, and sending the news by telex to London. Patrick and I used to love the race to the cable office in the car when Dad took us with him for the ride. And in those days a journalist could get a real scoop. 

One of Dad's greatest scoops was still fresh in his mind just weeks before he died. He had found out about an RAF plane transporting a gruesome cargo to Aden and was able to confirm that two SAS paratroopers had been killed by rebel tribesmen on 30 April 1964 during an intelligence operation in the Radfan Mountains up-country from Aden and their bodies decapitated. The paras had been pinned down under intense fire from rebels and shot dead. The heads were paraded on sticks across the border. Rumours about the bodies, the heads and their whereabouts swirled and were denied, provoking a political storm in London. Dad’s cable to London beat the news agencies by an hour and forced the Ministry of Defence to put out a statement confirming the story. 

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Federal soldiers in the Radfan Mountains, north of Aden. Photo from K Brazier’s collection, 1960s

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Two Yemeni princes give an open-air news conference. Photo from K Brazier’s collection, mid-1960s

Another journalistic coup was a TV interview with the terrorist leader of one of the rebel groups, on the roof of the group's HQ, after being taken there by gunmen on a hair-raising two-day drive through the mountains.

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BBC staff magazine Ariel, June 1967, Bushlog Photo Archive, Preddon Lee Ltd

Aden was a very dangerous and difficult assignment. The violence escalated. There were running street battles between rebels, Government forces and British troops -- and between the rebels themselves for that matter. A mutiny against British-trained Aden armed police in 1967 led to a massacre of British troops. 

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Mary and Patrick, Ma’alla Strait, Aden, where our block of flats was

Photo from K Brazier’s collection, mid-1960s

That year, my father, and my mother, who was the Aden stringer for Associated Press and the London Daily Telegraph, reported on another terrorist bomb, even closer to home. It exploded in the block of flats we lived in. Three people were killed, including the wives of two British political staff. 

As the violence reached a crescendo, questions were asked in the House of Commons about the safety of journalists and families. In the summer of 1967 women and children, including Mum, Patrick and me, were evacuated back to Britain. Dad stayed until the autumn when his tour of duty ended.

After Aden, Dad reported on the Vietnam War for three months, followed by assignments in Beirut, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran. 

Back in London, Dad did a six-month secondment with BBC TV News before returning to BBC World Service News (known then as External Services News) where he rose to be Deputy Editor and then Editor from 1977 to 1984.

Those were the hot days of the Cold War. The BBC was broadcasting round the clock to 70 million listeners in 39 languages. As the voice of the free world, it had a crucial role in Britain's projection of soft power as it sought to establish its place in the post-colonial era. Today, as the global order shifts on its axis again, the role of foreign correspondents the world over is as vital as ever. And the dangers are as great as ever. Dad would have been utterly appalled by the recent beating of a BBC journalist in China while he was doing his job. 

My father was an editor of the utmost professional integrity, defending to the hilt the values of editorial independence, freedom of information and objective, accurate reporting. A tribute from colleagues after his death said he "steered one of the most significant and influential -- and best -- sources of global news through the horrors of the Cold War and the beginnings of our emergence from it, while deftly managing and getting the very best out of the journalists." 

Kenneth Cuthbert Brazier was born on 4 December 1926 and died on 2 August 2022. He is survived by his children, Mary and Patrick, and his three granddaughters Jenny, Claire and Lizzie.

Mary Brazier lives in Brussels and works as a freelance writer after retiring from a career in press and media relations in the European Parliament, Commission and Council of the EU. She is a member of the NUJ.

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