40 Years of Living Dangerously: 1st impressions of Qaddafi

There’s a really neat account of Western media’s first encounters with Moammar Qaddafi back in 1969, after the colonel deposed the king of Libya, in The Wall Street Journal today.

It reads a lot like “The Year of Living Dangerously” (an awesome movie, by the way, which you must see if you haven’t, and must watch again if you have), with similar scenes of Western journalists going into a wild, woolly, unsteady Third World dictatorship and trying to get access to the megalomaniac at the top. Fascinating stuff, a great adventure yarn. Educational, too.

But being who I am, I was personally struck by the account of the lengths that the then-WSJ reporter went to to get the story. A real blast from the past for me. Sure, the WSJ always had, and still has, more resources at its disposal, by far, than any news organization I ever worked with. But… back when I was a reporter working for the dinky little Jackson Sun in Tennessee (about the size of the Florence paper, I guess), we would do relatively extravagant things (compared to what bigger, metropolitan dailies do today) if that’s what it took to get the story. Only we were hopping about Tennessee and the nation, rather than the world.

Here’s what I mean:

When news came that King Idris of Libya had been overthrown by a young colonel, my editors dispatched me from London to Tripoli. Libya was a big oil producer and home to Wheelus Air Force Base, an important U.S. military presence in North Africa. So the U.S. had significant interests in this lightly populated kingdom of desert tribes.

But I couldn’t get to Tripoli. An agent at British Overseas Airway Corp. told me that the new regime had shut down all travel. So I flew to next-door Tunis, hoping to find a land route. Other American and British reporters had the same idea. But in Tunis we learned from refugees that the border had been closed. An enterprising AP reporter, Mike Goldsmith, hired a small plane. But when he arrived at Tripoli airport he was surrounded by Gadhafi’s men and forced to return to Tunis.

I flew to Malta, hoping to persuade a pilot serving the Libyan oil fields to give me a ride. But nobody wanted to risk losing his franchise. So I gave up and returned to London. My first lesson had been learned. A would-be dictator could control the news simply by barring foreign reporters.

Finally we got a summons saying that Libya was receiving visitors again. In Tripoli, all was confusion…

Sure, the WSJ is probably being just as enterprising today getting people into Libya, Tunis, Egpyt, Bahrain, Yemen, etc., today. But today, those are the lead stories in the paper. When they go to those places today, they’re doing what it takes to “ride the hot horse.” Back then, Libya was a bit of a Cold War sideshow, so this impresses me. And back then a reporter was much more on his own out in the field, relying on his own ingenuity and making his own arrangements and decisions, which adds to the drama.

Anyway, you should read the whole thing.

And just for fun, here’s a clip from “The Year of Living Dangerously.”