Frank Gardner

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Frank Gardner

Frank Rolleston Gardner (born 31 July 1961) is a former banker and Territorial Army officer who works as a BBC journalist, currently as its Security Correspondent. He has held this post since 2002, having started out as a producer and reporter for BBC World TV.


Gardner was educated at Marlborough College, a boys' private school in Wiltshire, and at the University of Exeter. Here he met many of the people who would subsequently play an important role in his life: these included Rupert Wise [1] and at aged 16, the former Special Operations Executive member Wilfred Thesiger; and at Exeter University during his third year placement in Cairo, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (and alleged MI6 officer) Sherard Cowper-Coles.[2]

Gardner writes of an attempted recruitment to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) before his graduation:

I did go to one interview before I graduated, though, which was for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). In the small community of Western expatriates living in Cairo I had come across a British diplomat who turned out to be an SIS officer there. I had no idea of this when I took him on a tour of my favourite backstreets, nor that he was assessing me for possible recruitment, but some time later he asked if I would be interested in being put in touch with ‘the right people’ in London. Why not? I thought this could be fun. But once I had signed a copy of the Official Secrets Act, the initial interview turned into something of a disappointment and it successfully put me off a career in the espionage business. ‘I should warn you now,’ said the man in the grey suit behind the desk, ‘that if you choose this career you will never be able to tell your friends about it, you will have to lie continually about what you do and,’ here he leaned closer towards me as if letting me into a great secret, ‘you will be unlikely ever to get any public recognition for your achievements.’ Well, that rules me out, I thought, I’m much too vain for this outfit. If I achieved something I wanted to see it recognized, so a career of tight-lipped modesty in the world of spooks simply did not appeal, either then or since.[3]

Given that Cowper-Coles was a diplomat in Cairo at the time, is alleged to be an MI6 operative and was a diplomat whom Gardner had come across, it is possible that the contact was Cowper-Coles himself. Gardner denies ever being approached by the Secret Intelligence Service since then, and, although he is aware that, as he is a high-profile 'security correspondent', some type of relationship is suggested, he insists there is no relationship whatsoever:

Has he ever subsequently been approached? Some BBC colleagues have certainly raised eyebrows at Gardner's close relations with his security sources...No, never," he says firmly. "I have never informed for the intelligence services. I'm a journalist, I work for the BBC, nobody else. I find it mildly amusing that people think I have enough spare time to do a second job for the spooks," he says. "Because I pioneered the idea of doing a stand-up piece to camera outside Vauxhall Cross or Thames House, people are bound to associate you with them. But I've never been inside either building."[4]

Into Banking

Gardner writes that after turning down MI6 and then a few years traveling and various short term jobs, his entry into banking came through his network of friends and a banker who was a former senior diplomat in the Middle East:

A friend of a friend passed my CV to Sir James Craig, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now head of the Middle East Association. His Arabic was so flawless that he could hardly have been impressed by mine, but the following week I was summoned for an interview in the City at Saudi International Bank (SIB), a joint venture between the Saudi government and a handful of Western banks. I tried to make it clear that I had no grounding in finance or economics, but the interviewer droned on about interest rates, leverage and product placement. I had no idea what he was talking about and was about to write off the interview as an afternoon wasted when they offered me a job on double my present salary.[5]

A couple of years later in 1989 Gardner made his next banking move. This was, coincidentally or not, around the same time that Gardner joined the Territorial Army. He served between 1989 and 1991 in the 4th Battalion the Royal Green Jackets 'in London', according to the BBC.[6] Here is how Gardner described the move:

Back in London, two summers later, I was introduced at a drinks party to Rupert Wise, who was also an Arabist and a banker. ‘You’ll have so much in common,’ said our mutual friend, leaving us to circle each other like wary sharks. It reminded me of when I was about five years old and was being nudged by my parents to ‘Go and make friends with those children over there’. Rupert was short, fit and tanned, with a boxer’s build and a steely glint in his eyes (he turned out to have been a boxing blue at Cambridge). He now launched into a stream of flawless Gulf Arabic; I replied in backstreet Egyptian. At the time I thought it was a pointless pissing contest to see who could speak the best Arabic, but in fact he was checking me out as his possible successor to run the Bahrain office of Flemings, a small but successful Scottish investment bank named after its founder, Robert Fleming.

A few weeks later I was summoned for an interview at the bank’s elegant head office in the City, which was decorated with the world’s finest collection of Scottish paintings. I was quite happy where I was at Saudi International Bank, and Flemings were not even offering much of a pay rise, but Rupert took me aside and told me this was an opportunity of a lifetime and I would be a fool not to take it. He proved to be right.[7]

British special forces commander Peter de la Billière joined Flemings as a non-executive director in 1992. Not long after, Gardner "was moved back to London from the Bahrain office by Flemings, even though he had done well there. And by May 1995, reportedly because of his performance, he left Flemings, and banking, for journalism."[8]

Gardner writes that de la Billière counseled him about his career direction:

General Sir Peter de la Billière showed a paternal concern for what was to become of me. The man who had commanded 45,000 British troops in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991 seemed genuinely worried that my departure from Flemings was going to lead to a tailspin of unemployment and self-doubt. He took me to lunch at his club, the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge, where portraits hung of various SAS characters included one of Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had joined David Stirling’s band of marauders in the Second World War to go raiding airfields deep in the Western Desert, and his weathered features now stared down at me as if willing me to take a chance. I told Sir Peter that my mind was made up – I was determined to get into the news business.[9]

Gardner reportedly took a course in journalism in 1995 after finding banking a little dull:

His life as a banker was comfortable yet unfulfilled. "Sure, at 29 I had everything - a speedboat, a servant, a taxfree salary, a soft-top convertible," he says. "But I wasn't that excited punting somebody else's money around." In 1995 he took a diploma at the London School of Journalism[10], found an unpaid attachment with BBC World, and was soon setting up a bureau in Dubai.[11]

Gardner as a journalist

A Speaker profile from Leeds Metropolitan University suggests that he had grown bored working for the bank in London and notes that:

...on graduating [he] became an investment banker in Bahrain with a Mustang convertible. Life sounds as if it was a non­stop party, with all the essentials: a villa, a swimming pool.'It was good fun,' he says now. But back in Britain, as a director of the bank's London branch, the party was over. 'I found myself surrounded by people who were genuinely interested in accounting.' Eventually, the bank did the decent thing and fired him. He was free, at last, to become a journalist, something he had, for years, wanted to be.[12]

The Power of Nightmares

Turning back to the Independent interview, this offered Gardner's response to Adam Curtis's work and the effect of his journalism:

Gardner was accused, ahead of the London bombings, of scaremongering over the potential for terror attacks. 'One columnist took a swipe at me a couple of years ago and called me the BBC's insecurity correspondent, which I thought was quite funny, saying I was just trying to alarm people,' he says. 'But from the moment the Madrid bombs went off in March 2004 everybody who follows this grisly subject knew that it was only a matter of time before London got hit as well.' He doesn't subscribe to the theory put forward in Adam Curtis's award- winning BBC series The Power of Nightmares, suggesting that politicians were exploiting the public fear of terror attacks. 'That was an immensely watchable and entertaining programme but it was also quite dangerous in the sense that it lulled people into a false sense of security,' says Gardner. 'The threat to me was always real. It's still real and hasn't evaporated. There's still a threat out there because of the way that Britain is perceived in the more extremist fringes of the Islamic world.'[13]

The interview was to promote Gardner's radio programme 'Koran and Country: How Islam Got Political,' broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (2005). Robin Ramsay writes:

In his account of being shot in [Saudi Arabia], 'The man who would not die' in The Guardian 19 April 2005[14], BBC correspondent Frank Gardner said of the person who shot him: 'He didn't see me as a non-partisan reporter who's simply trying to report what's going on.' Hate to tell you this, Frank, but as the BBC's erstwhile Security Correspondent, and all that implies by way of confidential briefings by the British spooks, I'm not sure you would be my idea of a 'non-partisan reporter', either.[15]

Gardner and the Home Office Propaganda Unit

Gardner was implicated in the strategy of the government's newly (2007) formed propaganda unit the Research, Information and Communications Unit based in the Home Office.

The Guardian article which outlined the activities of the RICU did not name Gardner specifically; [16] but the connection was commented on by Nicola Meyrick's blog for the BBC which denies any complicity:

It was quickly apparent to us that the programme in question must be the 7 August edition of Analysis, presented by the BBC's Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, and broadcast in a slightly different form on the World Service this week. The programme was called "al-Qaeda's Enemy Within" and explored how the war of ideas within the Jihadi movement is becoming as important as the military frontline. Was it the result of a "push" from RICU? Absolutely not. The truth couldn't be more different.[17]

Meyrick then outlines that the programme was produced by the 'resident expert on political Islam', Innes Bowen, who first became aware of the story about ideological and theological splits in the Jihadi movement in May:

... when a contact who works for an Islamist think tank sent her a link to an article in an American journal. Innes and Frank [Gardner] then researched the subject and proposed the programme to the editor of Analysis, Hugh Levinson. He commissioned it early in July.

Although Meyrick does concede that "Frank and Innes did have some contact with RICU during the course of making the programme and went to see three members of the unit after they had finished recording all their interviews," she adds, "The people from RICU gave them some briefing materials but those weren't used in the programme."

If we have regard to past examples of how stories are injected into the media of a specific country (for example from the testimony of Colin Wallace or accounts of the Information Research Department) this account conforms to two of them: (a) the use of information from abroad and (b) Information Operations (I/OPs in military terminology) officers showing leading material (as 'inside information') to journalists on condition it is not sourced to them. For her part Meyrick (executive editor of Radio Current Affairs) argues that:

...the programme was a completely independent and impartial piece of original journalism, not inspired by a Whitehall counter-terrorism unit or necessarily coming to the conclusion such a unit would like.

Be that as it may, the issue of the Guardian published the following day, did mention the programme and Gardner specifically. [18]

The BBC has denied that its editorial independence was compromised after it emerged that a Radio 4 documentary about Islamic extremism bore similarities to a programme described in a leaked Whitehall document as one at which anti-al-Qaida propaganda was put forward. Concerns were raised after it became apparent that extracts of the leaked document published yesterday in the Guardian had a likeness to a BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme by security correspondent Frank Gardner titled al-Qaida's Enemy Within, which was first broadcast on August 7, after the leaked propaganda dossier was compiled.

This quoted from the (leaked) report, "Challenging Violent Extremist Ideology Through Communications" (dated July 31):

"We are pushing this material to UK media channels, eg a BBC radio programme exposing tensions between AQ leadership and supporters. And a restricted working group will communicate niche messages through media and non-media."[19]

Nigel Chapman, director of the BBC World Service is a member of the Public Diplomacy Committee, whose work, according to page 12 of the government's report into Public Diplomacy "aims to influence the perceptions of [...] individuals and organisations [...] in support of HMG's overseas objectives,"[20] Indeed Frank Gardner is quoted on page 52 of this wherein he asserted:

[The world service] has really got its work cut out for it, it's coming late to the party. It will be interesting to see if it works.

On page 56 of the report Gardner:

...emphasised the need for the British government to get more Arab speaking representatives on to Islamic television channels in order to make the case for Western policy.

Gardner's 2 November 2005 testimony was given under the heading "Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism" and delivered along with Dr Mai Yamani (the daughter of Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani), now a Research Fellow, Middle East Programme, Chatham House,[21] and she is also promoted by Project Syndicate.[22]

David Rose in the New Statesman also described the process whereby the intelligence services steer journalists, using the alias 'Bourgeois' for his contact:

Even then, the conditions that Bourgeois laid down struck me as odd, and perhaps a little onerous. Our conversations would not merely be off-the-record, and hence attributable in print to an unnamed MI6 official. In public I would have to pretend they had never happened, and if I wanted to quote or paraphrase anything Bourgeois said, I would have to use a circumlocution so vague as to make it impossible for any reader to realise that I had spoken to someone from the Office at all. Should I breach these conditions, Bourgeois made clear, I could expect instant outer darkness: the refusal of all future access. MI6, in other words, would maintain a priceless advantage, a quality regarded as essential in intelligence operations of many kinds - what spies call "plausible deniability". And if, heaven forfend, the service told me something that turned out to be mistaken, or even tried to plant sheer disinformation for who knows what purpose, there would be no comeback, no accountability. I could put up, or shut up.[23]

Rose argues that every national paper and broadcasting outlet has one reporter to whom each of the security agencies will speak, "provided they observe the niceties". For these favoured few, "there will be access likely to grow as the journalist proves his or her 'worth', along with considerable perks." Critical of the system, Rose argues that those who broke the rules risked expulsion from future sessions - "so making it impossible, it was believed, for transgressors to do their jobs." In this context (and that of the security services' briefings being "related to questionable policy goals, such as tougher legislation in the name of counter-terrorism") he had this to say about Gardner:

The 7/7 attacks proved that the terrorist threat was not chimerical. Yet, for many months before, it seemed barely a week passed without the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner broadcasting items that had clearly been briefed by MI5 and could be reduced to a single sentence: "Be very afraid."

Rose also notes that the codes through which the comments of MI5 and MI6 are attributed, such as "Whitehall security sources" are often misused by journalists to give credence to their stories.

Craig Murray, "Britain's outspoken Ambassador to the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan", argues along the same lines that the security services are now sending out "weasel signals through their pet journalists", and provides an example of with:

Security Correspondents are amongst the worst denizens of the media, because they are so dependent on the security services feeding them tidbits to retail that they are terrified of offending them. Frank Gardner of the BBC is an especially bad example. His "This is a mock-up [of] what a terrorist chemical weapon vest at Forest Gate might look like" was possibly the worst bit of journalism I have ever seen.[24]

Nick Cohen tells us that what goes around comes around in this world, that sources cited as "Whitehall" and "security" sources were often the unofficial press officers of MI5 and MI6: "The PRs have set up a wonderfully self-justifying system. They talk to journalists on condition of anonymity.... MI5 then uses the reports of its own briefings as independent corroboration of the need for internment."[25]

And Martin Bright has added to our knowledge of his this process works, when in 2002, as the Observer's Home Affairs editor, he gave evidence to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission case of the nine men who have been detained without trial for over seven months:

Until very recently the British intelligence services didn't officially talk to newspapers at all. Certain favoured journalists who had connections to people who worked in the services were passed information from time to time if it was thought useful to put it in the public domain. Sometimes the stories that resulted were true and sometimes not. In recent years, after intense pressure, MI5 and MI6 instituted a new system whereby each service has an unofficial press officer who talks to the media. Most organisations then designate a journalist who will deal with each service. They are then given a telephone number and the name of the individual intelligence officer. In the case of the Observer, I deal with MI5. Although some newspapers or individual journalists may hold 'special relationships' with individuals within the intelligence establishment, as far as I know, the same MI5 'press officer' deals with all my opposite numbers on other national newspapers for everyday briefings.[26]

The Policy World

On 3 October 2008 Gardner attended the International Terrorism Conference 2008 where he participated in a panel discussion entitled, "Countering 'Jihadist' terrorism: Re-thinking strategy". [27] The conference was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in cooperation with the Royal United Services Institute. Other speakers including numerous experts from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence as well as senior figures from the policy world including the Prime Minister's Security Advisor Lord West of Spithead, and an unnamed "Senior Whitehall Official".

Friends and Associates

Wilfred Thesiger

Gardner cites a meeting with the Arabian explorer and Sir Wilfred Thesiger in his youth, which led to a life of fascination with the Arab world and a degree in the Arabic language from University of Exeter. 'But there was something about [his] journeys that fascinated me', wrote Gardner. 'I resolved to learn Arabic and study Islam at university,' [28]

Gardner and his mother were on a London bus when they had bumped into Thesiger, an old friend of hers. "They had known each other briefly in the 1950s; in fact my mother even suspected his mother of trying to pair them off at one stage, but Thesiger was not the marrying kind"[29]

They went to have tea with him, and the young man was entranced and resolved to become an Arabist. Thesiger was, though, more than just a writer/explorer. In the war he had fought with Orde Wingate in East Africa and had won a DSO, as had Wingate; worked for the Special Operations Executive in the Middle East; fought with David Stirling’s newly formed SAS regiment; and, after the war, continued to carry out the occasional special operation for the British in the region up to the 1960s... Frank maintained the mentored relationship with Thesiger until the old man’s death.[30]


Peter de la Billiere | Mark Bullough | Sherard Cowper-Coles | Rupert Wise

External links


  1. Frank’s Wild Years Shaphan, 2007.07.15
  2. Bahlol Lohdi (2007) Britain's Boot Sale: Desperate Measures for Desperate Times,August 7.
  3. Frank Gardner, Blood and Sand, London: Bantam Press (2006) ISBN-10: 0593055780 ISBN-13: 978-0593055786,p,85-6
  4. David Rowan, 'Shot six times, but I won't be silenced, The Evening Standard, 15 June 2005
  5. p. 89
  6. Tributes and concern for BBC men BBC News Online | the Society Page, The Times, 17 Oct 2003
  7. p. 113
  8. Frank’s Wild Years Shaphan, 2007.07.15
  9. p. 140
  10. The London School of Journalism is not an institution of higher education, but an independent college based in Maida Vale in west London, hence it does not have an academic website address ending in
  11. David Rowan, 'Shot six times, but I won't be silenced, The Evening Standard, 15 June 2005
  13. Ian Burrell (2005) Making sense of mayhem, Independent, Nov 7.
  14. James Meek The man who would not die The Guardian, Tuesday April 19 2005
  15. Lobster 49
  16. Alan Travis (2008) Revealed: Britain's secret propaganda war against al-Qaida: BBC and website forums targeted by Home Office unit, August 26.
  18. Oliver Luft (2008) BBC denies interference in al-Qaida coverage,, August 27.
  19. Oliver Luft (2008) BBC denies interference in al-Qaida coverage,, August 27.
  20. Public Diplomacy: Third Report of Session 2005-06; Report, Together with Formal Minutes, Oral and Written Evidence, House of Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee, Foreign Affairs Committee, Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons, The Stationery Office, 2006.
  23. David Rose (2007) Spies and their lies, New Statesman, 27 September.
  25. Of course it's true: After all, it was MI5 who told us, Nick Cohen, the Observer, Sunday 21 July 2002
  26. Terror, security and the media by Martin Bright. the Observer, Sunday 21 July 2002
  27. Programme (PDF) for the International Terrorism Conference 2008]]
  28. Memories of a veteran explorer Frank Gardner 31 August 2003 BBC News Online
  29. Frank Gardner, Blood and Sand, London: Bantam Press (2006) ISBN-10: 0593055780 ISBN-13: 978-0593055786, p. 17
  30. Frank’s Wild Years (or: My Frank Gardner Obsession - a Confession) [LONG] Shaphan, 2007.07.15