The adrenaline-fuelled tension of the situation positively crackled out of the speakers. First off it was Boy’s Own Adventure stuff as British troops pre-empted an anticipated Taliban attack by going on the offensive. The cracks and reports of exchanged fire sounded eerily scary against the rather strained cheerfulness of the soldiers.
Tensions ratcheted up when a faulty British mortar misfired and left two of the British squaddies injured. Within seconds attack became retreat, with one platoon stretchering away an injured pal.
A second platoon suddenly seemed to be in an extremely vulnerable situation. Minutes before they had been intercepting communications from Taliban fighters on the back foot. Now they were listening to the same enemy, jubilantly planning a bloody ambush of the depleted British force.
At the heart of the report was a reassuringly unflappable BBC voice. In a piece of superb war reporting the narrator was right in the thick of it, describing first hand the sniper rounds whistling past his ears, and capturing the whispers, grunts and shouts of professional troops who were both fired up and fired upon. The bravery of the soldiers was evident – the bravery of the reporter all too easy to overlook in the unfolding drama.
Step forward Alastair Leithead, the Beeb’s man who’s been embedded with troops in Afghanistan for a couple of years now. During that time he’s not only proven his bravery, but earned himself a set of impeccable journalistic credentials. He’s without doubt an accomplished and serious reporter.
For me, it’s that serious part that’s really most gratifying. Our professional paths crossed a long time ago, when I was the young news editor of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle and Alastair was the latest, raw recruit sent up from the training centre.
A rugby-playing tank of a young man, he had all the equipment to be a cracking reporter. But he seemed determined to trip himself up at every opportunity by playing the office clown. Whenever he was on a job that needed straight and uncomplicated coverage, some inexplicable mishap would befall the young Al and the job would be scuppered by … what I can only describe as buffoonery.
For instance, it didn’t help that he thought it perfecly acceptable to turn up for work wearing multi-coloured floral waistcoats and matching bowties made by his granny. Which on a powerfully-built (even scary-looking) 20-year-old seemed decidedly odd. Especially when he was on a death knock in one of Newcastle’s most run down slums.
For a while it seemed Alastair was more committed to full-time rugby club japes, than developing a career in journalism. So much so that for work purposes his surname was translated from Leithead to Meathead – or ‘Meat’ for short.
While Alastair was a barrel of laughs and one of the most popular people in the office, a few of us worried his career was destined to be little more than a footnote in his life: just one way of throwing up situations where he could get into Harold Lloyd-style scrapes and provide the rest of us with a feeling of schadenfreude.
My abiding memory of Alastair is being carousingly drunk and watching bemusedly as he climbed on to the first passing bus while wearing a traffic cone on his head. I moved on from Newcastle shortly after that and lost track of what he did next. So I don’t really know where and when he put aside the tomfoolery and came of age as a reporter.
Reckless bravery came naturally to Alastair even back then. Like the time he cycled into the heart of Manchester’s notorious Moss Side (armed only with his floral waistcoat) to track down and confront the scumbags who stole his car. This at the time when the area was best known for the armed turf wars between some of Britain’s craziest gangbangers.
Little doubt that as a war correspondent he’s found his metier. I just wonder if he’s managed to find a bow tie to match his flak jacket.