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Michael Buerk: 'At 70, I love the fact that people still want me to work for them'

Former news reader and foreign correspondent Michael Buerk has survived war zones, but still runs scared of sequins. He tells Gabrielle Fagan why he's shunning Strictly and what drives him on

By Gabrielle Fagan

Michael Buerk's not someone to turn down a challenge - he's faced countless dangerous situations during his time as a BBC foreign correspondent in war zones - but Strictly Come Dancing is one challenge he won't face.

"I'm a terrible dancer as my wife, Christine, points out whenever we trample a dance floor together. She'd love me to be paid a load of money so I can be taught some skills by a swoony dancer on the Strictly series. It's been a point of friction between us for years, but it's just not for me," declares the journalist, who was one of the best-known faces to present BBC News, and during his reporting career was under siege in El Salvador, saw the worst of fighting in Beirut, and nearly lost his life in Africa.

While he's shunned fake tans and sequins, he was happy to take part in I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2014, which, he says bluntly, is "about coping with basic techniques pioneered by the Gestapo during the war", and proclaims he only did it for the money.

"It's sensory deprivation, as there's no contact with the outside world, you're woken all the time, but never allowed to know what time it is, can't write or read, have a restricted diet, and then are periodically are taken off and tortured. Despite that, I felt lucky because most of my fellow camp mates weren't as obnoxious or irritating as I'd feared." In fact, he's still in touch by text with rapper Tinchy Stryder - they performed a rap together in the jungle, and says, "He's a such nice guy."

While his weight dropped during his jungle stay - he lost 15lbs (6kg) in three weeks leaving him so gaunt his concerned wife of more than four decades contacted the programme makers - by contrast his reputation soared.

"I worried going on the programme might have a negative effect on how I was perceived. The amusing thing is that, because we're in such a trivialised celebrity-obsessed society, I actually became famous overnight. It's extraordinary that my appearance on it reached parts that 45 years as a reporter and news reader couldn't achieve," says the 70-year-old, demonstrating his trademark dry humour.

Buerk, who's hosted two intellectual discussion programmes for the BBC, The Moral Maze since 1990 and The Choice since 1998, is currently host of a new daytime cookery show, Royal Recipes on BBC One.

"I can't cook to save my life, but love food, so it's been great to feast like a king and fascinating to explore the way the Royals' tastes have shaped our own," he says.

"The chefs recreate the dishes brilliantly and I'm there to inject social history into the mix and talk about things, like the popularisation of curry being pretty much down to Victoria and her love affair with India, while the idea of eating meals in set courses came from Russia and was adopted by our monarchy."

These gentle jobs are a far cry from his challenging role reporting from the world's trouble spots for the BBC. His final posting was to South Africa in 1983, during the dying years of apartheid, and he won much praise for his coverage of the Ethiopian famine in 1984. His reports stirred Sir Bob Geldof and pop star, Midge Ure into forming charity supergroup, Band Aid to raise money for anti-famine efforts in the area.

"Do I miss that life on the front line? Well, I'm not pawing the ground desperate to go to Aleppo. To be honest, I was always a bit of a coward, and you get more cowardly as you age," he says. "But I do miss the intensity of it and the camaraderie that a life on the edge gives you, as well as occasionally having a spasm of regret that I'm no longer a player in the game."

There were welcome career plaudits, but there was also trauma. "You sort of feel you're living a charmed life with all this danger around you, but getting away with it. Suddenly it became real when the crew and I got blown up in Addis Ababa in 1991," the father-of-two recalls somberly.

"There's a moment of reappraisal when you're on a little plane being evacuated with your friend and sound man (John Mathai) in a body bag under your seat and your best friend and cameraman (Mohammed Amin) in another plane having lost his arm and close to death. He survived in the end and I got away with concussion, but those are moments for a fair degree of self-appraisal and wondering what it's all about. It took a long time to come to terms with that experience."

Buerk's long had a reputation for being outspoken - he's been scathing about celebrities 'lecturing' the public on global issues, as well as the 'trivialisation' of the news agenda. He admits: "I'm a bit of a grumpy old man about what I regard as over-sharing and emoting, especially if it's given priority over news and information.

"I resent being told what to feel or think. Also, I sometimes think celebrity news can be given undue significance. The death of DJ John Peel led the news and so did the death of Michael Jackson, and was given priority over what was happening globally. I don't think that's right, but I'm probably a bit cranky. In general, I think the BBC's News at 10 and the Today programme are beacons of grown-up-ness in a world that's gone childish."

He describes himself as a mixture of "arrogance and insecurity and, like all journalists, I live in fear of one day being found out and someone going, 'Who do you think you are?'"

"When I look at the people I most admire in the job I used to do, like John Humphries, John Simpson, and Martin Bell, despite their success, they all had that insecure streak. Its benefit is it means you never rest on your laurels, you always worry you'll be beaten on a story, and continually go the extra mile, checking and double checking."

Buerk, who was born in Solihull, Warwickshire and lives in Surrey, says he's content to keep working and is in denial about his age. "It's an awful number but I still feel pretty fit. I walk everywhere and my energy levels seem high most of the time, but I don't want to get too cocky. Fate might be around the corner with a cosh.

"Nowadays I'm contentedly sculling around in the shallows at the end stage of my career and doing interesting, different things which I'd never have dreamt of doing previously. I certainly don't want to retire - I like to have a purpose and structure in my life. I love the fact people still want me to work for them."

  • Royal Recipes airs on BBC One, Monday to Fridays at 3.45pm

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