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NewsHour’s Malcolm Brabant reflects on Peabody win — and his own ‘Desperate Journey’

Over the weekend, the PBS NewsHour received the George Foster Peabody Award -- the highest honor in broadcast journalism -- for its coverage of the European migrant crisis with the “Desperate Journey” series. The award was accepted by special correspondent Malcolm Brabant, who joins Judy Woodruff to reflect on his own desperate journey from an insane asylum back to the heights of journalism.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Over the weekend, the "NewsHour" was proud to accept the George Foster Peabody Award, the highest in broadcast journalism, for our coverage of the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, a series we have called Desperate Journey.

    Since he began covering those stories last summer, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has brought us into the lives of people fleeing war and terror, often at unimaginable personal risk, as they sought new homes in Europe.

    The stories were the work of a team of correspondents and producers here, but none so important as Malcolm himself, who accepted the award on the program's behalf.

    Because he's based overseas, few of us here at the "NewsHour" had ever even met Malcolm in person, until today.

    So, I'm particularly happy to have him join me now.

    And it is so wonderful to have you here, Malcolm.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Thank you very much.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And congratulations.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Thanks a lot.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, you first started reporting for us just about a year ago. You were in Europe in the very beginnings of this refugee — it was then a problem in Europe. You did some reporting for Greece, but you went on to cover this story in all of its dimensions.

    Malcolm, did you have any idea in the beginning just what it was going to become?

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    I certainly had no idea it was going to be as enormous as this.

    When I started reporting from Greece, most of the refugees were coming to a holiday island called Kos. But I heard about that this nearby island about six hours' journey away by boat, it was called Lesbos, was starting to receive people.

    And so I went up there. And I had heard that there was this strange Englishman called Eric Kempson who was looking out for the boats and who was helping refugees on the beaches. And he was my guide to start with.

    And we have this most extraordinary morning, when we saw a boat in the distance, and we had to drive like crazy about 100 kilometers, 70 miles an hour, through Greek lanes to get to the beach in time, as this rubber raft arrived.

    And it was biblical almost. It was like something out of Exodus, seeing these people swarming onto the beaches just not knowing what they were going to expect. And the joy on their faces was unbelievable. And what was extraordinary was seeing the reaction of some of the Greeks who were there, because these are a people, the Greeks, who have also experienced what it's like to flee from war.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    And it was very heartwarming to see them sort of carrying out what they call philoxenia, which is unconditional kindness and welcomes to strangers.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this was at a moment when Greece had been through its own terrible financial crisis. People were in a — many people didn't know where their next — literally where their next meal was coming from, and yet they were welcoming these refugees.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Yes, because that's in their nature, because they understand what it's like to run away from war.

    They have been refugees. They have had to migrate to make living in countries — in places like New York, in Toronto, you have got all these great Greek communities, and they know what it's like. And so they're very sympathetic.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, you watched it, Malcolm. You covered it in Greece. You covered it across Europe. And you saw attitudes change.

    Originally, the Europeans were welcoming, but then the fears of terrorism grew, and you saw a shift.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Yes.

    And I think that people were just simply overwhelmed by the numbers, and I think that there are some countries in Europe that resented Germany and Sweden, for example, for opening the — for saying that basically everybody was welcome.

    And I think perhaps, if Germany and Sweden hadn't done that, then there might have been maybe a better welcome for some of these refugees. But taking in a million may not seem a lot in a continent of 500 million people. But the impact on nations like Sweden, for example, which is close to my home in Denmark, it's really been quite enormous.

    And they are really struggling to accommodate the 160,000 people that they're taking in, because you have to provide schooling, you have to provide housing. And there is some trouble in some of these asylum centers, too.

    The police, for example, say that they're on their knees. And that's one of the reasons why there has been this backlash.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But the fears of terrorism are real in many instances, aren't they?

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The numbers of people who have come with bad intent are probably minuscule.

    And I think the vetting process is now sort of much — is in place, but in the initial waves, Europe didn't really know who was coming in. And so perhaps amongst all these millions of — a million people who came in, there might be maybe hundreds of bad guys. Who can tell?

    But it is the fear that it's actually generating this big reaction and a fear of Islam as well, in many countries, especially Christian ones, which are predominantly Christian like Poland, Hungary, and also Slovakia, for example.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we're certainly still watching it unfold. we don't know what's going to happen with the many people who are still kind of in limbo who haven't been — who haven't found a home yet.

    But I want to ask you for a minute, Malcolm, about your own personal story, because it wasn't so very long ago you were working for the British Broadcasting Corporation. You were reporting from abroad for them. In fact, you were here in the U.S. for a while.

    You had your own personal crisis, and you wrote a book about it. But that's another extraordinary story.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Well, it's — this is a wonderful sort of comeback for me, in a way, because I thought that my career was finished. I thought it was completely over, because exactly five years to the day that we picked up the award on Saturday was the day I entered an insane asylum.

    I was taken into a secure, locked-up ward because I had gone mad. A few days earlier, I had taken — I had been given a drug called Stamaril, which is — it's a yellow fever vaccine made by a company called Sanofi Pasteur. And it fried my brain. I was — I was in a — I had a really high fever for about 13 days.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Supposed to be a yellow fever vaccine. Right.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Yes, it is.

    And it's supposed to protect you. But it devastated my brain. And it fried my brain, literally, affected the balance of it, and sent me mad. And I spent in total about a year-and-a-half in institutions, in locked-up wards, and because I went through various sort of times when I thought I was Christ, I thought I was the devil.

    I even thought that I was a suicide bomber. And, eventually, the drugs and the care and the wonderful techniques of the Danish doctors managed to bring me back. And, eventually, I managed to purge myself of all the chemicals, basically.

    And I was finally given an all-clear about two-and-a-half years ago. And I haven't had a pill since. I haven't had to go see a psychiatrist since. And I'm back perhaps even stronger than I was before, because it didn't kill me. And it almost did kill me.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you told us that it gave you a much better understanding of what those who are mentally ill may have to go through.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Absolutely.

    I hope that it — that this acts for some sort of inspiration for people who are stigmatized because of mental illness, because that happens. But — and I'm very grateful to the "NewsHour" for giving me this immense opportunity.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Malcolm, we're exceedingly grateful to you. And we wish you the best and look forward to your reporting.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Thank you very much, indeed. Thanks. I'm grateful to you.

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