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Tim Marshall: ‘The Future of Geography’

The Tab sat down with Tim Marshall to discuss his career in journalism, the world of foreign affairs and his new book ‘The Future of Geography’


On 10th May, The Tab sat down with Tim Marshall, British journalist, broadcaster, and author to discuss his life and work. Marshall has reported widely on foreign affairs and international diplomacy, as well as publishing his bestseller Prisoners of Geography along with other works including Worth Dying For and The Power of Geography. He was visiting the Cambridge Union for an event in partnership with Waterstones to celebrate the launch of his new book The Future of Geography which explores the future of geopolitics, including the geographies of space.

Tim Marshall speaking at the Cambridge Union (Image credits: Reva Croft)

A career in journalism

Marshall described how journalism was something he always wanted to do from “the age of about 12”, although since he “wasn’t very good at school”, he left at 16. Despite there not initially appearing to be “any route in”, in his early 20s, Marshall met someone who worked at LBC (originally the London Broadcasting Company), where he started off as a tea boy. This was the beginning of his career in journalism.

He described how when he started his career “it was a very different time. You could duck and dive your way in a bit more.” He observed that in modern society, “you nearly always need a decent degree and possibly a year at journalism school”. He remarked that even though he doesn’t necessarily think that this “is the best recipe”, he would advise aspiring journalists to follow this path because “that is now the route”.

Tim Marshall signing the Cambridge Union book (Image credits: Reva Croft)

Reporting on foreign affairs

Marshall has enjoyed a hugely successful career in journalism, which has involved him working for both the BBC and Sky News. While working for Sky, he reported from over 30 countries, including conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Some of his most notable moments include a six-hour unbroken broadcast on the Gulf War and being the last person to interview Benazir Bhutto before her assassination.

When asked if he ever found it hard to stay neutral when covering events that were so emotionally charged, he said “you may be surprised, but the answer is no.” He observed that “if you are aware of your biases […] it’s easier to put it to one side and catch yourself”. Although “in modern journalism, there is this idea that you should take sides”. Marshall views this as a “passing phase. It’s not a good thing, because all you will then do is be a propagandist for your own ideas.”

When asked if he ever found it hard to stay neutral when covering events that were so emotionally charged, he said “you may be surprised, but the answer is no.” He observed that “if you are aware of your biases […] it’s easier to put it to one side and catch yourself”. Although “in modern journalism, there is this idea that you should take sides”. Marshall views this as a “passing phase. It’s not a good thing, because all you will then do is be a propagandist for your own ideas.”

Despite this, Marshall reflected on how when he was reporting, he felt in danger “most of the time”. He described how “one time I thought I might be getting kidnapped by ISIS” and there were “a couple of close misses.”

Marshall also offered some insight into what he sees as the future of foreign affairs. When asked what he sees as posing the next biggest threat globally in the next 10 years, Marshall stated “the rise of China and the potential for the Athens versus Sparta scenario of China and America.” He also answered with “what is overlooked too much: India.” He said this is a “massive rivalry, both along their border and in the Indian Ocean, and it doesn’t get enough attention.”

Tim Marshall discussing his new book ‘The Future of Geography’ (Image credits: Reva Croft)

The Future of Geography

Turning to his new book and what motivated him to write it, Marshall described “the realisation of the obvious that international relations has moved up in terms of space as well”. He stated that “given that I write about international relations, I should write about this aspect of it because it’s not well covered in mainstream, generalist writing.” He is “fascinated by space anyway, at different levels, whether it’s the awe at the cosmos, the international relations aspect of it, and the aspect of our wandering human spirit.”

When discussing how he manages to keep his book engaging and accessible for a wide audience, Marshall described how he realised that “almost everything is interesting”. He said it only really becomes hard “when I don’t understand something”. This created problems when writing his new book because “I don’t understand science, and there’s some science in this book and I had to go over and over it until I thought I understood it, and then write it […] in a way that I thought I might understand”.

Marshall recognised the importance of his work, since “armed with a degree of knowledge and an understanding of historical patterns and an understanding of geography […] you have a better idea of what might happen.” Ultimately, his aim is “to bring is the clarity of why, not just what is happening.”, something he has endeavoured to do in his new The Future of Geography.