Inspired to travel to remote places from an early age after a chance meeting with the veteran Arabian explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Gardner developed a fascination for the Arab world and was determined to read Arabic at university.
After living with an Egyptian family in the backstreets of Cairo, a memorable experience he describes fondly in Blood and Sand, he graduated from Exeter University with a degree in Arabic & Islamic Studies. There then followed a nine year career in banking as an investment banker with Saudi International Bank and then Robert Fleming Bank from 1986 until 1995. Bored of banking, he then took the plunge into journalism, working initially for BBC World TV. Spotting a gap in coverage he moved himself and his heavily pregnant wife to Dubai in 1997 to set up as a freelance Gulf stringer covering all 6 GCC countries and Yemen.
In 1999 Gardner was appointed BBC Middle East correspondent in charge of the bureau in Cairo, but travelled throughout the region. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Gardner focused on stories related to the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a phrase he always disliked, working to steer his audiences away from many of the prejudices and stereotypings that sprang up in the wake of those attacks.
“He was always cut out for journalism. When Kuwait was liberated, he was there with his camera, doing a piece like a reporter. He’s a good communicator, incredibly good at thinking on his feet, knows how to handle situations spontaneously and comes across really well. I met him studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University and described him as incredibly widely-travelled, especially in the Middle East. In one year he travelled to 28 countries. He’s the sort of guy who will get through a passport because he runs out of room,” said friend of 30 years Anthony Campanale.
On 6 June 2004, while reporting from a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Gardner was shot six times and seriously injured in an attack by al-Qaeda sympathisers. His colleague Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers was shot dead. He was left partly paralysed in the legs and dependent on a wheelchair for life.
After 14 operations, 7 months in hospital and months of rehabilitation he returned to reporting for the BBC in mid-2005, using a wheelchair or a frame.