Reporting from war zones in Bosnia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, covering disasters in Bangladesh, massacres in Rwanda and the siege of the Iranian embassy in London? Just part of the job for Kate Adie.
The BBC’s first chief news correspondent has traveled the globe, entering extremely dangerous situations, in delivering the news for 40 years. So doing, she has helped pave the way for female journalists worldwide.
Adie, 66, is being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Women’s Media Foundation at the group’s 2011 Courage in Journalism Awards recognizing those who risk their lives to cover the news. Two events are slated, for October 24 in Los Angeles and October 27 in New York.
Now a BBC presenter, Adie is the author of Corsets to Camouflage, a history of women in wartime, and Nobody’s Child, a book about her adoption. She’s won a slew of awards, including three Royal Television Society News Awards, the Broadcasting Press Guild’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, and the Bafta Richard Dimbleby Award, and has been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. She’s also an honorary professor of journalism at the University of Sunderland and an honorary fellow of Royal Holloway, University of London.
We recently spoke with Adie about how she fell into journalism and war coverage, how she has dealt with danger at the front lines, and the advice she has for women starting out in the field. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: Congratulations on the award.
Kate Adie: Well, thank you very much indeed. It was, gosh, quite a surprise.
More: It shouldn’t be! You’ve had an incredible career. When you decided to go into journalism, did you think you’d be covering wars?
KA: Well, I didn’t ever decide to go into journalism. I had a rather sort of strange route into things.
More: So it was a happy accident?
KA: I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had a university degree, but not exactly the most job-worthy one—I have a degree in ancient Icelandic and Scandinavian studies. And therefore, I needed a job. Just sort of by sheer coincidence, the BBC was starting a local radio [network]—we were rather slow off the mark, I suppose, but this was 40 years ago. …One of the news stations turned out to be in my home area in northeast England, so I sort of begged to join and managed to squeeze in on the bottom rung. I spent seven years working in radio as a producer and a technician and not in the news in any way. And I only gradually fell into it over the next few years.
So, I can’t ever claim to have desired to have been a journalist, I’m afraid. …These things, you don’t exactly choose them, but along they come.
More: How did you move into reporting on wars and conflicts?
KA: I don’t think any of us working in a national newsroom in London at the BBC ever thought of it as any different kind of journalism. It just—the phrase I would always use was, it just comes with the turf. You find yourself doing everything from famines to volcanic eruptions, assassinations, terrorism, and at the same time doing economic stories and sports stories. Conflict is just another strand. There’s no suggestion that anybody specializes in war reporting—you just end up doing that kind of thing because it comes with the turf.
More: Did you find yourself being sent off on these big stories more and more often?
KA: It depended on life. We were a big stable of reporters—it’s a big national newsroom running several radio and television channels, and in the end, I suppose particularly in the ’80s and the early ’90s, I ended up going to a lot of conflict because there was an awful lot to cover: the end of the Berlin Wall, various revolutions, then the start of the first Gulf War and then the war in the Balkans. There was just a lot of conflict which we were covering.
More: Was there ever a time when you thought, you know, “I really don’t want to go to another war zone?”
KA: I would have never gone on reporting if I had thought that. By that time, in 1990, I was chief news correspondent with a very large number of journalists under me and I would never have refused to go to a place if there was a more junior journalist going. You lead from the front, and that’s part of the responsibility of the job, it occurred to me.
More: Have you had moments in your career where you were just like, “Oh my God, what am I doing here?”
KA: Well, time and again. I mean, war is absolutely horrifically dangerous. War is about killing. And it’s immensely, immensely violent. And, therefore, if you know that in advance, you try and assess the risk and you try and take precautions. But you can never, ever factor in all the unexpected and the times when the completely unknown comes out of the blue. And so, you can find yourself in difficult situations.
I used to say to other journalists and younger journalists, the point is no one should ever go off to a war without reading about it. The First World War is probably the single subject about which the most has been written in English, and, therefore, [reading about it,] you can learn about what man does to man. And so you do that before you ever go.
More: As a woman, did you face unique challenges in war zones?
KA: If you face a bunch of people at a political summit, there are hardly any women there. I mean, the physical arguments are all about lavatories. End of story. …I went in, in the first Gulf War, and there were 43,000 British men and me. And it boils down to, in the end: the main physical problem is keeping clean and going to lavatories. There aren’t any portable lavatories in the desert. So, you’ve got practical things.
When it comes to the actual environment, other than that, I have to say, if you ever report sport or you report a great deal of politics or terrorism, you are, on the whole, still working in a male environment.
More: You’ve suffered a serious share of war wounds—which are you most proud of?
KA: I’m not proud of them. It means that you’ve gotten in the way of something. Journalists do not go to get injured. You go to get the story and bring it back and any injuries are a mere problem. There are times when hot metal flies around a lot or various other things can happen to you, and you just have to try to avoid it. I mean, I’ve still got shrapnel in one foot, and I’ve been very, very lucky, where bullets have been concerned. I’ve been grazed four times and that’s near enough.
More: How do you, personally, process the atrocities you’ve witnessed in the field?
KA: I think that if you go off to conflict you have to read about some of the grimmer aspects of history and discover what people can do when they’re desperate or filled with rage or hatred. You’ve got to be able to have an idea in your mind of what you might see. And so, I feel that although you may be shocked by what you see, you should never be particularly surprised by it. There is quite a difference between those two approaches. And you’re still shocked—everyone should be shocked by the awful things.
You don’t become indifferent. There’s a lot of rubbish that flies about, about people becoming desensitized. That’s a very extreme case, psychologically. Most people are very shocked by what they see, but it doesn’t mean they’re completely knocked off their feet, because if you go to war, well, it is going to be grim.
More: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in TV journalism for women since you began your career?
KA: In journalism generally, many more women have come into the business in the last 40 years, which is a great thing. And increasingly, there is less overt sexism or discrimination in Western democratic societies—you’ll still find it elsewhere. But on the the whole, with fair employment laws, women have gotten into the business and they take on the responsibility of reporting the toughest assignments. And I think this is a good thing, because I’ve never thought any story—even war—is an all-male subject.
It’s much more than the boys with the toys, as they say—you know, the weaponry and the hardware and fighting. It’s about entire societies convulsed with violence and fear. And I think a woman reports that absolutely as well as any man.
More: Do you ever want to get back in the field?
KA: Well, what you’ve got to understand is that television reporting in the last 10 years has begun to withdraw, and what you now have with the 24-hour channels worldwide is a kind of running commentary rather than eyewitness reporting. If you are live on 24-hour television, you’re not doing that from the middle of a battlefield. You’re not doing that from the center of violence. You could not stand up and talk, nor could you have a satellite dish, in the center of the action. So what has happened is that quite a lot of television coverage has moved from the actual battlefield, because so much is done live. And the kind of reporting that I and my colleagues used to do has pretty well—well, it’s much less than it used to be, and I wouldn’t fancy doing the commentary job at all.
I wanted to go in there, see with my own eyes what was happening, get my own pictures. And that is done less and less these days by television stations worldwide.
More: Do you think it’s a financial issue?
KA: It’s a massive issue, [a combination] of a number of things. It is to do with money, it is to do, to a certain extent, I think, with a complex set of social happenings—you can see it in the United States and in Europe—how television is becoming absolutely a medium dominated by entertainment. I mean, it always was to a certain extent, particularly in the States. In the States, there used to be much more emphasis given to nightly news, and this has now faded. It is changing fast, and the Internet is adding to this.
More: What advice do you have for women starting out in journalism, especially those who want to chase the dangerous stories?
KA: I just think that women should be absolutely equal when going to report and [have] the opportunities to report whatever subject. Reporting is about life, it’s about the world, it’s a mirror to life as we live it. And women are as much a part of that life [as men] and, therefore, should be active in showing ourselves to each other. …It’s adult, educated, observant, curious people going out there, men and women, and telling us what we’re like.
I’m an optimist. I think that it’s a good thing to see what’s happened in the last 40-odd years, and I think the prospects for women today are so much better. We haven’t won all the battles, but I think the future looks bright.
Click here to learn more about the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Meet the other 2011 Courage in Journalism Award Winners:
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